by Michel Houellebecq
William Heinemann, 2015, 256 pages, $32.99
Michel Houellebecq (left) is a genius. He is also a nihilist. And not the fashionable type of American nihilist (“nihilism with a happy ending”, as Allan Bloom once called it), but a connoisseur and practitioner of the fullest-blown fin de millénaire French nihilism. For Houellebecq and his main characters life is a solitary and pointless labour, devoid of interest, joy or comfort aside from the occasional—generally paid-for—blow-job.
The fact that the poet of such an existence can have been celebrated by his peers (Houellebecq has been awarded the Prix Goncourt, among other prizes) is perhaps less surprising than the fact that such a writer has proved so popular. For almost two decades his books have been best-sellers in their original French and in translation. When books sell this well—especially when they are also quality, rather than pap, literature—it is because they must speak to something of our times. It may be an extreme version of our present existence, but even the unarguably bracing nature of the nihilism would not be sufficient as an attraction without at least a disgusted flicker of self-recognition from his readers.
Houellebecq’s first important novel, Atomised (1999), laid out what became a signature scene. He depicts a society and a set of lives with no purpose whatsoever. Familial relations are poisonous where they are not absent. Death, and the fear of it, fills the space which was once absorbed by the business of God. At one point in Atomised the lead character Michel takes to his bed for two weeks, and repeatedly asks himself as he stares at a radiator, “How long could Western civilisation continue without religion?” No revelation comes from this, only more looking at the radiator.
Michel’s half-brother Bruno is told by a girl that he has a very pessimistic view of the world. “Nietzschean,” he corrects her, before feeling inclined to add, “Pretty second-rate Nietzsche at that.” In the middle of what is described as “depressive lucidity” there are—apart from sex—no moments of pleasure. Christine, with whom Bruno has been having a halting, meaningless conversation, interrupts a silence by suggesting they go to an orgy on a nudist beach. The philosophical state of their culture has washed across them and submerged them under in its own pointlessness. At one point we read, “In the midst of the suicide of the West, it was clear that they had no chance.” The joys of consumerism are certainly not enough, but they can prove diverting. As Bruno is meant to be arranging for the burial or cremation of his mother’s body he plays Tetris on his Gameboy. “Game over,” it says, and plays “a cheerful little tune”. (Mother-son relationships in Houellebecq are especially non-existent, a fact which the interviews with and writings by the novelist’s now late mother confirm as certainly autobiographical.)
This review appears in the November edition of Quadrant
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Although Atomised works as a meditation on the state of the culture, it works less well as a novel and even less well as narrative. Although the rarity of events is part of the point, in the absence of any plot-drive Atomised always risks contaminating its readers with the fatal ennui of its characters. But if the themes and characters of Atomised are repeated in Platform (first published in English in 2002) they also find there something to centre on. Again graphic sex, repetitions and variations of the same are the only light in the gloom. Valerie, a woman who is willing to do absolutely everything sexually with the main character, Michel, is a good find and a source for hope. But even so, the genitals, it is made clear, are “meagre compensation” for the misfortune, shortness and pointlessness of life. And horror followed by acceptance and then indifference towards human suffering lead to no enlightenment or interest. “On the whole, I am not good,” the narrator tells us, “it is not one of my characteristics. Humanitarians disgust me, the fate of others is generally a matter of indifference to me, nor have I any memory of ever having felt any sense of solidarity with other human beings.” However, in Platform another worldview imposes itself on Houellebecq’s characters.
Having given up his job as a civil servant, Michel takes Valerie on holiday to Thailand. He loathes the decadence of the tourism and the people who take part in it at the same time as taking part in it himself. One day Islamist terrorists—who also loathe the decadence on show but have a view of their own on what to do about it—storm the beach and massacre many tourists, including Valerie. After the 2002 Bali terrorist attacks this particular scenario was seen to have been prescient. But whatever respect Houellebecq might have enjoyed from this was mitigated by the trouble the book helped get him into in France. Even before the description of the beach-massacre the character Michel calls Islam an “absurd” religion. After the massacre his contempt for the religion builds to a paragraph in which he reflects:
It is certainly possible to remain alive animated simply by a desire for vengeance; many people have lived that way. Islam had wrecked my life, and Islam was certainly something which I could hate; in the days that followed, I devoted myself to trying to feel hatred for Muslims. I was quite good at it, and I started to follow the international news again. Every time I heard that a Palestinian terrorist, or a Palestinian child or a pregnant Palestinian woman had been gunned down in the Gaza Strip, I felt a quiver of enthusiasm at the thought that it meant one less Muslim. Yes, it was possible to live like this.
For this passage and others deemed offensive both from interviews and from Atomised (where a character describes Islam as “the most stupid, false, and obscure of all religions”) found himself the target of legal proceedings in France. Whether for this reason, or his often-cited desire to minimise his taxes, Houellebecq left France to live in Ireland.
Perhaps it was the stupidity which chased him away. After all, anybody who actually read Houellebecq—as opposed to (in the current fashion) excerpts they hoped to be offended by—could see that the characters in his novels are infinitely harsher in their criticism and contempt of the modern West than they are of the precepts and claims of Islam or Muslims. Houellebecq’s contempt always fires off in all directions. In Atomised Bruno at one point expounds his theory that there are no such things as homosexuals, only pederasts. But he also claims that heterosexuals like himself are never attracted to people their own age, only much younger versions—a problem at the root of most of his male characters’ discontents. Or you might turn to the description of the behaviour of Chinese people in Platform which climaxes with the narrator describing the Chinese as “an awful lot of pigs”. Dragging Houellebecq to court for being rude about Muslims was a demonstration of the grossest sensitivity top-trumps of our time, but it also showed a wild literary ignorance. Not only in hauling an author to court for his expressions, but in the fact that Houellebecq’s derision or contempt so clearly goes beyond the whines and pleadings of special-interest groups: his is a rage and contempt aimed against our age and our species as a whole.
Yet however great the acrobatics and pyrotechnics in a literature of this type, it is always the case that it must at some point either mature or fizzle out. The evidence that Houellebecq wasn’t going to fizzle out came with his 2010 Prix Goncourt-winning The Map and the Territory—the story of an artist called Jed Martin who makes himself fabulously wealthy through his deeply occasional work. This wealth allows him to seclude himself from a France doomed to become in the near future little more than a cultural theme-park for the new Russian and Chinese super-rich. The work is not only an exploration of the traditional Houellebecq themes (dysfunctional family life, empty sex, solitude) but a profound satire on modern culture. It includes a hilarious and devastating self-portrait—a reminder of the truth that the most savage critics always also turn their gaze on themselves. Jed visits the drunken writer Michel Houellebecq in his remote and unattractive Irish retreat. There are boxes everywhere and no furniture. “Have you just moved in?” his guest asks. “Yes. I mean, three years ago.”
Houellebecq’s self-portrait is, if the interviews and accounts of those who know him are anything to go by, remarkably accurate. Dissolute, alcoholic, depressive and meandering, the portrait of Houellebecq in The Map and the Territory shows an almost affrontingly desiccated life. It is also a life which produces enemies. A curious detail is that at one point in the novel, “Houellebecq” is found dead—decapitated, flayed and mutilated. This year that scene assumed less amusing overtones.
Houellebecq’s most recent novel, Submission, was due for publication on January 7 this year. Even before publication it had caused critical and political controversy. The plot takes French politics forward to the 2020s. The current French President, Francois Hollande, is coming to the end of a disastrous second term. The National Front party of Marine Le Pen is ahead in the polls. The moderate right of the UMP collapses, as do the Socialists. But another party has come together over recent years—a Muslim party led by a moderate Islamist who enjoys the support of France’s growing Muslim population. As the run-offs get closer it is clear to the other mainstream parties that the only way to keep the National Front from power is to unite behind the Islamist party. This they do, and the Islamist party wins. Using some old pliant French lefties for cover the Islamists set about transforming France, not least by taking control of education and making (with the help of substantial Gulf funding) all public universities, including the Sorbonne, into Islamic institutions. Gradually even the novel’s main figure—a dissolute scholar of J.K. Huysmans—sees the sense of converting to Islam.
In the few public comments he made about the book, Houellebecq was at pains to stress his admiration for Islam—a demonstration perhaps that the brow-beating and threats of the thought-police do work. It was to be expected that such pleas would be drowned out, if not for the reasons which transpired.
Among those to attack and ridicule Houellebecq for a plot many claimed was wilfully provocative was a satirical weekly magazine then little known outside France called Charlie Hebdo. The magazine—which has a long tradition of left-wing, secular, anti-clerical iconoclasm—had come to limited international attention in recent years after repeatedly showing itself willing to depict Islam’s prophet (a willingness it was almost alone in demonstrating after the 2005 Danish cartoons affair). There were assaults, including a firebomb attack, on their Paris offices but the publication held firm, as it had over their earlier critiques of the Pope and far-Right leaders including the National Front.
In expectation of the launch of the new novel, a typically ugly caricature of a hideous, gnome-like Houellebecq was on the cover of the magazine on that January morning when two Islamist gunmen forced their way into Charlie Hebdo’s Paris offices and shot ten of the magazine’s staff and two policemen. As the Yemen-trained French Muslim gunmen left the offices they were heard shouting, “We have avenged the Prophet Muhammad” and “Allahu Akbar” (“Allah is greatest”). Among the victims of their assault on the magazine’s morning editorial meeting was the economist Bernard Maris, a close friend of Houellebecq’s.
Paris and France went into several days of lockdown, and another assault (by another Islamist gunman on a Jewish food store) was still to come. Houellebecq’s publishers announced that his publicity tour was cancelled and the author himself went into hiding. Ever since he has been accompanied by bodyguards. And although the French state is helping to protect him it has by no means thrown itself behind him. In the immediate aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo attacks the country’s Socialist Prime Minister, Manuel Valls, chose to make an address in which he said, “France is not Michel Houellebecq … it is not intolerance, hatred and fear.” Obviously—unless he had got hold of an early proof—the Prime Minister had not read the novel.
Of course it is worth stating from the outset—since in these times we seem to have to do such things—that even if Submission were the most anti-Islamic, “blasphemous” and offensive novel ever written Houellebecq would have the right to publish it and do so without being judged by politicians or gunmen who in their different ways fire off over books they don’t read. As it happens, Submission is not a simple provocation. It is a deep, gripping and haunting novel which proves a culmination point of Houellebecq’s work so far and, in my view, a recent high-point for European fiction. I can think of no writer currently working who can get anywhere near Houellebecq’s achievement in finding a fictional way into the darkest and most necessary corners of our time. Nor can I think of another writer currently working who would be able to write a novel of this depth, scope and relevance while also making it witty and page-turning.
The most intelligent criticism to date has come from reviewers who have objected to one layer of the novel which relates to the academic specialism of the main character. Francois is a typical Houellebecq leading man: a middle-aged academic whose parents’ deaths have no effect on him, who has short relationships with his younger female students and who since separating from an attractive young Jewish student, with whom he still intermittently has sex, switches to prostitutes though finds his libido insufficiently diverted. When Francois flees the looming chaos in Paris by going to the significantly chosen town of Martel in the south of France he tries to interest himself in Cro-Magnon man. At one point he reflects, “Cro-Magnon man hunted mammoth and reindeer; the man of today can choose between an Auchan and a Leclerc, both supermarkets located in Souillac.”
But Francois’s internal life is not only dry—it is also painfully in need of relief. As French culture and society decay all around him, two revelations in particular stand out. The first comes as a result of his Jewish girlfriend’s choice to leave France (another slightly prophetic idea) and join her family in heading to Israel. After their sexually athletic final meeting she asks him what he will do, especially now that the university looks as if it will close when the Muslim party comes to power. “We were standing at the door. I realised that I hadn’t the slightest idea, and also that I didn’t give a fuck. I kissed her softly on the lips, and said, ‘There is no Israel for me.’ Not a deep thought; but that’s how it was.” As anyone who has followed Europe’s recent tergiversations will know, that is a very deep thought, and a demonstration of the profligacy of Houellebecq’s genius that he can throw it away with such apparent ease.
But the deeper spiritual point in the novel lies precisely in Francois’s meditations on his scholarly interest. Houellebecq (like a lot of his literary critics) assumes that his readers will be unfamiliar with the work of Huysmans, but I would have thought that a significant portion will have read or at least heard of A Rebours (“Against Nature”), one of the central texts of late-nineteenth-century French decadence. By the point at which the novel starts Francois is tiring of his enthusiasm for Huysmans, in the way that many academics are after their first love is overlaid by years of the same lectures and questions. But the choice of Huysmans as a constant presence in the novel is more important and pertinent than some critics seem to realise. As the novel develops, Francois not only rediscovers part of his passion for Huysmans but also confronts one of the central challenges of Huysmans’s life. Like many of his contemporary decadents across Europe, Huysmans ended up being received into the Roman Catholic Church. It is a journey which, as everything falls apart around him and intimations and then sporadic and shocking outbursts of violence become commonplace across France, Francois tries to emulate.
Francois even heads back to the monastery in which Huysmans found his faith and in which the young Francois spent some time in search of his literary idol while a younger man. He sits in front of the Madonna and his meditations strain towards a goal. But he cannot do it: he may have returned to the source, and he may even be open to the moment but he cannot perform the necessary leap of faith. And so he returns to Paris, and there the university authorities—now Islamic—explain to Francois (as one they have generously pensioned off) the logic of Islam. And not just the logic that he will get his career back at the Sorbonne if he converts, but the logic it will make in other corners of his life. He will have wives (up to four, and younger—if he wishes—even than his usual tastes). And of course he will be part of a community of meaning for the first time. He will be able to continue enjoying most of the few pleasures he has had and will gain much more than he had thought possible in the way of comforts. Unlike the leap required to become a Catholic, the practical logic of Islam in a society ripe for submission as a whole becomes irrefutable. Houellebecq’s plea that the novel is by no means anti-Islam is not without foundation.
Is the novel’s vision plausible? I would say so—often deeply uncomfortably so. Endless small details rhyme. For instance in the run-up to the crucial election the French media and mainstream politicians deliberately obscure stories of real interest. One is reminded of the events last December in France when Muslim extremists kept driving into crowds of people while shouting “Allahu Akbar”, only for the politicians and media to dismiss these events as meaningless traffic incidents. Then there is the portrait of the Jewish community leaders who remain around to flatter their enemies and negotiate for themselves (as many did with the Nazis) even as everything signals their community’s destruction. And of course the novel’s truest conceit is the depiction of a class of politicians across the political divide so keen to be seen above all as “anti-racist” that they end up flattering and ultimately handing over their country to the worst racists of our time.
Houellebecq’s career has included several fateful coincidences of timing. But perhaps the most propitious is that his work has come to artistic maturity at just the moment to capture a society tipping from over-ripeness into something else. What precisely? More decadence, barbarism, or salvation? And if salvation, then what kind, and whose?
Douglas Murray is the author of Neoconservatism: Why We Need It, and is the Associate Director of the Henry Jackson Society, a British think-tank.