Blurring the Boundaries: The Poetry of Michel Houellebecq

By Russell WilliamsJune 1, 2017

Blurring the Boundaries: The Poetry of Michel Houellebecq

Unreconciled by Michel Houellebecq

THE INSIDE JACKET COVER of Unreconciled tells us that “Michel Houellebecq is a poet, essayist and novelist.” Novelist, sure, we’ve heard all about his provocative fiction: Submission, which describes an Islamic takeover of his native France; The Elementary Particles, which anticipates the eugenic tinkering with humanity to end the pernicious influence of sexual desire; Platform, with its pages of pseudo-pornographic writhing. There is also something deeply essayistic about his writing; Houellebecq’s novels regularly parody the form, and his articles and essays appear from time to time in newspapers, magazines, as art catalog prefaces, and collected in a growing number of volumes. We might also be aware of the author’s distinctive media persona: his picture regularly glowers disapprovingly at us through a heavy cloud of cigarette smoke in the pages of literary supplements. Houellebecq has recently, we might also know, been winning rave reviews as an actor, notably in Guillaume Nicloux’s The Kidnapping of Michel Houellebecq (2014). As befits French writers, who move between genres more elegantly than their English-speaking counterparts, he’s also collaborated musically, working with both Iggy Pop and the producer Bertrand Burgalat, issuing an album, Présence humaine, with the latter in 2000. But poems? Houellebecq writes poetry?

Before he blossomed into France’s most significant, and notorious, contemporary literary export since the days of Camus and Sartre, Houellebecq first made his name, in bookish circles at least, as a poet. As a student at agronomy college, when he was still known as Michel Thomas, he collaborated on a short-lived poetry revue, Karamazov. “Michel Houellebecq” was born in 1988, when he put his pseudonym to a selection of seven poems published by Michel Bulteau in his edgy poetry journal, the Nouvelle Revue de Paris (No. 4). The first poem in this, his first mature publication, sets the tone for the work he was to publish in the following years:

Our eyes entangle, interrogate in vain
The thickness of space
Whose fatal whiteness surrounds our hands
Like a halo of ice.

Themes of depressive isolation and the desperate search for meaning will come to dominate his writing over the next two decades.

Often presented as an alienated outsider, Houellebecq actually spent the 1990s as an active figure in the Parisian literary sphere, giving and attending readings and publishing in small-circulation revues, including the now-defunct Digraphe, Jungle, and Présages. 1991 was a landmark year for the young poet: he published his first volume of poems, La Poursuite du Bonheur (Éditions de la Différence); Rester Vivant, an inspirational “méthode”  or survival guide for aspiring poets; an edited volume of the poems of Remy de Gourmont; and an essay exploring the work of H. P. Lovecraft, where he highlighted the “poésie” within the fantasy writer’s style. Although he has gradually come to be known as a novelist, following the critical success of Extension du domaine de la lutte, translated as Whatever (1994), and his breakthrough The Elementary Particles (1998), he has more or less consistently written poetry either alongside, or entwined in his (primarily prose) narratives. As Agathe Novak-Lechevalier, the foremost French scholar of Houellebecq’s work argues, “Michel Houellebecq est poète avant tout [above all, Michel Houellebecq is a poet].” [1]

Nonetheless, Houellebecq is, still, known primarily in the English-speaking world as a novelist. Unreconciled, a translation by Gavin Bowd — Houellebecq’s friend, long-time collaborator, and sometime poet himself — of Non réconcilié (Gallimard, 2014), a selection of the Frenchman’s poems published between 1991 and 2013, is a high-profile attempt to redress the balance a little. It is not, however, the first time Houellebecq’s poetry has been published in English: Delphine Grass and Timothy Mathews’s translation of his second volume, Le Sens du Combat, The Art of Struggle was warmly received on its 2010 publication (Herla Publishing). Given that around a third of the 132 poems in Unreconciled are drawn from Le Sens du Combat, this puts Bowd in the odd, and at first glance slightly redundant, position of freshly translating poems worked into English only recently.

Before thinking about this apparent absurdity, I’d like to linger a little on the relationship between Houellebecq’s poetry and his prose since there is a remarkable coherence between these two forms of his work. In the introduction to their tome, Grass and Mathews highlight the “dialogue” that plays out between Houellebecq’s fiction and verse. There are, for example, reflections and resonances in terms of figures, themes, and even forms of words between his poetry and his prose. A reader of Houellebecq’s novels will instantly recognize the world of his poems, evoked by the alienated poetic voice, such as in “Unemployment”:

Crossing a city offering nothing any more
Amongst human beings endlessly renewed
I know it by heart, this overground metro;
Days pass by without me saying a word.

As with all of Houellebecq’s protagonists, from the narrator of Whatever through François of Submission, the poet here is alone in the metropolis, an atomized individual shorn of human connections in the cold, unforgiving neoliberal city. The image of a lone individual crossing an urban space, in the French, traverser, to cross: one of the most frequent in Houellebecq’s literary vocabulary, suggests fleeting, unsubstantial presence; the poet, like Houellebecq’s characters, is profoundly separated from his peers:

Others continue their existential dance,
You’re protected by a transparent wall,
Winter has returned; their life seems real.
Maybe, somewhere, the future awaits you.

Self-consciously referring to the existential tradition, Houellebecq invites a reading of his work within the context of the French literary canon. There is much in his fiction that indeed nods toward the Grand Masters — Camus, Céline, even Proust — but the blend of fascination, revulsion, and alienation provoked by the urban world recalls another key literary touchstone: French critic Dominique Noguez memorably described him as the “Baudelaire des supermarchés.” [2]

An understanding of Houellebecq’s poetry can have a striking effect on the way in which we read his novels. I’d go so far as to disagree with Novak-Lechevalier, who argues that “Qui chercherait à retrouver les romans à travers la poésie ferait […] fausse route [Anyone looking to discover the novels by means of the poetry would be heading in the wrong direction].” [3] As well as the recurrent, often overwhelming images of alienation and solitude, there are poems in this collection that clearly reflect his major theoretical preoccupations, and thus call to be read alongside his prose. Houellebecq’s novels frequently riff on the illusory democracy of desire as propagated by mainstream society. We are led to believe, he suggests, that we live in a giddy sexual utopia. In reality, this is restricted to the those lucky enough to be born beautiful or rich (or, one wonders, a millionaire novelist). Such a thesis, consistent throughout all of his work, is illustrated by a poem such as “LOVE, LOVE,” where we are led:

In a porn cinema, wheezing pensioners
Contemplated, incredulous,
The badly filmed frolics of lusty couples;
There was no story line.

In his poems and his novels, Houellebecq marks out the terrain of the excluded, the disenfranchised, the loveless without clear narratives:

Some are seductive and therefore much loved;
They will know orgasms.
But so many others are weary, with nothing to hide,
Not even phantasms;

It would, though, be wrong to describe Houellebecq as a champion of these outsiders. There are no ways out, no false hopes in his deflationary verse:

They will certainly die slightly disappointed,
Without lyrical illusions;
They will practise fully the art of self-hate,
It will be mechanical.

While deepening our awareness of Houellebecq’s novels, many of these poems also serve to tantalizingly blur the boundaries between the poet and the prosodist. Are we, a reader is drawn to ask, encountering the raw voice of the poet-author himself, as unrefracted by the conventions of literature? We are invited, for example, to ponder the parallels between the poetic voice and that of The Elementary Particles’s Djerzinski, who both encounter the Irish coast: “the long road to Clifden,” “Where man comes to leave his cares / Between waves and light.” Similarly, does “So calm, in her coma,” which appears both in this collection and in the same novel, point toward a real, tragic loss? We ask, too, if Véronique, the subject of a poem here, is the same woman alluded to by the narrator of Whatever. If so, should we be reading Houellebecq’s fiction from a more autobiographical perspective, rather than through the frame of his perceived provocations, as critics have largely done to date?

As a translator, Bowd is supremely loyal to Houellebecq’s words and takes little in the way of interpretative risks. Grass and Mathews, it seems, are more ambitious, in a way that reflects the writing of the all-but-forgotten French poetry theorist Jean Cohen — another key influence on Houellebecq’s work — in foregrounding the emotional impact above all else in the poem. [4] Whereas Bowd privileges literality, Grass and Mathews edge toward feeling. Bowd’s translations, then, do the job, but if there is an omission from his volume, it is the absence of any contextualization of Houellebecq’s poetry. Novak-Lechevalier’s original French collection includes a helpful essay on Houellebecq as poet, and the Grass/Mathews volume clearly outlines their approach to translation. As translator, Bowd is silent. The lack of any introduction or translator’s note here is at best an oversight, at worst a missed opportunity, one that risks reducing the impact of the poems on an English-speaking readership.

Much of what is interesting and effective in Houellebecq’s verse, for example, is centered around the form of his poems, to a French ear at least. Take “Hypermarché - Novembre,” the opening poem in Unreconciled, as a case in point. This poem presents a miniature of the flailing poet, depressively careering around a supermarket, and draws its success from the tension between Houellebecq’s deployment of the techniques of classical French versification and their juxtaposition with a hyper-contemporary subject matter. The opening line here illustrates this perfectly: “D’abord j’ai trébuché dans un congélateur,” perfectly constructed in dodecasyllabic alexandrines, gently divided into two hemistichs by a caesura. The uneasy relationship between the elevated Ronsardian form and mundane contemporary content continues throughout the poem: later Houellebecq’s poet describes with perfect technical skill, “Je me suis écroulé au rayon des fromages.” These lines infuse the poem with a bleak humor, one that dominates — indeed — all of his work. Bowd’s translation of these lines is correct (“First I stumbled into a freezer,” “I collapsed at the cheese counter”), but lacks the implicit tension of the original French. Surely some form of context would have helped to at least partially remedy the situation for the English-speaking reader. That said, there are some stylistic traits that survive the translation. The scholar David Evans, for example, has noted the “chutes pathétiques [pathetic falls]” that are distinctive of Houellebecq’s verse, and also I would argue of his prose. [5] These are moments when the final lines of his stanzas and paragraphs frequently — often hilariously, often devastatingly — undercut what has gone before. Here, one poem presents a rich, lengthy description of the migration patterns of swallows before concluding, “In summary, there is no lesson to be learned from swallows.” Dark laughter ensues.

Given the interest of his writing and its relevance within an anxious moment in contemporary history, the increasing variety of Houellebecq’s artistic output and the critical industry crystallizing around his work, it is perhaps time that we start thinking in terms of a Houellebecquian oeuvre, one that provokes, probes, and scandalizes, but also one where the textual and lyrical depth of his work is key to the overall reading experience. This is often occluded by the paratextual scandals that frequently surround the author. Houellebecq’s poetry is an important part of this depth. Unreconciled will doubtless be of interest to the band of confirmed English-speaking fans of his work, but whether it makes a significant contribution to his reputation outside France remains to be seen.


Russell Williams is a writer and researcher. His work explores the contemporary French novel and he teaches literature at the American University of Paris.


[1] Agathe Novak-Lechevalier, “Là où ça compte,” in Non réconcilié, Paris: Gallimard, 2014, pp. 7–34. Novak-Lechevalier has also recently edited the excellent Cahier Houellebecq (Paris: Éditions de L’Herne) which combines rare and unpublished Houellebecq texts, together with essays about the man and his work.

[2] Dominique Noguez, Houellebecq, en fait, Paris: Fayard, p. 2003

[3] Agathe Novak-Lechevalier, ‘Là où ça compte’, p. 10.

[4] See Jean Cohen, Le Haut langage, Paris: Flammarion, 1979

[5] David Evans, ‘Et il y a un autre monde': reconstructions formelles dans les Poésies de Michel Houellebecq’ in Le Monde de Houellebecq, Bowd, G. (ed.). University of Glasgow French and German Publications, 2006, pp. 21–39

LARB Contributor

Russell Williams is a writer and researcher. His work explores the contemporary French novel and he teaches literature at the American University of Paris.


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