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.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Barnardo's: Corporate Audit and Inspection – Retail Intern (Leeds)

Unpaid - £4 lunch allowance plus travel to and from work: Barnardo's: Purpose ...

Recruitment Genius: Content Writer - Global Financial Services

£25000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: From modest beginnings the comp...

Recruitment Genius: Web Developer - PHP

£35000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: From modest beginnings the comp...

Recruitment Genius: Customer Service / Receptionist

£15000 - £24000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Day In a Page

The Silk Roads that trace civilisation: Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places

The Silk Roads that trace civilisation

Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places
House of Lords: Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled

The honours that shame Britain

Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled
When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race

'When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race'

Why are black men living the stereotypes and why are we letting them get away with it?
International Tap Festival: Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic

International Tap Festival comes to the UK

Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic
War with Isis: Is Turkey's buffer zone in Syria a matter of self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

Turkey's buffer zone in Syria: self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

Ankara accused of exacerbating racial division by allowing Turkmen minority to cross the border
Doris Lessing: Acclaimed novelist was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show

'A subversive brothel keeper and Communist'

Acclaimed novelist Doris Lessing was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show
Big Blue Live: BBC's Springwatch offshoot swaps back gardens for California's Monterey Bay

BBC heads to the Californian coast

The Big Blue Live crew is preparing for the first of three episodes on Sunday night, filming from boats, planes and an aquarium studio
Austin Bidwell: The Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England with the most daring forgery the world had known

Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England

Conman Austin Bidwell. was a heartless cad who carried out the most daring forgery the world had known
Car hacking scandal: Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked

Car hacking scandal

Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked
10 best placemats

Take your seat: 10 best placemats

Protect your table and dine in style with a bold new accessory
Ashes 2015: Alastair Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

Aussie skipper Michael Clarke was lured into believing that what we witnessed at Edgbaston and Trent Bridge would continue in London, says Kevin Garside
Can Rafael Benitez get the best out of Gareth Bale at Real Madrid?

Can Benitez get the best out of Bale?

Back at the club he watched as a boy, the pressure is on Benitez to find a winning blend from Real's multiple talents. As La Liga begins, Pete Jenson asks if it will be enough to stop Barcelona
Athletics World Championships 2015: Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jessica Ennis-Hill and Katarina Johnson-Thompson heptathlon rivalry

Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jess and Kat rivalry

The last time the two British heptathletes competed, Ennis-Hill was on the way to Olympic gold and Johnson-Thompson was just a promising teenager. But a lot has happened in the following three years
Jeremy Corbyn: Joining a shrewd operator desperate for power as he visits the North East

Jeremy Corbyn interview: A shrewd operator desperate for power

His radical anti-austerity agenda has caught the imagination of the left and politically disaffected and set a staid Labour leadership election alight
Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief: Defender of ancient city's past was killed for protecting its future

Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief

Robert Fisk on the defender of the ancient city's past who was killed for protecting its future