Public Enemies : The "Principal Whipping Boys" of France

First surprise upon reading Public Enemies, the joint work of Michel Houellebecq and Bernard-Henri Lévy: it's a good tandem. This is not the poet and the ideologue, but the voices of two writers, equal in strength. Obviously, of different genres: Houellebecq, as gay as a cello, with his habitual tone, neat, precise, perhaps a bit less ironic and paradoxical than usual. Bernard-Henri Lévy sounds high and mighty, his speech cadenced and emphatic. These are the drums of the tribune, the panache, even when he dares to share what is confidential.

This correspondence reveals a vanity one would not have thought so irreversible. They really perceive themselves, one and the other, like public enemies. They are sure they are "the principle whipping boys of our era in France" (Houellebecq). "Why so much hatred?" (BHL). And refer, outright, to shades of Baudelaire or, without cracking a smile, "the case of Sartre, loathed by his contemporaries".

Yet one cannot say our two accursed authors are lacking places where they can express themselves, material means to work, and editorial support.

Accursed, really? The author of Who Killed Daniel Pearl? and the one who penned Elementary Particles? From time to time, they have a surge of lucidity in this regard. BHL has the honesty to write, "We have our areas of foolishness, of course--beginning with the temptation of paranoia, lurking there for both of us, for example, in this correspondence...." Houellebecq's bitterness goes deeper. "People say what, now that you're famous and you're loaded, what are you complaining about?" he writes. "[...] In general, you have to put a bullet through your brain before anyone begins to understand you were talking seriously."

It is true that Houellebecq has a mother. Through her, "[he]is obviously the one they're trying to destroy," says the poor boy. He has seen her "just a few times" in his life, "fifteen at the most". Suddenly appearing in the papers, two years ago, thanks to a book, Lucie Ceccaldi (that's her name) produced a torrent of appalling declarations. She has joined the ranks of the "rotten mothers of history and literature", writes BHL, horrified and sympathetic. He himself was the cherished son of parents who were complicated but loving. Especially the father, a rich industrialist who had known poverty, unconditional supporter of his brilliant kid. He even produced his film, Day and Night, as resounding a flop as The Possibility of an Island, directed by Houellebecq. One of the things they have in common. Their childhood inequality remains, even in their celebrity.

Houellebecq combines the will to please and to annoy; ultimately, he says, he wants to be loved. He demonstrates a certain admiration for the "fine success" of his father, who has become an emeritus mountain guide. But his knowledge of contempt, of refusing to obey and of rejection of indoctrination, comes from him. "Sometimes it seems to me that, as a man, all I have done is to provide an aesthetic translation of this attitude of withdrawal I observed, as a child, in my father."

Nonetheless, the young Houellebecq tells how, travelling across France in the jeep with his father, he was always afraid he might be abandoned at the side of the road.

Without delving into psychology, one is obliged to recognize the depressive tendencies of one and the splendid warrior's will of the other. Bernard-Henri Lévy does not possess the mediocrity of the vengeful; he listens to manifestations of hostility in order to counter them, the better to forget them. It's a strategy. He likes battlefields. With one contradiction: he does not see himself as a victim. He is one of those who protects, who feels responsible for his human brothers, to the point of acknowledging the taste for adventure that draws him to noble causes. He must "enter Sarajevo before everyone else". But he admits to the fear, bordering on certainty, that one day he will be the prey of a fatal injustice.

Houellebecq is not possessed of this combative nature, nor of a joy in winning. His attacks aim low--this or that journalist is "a silly bitch", Telerama is a rag, Pierre Assouline is "a tapeworm". Bernard-Henri Lévy, who prefers to ramble on about "the pack", does not let this pass. "Careful when you use 'tapeworm,' dear Michel. It's the word Celine used to refer to Sartre in l'Agité du bocal." Regarding Céline, we can count on Houellebecq to take up his old habit of provocation.

His "return" to a happy Jewishness without religion, the Bible, Genesis, Lucretius, the Epicurians, Althusser, Foucault--BHL's lesson in philosophy is bracing. He believes in free will and attempts to lose his penchant for egotistical problems, "this double dread of being nothing and of being only oneself". Houellebecq doesn't find himself any more interesting than his dog. He is not a politically committed intellectual. "Human rights, human dignity, the foundations of politics, I let all that go, I have no theoretical ammunition, nothing that may allow me to confirm such demands as valid."

Not only does the duo work, alternating everyday considerations and metaphysical ones, but it succeeds in producing a fascinating book, and this will be the second surprise for the reader, whether friend or enemy. It was up to Houellebecq, a tactician in disguise, to have known how to lure his interlocutor on to the terrain of "confessions" and of a vulnerability that is sometimes unconscious. Careful, doubt is not his forté, self-criticism even less. Bernard-Henri Lévy has no qualms about neutralizing his eventual detractors, with threats, if necessary.

Can one escape the trap of fame? Michel Houellebecq, who cites Philippe Sollers as an example, seems to wish to do so. It's good news.