Alors voilà, il va falloir que je supporte jusqu’au bout d’être Houellebecq…
[So there you have it, I will have to put up with being Houellebecq to the end.]
— Michel Houellebecq, Public Enemies
MICHEL HOUELLEBECQ IS QUITE A CHARACTER. The bad boy of French letters has made his name building post-humanist novels where dogs and clones are the rare creatures achieving a modicum of happiness. Other characters usually fall into two main categories: the anti-hero who observes the nullity of the human species, and the few specimens of this species he encounters, who never fail to confirm his views. Since Extension du domaine de la lutte (translated as Whatever) and The Elementary Particles, Houellebecq’s misogynist, apocalyptic novels have earned him the label of inventor of “depressionist literature” and a devilish reputation as an über-provocateur. That his books consistently sell over 200,000 copies, and that he garnered a slew of literary prizes for them (including, finally, the time-honored Goncourt for his latest opus, The Map and the Territory), tells you how cheery contemporary France’s zeitgeist is.
Yet Houellebecq claims he does not believe in the novel. “I’ve always found telling stories a pain in the ass, and I have no talent as a storyteller,” he declared to Bernard-Henri Lévy in 2008. He has repeatedly declared the novel a minor genre, a value judgment he asserts for theoretical and, however surprising for such a professed anti-romantic, what could be called sentimental reasons. The sentimental reason reveals an unexpected side of Houellebecq’s personality: an unwavering love for poetry (he began as a poet) and the moment of ecstasy that sudden inspiration can offer when it loosens the grip of time in a moment of pure selfless necessity. Working out the cogs and wheels of the fastidious, greasy “piece of machinery” that novels boil down to reminds him too much of the depressing temporality of all human endeavors. In his early poetic work, the joyously titled Rester Vivant, méthode (Staying Alive, A Method), Houellebecq states that
[a]ll human beings are alike. What’s the point of telling a string of new anecdotes? Of the uselessness of the novel. There is no more edifying death; the sun is missing. Individuality is for the most part just a failure. The sensation of the self a machine designed to fabricate feelings of failure. (translation mine)
In this cheerful formulation, the novelist does not exactly have a head start. The individual self is an obsolete and destructive fallacy, and all human destinies follow a single, boring plot: decay.
Houellebecq’s theoretical...read more