26 January 2012

Michel Houellebecq and Bernard-Henri Lévy

Over a meal, either in late 2008 or early 2009, Michel Houellebecq (MH here, sometimes) and Bernard-Henri Lévy (BHL here and everywhere, nearly always) decided to begin an exchange of 28 letters which would run from January to July 2008. These were published in France the following year under the title Ennemis Publics. A translation into English, Public Enemies: Dueling Writers Take on Each Other and the World, became available in the US a year ago, and, under the title Public Enemies, has just been published in the UK. 

BHL is well-known as a philosopher, journalist, activist, and filmmaker and MH is a well-known writer who won the Prix Goncourt in 2010 for La carte et le territoire, published in the UK as The Map and the Territory in 2011. Houellebecq likes to go on the offensive from the start – The Map and the Territory opens with an ad hominem attack on Jeff Koons and Damien Hurst. So in Public Enemies, it’s not surprising that he opened up on BHL and then turned on himself:
We have, as they say, nothing in common - except for one essential trait: we are both rather contemptible individuals.
A specialist in farcical media stunts, you dishonor even the white shirts you always wear. An intimate of the powerful who, since childhood, has wallowed in obscene wealth, you are the epitome of what certain slightly tawdry magazines like Marianne still call "champagne socialism" and what German journalists more astutely refer to as the Toskana-Fraktion. A philosopher without an original idea but with excellent contacts, you are, in addition, the creator behind the most preposterous film in the history of cinema.
Nihilist, reactionary, cynic, racist, shameless misogynist: to lump me in with the rather unsavory family of "right-wing anarchists" would be to give me too much credit; basically, I'm just a redneck. An unremarkable author with no style, I achieved literary notoriety some years ago as the result of an uncharacteristic error in judgment by critics who had lost the plot. Happily, my heavy-handed provocations have since fallen from favor.
Together, we perfectly exemplify the shocking dumbing-down of French culture and intellect as was recently pointed out, sternly but fairly, by Time magazine.
We have contributed nothing to the electro-pop revival in France. We're not even mentioned in the credits of Ratatouille.
These then are the terms of the debate. (pages 3,4)
MH and BHL
a passage which starts to reveal the challenge which the translators (Miriam Frendo for BHL and Frank Wynne for MH) faced. In the original, “champagne socialism” appeared as «caviar gauche» – in France champagne doesn’t carry the class associations it has elsewhere. Toskana-Fraktion was left untranslated from the German, but is a play on Rote Armee Fraktion, usually translated into English as Red Army Faction - the UK’s Toskana-Fraktion would probably include several leftist luminaries with a fondness for Tuscany. The references to “the most preposterous film in the history of cinema” and Time magazine’s stern-but-fair article might have benefited from referencing (here linked), but the translators probably felt they had enough to do, footnoting the large cast of French literary personalities the two authors discuss, eg:
“A l’agité du bocal": essay by Louis-Ferdinand Céline, considered to be inflammatory and anti-Semitic, which was published in 1948 in response to Sartre's article "Le Portrait d'un antisémite" (1945).
It may be that your reaction to that is «bien sûr», or “of course”. If so, you are probably a graduate in French and are well equipped to appreciate the majority of the discourse between these two intellos. Otherwise, if you are just curious about France, the preoccupations revealed in the letters still offer insights into that complex country, spread among the literary introspection. It is also quite amusing to watch two alpha males with such high opinions of themselves making the transition from locking horns to bonding, of a sort.

BHL was born in 1948 and Houellebecq in 1956 (probably), and it doesn’t take long for them to begin exchanging notes on what their fathers did, or didn’t do, during the war, that is to say the Occupation. Neither man shows much interest in post-war Europe or the EU, but both struggle with the experience of France between 1940 and 1945. For example, BHL:
There are the good stars, the astra, which, on the other hand, make you raise your head, look to the sky, especially the sky of ideas: there's the star of the sailors of the Ile de Sein and the humble fishermen of Brest and Saint-Malo immediately joining the Free French; the idée fixe that, despite the shooting and the slaughter, made the inspired soldiers of Monte Cassino rise to the assault, the light guiding the first French pilots in the Battle of Britain through the night as they resisted the fascination - again, starstruck - of what de Gaulle called “the frightening void of general renunciation."
BHL is not one to let facts impede his poetic flow. Readers should make their own minds up about the contribution of the French Expeditionary Corps in Italy and at Monte Casino with the Moroccan Gourniers in particular. But the RAF Roll of Honour for the Battle of Britain recognises 574 pilots from countries other than the United Kingdom, as flying at least one authorised operational sortie with an eligible unit during the period from 10 July to 31 October 1940, alongside 2,353 British pilots. The largest contribution came from 145 Poles – there were only 13 pilots from France. (Similarly, when talking about writers with an espionage background (page 119) BHL cites Le Carré, but also Orwell when presumably he meant Grahame Greene.)

MH takes a grimmer view of the World Wars:
… In going beyond the acceptable in that appalling, unjustified [First World] war, France lost all right to the love and the respect of its citizens; it brought discredit on itself. And such discredit is. I repeat, permanent.
This, it seems to me, explains a lot of things.
The nihilist rage of Surrealism and Dadaism, the surge of fury André Breton sometimes felt at the sight of a uniform or a flag.
The ease with which a generation of working-class people (whose parents and grandparents were probably irreproachable patriots) was convinced that the country of the workers was the Soviet Union and there could be no other.
Finally, the lack of enthusiasm with which the French fought in 1940. When people condemn the spirit of Munich, I always feel a certain unease, because Munich after all was in 1938 – twenty years after 1918. Twenty years isn't much. And I think one has to beware of reading it as ideological. Because the first thought that occurred to most French people in 1940 was not, I think, "The struggle against Nazism has started," but something more like "Here we go again with the Huns."
If I don’t know quite what my parents did during the Second World War, I know even less about what my grandparents did during the previous war. There is, however, a number I remember because it struck me at the time. My grandmother was part of a family that in 1914 comprised fourteen brothers and sisters. By 1918, there were only three left. This is what they call "taking a heavy toll." (pages 113, 114)
MH takes a mordant view of life in modern France as well:
There is also what one might call the France of Denis Tillinac - all local color and duck confit. I had barely experienced it until two or three years ago when, for a variety of reasons, I had to crisscross the country. And I have to admit, Denis Tillinac is right: it is a very beautiful country. The rural areas with their subtle patchwork of tilled fields, open meadows, and woodlands. The villages, here and there, stone houses, the architecture of the churches. Fifty kilometers farther along all this can change completely and you find a different arrangement, just as harmonious. It is incredibly beautiful what generations of anonyrnous peasants through the centuries have managed to create. Ooh-la-la, I feel like I might be losing it; admire a rural landscape these days and you can find yourself being accused of neo-Pétainism. (page 116)
The last is an intriguing comment. The French elite seem to like spending their holidays by the sea (Île de Ré and so forth), areas which were mostly occupied and therefore not part of Vichy France. As the map shows, this 'Free Zone', for reasons of Nazi strategic defence, was essentially inland and rural.

Writing before the current EU economic crisis, Houellebecq takes a jaundiced view of France’s prospects as well:
… Denis Tillinac is right; he is absolutely right to live in this France … but he is wrong to believe that it will disappear and to feel nostalgic about it. Worldwide, tourism is now the largest economic sector and selling points like that don’t just disappear: they're worth a lot of money. This is what young British people have come to look for when they retire after their careers in the City (and now that they’ve grossly inflated prices in the Dordogne, they've started buying up the Massif Central). This is what, with all their feverish, financial hearts, the Japanese and Russian nouveau riches hoped to find, and we gave it to them. They have their raw-milk cheese, the Romanesque churches, they have their duck confit. We will give the same warm welcome to the nouveau riches from China and India.
As an economic activity for France in the future, that will be more than enough. Does anyone really believe we are going to become world leaders in software development or microprocessors? That we are going to maintain a major export industry? Come on . . . We will still have some manufacturing, that's true, mostly in the same sector (haute couture, perfumes, Joël Robuchon packaged dinners). Trains will be another exception; the French love trains.
Does this mean that I meekly accept the new international division of labor? Well, yes, nor do I see how I could do otherwise. The "emerging countries" want to earn money, much good it may do them; we have lots of things for them to spend it on. To put it more crudely, do I really want to turn France into a dead, mummified country, a sort of tourist brothel? … Without a second thought I say YES.
You wouldn't think it, but I have, in a few sentences, just saved the French economy; which just goes to show that our letters are not a waste of time. (pages 116, 117)
MH has his own way of handling BHL who, on 4 April, sends a long letter including an essay on Epicurianism and the nature of chaos – one expects he always got 20/20 for his philo – ending (page 132): "Now it’s up to you to play." Houellebecq begins his reply on 10 April:
… I moved my boxes of books into a house which is not habitable just yet and won’t be for several months, maybe until the end of the year. Here I am, therefore, utterly powerless to respond to your letter in like terms. …
By May BHL and MH seemed to be finding more in common than either expected – as MH points out on 20 May:
… I realised a fact, a small but significant fact: we already have the same enemies. (page 212)
When all this has calmed down, long after we are dead, some future historian will be able to draw some great lesson from the fact that we both, and at much the same time, have comfortably fulfilled the role of public enemies. I don’t feel able to expand on the idea, it's just an intuition, one that still seems strange to me: but I believe that the person who manages to work out why the two of us, so different from each other, became the chief whipping boys of our era in France will, in doing so, understand many things about the history of France during this period. (page 214)
which might make the US title, Public Enemies: Dueling Writers Take on Each Other and the World, a little misleading. The two writers’ concluding letters in July are appropriately elegiac. Houellebecq quotes Schopenhauer
:“We remember our lives a little better than a novel we once read.” To which I would add that we remember our lives less well than a novel we once wrote. (page 300)
BHL has the last word:
Contrary to the famous theory, I don’t believe that it's at the last moment, the last breath, that you rediscover the total memory, fully available to itself, that life has dispersed. I believe it's here and now, at every moment of life, as long as it is really lived. On each page of each book, as long as it is intensely desired. And my premonition, if I had one, would be rather that it's time to start worrying when in reply to the question "What is living?', too many of those books, moments in life, or the faces that accompanied them stop answering the roll call. There's a feeling in return for a feeling, a wager for a wager.
Let's wait and see. (page 303)
At which point it's possibly worth re-reading the article in Time.

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