If, like myself, you are a reader who usually sticks to fiction, Public Enemies will probably not initially strike you as the most grabbing of propositions. It is comprised of a translated exchange of emails between Michel Houellebecq and Bernard-Henri Lévy, described in the blurb as two of France’s ‘most celebrated intellectuals’. The exchange is, according to the copywriter, ‘ferocious’, and, at points, ‘caustic’, even ‘incendiary’. I entered into Public Enemies expecting, at least, a good fight. I was, I’ll admit, a little disappointed on this front. There are certain topics that Houellebecq and Lévy discuss: whether the intellectual can or should be politicized; the role or lack thereof of the spiritual in intellectual or political matters; humanity; free will; the state of France. There are disagreements, and each argues his corner, but there is none of the bile that I was expecting, and the differences of opinion and their expression cannot honestly be called ‘ferocious’.
This particular disappointment aside, however, there is definitely something to be said for Public Enemies as an interesting read. Coming into contact with intellectuals such as Lévy and Houellebecq through letters they have written has the effect of demystifying them somewhat. It doesn’t seem too much of an overstatement to say that both writers are, to some extent, infamous rather than famous: Houellebecq has been accused of every –ism and –phobia going, and Lévy is staunchly pro-Israel, a stance that isn’t exactly politically fashionable. Personally, I found the points at which the two reflect upon their infamy more interesting than those when they were actually debating specific topics. Houellebecq does put his finger on something when he comments of Lévy:
‘Often, when your name comes up in conversation, I will notice an evil grin I know all too well, a rictus of petty, despicable pleasure at the prospect of being able to insult without risk’
Reading this I felt a little uncomfortable. Looking up information about Houellebecq before I began reading I had, I must admit, a knee jerk reaction of just this self-righteous pleasure. What did this say about me? There are also moments of genuine pathos, such as the letters in which the writers discuss the upcoming publication of a sensationalist book written about Houellebecq by his own mother.
It is, however, difficult to feel sorry for either writer for long, particularly Houellebecq. Often, he descends into ingenuous self-deprecation and self-pity. He refers to himself and Lévy as ‘the chief whipping boys of [the] era in France’, going on to complain:
‘I think what I am going through is something similar to what medieval criminals did when they were pilloried…The condemned man was exposed on a public square, head imprisoned in a wooden frame, hands fettered, face exposed, and any passerby could slap him in the face, spit at him, or worse.’
There is also something pathetic about the ways both writers describe their various critics: Lévy sarcastically expresses admiration for the fact that Houellebecq’s confessions will ‘[give] the blabbermouths something to talk about.’ The media are ‘our nasty little terriers’, ‘no better than those who officiated during the Nazi dictatorship.’ The complete lack of any apparent irony is actually pretty funny.
Something that surprised me, given that Houellebecq is the novelist of the two, was that it was Lévy’s letters that, at times, had a prose like quality. Such phrases as ‘each of us is not a subject but an aviary’ have a certain poetry to them. I found this particularly evident in passages such as the following, with which I do not necessarily even agree:
‘when you get to this point, atheism is not joyous or heroic or liberating; there is nothing anticlerical about it, nor is there anything militant either. It is something cold, something desperate, lived like a pure incapacity.’
Any reader who appreciates well-crafted writing will appreciate Lévy’s letters for the style with which he constructs his arguments.
Altogether, I finished Public Enemies feeling decidedly ambivalent. Lévy and Houellebecq are by turns sympathetic and repulsive. They despair of the uninvited status they hold as figures of general contempt, but it also seems that being so makes them feel superior somehow, to ‘the pack’. I somehow like them and dislike them more than I had expected. Maybe that’s the point.
Any Cop?: If you are looking for a furious battle of wits involving convoluted insults and intellectual baiting, look elsewhere. There isn’t much serious horn-locking in Public Enemies. Despite this, it has something to offer. The guilty pleasure of self-righteousness, for example (which we all enjoy, however much we protest), when reading one of Houellebecq’s self-pitying tirades. The pleasure of good writing, in places. And, at the centre of it all, the pleasure of recognising what even infamous intellectuals need: human connection, in the few sentences that struck me as the most honest of the book:
‘I felt like calling you. Just like that, for no reason. Just to hear your news, chat, hear from your voice how you’re getting through this earthquake.’