[Paleopsych] Book Forum: Houellebecq

Premise Checker checker at panix.com
Fri Apr 8 19:09:11 UTC 2005


    No sooner does it seem that the traditional novel is, at last, safely
    dead than someone comes along and flogs the poor old horse into life
    again. The French writer Michel Houellebecq wields a vigorous whip. In
    form, his novels are entirely straightforward and very readable; they
    would have done a brisk turnover in a Victorian lending library, after
    a few editorial suppressions. They tell of "ordinary" people going
    about their "ordinary" lives. True, they are lives of noisy
    desperation, hindered by psychoses, prey to boredom and acedia, and
    permeated from top to bottom with sex--but what could be more ordinary
    than that?
    Houellebecq's tone varies between jaded bitterness and disgusted
    denunciation; the narrative voice in all his work, as in the work of
    Samuel Beckett, seems furious at itself for having begun to speak at
    all and, having begun, for being compelled to go on to the end. Yet
    Houellebecq is darker even than Beckett, and would never allow
    himself, or us, those lyric transports that flickeringly illuminate
    the Beckettian night. As Houellebecq says of his hero, the fantasist
    H. P. Lovecraft, "There is something not really literary about [his]
    The reception accorded Houellebecq's books in some influential
    quarters is both disturbing and puzzling. The French literary world,
    still dominated by the surviving would-be Jacobins of May 1968, has
    largely dismissed them. A number of Anglophone reviewers have been no
    more kind--the New York Times found The Elementary Particles,
    Houellebecq's masterpiece so far, "a deeply repugnant read"; the
    London Sunday Times described it as "pretentious, banal, badly written
    and boring"; and the London Times said that Houellebecq was no more a
    novelist of ideas than the British comedian Benny Hill. Such
    passionate vituperation is hard to understand. Have these people not
    read de Sade, or Céline, or Bataille--have they not read Swift?
    Although Houellebecq insists, as any artist will, that it is not he
    but his work that is of consequence, a little biographical background
    is necessary in his case, given its highly public and controversial
    nature. Houellebecq was born Michel Thomas, on the French-ruled island
    of Réunion, in the Indian Ocean, in 1958. His father was a mountain
    guide, his mother an anesthesiologist. They seem to have been less
    than ideal parents. When Michel was still a young child, his mother
    left his father for a Muslim man and converted to Islam (of course,
    many critics see here the seeds of the adult Houellebecq's animosity
    toward the religion). Then, at the age of six, Michel was abandoned to
    the care of his grandmother, whose name, Houellebecq, he adopted when
    he first began to publish. Granny Houellebecq was a Stalinist, and the
    same critics cited above detect in this a cause for Houellebecq's
    animosity toward ideologues of the Left. (How simple and determined it
    must be, the life of the critic!)
    Having moved to France, Houellebecq trained as an agricultural
    engineer, but he eventually found a job as an administrator in the
    computer department of the French National Assembly. He suffered from
    depression and spent some time in psychiatric clinics. He was married,
    divorced, and married again. In 1999, he moved with his new wife to
    Ireland and settled down on Bere Island in Bantry Bay. His writings
    include a manifesto-cum-biography of the fantasist H. P.
    Lovecraft--titled, suggestively, Against the World, Against Life
    (Contre le monde, contre la vie, 1991)--and several volumes of poetry.
    His novels to date are Whatever (Extension du domaine de la lutte,
    1994), translated by Paul Hammond; The Elementary Particles (Les
    Particules élémentaires, 1998), titled Atomised in the United Kingdom;
    Lanzarote (Lanzarote, 2000); and Platform (Plateforme, 2001), the last
    three all translated by Frank Wynne.
    In recent times, few writers have made so loud a noise in the world as
    Houellebecq. The inevitable comparison is with Salman Rushdie, for
    Houellebecq too has provoked the wrath of the Muslim world. In 2002 he
    was brought to court in France by a group of powerful Muslim
    institutions, including the National Federation of French Muslims and
    the World Islamic League, who accused him, under an obscure protocol
    of French law, of racial insults and incitement to religious hatred,
    after an interview was published in the magazine Lire in which
    Houellebecq declared Islam to be a dangerous and "stupid" religion.
    Houellebecq's court appearance provoked shock, outrage, and laughter,
    in equal proportions. He dismissed the charges brought against him by
    pointing out that he had not criticized Muslims, only their religion,
    which he had a right to do in a free society. Asked if he realized
    that his remarks could have contravened the French penal code, he
    replied that he did not, since he had never read the code. "It is
    excessively long," he remarked, "and I suspect that there are many
    boring passages." All this would seem mere comedy, another lively
    entry in the annals of France's excitable literary life, if we had not
    the example of Rushdie and the fatwa, and if the French media and many
    French intellectuals had not at best kept silent and at worst sided
    with Houellebecq's accusers.
    The French, as we know, have peculiar tastes. One is thinking not only
    of frogs' legs and andouillettes; these people also consider Poe a
    great writer, Hitchcock a major
    artist. Can they be serious, or is it just a Gallic joke at the
    expense of the rest of us? Houellebecq seems entirely sincere in his
    deep admiration for the work of Lovecraft, but his enthusiasm is a
    little hard to credit. Still, his long essay on "HPL," as he calls his
    hero, was the first substantial work he published, and in his preface
    to the American edition, he describes Against the World, Against Life
    as "a sort of first novel." More to the point, it is the lightly
    disguised manifesto of a wildly ambitious, wildly iconoclastic, and
    just plain wild young writer, for whom the traditional novel "may be
    usefully compared to an old air chamber deflating after being placed
    in an ocean. A generalized and rather weak flow of air, like a trickle
    of pus, ends in arbitrary and indistinct nothingness." This, it should
    be noted, is a relatively mild statement of Houellebecq's position.
    Who is Howard Phillips Lovecraft--whom Stephen King, in a lively
    introduction to Houellebecq's essay, describes as the "Dark Prince of
    Providence" (Providence, Rhode Island, that is; not the Lord who rules
    over us all)--and what has he to tell us about the work of
    Lovecraft was born in Providence in 1890 into the WASP middle class.
    In 1893
    his father had a nervous breakdown and was admitted to an asylum; five
    years later he died there, from a very un-Waspish case of tertiary
    syphilis. The young Lovecraft and his mother moved in with his
    maternal grandfather; he in turn died in 1904, leaving his daughter
    and her son in genteel penury. Lovecraft lived all his life under the
    care of women: First there was his mother; after her death, when he
    was thirty-one, he was taken over by a pair of aunts (shades of
    Arsenic and Old Lace), and then, disastrously, by Sonia Greene, a
    divorcée seven years his senior, whom he married in 1924.
    Immediately after their marriage, Lovecraft and Greene moved to New
    York. Lovecraft, who up to this point had hardly ventured beyond his
    native territory, found the city a great and, despite an initial
    period of uncharacteristic cheeriness, terrible shock; the baroque
    metropolises of his fiction, infested with monstrous beings, are his
    response to the spectacle of New York in the early years of the
    Roaring Twenties. Houellebecq quotes with relish passages from
    Lovecraft's stories that display their author's revulsion and
    ingrained racism. Here is a typical example, from the short story "He"
    (1939): "Garish daylight shewed [sic] only squalor and alienage [sic]
    and the noxious elephantiasis of climbing, spreading
    stone . . . the throngs of people that seethed through the flume-like
    streets were squat, swarthy strangers with hardened faces and narrow
    eyes." After two years, Lovecraft and his venerable bride parted
    company (three years later they were divorced), and he scuttled back
    to the safety of Providence, where he moved in with his one surviving
    On his return to Providence, Lovecraft settled down to produce what
    Houellebecq calls the "great texts," a wealth of stories and novellas,
    including "Call of Cthulhu" (1928), "The Dunwich Horror" (1928), "The
    Whisperer in Darkness" (1929)--for which the magazine Weird Tales paid
    Lovecraft $350, probably the largest single fee he ever received--and
    The Colour Out of Space (1927), Lovecraft's own personal favorite. He
    was markedly unassuming in regard to his work--"I have concluded that
    Literature is no proper pursuit for a gentleman"--and submitted it for
    publication to magazines such as Weird Tales and Amazing Stories with
    an almost maidenly reluctance. How surprised he would be to find
    himself monumentalized in the recent Library of America edition of his
    Tales, edited by Peter Straub.
    The imagination that produced these fictions--"ritual literature,"
    Houellebecq calls them--is at once diseased and fastidious,
    puritanical and malign, dandyish and uncouth. Houellebecq defines
    Lovecraft's general attitude with approving succinctness: "Absolute
    hatred of the world in general, aggravated by an aversion for the
    modern world in particular." The same definition might be applied to
    Houellebecq's own literary, or antiliterary, stance. In describing
    Lovecraft, the young Houellebecq draws a strikingly prescient portrait
    of the writer he was himself to become:

      Few beings have ever been so impregnated, pierced to the core, by
      the conviction of the absolute futility of human aspiration. The
      universe is nothing but a furtive arrangement of elementary
      particles [particules élémentaires]. A figure in transition toward
      chaos. That is what will finally prevail. The human race will
      disappear. Other races in turn will appear and disappear. The skies
      will be glacial and empty, traversed by the feeble light of
      half-dead stars. These too will disappear. Everything will
      disappear. All human actions are as free and as stripped of meaning
      as the unfettered movement of the elementary particles. Good, evil,
      morality, sentiments? Pure "Victorian fictions." All that exists is
      egotism. Cold, intact and radiant.

    There are areas in which Houellebecq's and Lovecraft's writing are
    utterly dissimilar: "In [Lovecraft's] entire body of work,"
    Houellebecq writes, "there is not a single allusion to two of the
    realities to which we generally ascribe great importance: sex and
    money." Sex in particular--"the only game left to adults"--is a
    commodity (one chooses the word deliberately) in which all but the
    first of Houellebecq's novels are soaked. In The Elementary Particles,
    Bruno, the main character, devotes his life to the pursuit of women,
    or at least of what women can provide (in fact, Houellebecq and Benny
    Hill would probably see eye to ogling eye in this matter); while at
    the heart of Platform is a detailed and, it must be said, numbingly
    tedious account of the setting up and running of a sex-tourism venture
    in Thailand. Lanzarote, a brief, fictionalized account of a package
    holiday on the isle of the book's title, interspersed with gnomic
    photographs of the island's rock formations taken by Houellebecq
    himself, is little more than the tale of a young man getting lucky
    with two lesbians on a beach ("Barbara's excitement continued to mount
    . . . I myself found myself close to coming in Pam's mouth").
    It is hard to know how seriously Houellebecq intends us to take all
    this. Certainly he expends a great deal of writerly energy on his
    erotic scenes, yet for all the unblinking explicitness of the
    descriptions, the sex itself is curiously old-fashioned. Women are
    treasured, but mainly as receptacles for men and their desires. Rivers
    of semen gush through these pages ("small clouds floated like spatters
    of sperm between the pines"), a great deal of it disappearing down the
    throats of women. Houellebecq's females seem never to menstruate, or
    go to the lavatory, and they are ready at all times, day or night, in
    private or in public, to perform such acts as may be required of them
    by men; nor do they evince any fear of or interest in getting
    pregnant--of which, in any case, in Houellebecq's world, there is not
    the faintest danger. True, the women enjoy the sex as much as the men
    do, but in a free, undemanding, and uncomplicated way that few women,
    or men, would recognize from their own experience. Sometimes Michel,
    Platform's protagonist, has a thought for aids, but his partners
    merrily brush aside any such qualms. And yet all these couplings, all
    these threesomes and foursomes, take place in a curiously innocent,
    almost Edenic glow. In a horrible world, these melancholy concumbences
    are the only reliable source of authenticity and affectless delight:

      Our genitals exist as a source of permanent, accessible pleasure.
      The god who created all our unhappinesses, who made us short-lived,
      vain, and cruel, has also provided this form of meager
      compensation. If we couldn't have sex from time to time, what would
      life be?

                                     * * *

    It would be interesting to know how Houellebecq's first novel,
    Whatever, gained its English title. Irresistibly, one imagines a
    telephone exchange between English publisher and French author as to
    how the rather grand and revolutionary-sounding Extension du domaine
    de la lutte might be translated, terminating in an electronic shrug
    and a murmured "Whatever." For all the iconoclastic belligerence of
    his persona, Houellebecq presents himself as firmly within the
    tradition of Gallic désenchantement (if one may speak of
    disenchantment in someone who shows so little sign of having been
    enchanted in the first place), with baleful Sartrean stare and
    negligently dangling Camusian cigarette permanently in place.
    Yet Houellebecq possesses one quality in which the Left Bank
    existentialists of the '40s and '50s were notably lacking, namely,
    humor. Houellebecq's fiction is horribly funny. Often the joke is
    achieved by a po-faced conjunction of the grandiloquent and the
    thumpingly mundane. The first page of Whatever is headed by a tag from
    Romans 13--"The night is far spent, the day is at hand: let us
    therefore cast off the works of darkness, and let us put on the armor
    of light"--the radiant promise of which is immediately extinguished by
    the opening paragraph:

      Friday evening I was invited to a party at a colleague from work's
      house. There were thirty-odd of us, all middle management aged
      between twenty-five and forty. At a certain moment some stupid
      bitch started removing her clothes. She took off her T-shirt, then
      her bra, then her skirt, and as she did she pulled the most
      incredible faces. She twirled around in her skimpy panties for a
      few seconds more and then, not knowing what else to do, began
      getting dressed again. She's a girl, what's more, who doesn't sleep
      with anyone. Which only underlines the absurdity of her behaviour.

    This is a remarkably representative statement of Houellebecq's themes
    and effects, culled from the drab world of office drudges, with its
    weary salaciousness, its misogyny, its surly awareness of the futility
    of all its stratagems of transcendence and escape. Indeed, Whatever is
    Houellebecq in nuce. It states repeatedly, in baldest terms, the
    essentials of his dour aesthetic:

      There are some authors who employ their talent in the delicate
      description of varying states of soul, character traits, etc. I
      shall not be counted among these. All that accumulation of
      realistic detail, with clearly differentiated characters hogging
      the limelight, has always seemed pure bullshit to me, I'm sorry to
      The pages that follow constitute a novel; I mean, a succession of
      anecdotes in which I am the hero. This autobiographical choice
      isn't one, really: in any case I have no other way out. If I don't
      write about what I've seen I will suffer just the same--and perhaps
      a bit more so. But only a bit, I insist on this. Writing brings
      scant relief. It retraces, it delimits. It lends a touch of
      coherence, the idea of a kind of realism. One stumbles around in a
      cruel fog, but there is the odd pointer. Chaos is no more than a
      few feet away.
      The novel form is not conceived for depicting indifference or
      nothingness; a flatter, more terse and dreary discourse would need
      to be invented.
      But I don't understand, basically, how people manage to go on
      living. I get the impression everybody must be unhappy; we live in
      such a simple world, you understand. There's a system based on
      domination, money and fear--a somewhat masculine system, let's call
      it Mars; there's a feminine system based on seduction and sex,
      Venus let's say. And that's it. Is it really possible to live and
      to believe that there's nothing else?

    Despite the disclaimers as to the deliberate absence of "realistic
    detail" and "clearly differentiated characters," the novel's
    protagonist--hero is really too large a word--is a convincing and
    compelling, even appealing, creation, in all his shambling
    incompetence and emotional disarray. The unnamed narrator is a
    Meursault without the energy or interest to commit a murder, even a
    pointless one--"It's not that I feel tremendously low; it's rather
    that the world around me appears high." He is a computer technician
    who in his spare time writes peculiar little stories about animals,
    such as Dialogues Between a Cow and a Filly, "a meditation on ethics,
    you might say," a couple of paragraphs of which are quoted. "The God
    presented in this short story was not, one observes, a merciful God."
    Whatever pays its sly and sardonic tributes to the great French
    tradition. In the opening pages, the nameless protagonist has
    forgotten where he parked his car and finds himself wandering in
    search of it through the Rue Marcel-Sembat, then the Rue
    Marcel-Dassault ("there were a lot of Marcels about"); while in the
    book's central section he falls seriously ill in Rouen, Flaubert's
    detested birthplace. Indeed, though it could hardly be described as
    Proustian, the book, all dreamy drift and sour recollection, does have
    something of the minutely observed inconsequentiality of Flaubert's
    masterpiece, Sentimental Education.
    The writer Houellebecq most resembles, however, is not Proust or
    Flaubert, or even Lovecraft, but Georges Simenon--not the Maigret
    Simenon, but the Simenon of the romans durs, as he called them, such
    as Dirty Snow or Monsieur Monde Vanishes, masterpieces of tight-lipped
    existential desperation.

                                    * * *

    The central premise of Elementary Particles is best expressed in a
    passage from the book that followed it, Platform:

      It is wrong to pretend that human beings are unique, that they
      carry within them an irreplaceable individuality. As far as I was
      concerned, at any rate, I could not distinguish any trace of such
      an individuality. As often as not, it is futile to wear yourself
      out trying to distinguish individual destinies and personalities.
      When all's said and done, the idea of the uniqueness of the
      individual is nothing more than pompous absurdity. We remember our
      own lives, Schopenhauer wrote somewhere, a little better than we do
      a novel we once read. That's about right: a little, no more.

    The hero of Elementary Particles--in this case the word is not too
    large--is Michel Djerzinski, a molecular biologist who, at the end of
    the book, having given up his position at the Galway Center for
    Genetic Research in Ireland, retires to a cottage on the Sky Road near
    Clifden--"There's something very special about this country"--to
    complete, between the years 2000 and 2009, his magnum opus, an
    eighty-page distillation of a life's work devoted to the proposition
    "that mankind must disappear and give way to a new species which was
    asexual and immortal, a species which had outgrown individuality,
    separation and evolution." After Djerzinski has gone "into the sea,"
    his successor, Hubczejak (a private play, one suspects, on another
    hard-to-pronounce name beginning with h), makes a synthesis of his
    work and presents it to an at first disbelieving world. Djerzinski's
    conviction is that

      any genetic code, however complex, can be noted in a standard,
      structurally stable form, isolated from disturbances or mutations.
      This meant that every cell contained within it the possibility of
      being infinitely copied. Every animal species, however highly
      evolved, could be transformed into a similar species, reproduced by
      cloning, and immortal.

    At the close of the book, the twenty-first century is half-done and
    humanity as we know it has all but disappeared, its place taken by a
    new species of Djerzinskian immortals. "There remain some humans of
    the old species, particularly in areas long dominated by religious
    doctrine. Their reproductive levels fall year by year, however, and at
    present their extinction seems inevitable." It is a strangely
    compelling, strangely moving conceit, this peaceful making way by the
    old order for a new. The book's reigning spirit is Auguste Comte
    (1798-1857), follower of Saint-Simon and founder of the movement of
    positivism, the rules of which Comte laid down in his Système de
    politique positive. Supremely silly as Comte's philosophy of altruism
    was--the positivist religionist was obliged, among other duties, to
    pray three times a day to his mother, wife, and daughter, and to wear
    a waistcoat buttoned down the back so that it could be put on and
    taken off only with the help of others--it had influence worldwide,
    and especially in France.
    What are we to make of the Comtean aspects of Houellebecq's work? For
    all the darkness of his vision, gleams of light now and then break
    through--"In the absence of love, nothing can be sanctified"--but what
    a peculiar light it is, seeking to illuminate those arid landscapes
    where the only solace for us dying humans is the sad game of sex.
    Djerzinski's "great leap," according to Hubczejak, is "the fact that
    he was able . . . to restore the conditions which make love possible,"
    while Djerzinski himself--in one of his final works, Meditations on
    Interweaving (inspired, not incidentally, by the medieval Celtic
    masterpiece the Book of Kells)--ponders the central motive force of
    our lives in rhapsodic tones worthy of D. H. Lawrence at his most
    ecstatic, or, indeed, of The Sound of Music at its most saccharine:

      The lover hears his beloved's voice over mountains and oceans; over
      mountains and oceans a mother hears the cry of her child. Love
      binds, and it binds forever. Good binds, while evil unravels.
      Separation is another word for evil; it is also another word for
      deceit. All that exists is a magnificent interweaving, vast and

    Yet Elementary Particles is genuinely affecting in its vision of the
    end of the "brave and unfortunate species" that we as human beings
    have been, and of our replacement by the brave-new-worlders, made
    possible by Djerzinski's "risky interpretations of the postulates of
    quantum mechanics." For all the ferocity of his vision, Houellebecq
    does have a heart, and although he would probably not care to be told
    so, it is the palpable beating of that organ which lifts his work to
    heights that the dementedly fastidious Lovecraft could not have scaled
    in his wildest and weirdest dreams.
    Houellebecq, if we are to take him at his word and not think ourselves
    mocked by his fanciful flights, achieves a profound insight into the
    nature of our collective death wish, as well as our wistful hope for
    something to survive, even if that something is not ourselves. The
    omniscient narrator of The Elementary Particles, dedicating his book
    "to mankind," meditates on what is past and passing and to come:

      History exists; it is elemental, it dominates, its rule is
      inexorable. Yet outside the strict confines of history, the
      ultimate ambition of this book is to salute the brave and
      unfortunate species which created us. This vile, unhappy race,
      barely different from the apes, which nevertheless carried within
      it such noble aspirations. Tortured, contradictory,
      individualistic, quarrelsome . . . it was sometimes capable of
      extraordinary explosions of violence, but never quite abandoned its
      belief in love. This species which, for the first time in history,
      was able to envision the possibility of its succession and, some
      years later, proved capable of bringing it about. As the last
      members of this race are extinguished, we think it just to render
      this last tribute to humanity, an homage which itself will one day
      disappear, buried beneath the sands of time.

    John Banville's new novel, The Sea, will be published next year by
    A portion of this article appeared in different form in the Dublin
    Review (Winter 2004-2005)

    AMERICA. 845 PAGES. $35.



    272 PAGES. $14.

    155 PAGES. $15.

More information about the paleopsych mailing list