Misreading Houellebecq

In France, the release of Serotonin, the latest novel by Michel Houellebecq, attracted the sales and comment his work usually receives. Around the same time, France’s former infant terrible was awarded the légion d’honneur. The author, popularly held to be brutal, unromantic, also married Qianyum Lysis Li late last year. In the pictures, Houellebecq was dressed strangely, but looked happy. His new book is, so far, unavailable in English.

An essay in The Times by James Marriott, the paper’s books editor, laments the lack of a British Houellebecq. Instead of serious novels by people who take themselves seriously, Marriott notes, British culture is dominated by light entertainers who aspire to be politicians, and politicians who either impersonate light entertainers or end up pursuing the job full time.

Now, France’s intellectual culture is hardly a sine qua non. In circles marginally different to Marriott’s, it’s the done thing to scoff at France’s celebrity thinkers. When not deprecating Britain’s intellectual heritage by comparison, no doubt more than a few sophisticates would, when told their interlocutor liked Houellebecq or Bernard-Henri Lévy or Pascal Bruckner, declare them to be the intellectual version of what Guy Fieri is to cooking – flashy, loud, and funny looking rather than revelatory.

Houellebecq’s is infrequently invoked in the internationally English language press – used mainly, as is only natural, as an interpreter of his native land, but sometimes as a prophet (see the uncanny publication date of Submission, which coincided with an event eerily similar in tone, if not in intent, to its horror-show premise).

Recently, a contrarian Harper’s essay by Houellebecq had limited circulation, in which the author painted Donald Trump a good president because, a cynical interpretation of Houellebecq’s essay might hold, the president made America less prominent and less effective on the world stage.

Houellebecq is a funnier Spengler, to some, with occasionally useable thoughts on countries other than his own.

In Douglas Murray’s The Strange Death of Europe, a Mediterranean migration-crisis era look at ‘identity, immigration, Islam’, Houellebecq is used in precisely this way. Murray sees Houellebecq as a chronicler of the vapidity of modern life. His books contain empty sex, rampant consumerism, meaningless activity. Relief from the hell of it all is found in infrequently going on holiday.

This is all true, both in that it is present in Houellebecq’s work and that it is present in life itself – and Houellebecq catches it well. But that’s not all he does. (Christopher Hitchens, writing many years ago about Platform in The Atlantic, noted this. At the time, Houellebecq’s perceived pessimism seemed more out of step with the early years of the last decade. His apparent roughness, especially in describing love and its lack was considered cruelly lascivious, if not actively aimed at perverse gratification. As Hitchens notes, though, beyond all this noise, there is something else going on.)

The first defence one can offer for Houellebecq concerns this aspect of his work, and the charge of being one-note, or – worse – of producing mere pornography, for sexual titillation of those with decline fetishes. That can be rebutted, at a stroke, by any examination of the sheer beauty of his work.

His prose, in French and in capable translation, glows. It has more than economy and deftness. And despite his callous reputation, Houellebecq’s writing also leaves room for real love.

Jed Martin, protagonist of The Map and the Territory, was seen by many readers and critics as a typical caricature of a pop artist. His initial works are entirely abstract. And his later paintings, which sell for millions, are of his artistic contemporaries, including artists-as-capitalists like Koons and Hurst. A painting depicting both of them is latterly ripped to pieces by its painter – and apparently improved in the process.

But another painting, this one of Steve Jobs and Bill Gates, is described in a way which has resonance beyond satire. Its description includes a phrasing of the logic and even the beauties of capitalism which brings tears to the eyes. It takes more than mere satire to make one wish for an ideology to be true simply from hearing a statement of the faith its adherents place in the world.

This episode is more than a touch ironic; but it still elicits emotion. It demonstrates the author not only as a craftsman of barbs, but as a humane observer.

Murray, in his reconstitution of the same novel, refers to Houellebecq’s protagonist as an occasional artist who strikes it rich. This ignores so much of the detached and elevated, almost transcendent nature of how Houellebecq writes about Martin’s photographing of household objects and, latterly, road maps. It is profound in its lack of profundity; literary art filling the void in meaning left by the photographic art described.

Whatever, a first novel of surprising and sparse bitterness, we can perhaps dismiss as a morose statement: it’s pared down to the point of brutality. It spawned a movement of depressives, which soon went so far as to disown Houellebecq himself.

But Atomised, a later effort, is beautiful. Even Platform, with its grotesque description of a tourist utopia forged by little more than sanitising the image of a foreign sex industry, has moments of beauty.

What saves all these works from being dull procedurals is not just prose and emotion, but hints of sentimentality.

Houellebecq’s heroes love transiently but in real terms. Things never quite work out, but they try their best and are crushed when things do not end as happily as sentiment suggests they might. Houellebecq’s characters believe also in the possibility of that love surviving, beyond the frailties of their bodies.

And so, it seems, does the author. And despite the death of god, which Houellebecq acknowledges in Submission most notably, there are consolations. Consolations of the flesh, certainly. But also of philosophy.

In The Possibility of an Island, Daniel (a comedian who grows rich and successful until he tires of other people’s laughter) and a beautiful girl – who delights and then ditches him – separately join a cult. This is sinister and drenched in irony; but it represents something else: the attempt to make life mean something, not just to extend individual existence.

A later, augmented version of Daniel (operating in the far future) even escapes the confines of his life-sustaining barbed-wire-covered compound to venture across the torn remnants of Europe to find an Eden in which he can die.

In Atomised, another character Michel (a scientist and one of a pair of tragic brothers) succeeds in advancing the nature of humanity itself. Reminiscent of Ian McEwan’s writing about the ethereal elegance of complex neural surgery in Saturday, Houellebecq’s description of the beauty of Michel’s breakthrough inspires awe.

Houellebecq has been misunderstood and has cultivated that misunderstanding through provocation and self-satire (most notably, and successfully, and amusingly in The Map and the Territory, where he introduces a pitiable version of himself as an incidental character, and then has him brutally murdered).

But to write him off as a bitter reactionary or mere functional chronicler of French and European decline misses the beauty of his work, and the core of romanticism which allows even the darkest of visions – of past and present and future – to have the most slender lustre of foolish hope.

Perhaps there is some value, then, in this writing beyond its skill – and some value in the intellectual culture Houellebecq both repudiates and, to an audience foreign and domestic, seems increasingly to define.