A letter from Mr. Houellebecq opens this book, and he comes out swinging. He calls Mr. Lévy “a philosopher without an original idea but with excellent contacts.” He adds: “A specialist in farcical media stunts, you dishonor even the white shirts you always wear.”
Mr. Houellebecq then begins to punch himself, sarcastically, in the face. “Basically, I’m just a redneck,” he writes. “An unremarkable author with no style, I achieved literary notoriety some years ago as the result of an uncharacteristic error in judgment by critics who had lost the plot.”
Mr. Lévy struggles to drag this conversation out of mud and self-pity, to discuss philosophy and literature and politics. But he ends up exulting, defensively, about the protests he’s led, the film juries he’s headed, the women he’s bedded. A not untypical observation from Mr. Lévy: “I also liked,” he writes, “having been one of the very, very few to have succeeded in traveling through the bush on board an improbable sort of rickshaw into the heart of the Nuba Mountains among people who hadn’t seen a white person since Leni Riefen
Mr. Houellebecq writes very well about the things you’d suppose he’d write well about — his anger at anti-smoking campaigns, how his writing leaves him in “a state of nervous exhaustion that requires several bottles of alcohol to get out of.”stahl
Here he is on (of all things) kids: “Few adults, very few, are aware to what extent children watch their parents, constantly on the lookout for some sign of how they should approach the world; how sharp and vibrant their intelligence is in the years leading up to the disaster of puberty, how quick to summarize, to draw broad conclusions. Very few adults realize that every child, naturally, instinctively, is a philosopher.”
A better title for this flickeringly engaging volume would have been, after Norman Mailer’s 1959 book, “Advertisements for Ourselves.” Mr. Lévy speaks for both men when he writes about his critics: “They have no effect on my narcissism. In the face of assaults, my ego is fireproof, shatterproof.”
These men can’t go on. They’ll go on.