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I read this book yesterday. For some reason, I find that I can read fairly pleasantly even with eyestrain if I take off my glasses and hold the book the requisite quarter-inch from my nose-- and it does not seem to retard the recovery process-- but the same is not true of computer screens. I therefore expect my computer time to be limited for a while, and if there is anything people put up in the way of significant announcements on LJ/DW, you probably should not expect me to see it for the next week or so, and should contact me in some other way. (Still checking email-- once a day.)

Anyway. This book is a collection of correspondence between Bernard-Henri Lévy and Michel Houellebecq, which took place between late January and mid-July of 2008, and which was kept secret at the time, though always intended for publication.

I have something of a quandary in conveying to you why it is interesting that these two men should be writing to each other, because each of them takes a firm and vehement stand in this text that biographical criticism is a terrible thing, that people take far too much interest in both the public and private lives of writers, that the degrees of celebrity they have attained come with quantities of perjury and slander attached, and that they had far rather people just read their books and talk about those. In fact, that is much of what this book is about, comparing their experiences of being controversial writers, writers who are publicly hated, and discussing why this is and what can be done to endure it.

And I haven't read any of their other books, though I had heard of both men; I picked this up both because Thrud brought it home and because it seemed a reasonable starting point for each writer. Therefore I cannot, as a critic, do what they would certainly prefer and explain the background context of this book in terms of what each of them has written about politics, literature and so on in contrast to the other. All I have is what I can gather from this book, and the sense one has of what a writer is doing from being aware of cultural life (and that sense is what I am sure they would like me to pay no attention to).

Based solely on this book, then, and what each of them says about himself: Lévy is a public figure and celebrity in France, who has written novels, criticism, and reports on various war zones around the world. He has gone to Bosnia, Burma, Chechnya, and other places in significant upheaval and tried to promote international awareness of the atrocities that happen and the issues involved, as well as serving as an advisor to various important figures in these wars and to other statesmen. He has a complex political and personal relationship to Judaism which I am clear on philosophically but not clear about how it expresses itself in his life and other writings, because he didn't talk about that much here. He was a student of Derrida and otherwise associated with what those of us outside France tend to think of as Twentieth-Century French Literature.

Houellebecq is a public figure and something of a celebrity in France who now lives in semi-reclusive exile in Ireland. He has written novels, poetry, and a book on Lovecraft I had heard of. He is regularly accused of being racist, misogynistic, sex-obsessed, pessimistic, and something of a right-wing lunatic; he cheerfully admits to the pessimistic, and does not go sufficiently into the others here for one to make a judgment. He appears to think of most human progress as futile and occasionally despairs of the human race as a whole. His principal philosophy seems to be a kind of extremely atheistic hyper-individualism, rather what you might get if you crossed Sartre with an anarcho-libertarian-- at the age when many teenagers get into heavy metal, he encountered Pascal's Pensées, which had a similarly mind-exploding effect on him (if it is possible to be an atheist Jansenist, I suspect him of being one in some ways). He gives the impression that the literary establishment sees him as something of an enfant terrible.

I repeat, this is what I gathered about them from reading this book. It may or may not have anything to do with the way the rest of the world, including their other writings, sees things.

Their letters are wide-ranging, well-phrased, charming, and unafraid to contradict each other or anything else in the world. They do not reply to one another in the ways that one would expect, but through indirection, seizing on small things that have been said and amplifying them, running off in different directions. They tell secrets, they tell funny anecdotes, they talk about their fathers and their enemies (and I noticed before either of them did that they weren't talking about their mothers). They cite pretty much every major Western philosopher in attempts to explain their worldviews to one another, and then in the next letter jettison all of that because it has been misunderstood and start over. As an example of the art of correspondence, it is quite impressive, and might also serve as an introductory course on French literature (the book is very well-footnoted). There is not a dull moment in it, from the first sentence Houellebecq leads with: "We have, as they say, nothing in common-- except for one essential trait: we are both rather contemptible individuals."

I do rather get the feeling, however, that I would find this book far more interesting and thought-provoking if I were to go out and read everything else both of them has written first, and then see how this is at being a text that deepens and contrasts their views. As a book of itself, it is very readable: as an introductory point, a place to begin either author, it succeeds, but I am not sure it was the right place. I agree, however, that I would prefer to gather information about them from their writings instead from the newspapers, so that is something. And as a conversation overheard between two people I don't know, I enjoyed this very thoroughly.


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March 2017

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