Poisoned pen pals: Clash of the literary Titans

The caustic correspondence between Michel Houellebecq and Bernard-Henri Levy, titans of French literature, is to be revealed in a new book. Nobody is safe, says John Lichfield

Two of the most self-promoting, outspoken, and hated, men in France will go head-to-head next month in a literary "clash of the Titans".

The re-make of Godzilla vs King Kong will pit Michel Houellebecq, dishevelled curmudgeon and best-selling novelist, against Bernard-Henri Levy, dandy philosopher and telegenic human rights activist.

Their joint book, Ennemis Publics, has been the subject of a masterful "advertease" campaign for the past three months. The publishers, Flammarion, let slip in June that they were printing 150,000 copies of a hush-hush, two-handed book. Even before the identity of the writers was known, bookshops placed orders for 100,000 copies, guaranteeing the tome best-selling status in France.

The book, it was rumoured, was to be a dialogue between Houellebecq and the First Lady, Carla Bruni-Sarkozy; or between Houellebecq and the former prime minister, Lionel Jospin; or – most improbably of all – between Houellebecq and his mother, who described him as a petit con (little prick) in a book earlier this year.

It has finally been revealed that the 336-page book, to be published on 8 October, will be an exchange of letters between Houellebecq, 52, and Levy, 60, in which they savage the reputations of French literary and political figures – and occasionally one another.

The contents of the book remain secret but a few tame, mostly self-justifying extracts have been leaked.

Houllebecq has been acclaimed as a genius by some, and a charlatan by others, after a series of internationally successful novels – Atomised, Platform – on personal disintegration, sexual impotency and the decline of Western civilisation. In one of his letters to Levy, the novelist writes: "Other people, perhaps, have been able to make love while completely sober. I don't envy them. All I have ever been able to accomplish while completely sober is to do my accounts, or pack my bags."

Levy – always known in France as BHL – made his reputation by challenging the cosy, far-leftist intellectual tradition in France and by appearing on television with his shirt half-open, baring his handsome hairy chest.

He is revered by some in France as an "engaged intellectual" who is not afraid to travel to hotspots – including, recently Georgia – to pursue his attacks on totalitarianism and the defence of individual liberties. He is detested by others as a self-promoting media star.

In one letter to Houellebecq, BHL writes: "I can give every possible and imaginable explanation of my work. All I do is worsen my reputation as a bourgeois swine who has no grasp of social realities and only pretends to be concerned about the word's oppressed so as to make headlines."

The correspondence between the two men, written between January and July this year, also covers literature, love, humour and childhood. There are said to be long passages in which the two men settle scores with the many French public figures that they detest. The two men hardly know each other, according to the head of Flammarion, Teresa Crimisi. BHL is often abroad. Houellebecq lives a mostly reclusive life in a converted bed-and-breakfast on an island off Co Cork.

The idea of a two-handed book of letters was suggested by Houllebecq, Mme Crimisi said. "He was looking for someone to have a discussion with," she said.

The two men make unlikely pen pals but do have one thing in common. BHL wrote and directed a movie in 1997, starring his wife, the actress Arielle Dombasle, which was greeted with howls of derision. Houllebecq has just written and directed a movie, based on his most recent novel, The Possibility of an Island. It has been greeted with howls of derision.

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