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Thursday, 26 June 2014

Book review: Public Enemies, Michel Houellebecq and Bernard-Henri Levy (2011)

It's easy to think that a person with no particular interest in either of these authors might find this book a bit tiresome. The best parts deal with public criticism; both authors are apparently prone to such, although they're obviously best-known in their native France (Houellebecq was living in Ireland at the time this book was published - he may still do so for all I know). However for those who like Houellebecq's novels the book contains an interesting contrast in styles and attitudes towards life. Houellebecq has something of Eeyore about him while Levy tends toward the Appollonian, the shining knight wreathed in garlands striving off to do battle with his enemies.

The idea for the book apparently arose after a dinner the two men attended, and so they decided to down lances and amicably write about their fears, their literary loves, their philosophical predilections, and their fathers (more on fathers than mothers). It's a little bit contrived, but so are these two writers, both of whom live their lives very much always in the context of their public personas. It should be remembered that in France Houellebecq, at least, is hated by many; his progress in the Anglosphere I think has been a bit smoother. As for Levy, he's got money and is also an intellectual; perfect fodder for critique right there, I suppose.

As for where they sit on the ideological spectrum, I suspect that Houellebecq's pronouncements make him suspect-looking from either side. Levy probably is of the left, but not in it. Contradictory characters, it seems.

Houellebecq's hang-dog demeanour in the book lets him hide, however, an advantage. In the end, he comes out of the contretemps looking like the stronger writer; there's just something a bit too glamorous and steely about Levy for my taste, something adopted as a pose in view of the planned publication of the correspondence. Houellebecq seems to be the more subtle thinker, also. But these are probably not important considerations. From my point of view the most important thing going into this book was to understand better one of my favourite authors. Now, to get a better handle on Levy I have ordered a couple of his books. To orient myself. To better understand.

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