Other pages, here and here
Dust to dust
Michel Houellebecq's sketch
of alienation, Lanzarote, has some appeal for Philip Horne
Saturday August 9, 2003
by Michel Houellebecq, translated by Frank Wynne
87pp, Heinemann, £9.99
"The transaction between tourist and tour operator... tends to transcend the framework of everyday commercial relations - unless such a transaction, dealing as it does with travel, that most dreamlike of commodities, can be said to reveal the true nature - mysterious, profoundly human, almost mystical - of all commercial transactions." Michel Houellebecq's words might easily be applied to the relations between reader and publisher. Fiction is another sphere where salesmanship tries to part us from our cash, promising to take us somewhere enlivening.
The manipulative distortions of bookmaking and advertising flourish on the attractive jacket, which displays the painted statue of a bosomy blonde mermaid. Doubtless these breasts codedly intimate that Lanzarote is indeed a proper beach book - satirical and disillusioned and all that, but also a guaranteed vivid rendering of touristic sexual hedonism. Our hero, however, is no youthful party animal, but a mildly sociopathic sad sack fortysomething Frenchman on a one-week pack age, who jerks off in his room to MTV with the sound down.
The would-be titillatee won't be altogether disappointed. The mermaid alludes to the pair of female German bisexual nudists with whom the French narrator flatly describes, lick-by-suck-by-groan, his wishful-seeming orgy on a beach - yes, Houellebecq once again pays his dues to medium porn (and to Bergman's Persona). If it is shock you're after, you're in safe hands; this acutely controversial author has even had his own "affaire", a law case over his denunciations of Islam. Many will guiltily enjoy the dismissive, politically incorrect prejudices as narratorial hostility or disdain washes in turn over Belgium, Luxembourg, Norwegians, English tourists, four-wheel-drives, anti-smokers, priests, American imperialists, Muslims, the 20th century...
The hero mentions theories of the extraterrestrial origins of life on earth, only to reveal his true colours: "I didn't know whether such theories had been proven or refuted, and to be honest, I didn't really give a shit." This trope of aggressive, slightly loopy indifference characterises our narrator, so he can skip the usual formalities of description.
In Platform and Atomised this bleakly post-Beckettian, alienated narrative voice allows Houellebecq the freedom to explore disturbing, scarily inconsolable ideas about our world and its disastrous loss of purpose. Here it is somewhat inconsequential. The unnamed narrator is evidently a run-through for the one called Michel in Platform, and Lanzarote is indeed an earlier, sketchier composition than that terrifyingly far-reaching vision of the free world of globalisation, mass sex-tourism and fundamentalist terrorism (it chillingly anticipated the Bali bombing).
Yet it has its own perverse appeal. The pretty cover photo, once you get inside, is reduced to dust by a series Houellebecq himself took of the arid volcanic landscapes of Lanzarote - an island he chose for a reason. The doings of the Eurotourists take place against an alienating waste land, "a barren desert" in which vast geologic forces dwarf human effort: "In front of us, a huge fissure, several metres wide, snaked as far as the horizon, cutting through the grey surface of the earth's crust. The silence was absolute. This, I thought, is what the world will look like when it dies."
Henry James: A Life in Letters is published by Penguin.
sexual bomb thrower
It's been called pornographic, adolescent, racist and xenophobic, but Michel Houllebecq's "Platform" is a brilliant study of the sexual condition of the Western world.
By Charles Taylor
Aug. 2, 2003 | I stopped reading Michel Houellebecq's last novel, "The Elementary Particles," right around the scene where the narrator bashes in the head of a cat after the animal has watched him masturbating. By then, I felt I'd been watching Houellebecq masturbate for pages, and I escaped while my own noggin was still intact. If you wanted to parody French nihilism, and blase contempt for everyone and everything, you couldn't improve on "The Elementary Particles." It was one of those books where the author is so determined to shock and offend, that boredom seemed the only rational response.
I haven't changed my mind on that book, but it's a bit embarrassing to admit feeling that way when so many of the reviews of Houellebecq's brilliant new novel, "Platform," are affecting just that pose. "Even if his position is just a posture," wrote Toby Clements in the British paper the Telegraph, "it is at least an amusing one." Amusing ... the perfect adjective to use when we don't want to give too much credence to a book's ideas, when we want to say that we may be entertained but, ho, ho, we're not taken in. The British are particularly adept at this, and most of the U.K. reviews of "Platform" (with some notable exceptions, like Anita Brookner, who said that by comparison English novels fall "by the wayside") follow suit. In the Guardian, novelist James Buchan goes out of his way to show he's not swayed by Houellebecq's "bar-room opinions." "He reads like an adolescent," writes Buchan, "alternately timid and aggressive, solemn, hormonal, posturing, helpless." On BBC News Online, Alex Webb rather sniffily talks about "the unattractiveness of [Houellebecq's] views," which admits distaste while carefully avoiding any discussion of their substance. Even the good reviews seem embarrassed to be praising the book. In the New York Times Book Review, Jenny Turner of the London Review of Books gives "Platform" a positive review while managing to discount every one of its central ideas as "naive ... embarrassingly infantile ... reactionary ... xenophobic."
So let's get it out of the way -- Houellebecq is impolite, strident, sometimes showily cruel, and determined to offend. "Repetitive, one-sided, subtle as a jackhammer," Michael Harris wrote in an admiring review of "The Elementary Particles" in the Los Angeles Times, and he's not wrong. There are moments in "Platform" as well where you wish some editor had told Houellebecq that he simply didn't have to work so hard to jolt us. He has to tell us that an old man who dies from a blow to the head has his brains spill over a concrete floor. When one character escapes death after being gang-raped, Houellebecq makes sure to include a description of the rapists' usual method of killing their victims. A business meeting in an office complex sealed off from the dangerous neighborhood outside coincides with the murder of an old lady by a street gang. The narrator masturbates at a peep show while he imagines the fat, stupid (his description) intern who works in his office gorging chocolate cake at a patisserie. Like Houellebecq's tirades against American and British pop literature (which are nonetheless frequently hilarious), these scenes are cheap examples of "epater le bourgeoisie," and they are easy to discount.
The rest of "Platform" is not so easily discounted. Some critics have said that Houellebecq has written a novel of ideas -- a reliable way to scare off potential readers if ever there was one. What he has written is a novel of provocations -- sexual, cultural, political, racial. And even if you find half of them too simple, even when the philosophizing and theorizing that attend them grow tiresome, they have a hard rational core that demands they at least be grappled with. (It doesn't hurt that "Platform," written in a casual, conversational style, reads like a shot.)
Houellebecq opens with a deliberate echo of the opening of Camus's "The Stranger" ("Maman died today"): "Father died today." The narrator, like the author, is named Michel. He's a 40-something civil servant, working in a government bureau that funds cultural events. A loner, alienated but not dead to the world, he is almost comically typical of French heroes, unable to feel passion in his work or his life. He takes care of his sexual urges at peep shows or in unsatisfying encounters with prostitutes. The death of his father affords him a sudden financial windfall and he rouses himself from his lethargy to embark on a tour of Bangkok. There he meets Valérie, whom he's attracted to but whom he does not take up with until after the tour, when they are both back in Paris.
It seems especially hard for Houellebecq's critics to credit him with writing a love story, but nonetheless that's what the relationship between Michel and Valérie is. The primary objection seems to be that the relationship is based on the couple's sexual chemistry, and some critics have found the fact that Valérie is bisexual, adventurous and enthusiastic makes her little more than a male fantasy. There may be an element of truth to that (what straight man wouldn't want a woman like that?). But what seems foreign to Houellebecq's critics is not just the idea that a woman's sexual appetite can equal a man's (which is just the old Victorian notion of a woman's proper lack of interest in sex done up in new feminist garb), but that a relationship can sustain itself if the sex is good. If that's true for people who don't get along out of bed, why shouldn't it be true for people who do?
The critical comments on the sex scenes in "Platform" -- Alex Webb: "[the] adolescent quality to the frequent descriptions of sex in the book"; James Buchan: "the incontinent love of sexual description"; Lee Henderson in the Toronto Globe & Mail: "almost rigourously cliched sex scenes"; Toby Clements in the Telegraph: "pornographic" -- are much more revealing of the critics than of Houellebecq. They employ "pornographic" in the frequent and lazy manner used to dismiss the explicit. Webb inadvertently betrays the prejudice of the critics when he refers to the "adolescent" quality of the sex. Sex, it still seems, is the one major area of human experience considered unworthy of intellectual respect, as if we should all live entirely in our heads instead of equally in our bodies. And if we acknowledge that we have penises or vaginas that get hard or moist, we've immediately marked ourselves as unworthy of adult consideration. (How, you wonder, do these critics read Lawrence?)
Houellebecq gives the lie to these charges. For writers who are out only to shock, sex is the easiest route to the sordid. What strikes you about the sex in "Platform" is how tender it is. Michel and Valérie take pleasure in each other and enjoy giving it. Houellebecq is not coy about what that pleasure consists of. He writes about enjoying each other's smells and secretions. In the book's view, Westerners have become alienated from their own bodies, and when reviewers claim shock at lovers who enjoy the taste of their partner's vagina or sperm, or the look on their partner's face when he or she is on the brink of orgasm, they are inadvertently affirming Houellebecq's view. Even when Michel and Valérie involve other partners -- when Valérie invites a chambermaid to join them on holiday, or when they visit a swing club and spend the night having sex with an attractive couple they meet -- Houellebecq doesn't use the sex as an example of decadence or spiritual corruption. The frequency of the sex in "Platform" is true to the burst of erotic energy that accompanies the beginning of any relationship. And it's worth noting that Michel imagines he can be happy with Valérie even when their sexual life has ebbed.
What depresses Michel (and Houellebecq) is the type of sex divorced from the human connection that is possible even in casual encounters. That's what leaves him unsatisfied with Western prostitutes, and it's what repulses him on a trip to a hardcore S/M club (where neither he nor Valérie participate). Houellebecq rides roughshod over the justification that the clubgoers who are shackled or have hooks inserted into their scrotums are consenting adults. They may be, but in his view what they are consenting to is the invasion of the soullessness that inhabits too much of our lives into sex as well, the place that is the greatest source of pleasure. S/M becomes, as Houellebecq has Valérie say, the perfect metaphor for a society that has become divorced from pleasure, alienated from its physical self. "What scares me about it all," she says, "is that there's no physical contact. Everyone wears gloves, uses equipment. Skin never touches skin, there's never a kiss, a touch, or a caress. For me, it's the very antithesis of sexuality." Michel sums it up, "When there's no longer any possibility of identifying with the other, the only thing left is suffering -- and cruelty." Later he says, "Organized S&M with its rules could only exist among overcultured, cerebral people for whom sex has lost all attraction."
In some ways, Houellebecq is right on the cusp between libertinism and conservatism (though it's hard to make the latter stick to someone who is so strongly in favor of sexual freedom). Those inclined to view Houellebecq as conservative may find support when he details his reasons for what he sees as the West's alienation from its own sexuality. In his view, women have joined men in becoming so preoccupied with their careers that sex simply becomes another need to be fulfilled. With the demands of our work leeching into every area of our lives, including the bedroom, the possibility of human contact in sex diminishes. The resulting irony is that people turn to sex workers, the one profession where bringing your work to bed does not get in the way of sex. "They'll find it easier to pay for sex too," he says of women, "and they'll turn to sex tourism."
This isn't exactly new stuff. Norman Mailer was prophesizing 40 years ago about the effect that women joining the corporate world would have on sex. But it's less retrograde than it sounds. Michel doesn't think that women should have to abandon their careers -- he has no problem with the fact that Valérie has a more lucrative and demanding job than he does. Houellebecq's view applies to both sexes and it's one of the uncomfortable parts of "Platform" that's affirmed by our experience. How many people do you know who complain that the demands of their jobs leave them less time for a personal life? And in a global economy that often demands both partners work, it's hardly sexist to note that sex will be one of the first casualties.
This, according to Houellebecq, is the sexual condition of the West. In one scene he says of Westerners, "Try as they might, they no longer feel sex as something natural. Not only are they ashamed of their own bodies, which aren't up to porn standards, but for the same reasons they no longer feel truly attracted to the body of the other. It's impossible to make love without a certain abandon, without accepting, at least temporarily, the state of being in a state of dependency, or weakness ... it's not a domain in which you can find fulfillment without losing yourself. We have become cold, rational, acutely conscious of our individual existence and our rights; more than anything, we want to avoid alienation and dependence; on top of that, we're obsessed with health and hygiene. These are hardly ideal conditions in which to make love."
And it gives rise to one of the thorniest parts of "Platform": its affirmation of sexual tourism. Valérie has an executive job in the tourist business. When her boss, Jean-Yves, is offered a lucrative position with an industry giant, he takes Valérie, whom he depends on and trusts, with him. Their assignment is to revitalize the company's exotic resorts, which are unable to find a foothold in a market dominated by Club Med. Michel accompanies Valérie and Jean-Yves on an undercover fact-finding jaunt to one of the company's clubs in Cuba where they pass as tourists to experience the services firsthand. When Jean-Yves and Valérie are stuck for a way to give the company's resorts the leg up they need, Michel suggests turning them into sex resorts where the local sex workers can ply their trade. This is how he presents the idea:
"The fact is that from about the age of twenty-five or thirty, people find it very difficult to meet new sexual partners. Yet they still feel the need to do so, it's a need that fades very slowly. So they end up spending the next thirty years, almost the entirety of their adult lives, suffering permanent withdrawal ... Therefore ... you have several hundred million westerners who have everything they could want but no longer manage to obtain sexual satisfaction. They spend their lives looking without finding it, and they are completely miserable. On the other hand, you have several billion people who have nothing, who are starving, who die young, who live in conditions unfit for human habitation, and who have nothing left to sell except their bodies and their unspoiled sexuality. It's simple, really simple to understand: it's an ideal trading opportunity. The money you could make is almost unimaginable, vastly more than from computers or biotechnology, more than the media industry; there isn't a single economic sector that is comparable."
As is often the case with Houellebecq, the oversimplifications in that idea vie with the truths. The explication above is, on some level, simply another variation on the theme of the uptight Westerner being led back to his true nature by the exoticism of the natives (though you could argue that view, condescending as it may be, is far less complimentary to the West). In the New York Times Book Review, Jenny Turner accuses Houellebecq of presenting a vision of sex tourism that is "grotesquely idealized." It's true that none of the Eastern prostitutes he meets are abused, none of them forced into the profession by others or sold into it as children. That doesn't mean he is ignorant of the uglier facts of their lives. Houellebecq acknowledges that, by one estimate, one-third of Thai bar girls are HIV-positive. One of the girls talks to Michel about the clients who want to beat her. Another says that she doesn't like her work but had no choice after her husband left her with two small children. "They didn't have an easy job, those girls," Michel reflects at one point. "They probably didn't come across a good guy all that often, someone with an okay physique who was honestly looking for nothing more than mutual orgasm."
Those reservations may not go far enough for some, but if critics like Turner are objecting that Houellebecq's portrait of sexual tourism isn't accurate, it's hard to imagine they would raise the same objection to an equally inaccurate picture that equated all sexual tourism with slavery, that assumed every woman working as a prostitute was forced into it, and that denied that there were any advantages for women in sex work. In a passage that could fit quite comfortably into "Platform," a character in John Burdett's novel "Bangkok 8," a former Thai prostitute who's become a madam, puts it this way:
"This kind of Western hypocrisy disgusts me, quite frankly. Why doesn't the BBC make a documentary on the rag trade, with all those women working twelve hours a day for less than a dollar an hour? What is that if it's not selling your body? The West doesn't care about exploitation of our women, it simply has a problem with sex and at the same time they're using sexual titillation to sell their shows. They love to embarrass middle-aged white men who hire our girls. Western women can't handle it that their men get a better time over here. If they're too mean-spirited to give their men pleasure, that's their problem. The bottom line is that it's about money. Thailand makes very little income from industries like the clothing industry -- Western companies take the lion's share. But in the sex trade we see a true redistribution of global wealth from East to West. That's what got them so hung up."
That's echoed somewhat by the English literary critic Ian Littlewood in his "Sultry Climates," a sexual history of the Grand Tour. Littlewood writes, "Why, for example, does sexual exploitation trouble us so much more than the various kinds of exploitation that provide us with cheaper consumer goods? The process by which other people's lives are blighted for our convenience is not, after all, peculiar to the sex trade."
"Platform" has been called the "A Modest Proposal" of sex tourism, and like Swift's essay, the safest, shallowest way to dodge its implications and distance yourself from its logic to is to fall back on the safe position of appreciating it as a wicked satiric exercise. Reading "Platform," the same as reading Swift, requires you to take the writer's reasoning seriously, meet it head on and, if you find it repulsive, refute it.
Houellebecq takes obvious delight in skewering conventional liberal pieties about the sex trade. It's true that his ideological opponents are often straw men, like the strident, sexually hysterical woman who inveighs against sex tourism during his trip to Bangkok. But what may be most infuriating to some readers and critics is that Houellebecq insists that moral outrage by itself is not enough -- that it does nothing to address the reality of these women's lives. Houellebecq is implicitly asking the critics of sex tourism here, Given the economic realities of these countries, what alternative would you propose to allow these women to make a comparable income? And if you can't come up with one, are you implying that it would be better for them to live in poverty than to offend your sense of propriety? You don't have to agree with Houellebecq to see the point he's making about the narcissism of moral outrage -- how it's often used to demonstrate moral superiority rather than address the issue at hand.
It may be equally upsetting to some that while Houellebecq understands the distance that inevitably separates prostitutes from customers, he insists that these transactions can be conducted with respect and even tenderness on both sides. Houellebecq takes the old joke, "Would you patronize a prostitute? -- answer: "No, I'd treat her as an equal" -- and puts flesh on it. Like the other sexual encounters in "Platform," Michel's experiences with prostitutes are anything but dingy and unfeeling. If they don't match the connection he makes with Valérie, they are connections nonetheless.
The moral conundrum that sex tourism represents in "Platform" is that it is simultaneously a vision of sex turned into yet one more consumer commodity and also one of the only forms of sexual human connection left to the alienated West. It's crucial to keep in mind the less-than-flattering vision of the West in "Platform" when dealing with an even more explosive part of the book, its portrait of Islam. "Platform" has been called an anti-Islam book and I want to be very clear about that -- it is. It does not, however, follow that it is a racist book. It's hard to make that claim when Houellebecq has Michel say, "It's true, Muslims on the whole aren't worth much," or to describe them as "blood clots" in the "migratory flow crisscrossing Europe like blood vessels." When Houellebecq indulges in those cracks, he's making it easier for his critics to charge him with racism.
But there is no reason that a writer can't take an intellectual or moral position against a system of beliefs. What Houellebecq has come up against, though, is not just politically correct multi-culti attitudes that demand we have respect for all cultures, but the squeamishness that rears its head whenever someone attempts to criticize a religion. "Editorial writers think they're serving the interests of democracy when they ask us to deny the evidence of our senses," Pauline Kael wrote in her review of "Mean Streets." She could have been talking about today's editorialists who insist that the phenomenon of priests sexually abusing kids has nothing to do with Catholicism, or the editorialists insisting that Islamic fundamentalism has nothing to do with Islam. The usual protests are that Islamic extremism represents a very small percentage of Muslims, which is no doubt true. But it's not unfair to wonder why that large segment has been so quiet or so equivocal in their condemnation. And it's not unfair to bring up the danger that Arab intellectuals put themselves in when they have criticized Islam.
Of course, sooner or later someone is bound to bring up the Inquisition and the Crusades to prove that Christianity is just as brutal. But the gulf of centuries between those events and the present simply points out that today there is no religion but Islamic fundamentalism that is involved in mass killings in the name of a god on a global scale. This is not to suggest that Islamic fundamentalism is medieval. Authors like Paul Berman and the British political writer John Gray have insisted that fundamentalist Islam shares a religious mystical utopianism with all totalitarian movements of the 20th century -- communism, Nazism, fascism. What makes it hard to see that is that though Islamic fundamentalism avails itself of modern technology and the totalitarian dreams of mass murder that surfaced in the last century, the world it seeks to bring about feels like one that could only have been conceived by people afraid not just of progress, but of common sense -- the ultimate fantasy of willfully ignorant piety.
There's no denying that part of the excitement of "Platform" is the force with which Houellebecq says the unsayable, his determination to cut through moral equivocation and, in Kael's words, to not deny the evidence of his own senses. It's no surprise that a writer who spends so much time equating what it means to be human with the ability to feel pleasure would be repulsed by the asceticism of Islam, would see the religion's prohibitions as life denying, would see its misogyny as particularly noxious. Far from feeling defensive about his position, Houellebecq aims here to put those who don't share his loathing on the defensive. Is he extreme? Unquestionably. But it's sometimes just this impolite extremity that can shake up complacent notions. And the challenge he is putting out is one that calls for an answer -- namely, what is it that keeps liberals from condemning a culture that embodies everything they rightly hate? The persecution of women and gays, the refusal to recognize a separation between church and state, state (and thus theocratically) controlled press, the impossibility of scientific inquiry.
Of course, there will always be some smartass around, devoid of the ability to make distinctions, who will claim that sounds just like America under Bush. Though it should be pointed out that the ability to complain of Bush's erosion of the separation of church and state implies a society where the distinction exists. But try to find equivalents for the stories that keep turning up in the papers. The New York Times reported last week on a 9-year-old Iraqi girl who was raped and who has since then been beaten every day by her brothers for bringing shame on the family. Try to find our equivalent of the Bangaldeshi writer Taslima Nasrin, who has had a fatwa on her head since 1994 for protesting the persecution and torture of women in Bangladesh. Or an equivalent for the Nigerian woman sentenced to be stoned to death for having a child out of wedlock. Or the Saudi girls who burned to death in a fire at their dormitory because, having escaped, clerics sent them back into the building to cover themselves. This, Houellebecq rightly says, can have no meaning but barbarism and ignorance.
Houellebecq has been accused of being sneaky for, in Jenny Turner's words, putting his "nasty digs at Muslims in the mouths of friendly Arabs." But he's putting those digs squarely in the mouths of the people who have firsthand experience of Islamic fundamentalism. You have to consider just which characters make those remarks in "Platform." They include a North African woman whose Western lover is murdered by her brother ("They get blind drunk on pastis and all the while they strut around pretending to be the guardians of the one true faith, and they treat me like a slut because I prefer to go out and work rather than marry some stupid bastard like them"); an Egyptian who feels that the restrictions of Islam have retarded Arab culture ("The closer a religion comes to monotheism ... the more cruel and inhuman it becomes"); and a Jordanian banker who delivers an eulogy for Islam.
"The paradise promised by the Prophet," the banker tells Michel, "already existed here on earth. There were places on earth where young, available, lascivious girls danced for the pleasure of men, where one could become drunk on nectar and listen to celestial music; there were about twenty of them within five hundred meters of our hotel. These places were easily accessible. To gain admission, there was absolutely no need to fulfill the seven duties of a Muslim nor to engage in holy war; all you had to do was pay a couple of dollars ... Already, young Arabs dreamed of nothing but consumer products and sex. They might try to pretend otherwise, but secretly, they wanted to be part of the American system. The violence of some of them was no more than a sign of impotent jealousy, and thankfully, more and more of them were turning their backs on Islam."
That passage is a melancholy version of the headline that appeared in the Onion a few weeks after Sept. 11: "Hijackers Shocked, Surprised to Find Themselves in Hell." If that passage is considered racist, then so too must Thomas Friedman's columns predicting that Western capitalism will eventually spell the end of radical Islam. (In Friedman's view, or in Houellebecq's, the temptations of a consumer culture become harder to resist when people to whom they seem a luxury get a chance to obtain them.) In fact, the further you get into "Platform," the harder it is not to think that Houellebecq's crime was to say these things as a white Westerner. Nobody accused Hanif Kureishi (who is on record as admiring the novel) of racism for his satire of the Muslims supporting the fatwa against Salman Rushdie in his novel "The Black Album." Nor were there any charges leveled at Zadie Smith for her parody of Muslims in "White Teeth."
"Platform" was written before Sept. 11, before the murder of tourists in Bali, before the attack last October on the Moscow theater, before the kidnapping of Western tourists in Algeria. Because it includes an attack on Western sex tourists by Islamic terrorists, "Platform" has been called prophetic. That is to deny the power and clarity of Houellebecq's vision, to indulge in what Berman has identified as the Eurocentrism that, following the fall of Communism, led the West to conclude that all those exotic, funny countries posed no threat to us. It's ironic that a writer who has been accused of racism has written a novel in which, though his narrator proclaims he has no knowledge of the modern world, the fates of the West and East are inextricably linked. If there's anything prophetic in "Platform," it's the section that must have seemed satirical to Houellebecq when he wrote it: editorials in French newspapers condemning the attack but saying that the Westerners had it coming. "Faced," one of Houellebecq's fictional editorialists writes, "with the hundreds of thousands of women who have been sullied, humiliated, and reduced to slavery throughout the world -- it is regrettable to have to say this -- what do the deaths of a few of the well-heeled matter?" You can hear echoes of that in Noam Chomsky's lie that as many people were killed in the American bombing raid in Sudan as in the Sept. 11 attacks, or in Michael Moore's contention that this is what happens when Americans want their Nikes.
For all its intemperance, all of its giving in to invective, all of the things that Houellebecq's provocations leave out, there is irreducible truth in "Platform" and the satisfaction of seeing an author realize large ambitions without sacrificing his story. The imprecations against the book are worrying, not because they are so intellectually sloppy and as reactionary as they claim the book to be, but because they suggest a sense of diminished expectations for what a novel can be, a lack of belief that it's part of a novel's job to provoke and disturb and to confront us with what we don't want to know. "Platform" is also a book that, while abjuring sentimentality, believes in the redemptive potential of love, that aims to rescue sex from mechanization and put it back in the realm of mystery and ecstasy and even sacrament.
The end of that banker's story -- "He himself had been unlucky. He was an old man now, and he had been forced to build his whole life on a religion he despised" -- can also serve as the end of Michel's story, the Westerner in exile from the new religion of depersonalization loose in his homeland. There's an echo to be found, not only of Michel's pronouncement of his ultimate fate ("I'll be forgotten. I'll be forgotten quickly") but of the melancholy that settles over the end of this book in the lines that close Elvis Costello's album "All This Useless Beauty": "I want to vanish/ This is my last request/ I've given you the awful truth/ now give me my rest." Houellebecq earns those lines, but it seems unlikely he will vanish.
About the writer
Charles Taylor is a Salon contributing writer.
Funny, in fact
HOUELLEBECQ, EN FAIT
270pp. Paris; Fayard. 15euros.
2 213 61561 6
Dominique Noguez, a French novelist, first heard of Michel Houellebecq in the early 1990s. Houellebecq, a thirty-something computer programmer battling with depression and the alexandrine verse form, had sent poems to a publisher who in turn sought Noguez's opinion. He remembers being struck by some searing passages about the death of the author's father - all the more searing, Noguez later found out, as Houellebecq senior was alive and well.
A dozen years on, some things have changed for Houellebecq (he thankfully appears to have given up poetry to focus on novels, and he is now internationally renowned), but the essence of his art has not. Stark depictions of ordinary tragedies and the playful blending of fact and fiction remain his hallmarks. Noguez makes much of the prominence Houellebecq gives to real people and current events. His whole work, Noguez contends, is a comment on our time, and can be summarized by the very Houellebecquian phrase "in fact".
Houellebecq, en fait - the first book-length study of its subject - is not a straightforward piece of literary analysis, but a jumble of articles, diary entries, letters (the two men are friends) and court documents. The book lacks structure, but not substance. It provides an eloquent defence of a controversial author and a window on today's Parisian literary scene. Noguez shows how writers coalesce and split, how they bicker at cocktail parties, plot in restaurants and misbehave at discos. Houellebecq seems to be the least cliquish of his group. He does not seek or return favours, he is indifferent to the praise and outrage he invites in equal measure, and lets admirers campaign to clear his name if they wish.
He appears as his readers imagine him to be: self-absorbed, doleful, and often drunk. However, lechery - a salient feature in his novels and in many newspaper profiles - barely gets a mention. Whether Noguez is being discreet about his married friend or whether, despite literary evidence to the contrary, polygamy is not a main concern of Houellebecq's, this reserve is welcome. Sex may be an interesting topic, but what is most intriguing about celebrities is what sets them apart from the rest of us, not pursuits that all humans have in common.
So what is it that sets this writer apart? Noguez stresses one point that is often lost in the hue and cry over Houellebecq: he is very funny. His humour may not be to everyone's taste, especially as it is coupled with a gift for vitriolic rants. But those who appreciate him do so largely because he makes them laugh. Incidentally, his comic style does not translate easily. One trick of his involves parodying various jargons - those of, say, sociology, advertising, or pop-science - and switching abruptly between them, a tactic that is effective because modern French usage is so cliché-ridden.
Houellebecq also has a habit of mixing written French and spoken French, two quite distinct linguistic entities: this is difficult to render in English, where good writing almost by definition reproduces the natural flow of articulate speech.
Houellebecq has been said to lack literary style - an accusation his spare prose was bound to elicit from those who mistake wordy obscurity for good literature. Noguez nicely refutes the charge in a fifty-page essay on Houellebecq's style, in which even his idiosyncratic use of italics is explained. He goes as far as to place him in the same league as Flaubert and Céline.
Noguez's analysis, however, is wide of the mark on an important point: the role of ideas in Houellebecq's fiction. Each of his three novels is replete with theories, some banal, some odd, others downright offensive, but all expressed with arresting clarity. The leitmotif of Houellebecq's first short novel, Extension du domaine de la lutte (unsatisfactorily rendered in English as Whatever ), is that in our egalitarian, free-wheeling society, economic competition has been replaced by a ruthless struggle for mates. The big divide is now not so much between the haves and the have-nots, but between the sexually desirable few and the sex-starved many. Les Particules élémentaires ( Atomised ) conjures up a biological utopia in which genetic engineering will lead to the eventual extinction of the human male. Plateforme ( Platform ) contains disquisitions on mass tourism, and the awfulness of monotheism in general and Islam in particular. All three highlight the iniquities of global capitalism and bemoan the misery and anarchy that the post-1960s permissive order has loosed upon the world.
Houellebecq, as a result, is often mistaken for an essayist masquerading as a novelist - and Noguez too falls into the trap of taking his friend's lucubrations seriously. He speaks of Houellebecq's "well thought-out", reflections, and suggests that Les Particules élémentaires "could very soon give food for thought to researchers". This is nonsense. Houellebecq's forays into political or scientific comment rarely stand up to rational scrutiny. Not only is he not an essayist, he is not even a novelist with a message. His whole approach turns the logic of the engagé writer on its head. His stories are not designed to illustrate ideas. The reverse is true: he treats ideas as elements of his stories. Like dialogues or characters, they can be silly, exotic or objectionable - as long as they make sense within the narrative.
Stendhal famously observed that politics in literature had the same disruptive effect as a shot fired in the middle of a concert. Since then novelists have handled all forms of theory with care, for fear of dulling the emotional impact of their prose. Houellebecq is the first to realize the full aesthetic potential of theory. "The introduction of scientific vocabulary can be an extraordinary spur to poetic imagination."
By treating Houellebecq as a man of ideas, Noguez neglects this major literary innovation. He also undermines his otherwise eloquent defence of his subject, which is based on the distinction between a novel and a tract. "Either we are within fiction or we are not", Noguez wrote in 1998. " Les Particules élémentaires is clearly fiction. The word ‘novel' is written on the cover." Noguez was responding to the first attacks against Houellebecq - he had been called a reactionary because his characters said rude things about the 1968 generation, the soixante-huitards . There was also the matter of a lawsuit brought by the owner of a New Age camp mentioned by name in the book. Three years later, Plateforme unleashed an even bigger storm. Some critics presented the book as a defence of sex tourism, and even paedophilia. Muslim groups were incensed by the attacks on their faith; when Houellebecq, in a magazine interview, called Islam "la religion la plus con" ("the most stupid religion") the Grand Mosque of Paris and other Muslim organizations launched a lawsuit for "incitement to religious hatred".
Throughout all this Noguez remained Houellebecq's bulldog. He wrote impassioned articles in defence of artistic freedom, drew up petitions and rallied big names to his cause. He notably roped in Philippe Sollers, a writer whose personality and style are diametrically opposed to Houellebecq's and who was mercilessly ridiculed in Les Particules élémentaires. Impressively, Sollers did not hold a grudge and joined the battle. In court Noguez pointed to the crucial difference between insulting a human group, which is invidious, and attacking a religion, a course of action which is rooted in France's intellectual tradition. Criminalizing anti-Muslim views, he argued, would amount to a restoration of blasphemy laws. The prosecutor agreed and threw out the case. Nevertheless it was a close-run thing. Noguez and other friends of Houellebecq deserve praise for their courage. In France you can be fined or even jailed for saying offensive things, the media brand writers as racists on the flimsiest of evidence, and publishers routinely withdraw books that fall foul of progressive watchdogs. France, which prides itself on the quality of its intellectual debate, is a country where controversial ideas are often silenced by zealots and lawyers, rather than discussed. Michel Houellebecq now lives in Ireland.
Michel Houellebecq’s Lovecraft
BY JOHN BANVILLE
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
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,
gained its English title. Irresistibly, one imagines a telephone exchange
between English publisher and French author as to how the rather grand and
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
(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
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
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.
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.
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)
Das letzte Tabu
taz Nr. 7753 vom 27.8.2005, Seite 21, 285 Zeilen (Kommentar), GERRIT BARTELS
Der Hofnarr zweifelt wieder
VON GERRIT BARTELS
Michel Houellebecq: "Die Möglichkeit einer Insel". Aus dem Französischen von Uli Wittmann, Dumont, Köln 2005, 443 Seiten, 24,90 €
N Z Z Online
Neue Zürcher Zeitung, 27. August 2005, Ressort Feuilleton
Seit dem weltweiten Erfolg seines Romans «Elementarteilchen» gilt der französische Autor Michel Houellebecq als eine Art soziologisches Phänomen. Die Themen, welche er aufgreift, beunruhigen die Gesellschaft. Im neuen, soeben in mehreren Sprachen erschienenen Buch wirft er einen Blick in die Zukunft der geklonten Menschheit.
Michel Houellebecq: Die Möglichkeit einer Insel. Roman. Aus dem Französischen von Uli Wittmann. Dumont-Verlag, Köln 2005. 443 S., Fr. 44.90.
Michel Houellebecq's "The Possibility of an Island" will be published in English in November by Weidenfeld & Nicolson. This will be his fifth novel translated into English and the first since his controversial novel "Platform" appeared in 2001. The book "Atomised" (published as "The Elementary Particles" in the US) first turned heads in Houellebecq's direction in 1998 -- a novel which the New York Times called a "deeply repugnant read." The novel also brought him critical success in the form of the 2002 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award
DER SPIEGEL 34/2005 - August 22, 2005
Houellebecq's New Novel
Can Humans Survive Without Sex?
By Romain Leick
Der geklonte Roman
Michel Houellebecq will sich mit seinem Opus magnum zum Untergang des Abendlandes selbst überbieten und scheitert gründlich
Von Iris Radisch
Michel Houellebecq: Die Möglichkeit einer Insel
Roman; aus dem Franz. von Uli Wittmann; DuMont Verlag, 2005; 443 S., 24,90 €
The TLS n.º 5346 September 16, 2005
The newest barbarism
Michel Houellebecq’s constant pursuit of pleasure
LA POSSIBILITÉ D’UNE ÎLE
485 pp. Fayard 22euros
2 213 62547 6
The banality is
George Walden reviews La Possibilité d’une Ile by Michel Houellebecq.
Houellebecq: A Boocq
Posted Thursday, Feb. 4, 1999, at 8:55 AM PT
22 October 2005
The latest of a long line
Possibility of an Island
Weidenfeld, 345pp, £12.99, ISBN 00297850989
Translated from the French by Gavin Bowd
Reviewed by Anita Brookner
Read these articles here
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Michel Houellebecq's misanthropy is all too evident in his latest, The Possibility of an Island, says Michael Worton
Saturday October 29, 2005
The Possibility of an Island
by Michel Houellebecq
345pp, Weidenfeld, £12.99
October 29, 2005
This island is full of noises
Michel Houellebecq is still angry, still scabrous. But his lack of new targets makes this novel merely a clone of earlier ones
POSSIBILITY OF AN ISLAND
by Michel Houellebecq
translated by Gavin Bowd
Weidenfield & Nicolson, £12.99; 512pp
A World Without Laughter
By Eric Pape | Oct 17 '05
He has been accused of misanthropy, misogyny and Islamophobia, but Michel Houellebecq makes no apologies for his bleak view of humanity. His latest book is true to form
Saturday November 5, 2005
12 November 2005
Possibility of an Island by Michel Houellebecq
Weidenfeld & Nicolson
Monday November 14, 2005
WEIDENFELD & NICOLSON £12.99 (345pp)
Default to gloom
Tibor Fischer reviews The Possibility of an Island by Michel Houellebecq.
THE TLS N.º 5356, November 25, 2005
A blunt instrument
Vol. 28 No. 3 dated 9 February 2006 | Theo Tait
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