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] work."
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 Houellebecq?
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 aunt.
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 say.
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 reciprocal.
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 Knopf.
A portion of this article appeared in different form in the Dublin Review (Winter 2004–2005)