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the Complete Review
the complete review - non-fiction

Public Enemies

Michel Houellebecq
Bernard-Henri Lévy

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To purchase Public Enemies

Title: Public Enemies
Authors: Michel Houellebecq/B.-H. Lévy
Genre: Non-fiction
Written: 2008 (Eng. 2011)
Length: 303 pages
Original in: French
Availability: Public Enemies - US
Public Enemies - UK
Public Enemies - Canada
Ennemis publics - Canada
Public Enemies - India
Ennemis publics - France
Volksfeinde - Deutschland
Nemici pubblici - Italia
Enemigos públicos - España
  • French title: Ennemis publics
  • US subtitle: Dueling Writers Take On Each Other and the World

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Our Assessment:

B- : sometimes stylish, sometimes amusing, but rather too self-important and -indulgent

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Age C- 18/2/2012 Richard King
Entertainment Weekly B+ 12/1/2011 Keith Staskiewicz
Financial Times . 18/11/2011 Donald Morrison
The Guardian . 29/12/2011 Stuart Jeffries
New Statesman A- 5/12/2011 George Walden
The NY Times . 12/1/2011 Dwight Garner
The NY Times Book Rev. . 16/1/2011 Ian Buruma
The Observer . 8/12/2011 Tim Adams
TLS . 21/1/2009 Henri Astier
Wall Street Journal . 14/1/2011 Sam Munson

  Review Consensus:

  Amused, but for the most part not exactly overwhelmed

  From the Reviews:
  • "There are incidental pleasures in Public Enemies. I can't help liking Houellebecq and Levy, despite their monstrous egotism. But overall, the book is a big disappointment." - Richard King, The Age

  • "It is hardly what you would call endearing, and it won't convert any of their detractors, but it's utterly fascinating to watch them thrust and parry." - Keith Staskiewicz, Entertainment Weekly

  • "To your credit, you manage to keep us awake through all your preening and puffing, soul-baring and name-dropping. (...) You both are on safer ground when discussing other writers. (...) But do you really need to discuss your love-making preferences in such detail ? These flaws are redeemed by the most pleasing feature of your letters: their infectious erudition. You cite scores of books, authors, events and controversies that are far beyond the ken of the average Anglo-Saxon reader. And yet you make them sound well worth pursuing." - Donald Morrison, Financial Times

  • "At worst, Public Enemies is as edifying as reading Hugh Grant and Steve Coogan lick each other's journalist-inflicted wounds. Fortunately, the book doesn't stay in media whine mode for long but reverts to a clash between an engagé Sartrean intellectual par excellence and the politically disengaged, sometimes self-pitying Houellebecq. (...) Lévy is better read but less fun" - Stuart Jeffries, The Guardian

  • "Much of the fun of these letters stems from their almost satirically contrasting characters (.....) However rich in irritations, this is a book that you don't stop reading. You can skip some of Lévy's pirouetting (Houellebecq sometimes admits he's baffled) but not the rest of these lively, fluently written exchanges." - George Walden, New Statesman

  • "Theirs is a lonesome, literate, borderline-funny duet (.....) Their book is a minor event (few real sparks fly), but it is flecked with incidental pleasures." - Dwight Garner, The New York Times

  • "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. (...) It is all brilliantly done. But Iĺm afraid to say that none of this is meant to be read as a comic novel. It is all in deadly earnest." - Ian Buruma, The New York Times Book Review

  • "What follows is a discursive and often scabrously comic (deliberately and not) meditation on what Lévy identifies as the secret desire of all writers -- "the desire to displease, to be repudiated. The giddiness and pleasure of disgrace". There is no limit to the self-flagellation, the googled humiliations, the slights and slanders sharply remembered across decades that follow. (...) This is, as you may have already recognised, a very French book." - Tim Adams, The Observer

  • "It is a dizzying array of subjects and, happily, both men address them with erudition and command. (...) The circular rug captures in one image the problem of Public Enemies: too many subjects taken up at too breakneck a pace, and a lack of genuine contention, of the near-rancor that high-stakes philosophical argument can inspire." - Sam Munson, Wall Street Journal

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Public Enemies is a back and forth between two leading French public intellectuals (emphasis on the public) as they exchange letters over several months, exchanging thoughts, memories, and wallowing together in the how difficult it is to be so prominently and widely vilified. Michel Houellebecq is the now-also-Goncourt-winning author of notorious works such as The Elementary Particles (UK title: Atomised), widely seen as a curmudgeonly misanthrope. Bernard-Henri Lévy -- apparently popularly known by his initials, BHL -- has dabbled in writing, journalism, philosophizing, and film-making, with varying success (he explains, at some length, in these pages how he was robbed of the Goncourt -- but in the US is probably better remembered forgotten as the author of the execrable American Vertigo), and is widely considered a dandy/attention hog.
       They're certainly on the same page regarding how difficult they have it; as Lévy puts it -- though Houellebecq no doubt claims the same:

     Few other writers are abused as much as I am.
     For each of my books I receive a volley of insults that plenty of other people would find demoralizing.
       But, of course, Lévy and Houellebecq are not like 'plenty of other people', stoically enduring the abuse ..... Ah, yes:
     So there you have it, I will have to put up with being Houellebecq to the end, with all that entails.
       What no doubt helps -- as Houellebecq does own up to -- is an "extraordinary overestimation of myself".
       And so they can confidently assert:
     When all this has calmed down, long after we are dead, some future historian will be able to draw some great lesson from the fact that we both, and at much the same time, have comfortably filled the role of public enemies. I don't feel able to expand on the idea, it's just an intuition, one that still seems strange to me: but I believe that the person who manages to work out why the two of us, so different from each other, became the chief whipping boys of our era in France will, in doing so, understand many things about the history of France during this period.
       Mind you, there's something to that -- though one wonders if these two really will go down as the 'chief whipping boys' in France of that era; obviously, the perspective is a rather different one in France itself, where they do frequently figure in the intellectual tabloids and the media, but Lévy, in particular, seems to exist solely because of the spotlight, and is a figure who surely will quite quickly fade once he's out of it, quickly forgotten like yesterday's B-actors. (Amusingly, Lévy is (sensibly) concerned about his literary estate and how it will be abused -- "Whatever measures you take, there will be a bug, a failure, a ruse, a grimace on the part of history, and your journal, like everybody else's, will end up in IMEC ... " -- but his concern is rather presumptuous; the papers will surely be archived, but as to whether anyone will care .....)
       Indeed, there's surely a great deal of additional intellectual enmity in France in which others figure equally prominently: Lévy is hardly the only one who can claim: "Having the pack at your heels -- I think I know about that". But, refracting all experience merely through themselves, these two can't help but see themselves as massive foci of the universe.
       Fortunately, the exchanges occasionally move beyond this topic, and both Houellebecq and Lévy offer some interesting thoughts and reflections on literature and politics; there's also some biographical material of interest, as the two deal with, among other things, their mothers (Houellebecq) and fathers. But biographical detail remains very selective, as they only focus on what they want to focus on; Houellebecq is better at the soul-baring stuff (of course, that's part of his spiel, regardless of the venue), while Lévy's carefully chosen anecdotes come across as more manipulatively leading.
       Some of this is quite well-written and presented, and Houellebecq, in particular, can be agreeably sharp-witted, but the epistolary form -- not quite dialogue, not quite essays -- limits the effectiveness of the whole exercise, and it's not nearly as revealing (or heated) as one might have hoped. Worth a look for readers interested in French culture at the beginning of the twenty-first century (which, as Houellebecq notes, can't exactly be trumpeted as any sort of heyday ...), Public Enemies is of rather limited interest (and entertainment value).

- M.A.Orthofer, 1 April 2012

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Public Enemies: Reviews: Michel Houellebecq: Bernard-Henri Lévy: Other books by Michel Houellebecq under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Authors:

       French author Michel Houellebecq was born in 1958.

       Bernard-Henri Lévy was born in 1948.

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© 2012-2021 the complete review

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