Two Guys From Paris
One way to read this book, a dialogue between two famous French authors, is as a comic novel, a brilliant satire on the vanity of writers. Michel Houellebecq, who won last year’s Prix Goncourt, France’s highest literary award, for his latest novel, “La Carte et le Territoire,” is well known for his provocative black humor. Bernard-Henri Lévy (also known as BHL), though less noted for his wit, likes to play up to his reputation as a comic figure, popping up here, there and everywhere in his fine white shirts, opened halfway down his chest, holding forth on everything from Jean-Paul Sartre to jihad in Pakistan, and generally acting out the role, in a somewhat theatrical fashion, of the great Parisian Intellectual.
Houellebecq’s first letter to his literary confrere in “Public Enemies” opens on a comical note. “Dear Bernard-Henri Lévy,” it goes. “We have, as they say, nothing in common — except for one essential trait: we are both rather contemptible individuals.” He is, of course, being playful. Houellebecq doesn’t really find himself contemptible. It is part of his comedy. As he says later on in the correspondence: “My desire to displease masks an insane desire to please.” Houellebecq likes to use italics.
The two writers exchange views on many topics, like the matter of being Jewish — often, but not really here, a rich source of comedy. BHL is Jewish, and voices his “unconditional support for Israel.” Houellebecq, who is not, declares that he was always “on the side of the Jews.” It is indeed “a real joy, to see Israel fighting these days.” So no disagreements there.
On religion, BHL explains his “Judeo-Christian” hypothesis of “a soul made in the image of God.” To which Houellebecq replies that since BHL obviously believes in God, he, Houellebecq, “will probably look at you a little strangely” the next time they meet. To which BHL counters that he does not really believe in God at all, but there is a “level,” somewhere, “that goes beyond (or is perhaps more basic than) the question of whether or not we’re living in the ‘truth.’” Whereupon Houellebecq, sensing that the conversation is taking a less amusing turn, rather quickly drops the matter.
But not before BHL does a wonderful parody of philosophizing, that is, saying something quite banal in a very complicated way. Talking about “that dimension of intersubjectivity on which Epicureanism (and Leibnizianism too, for that matter) founders,” he deduces that “what is in one today will be in another tomorrow, that by the end of our exchanges that which forms part of my essence at the moment of my writing to you may perhaps have entered yours.” In short, people influence one another.
The running gag that permeates the entire discussion is the conceit that BHL, the most celebrated, most mediatique intellectual in France, and the prize-winning, best-selling novelist Houellebecq, are hated, persecuted and despised by almost everyone. On this topic, even Houellebecq is in danger of losing his famous cool, however, when he settles scores, rather obsessively, with a whole list of French critics and journalists, of whom few readers outside literary circles in Paris will have heard. What is hilarious, however, is the use of hyperbole.
“Few other writers are abused as much as I am,” BHL says. “The France of the 2000s has trouble putting up with people like me,” Houellebecq says. “Having the pack at your heels,” BHL says, “I think I know about that too.” Not just any old pack, Houellebecq says: “The scum I’ve just mentioned are no better than those who officiated during the Nazi dictatorship.” The media, he continued, have unleashed a war against him, “rather a strange war, incidentally, given that I am unarmed; it would be fairer to say an all-out war of extermination directed against me.” This from the man who received that Prix Goncourt.
But the joke goes on. Neither man, it seems, wanted to be famous. BHL, evidently a brilliant student at the elite École Normale, was perfectly content “with my local fame, local and tiny, in my classes and in the small groups and cliques that I moved in.” The spotlight, he recalls, was very far from where he wanted to be. But, “I’ll admit that I made up for it afterward.” Here a different kind of comic hyperbole sets in: the writer as hero. BHL likes “to do what other people don’t do.” He has “a taste for performance.” He has visions of heroism, mostly in World War II, of “the inspired soldiers of Monte Cassino,” of “the first French pilots in the Battle of Britain”; he misses “those stars whose heat reaches us now only from very far away.”
And that is why he “liked setting off on the tracks of Daniel Pearl” — the American journalist who was murdered by Islamic terrorists — when everybody else seemed to have forgotten him.” And why he helped “to turn the case” of Ayaan Hirsi Ali, “whose name was unknown, into a French national cause.” And why he went “to Sarajevo before everyone else.” This is the false braggadocio of what Germans call a hochstapler, something between a boaster and an imposter, a well-known comic figure in European literature.
Houellebecq, not one of life’s natural heroes, but not to be outdone, goes a step further. His “destiny,” he says, has taken a “vaguely Christlike turn.” The “vaguely” is priceless. Arguments about his books are so heated, he relates, that people “tear one another apart in my name.” It is a pity, he says, “that no one has had the idea of writing a book about the critical reception of my books.”
Alas, both agree, there is no way back to the “local and tiny” kind of fame. After all, BHL exclaims in a wonderful burst of ironic self-importance: “The Burundians, the Darfuris, the Bosnians would hardly have benefited from my return to obscurity.”
It is all brilliantly done. But I’m afraid to say that none of this is meant to be read as a comic novel. It is all in deadly earnest. As the people Houellebecq has always supported like to say: “Oy vey!”
Ian Buruma is the Henry R. Luce professor at Bard College. His latest book is “Taming the Gods.”