BY ANDREW MOODY
This is an example of the rational if nihilistic worldview of Legion de Honour (France’s highest literary prize) winner Michel Houellecbecq from his 1994 first novel Whatever:
“It’s a fact, I mused to myself, that in societies like ours sex truly represents a second system of differentiation, completely independent of money; and as a system of differentiation it functions just as mercilessly. The effects of these two systems are, furthermore, strictly equivalent. Just like unrestrained economic liberalism, and for similar reasons, sexual liberalism produces phenomena of absolute pauperization.”
I was given the book by a pauper in the sexual attraction game, who would eventually end up in a mental institution. “Reminds me of your stuff,” he said. “ But it’s scary. You’ll understand it better than me.”
Whatever is a short book too, so I thought it would be a quick read. It was a mind-blowing experience, the tale of a deeply depressed office worker writing animal porn as he wanders French towns and has a nervous breakdown, ending up in a mental institution. That’s the polite synopsis. The novel is also scandalous, savagely sexual and violent and foul mouthed.
I immediately remembered that my sexual pauper I knew had his second book Atomised so I grabbed that too. I later discovered that Houellebecq had said that his second book would either make him famous or destroy him.
On 7th January 2015, Houellecbecq published his seventh novel Submission, and in an eerily prescient touch, found himself on the front cover of right-wing magazine Charlie Hebdo. The caricature had the spookily apt caption: “The predictions of wizard Houellecbecq.”
Submission is set in a dejected France of 2022 and concludes with a population submitting to an Islamic state.
Later on the day of its publication, Islamic gunmen massacred journalists at Charlie Hebdo, making Houellecbecq as gruesomely predictive as the rest of his novels had been.
His career as a novelist began with the brutal, melancholy Whatever in 1994, and exploded into megafame (He became known as “the popstar of the single generation.”) with Atomised in 1998. This was followed by a shorter book Lanzarote about one of his fascinations, sexual tourism. In 2001 he developed the concept into Platform, as sexually explicit, nihilistic and interested in the unhappiness of the liberated woman as he had been since Whatever and its first-person narration turns out to make the book a suicide note. Platform ends with an Islamic terror attack on a sexual tourism site, resulting in accusations against Houellebecq by several organisations: France’s Human Rights League, the Mecca-based World Islamic League as well as the mosques of Paris and Lyon. Charges were brought to trial, but a panel of three judges, delivering their verdict to a crowd as large as for a pop star, acquitted the author of having provoked ‘racial’ hatred, ascribing Houellebecq’s opinions to the legitimate right of criticizing religions. The criticism quelled after the attacks in Bali and New York in 2001. Louis Betty wrote in the American analysis of Houellecbecq: Without God: Michel Houellecbecq and Materialist Horror:
liberal, consumer-driven economy and liberalized sexual practices informs perhaps the entirety of Houellebecq’s complaint about sexuality in an Americanized Western Europe..The unbinding of humanity from God lies at the heart of the historical narrative the reader encounters in Houellebecq’s work: lacking a set of moral principles legitimated by a higher power and unable to find meaningful answers to existential questions, human beings descend into selfishness and narcissism and can only stymie their mortal terror by recourse to the carnal distractions of sexuality.”
Each of his books is brutally sexually explicit, but the critics worldwide have had different views on this bestselling, if downbeat author. In the UK he has had generally positive reviews, our prudish attitude to sex no doubt finding him explosively arousing. The Americans regard him as “vulgar” and “pamphlet literature” and he’s been attacked by the New York Times as sub-Bret Easton Ellis and little more than a pornographer. On the other hand, he’s won top literary prizes in France and his new novel, released recently Serotonin was an instant bestseller with its defence of the yellow shirts, aggression against the EU and pro Brexit stance. He even likes Donald Trump which is rare in a literary novelist. A chain-smoker of nearly four packs a day and a sufferer of chronic eczema before he hit his sixties (he was born in 1956) he had a reputation for coming on to his female interviewers. My favourite quote from his work sums up both the cynicism and desperate hope one finds in every bitter, twisted one of his books. It arrives near the end of Atomised, after a new race of Ubermensch have been designed by the hero, covered in Krause corpsicles “offering new, and undreamed of erotic possibilities”. Now that humanity has finished, Houellecbecq writes:
History exists, it is elemental, it dominates, it’s rule is inexorable. But 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, had such noble aspirations. Tortured, contradictory, individualistic, quarrelsome, it was capable of extraordinary violence but nonetheless never quite abandoned a belief in love.
Iggy Pop was such a fan of his fifth novel The Possibility of an Island he recorded passages for an album which made Houellecbecq – a fan of the Stooges for decades – “genuinely happy for once”.
In 2010 he responded finally to his many critics, who had spent since 1994 trying to stop people from buying his books:
“First of all, they hate me more than I hate them. What I do reproach them for isn’t bad reviews. It is that they talk about things having nothing to do with my books—my mother or my tax exile—and that they caricature me so that I’ve become a symbol of so many unpleasant things—cynicism, nihilism, misogyny. People have stopped reading my books because they’ve already got their idea about me. To some degree of course, that’s true for everyone. After two or three novels, a writer can’t expect to be read. The critics have made up their minds.”
Follow Andrew Moody on Twitter @VoguishFiction