we are both rather contemptible individuals


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.

more from Ian Buruma at the NYT here.