Only in France would an exchange of letters between a controversial novelist and a ubiquitous philosopher be a literary sensation. Contrived for publication, and sent over a period of six months, these letters are far from the “death match” advertised, featuring moments of insight and reflection alongside equal quantities of self-pity (mostly Houellebecq), self-justification (mostly Lévy) and gossip.

Both wield an impressive range of sources as they argue about reputation, political commitment and the confessional urge. Lévy is more lucid and sympathetic, though this is a hollow victory, and Houellebecq more provocative; both write best about their professional enthusiasms: Houellebecq on writing; Lévy on philosophy.

While readers outside the French intelligentsia will struggle to identify many of the pair’s targets, there is plenty of genuine erudition here. Boys are believed to respond well to competition.

More content on these subjects