13 of 15 people found the following review helpful
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As one of Houellebecq's admirers, I couldn't pass this up. You could hardly take two more opposite public personalities than Houellebecq and BHL. Yet they also have many similarities. Both are outsiders relative to French literary/political orthodoxy, which (in my view) tends to be painfully conformist and insipid. Both come across, for most people, as rather repugnant in many respects. And most importantly, both are extremely intelligent writers who match hyper-sensitivity with tremendous force of ideas.
BHL, who can be crudely described as a self-promoting, sanctimonious French neo-conservative (indeed he's a Jewish intellectual who has become a relentless advocate for forceful intervention on human rights grounds), is something of a revelation here. His views are extremely irritating. His public promotion reeks of PT Barnum. Yet he writes about his father's life with a cool, deadpan intensity that, in a few pages, is a more intense and moving narrative than the vast majority of acclaimed social realist novels. He's one of those writers who, even when you disagree with everything he says, has a way of bringing you to a deeper understanding of things through critical engagement. Very engaging.
Houellebecq puts on his usual bathetic show of iconoclastic force, and by sheer nihilistic bravado tends to outdo the more constrained BHL. But again, much of the petulance is given force by personal detail. To take one example, Houellebecq defends himself against BHL's charge that he is insufficiently committed to the accomplishments of the French resistance, specifically the random killing of a Nazi officer in a subway. Houellebecq explains that for him, France died when the mutinies of 1917 took place, events little-known outside France (where they were long a taboo subject). He explains that he knows little about what his family did during the war. But one number he remembers, because it stuck with him, was that his grandmother was part of a family that in 1914 comprised fourteen brothers and sisters. By 1918, there were only three left. Atrocious beyond all measure. But unlike the other combatants, France never experienced a true public reckoning for its complicity in that hideous conflict. "In going beyond the acceptable in that appalling, unjustified 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." It's difficult to appreciate the complex French attitude towards WWII without understanding this unofficial counter-narrative of a people utterly betrayed by their nation's role in fomenting WWI -- a role which the war's end froze in exaltation, rather than critical condemnation. The official narrative, of course, paints France in WWI as a nation completely justified, heroic, and vindicated against an evil foe. But Houellebecq's unofficial folk narrative explains why the reality was much more complex and conflicted for the French people. This is just one example of the way the two writers' personal confessions give focus and intensity to the otherwise airy ideas tossed about in these letters.
The book does have one truly annoying aspect, however, which is that they spend too much space, measured by a third party's taste, blithering about the mundane details of French literary life -- the publishers, the critics, television appearances, and so forth. Almost none of this is interesting for a foreigner, and most of the specific references will be meaningless. For example, they'll debate at considerable length whether such-and-such editor at some literary journal is a complete dolt or not. I can understand why this was interesting to them, but it is unlikely to interest anybody else except for other French writers. It's akin to listening to a musician whine about record label politics; tiresome shop talk.
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
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I approached this book naively (having read a little of Houellebecq's fiction, and knowing nothing about BHL except that he's married to the lead actress from "Pauline at the Beach" - not Pauline, but the older one who wants to "burn with love"). Initially, the terms of the "debate" were unclear to me, and anyone would agree that H's intro isn't much help ("We have contributed nothing to the electro-pop revival in France. We're not even mentioned in the credits of 'Ratatouille'") - maybe you're assumed to know something about both authors from the outset. It's interesting, though, how the real "terms of the debate" gradually emerge - nucleating, in particular, around the hypothetical question of whether one would choose to murder a German officer in occupied France - and I'm sure any reader could learn a lot about his/her own tendencies over the course of the book (actually I guess that's the whole point). Personally I became increasingly annoyed by BHL's recurrent bouts of sanctimony, while I felt that Houellebecq (who has the huge advantage of possessing a sense of humor) made a strong case for his seemingly pessimistic worldview - c.f. recent novel that ends with the main character marinating in a puddle of brine - as a sort of humanism, a la Sartre. But many people's sympathies will swing the opposite way, no doubt. I should add that the exchange-of-letters format is necessarily a little stilted, in my view. That's about my only complaint.
90 of 123 people found the following review helpful
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A fun read if you are so inclined to actually study both sides of an issue without the time constraints of a two-minute cable news debate.
Since political discourse in the United States has become so profit-driven, the chances of such a book happening here (between known American political personalities) are pretty much zero.
Rush couldn't correspond with John Stewart because it would be "beneath him," just like Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger couldn't appear in the same movie back in their heyday, because one wouldn't give top billing to the other.
Each political voice here in America is a business enterprise, not a true intellectual interested in debate for the sake of bettering the nation. It is all for profit, not for the people.
It is sad time for the world, but this book offers a small glimmer of hope that some people, in some places, still want to better themselves.
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
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I'm enjoying this book because it flows all over from philosophy to family and from America, through Ireland, France and Russia. It is an enjoyable read.
3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
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A book like this can only happen in France which has always been fertile ground for celebrity intellectuals, where a narcissistic novelist can think of himself as the "public enemy" of his critics, publishers, competitors and readers. Although this book says much about France & its cultural life, it also reveals something about how the public intellectual (ever in the limelight of TV shows, literary magazines and gossip websites) views himself. How the public informs the inner, and vice versa.
I, at least, see the book as an exercise in mentorship. BHL takes under his wings a wretched, paranoid, hurting Houllebecq and tries to help him dispel the demons of hatred, contempt, depression(ism) and self-pity. The touch is ever so light, never patronizing but rather shines with generosity -even nobility - of spirit even when embedded in (somewhat) self-conscious charisma. after all, the giving part comes from someone who can afford to give, someone who loves (and this endeared him to me), Piero della Francesca. Houllebecq's gravitas, on the other hand, reads more like bathos, especially when it comes to the tortured view of himself as a writer/poet. As evident from Elementary Particles, H's inner space has collapsed to a singularity threatening to disappear into disconnection and madness. BHL counters this with:
"..there have been two things I felt were worth living for: first, love (and I mean this in the sense of loving women) and, second, writing, just writing, spending nights, days, and more nights at my word-kit... I believe that they come down to the same thing. Deep down, fundamentally, they are the same thing. they same kind of energy, the same drive, the same force - reined in, building up - the same mix of sensual pleasure and pain, suddenness and patience, scrupulous searching and effortless finding. Why do you write? Because you can;t make love all day. Why do you make love? Because you can't write all day" (P. 237).
What impresses the casual reader in PEs are not only the intimate, incestuous, relationships in the contemporary French literary scene (you can find their mirror image, say, in NYC if not Berlin) but also the effortless familiarity with which the two writers approach illustrious predecessors. We see that Montaigne, Lautreamont, Gide, Hugo, Rimbaud, Valery, Comte, Malraux, Aragon,Sartre - but also Cocteau, Robbe-Grillet, Artaud - are very much alive, informing the present in an ever unfolding dialogue. The author of Fleur du Mal towers above them all, like a giant half-buried in a sand dune. These guys have become immortal in a way that an American cannot really comprehend. Everything is connected, everything is implicated, ideas and words, phrases are percolating within the national memory through centuries in a way that can be shared. Reminds me of Indian brahmin pundits who used to grow up with collective memories of the Vedas, Upanishads and proverbs, or Native Americans (say, White Mountain Apaches) for whom every rock, every stream lives through stories handed down over generations. we see, in this book, the richness that is the patrimony of every Frenchman.
I do wish they talked less about their parents and more about their women :)
In addition to the lucidity, there was much bravado and score settling with unaccommodating critics, some naivete & even tribal savagery. It was interesting to see BHL, a committed social activist who flies around the world fighting injustice, for brutalized peoples in Darfur, Bosnia, Angola, etc - ignore the savagery of Israelis who have stolen Palestinian land & water,pushed "natives" into isolated desperate little ghettos,consciously dehumanized them and pushed them into acts of terrorist despair. When it comes to Israel, there is a blind spot the size of a fire truck - the intellect gives way, the Goddesses of Justice and Compassion flee and the neolithic tribal YHWH spirit takes possession. The emotional & cognitive dissonance extends to BHL's ethics and morality, as demonstrated by his defense of DSK.
What does it mean to be a Jew and a Frenchman for BHL? Whose side has more sway when it comes to the clash between esoteric talmudic reading of the meaning of words and European enlightenment? Derrida or Diderot? In any case, by choosing to identify as a Dreyfusard you perpetuate the evil game of separation. Dialectics 101. How can Israel be happy and safe unless its Palestinian neighbors aren't happy and safe?
Anyway, there is much that is fascinating in this book, and much of it between the lines. Worth taking a peek.