Worth a fatwa?

On 3 September 2001, Moroccan newspaper Libération menacingly declared of the French writer Michel Houellebecq, ‘This Man Hates You’. Who is he?

Houellebecq’s career follows a classic trajectory. Up from the provinces, he sought fame in the capital. It is a career inflected by the mores of the 1960s, whose damage to the West is his prime subject.

Houellebecq was born on 26 February 1958 on the island of Réunion, off the east coast of Africa. His father, whom he described in the poem ‘Non Reconcilié’ (from his first collection of verse Rester Vivant, 1991) as ‘un con solitaire et barbare’ (a solitary and barbarous old bastard), was a mountain guide. The loathed father of Michel in Platform is a mountaineer. Houellebecq’s parents abandoned him to his much-loved paternal grandmother when he was six. This is the fate of Bruno in Atomised. Houellebecq’s mother, to whom he has never since spoken, followed the hippy trail in the 1960s, as did the mother of the half-brothers Bruno and Michel of Atomised.

Each of his three novels—titled, in English, Whatever (1994), Atomised (1998) and Platform (1999)—draws with plaintive energy on his life. Houellebecq took a degree in agricultural engineering, married, had a son, was unemployed, divorced, was admitted to a psychiatric clinic for depression (like a male character in each of the books). His literary career began, improbably, with a book on the occultist and novelist H.P. Lovecraft. By the early 1990s he was a prize-winning poet. Whatever became an underground hit, and was later filmed. Atomised was a European-wide best seller and led to his being ejected from the editorial board of the left-wing journal Perpendiculaires as reactionary and misogynist.

That is the kind of prescriptive judgment that his fiction reprehends. Houellebecq has written a witty poetic manifesto, ‘Dernier Rempart Contre le Libéralisme’ (last stand against liberalism), from his second volume of verse, Le Sens du Combat (1996). Indeed, in verse he is most often at play, even as the grimmest themes of his fiction are rehearsed. The books of poetry—the third was Renaissance (1999)—parallel the progression of the argument of the novels. Far from being a reactionary, Houellebecq more closely resembles the paradoxical figure of a romantic nihilist in the manner of Henry Miller. He sang his poems to the music of Bernard Burgalat on the CD Présence humaine; he features doomed, poignant love stories in Atomised and Platform and seems to endorse the view that ‘the future is female’ (a curter version of Louis Aragon’s prediction ‘la femme est l’avenir de l’homme’). No French author has been so audacious, avid for publicity or won more prizes since Jean-Paul Sartre. No novelist since Salman Rushdie has so recklessly courted the ire of Islamists.

In Whatever, published nine years ago, there is a casual reference to a bomb planted in a Paris café by ‘Arab terrorists’ that kills two people. At a crucial moment in Atomised, when scientist Michel Djerzinski has just outlined to a colleague, Desplechin, his plans for a biologically created, posthuman future, the latter remarks—in passing—about false expectations of what the future may be. He judges this way: ‘I know that Islam—by far the most stupid, false and obscure of all religions—seems to be gaining ground; but it’s a transitory phenomenon: in the long term Islam is doomed just as surely as Christianity’.

For those who paid attention, here were the seeds for the public and legal controversy that would embroil Houellebecq. The climax of Platform is an attack by Islamic militants on a Western-run sex resort hotel in Thailand. The book was published in English not long before the Bali bombings of 12 October 2002.

Not for such prescience, but for the offhand remarks of an Egyptian character in the novel, and for comments in his own voice in the journal Lire in September 2001—‘the stupidest religion of all is Islam’—Houellebecq was charged with inciting religious hatred. He was acquitted in late October 2002 after the state prosecutor advised the judges that it is legal in France to criticise a religion but not its followers. The notoriety that he had long sought by such provocations, complemented by a well-advertised retreat to the western verge of Europe (to Ireland, like Michel in Atomised), have obscured Houellebecq’s achievements. So too his felicitous depictions of sex, joyless and joyful, have masked the sobriety and conservatism of his imagining of the way we will live soon. Probably that is a result to content him.

His novels are three panels of a triptych. Together with his poetry, they constitute Houellebecq’s analysis of the ‘suicide’, the ‘decline’ of the West, and of France in particular, as well as his intimations of a posthuman future. Whatever was published in France under the less laconic title Extension du domaine de la lutte (‘extension of the struggle’). It opens with a sardonic epigraph from Romans: ‘let us therefore cast off the works of darkness, and let us put on the armour of light’. Cut from there to a party where the narrator is disgusted by two women he has met who seem to represent ‘the last dismaying dregs of the collapse of feminism’. He vomits discreetly and goes home. A middle-class Frenchman, he is an ‘analyst-programmer in a computer software company’ who writes animal stories, anti-fables for his own amusement. To the degree that anything engages him, he is a theorist of fiction: ‘the pages that follow constitute a novel; I mean, a succession of anecdotes in which I am the hero’.

Houellebecq is joking—now as later—about how traditional forms of the novel are being rudely dismantled. Soon the hero of Whatever will declare that ‘We’re a long way from Wuthering Heights … The novel form is not conceived for depicting indifference or nothingness; a flatter, more terse and dreary discourse would need to be invented’. But for the moment, Whatever: it gestures at a new narrative form-to-be. In Atomised, Houellebecq confronts more expansively the forms that might be adopted for an account of an impending apocalypse. He decides not to choose between, but abrasively to mingle, them.

 The novel is a fable; its moral that cloned, immortal creatures will supersede humankind. It is also a saga, harking back to conventional narratives that are interested in the lineages of families. But this is done with a desperate nostalgia, because, in the future that the novel imagines, these roots will cease to matter. Atomised is not a satire. For example, the depiction of the sex and alternative lifestyle club Lieu du Changement (‘place of change’) is deadpan. Essentially Atomised is an anatomy of Western society, laying open its deceptions, degradations and despairs.

In Platform, the fossilised elements of 19th-century European realist novels are lovingly and ostentatiously preserved (its epigraph is from Balzac). We learn where the main characters have come from, and the way they live now. Yet Houellebecq disdainfully breaks narrative rules. He shifts at whim from Michel’s perspective to those of the other characters. At the same time his melancholy solicitude for all his principal characters controls the unravelling of his tale.

In the simpler, shorter Whatever, the narrator is a disconsolate and unillusioned analyst of himself: ‘I have had many women, but for limited periods. Lacking looks as well as personal charm, subject to frequent bouts of depression, I don’t in the least correspond to what women are usually looking for in a man’.

The novel ends with the main character’s breakdown, as do two of its successors. The modern world cannot be survived by the male protagonists of Houellebecq’s fiction, let alone by their lovers and associates. Emotionally disabled, the narrator of Whatever does not understand ‘how people manage to go on living’. He finds himself in a clinic among others ‘not in the least deranged; they were simply lacking in love’. These might sound like the poignantly plain last words of Whatever, but are not: Houellebecq’s coda tests the possibilities of a healing, Romantic epiphany in the Forest of Mazan, over the hill from the source of the Ardèche river. Instead of solace, the narrator finds ‘the heart of the abyss’. The ‘sublime fusion’ will not take place. Abandoning his character to a desolate but unresented fate,
Houellebecq has bleakly opened the way for his next novel.

Les Particules élémentaires (elementary particles) more exactly indicates the pseudo- or semi-scientific underpinning of the novel than the translator’s (Frank Wynne’s) preferred title, Atomised. Yet Wynne has fun with his choice. Bruno, one of the half-brothers whose parallel lives are at the blighted heart of the book ‘found he loathed what the sociologists and commentators called “the atomised society” ’. That which Houellebecq depicts is not so much fin-de-siècle—as was too easily suggested by some critics—but engrossed with the end of human history. The book’s dedication (ironic or not?) and its last words, are ‘to mankind’.

Atomised begins with a musing on ‘metaphysical mutations’, or paradigm shifts. After the rise of Christianity as the first of these, and then as the second its vanquishing by modern science, we have reached the third and most radical mutation, ‘which opened up a new world order’. (There is an extended debate between the half-brothers concerning Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932), and Huxley is an acquaintance of one of the novel’s fanatical libertines.) From a perspective in the near future, a generation away, the author (seemingly Houellebecq, intervening in his own person) reassures us that ‘We live today under a new world order’. The novel, however, is more occupied with the death of the old order. The advent of ‘a new species which was asexual and immortal’, ‘this new intelligent species made by man “in his own likeness” ’ that began on 27 March 2029, is the matter-of-fact detail of the book’s last pages. The dire human comedy here and forever superseded is Houellebecq’s obsession.

Thus he traverses a landscape of brutal boarding schools (where Bruno suffers especially), Californian communes, peep shows, sex clubs, thrill killings. It is not altogether a morally or emotionally arid series of experiences. The author reflectively, if mournfully, intervenes and at one point notes that ‘Tenderness is a deeper instinct than seduction, which is why it is so hard to give up hope’.

Houellebecq’s love and admiration for women is the unabashed core of his work. Michel’s grief at his grandmother’s death reduces him to a howling ball at the foot of his bed. These were the author’s words a page earlier: ‘Human beings who have no sense of having made any sacrifice; who cannot imagine any way of life than giving their lives for others—out of love and devotion … such human beings are invariably women’.

At the same time Houellebecq is always mindful of a self-imposed duty to social documentation, to a calendar of radical social changes, particularly the moral wasteland created by mature capitalism. He cites the cult of the body beautiful and divorce by mutual consent. Conscientious chronicler of his age, he exhibits his credentials in order to write a jeremiad, prophesying its end.

Two unexpected love stories develop, one for each brother, each ending in the shocking death by suicide of the women. Houellebecq’s men may be surprised that mutual love happens for them, but will not resist, much as they suspect the mordant outcomes of such attachments. The brothers’ ends are desolate. Bruno declines into the haven of a mental clinic, while Michel—his life’s work completed (‘As soon as the genome had been completely decoded … humanity would have complete control of its evolution’)—perhaps commits suicide in Ireland.

The fate of the next of Houellebecq’s Michels, and of his lover Valérie in Platform, is no less terrible, although the ‘asexual and immortal’ species foretold in Atomised is nowhere glimpsed. Instead, the decline of the West, frantic and brutal, lives itself out in opposition to each of those terms. In the intense,
vulnerable love story in Platform, a solution (ultimately unrealised) to the problem of a posthuman future is ventured. The Michel of Platform is closer in temperament to Bruno—a cultured man (public servant in the Ministry of Arts; Bruno was a Kafka-reading schoolteacher who wrote poetry and right-wing polemics in the manner of Céline) addicted to sex, yet readily prompted into tenderness. The opening scene after his father’s death—murdered by the Arab brother of his lover as it turns out—is an eerie revision of Camus’s L’Etranger (The Outsider, 1942). In that novel the French Algerian protagonist is improbably executed not so much for killing an Arab but for failing to show emotion at the death of his mother. The springs of such apathy is one of Houellebecq’s key inquiries.

Platform is another anatomy of a society in collapse where, for instance, ‘compared with speculative investment, investment in production brought little return’. The focus is on the individual as well:
It is in our relations with other people that we gain a sense of ourselves; it’s that, / pretty much, that makes relations with other people unbearable.

The hinge of the plot is strikingly less grand than the experiments in Atomised. Here the future is to do with tourism and with hedonism. Valérie is a highly paid travel entrepreneur. Michel sells her and her boss the notion of travel explicitly for sex. This leads them to the grand opening of a resort in Thailand where many are massacred by Islamist terrorists. Michel ends, like Bruno and the hero of Atomised,
in catatonic retreat from the world, grieving for his lost love.

The anti-Islamic remarks that gave such offence, however histrionic, come in the main from an Egyptian whom Michel encounters, who laments that the great achievements of that civilisation were lost when it converted to the religion of ‘the losers of the Sahara’. In a blunt juxtaposition, the novel cuts to Michel and Valérie in a foursome with a black couple (yes, he is a drummer). But there is neither racial nor colour prejudice here. Indeed, not long before, Michel has theorised airily that ‘white men were repressed Negroes searching for some lost spiritual innocence’, and further, that ‘all humanity instinctively tends towards miscegenation’. The exemplary figure for him is a type of posthuman in whom the Michel of Atomised might have been interested: ‘Michael Jackson: he’s neither black nor white any more, neither young nor old and, in a sense, neither man nor woman’.

Michel’s last words in Platform are ‘I’ll quickly be forgotten …’. Is this self-pity from Houellebecq, or a challenge to contradict him? A few pages earlier Michel expresses, not hatred, but contempt for the West. He adds: ‘I know only that every single one of us reeks of selfishness, masochism and death’. It is a conclusion to which his travails have led him, but the evidence of love briefly achieved, of lucidity in the face of horror, make one wonder whether the protean Houellebecq is not after all the most perverse and coruscating of French humanists in exile. ?

The reviewed books by Michel Houellebecq are: Whatever, Serpents Tail, rrp $24.95 (originally published 1994, as Extension du domaine de la lutte); Atomised, Vintage, rrp $22.95 (originally published 1998 as
Les Particules élémentaires); Platform, Heinemann, rrp $35 hardback (originally published 1999 as Plateforme); Rester Vivant, 1991; Le Sens du Combat, 1996; Renaissance, 1999.

Peter Pierce’s most recent book was Australia’s Vietnam War (Texas A & M University Press, 2002). Catherine Pierce is an articled clerk in a Melbourne Commercial Law Firm.



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