Thursday, May 23, 2013

The Novels of Michel Houellebecq



Strangely compulsive an experience it was to read so many Houllebecq novels one after another within a month. I hardly know what drew me along. His bracing pessimism perhaps. Or his fearlessness in saying what is often thought but seldom expressed. Or his surgical precision in dissecting our illusions. Or his frankness about male sexual desire. What is certain is that he is a moralist who confronts the amorality of our biological natures. As organic creatures, we are born, we die. All our grandest ideals, all our basest desires, take place between those two certainties. I read the novels in the order in which they were published.

The Elementary Particles (or Atomised) tells the stories of two half-brothers, abandoned by their fathers and by their common mother who joined the 60s world of druggy free love. Bruno is a failed writer and a hedonist. Michel is an emotionally dead biologist immersed in his work. In other words, both find different ways of coping with their existential isolation. They are offered a chance at love, but, conditioned by their past and present, how could they take the chance? The ending I find rather stuck-on: Michel finds a way to transcend human limitations.

Platform is the most emotionally wrenching of the novels. Michel (another namesake of the author) Renault takes a group holiday to Thailand and meets a travel agent Valerie. Together the lovers work the lucrative market of sex tourism. At the height of their success, Valerie is cut down, with others, but not Michel, by a terrorist massacre. From the novel, this resonant passage:

It's easy to play the smart aleck, to give the impression that you've understood something about life; the fact remains that life comes to an end. My fate was similar to his, and we had shared the same defeat, yet I felt no active sense of solidarity. In the absence of love, nothing can be sanctified.

The Possibility of an Island is structurally most ambitious. The narrative goes back and forth between Daniel, a stand-up comedian who achieved success and notoriety for saying politically incorrect things, and Daniel24, his genetic copy, who lives 1000 years later, after the earth has been devastated by war, drought and earthquakes. Since Daniel24 lives alone in a secured compound and does little but write his commentary on the story of his original, it is perhaps not surprising that his portions of the novel are far less involving than those of Daniel. Houllebecq does not overcome this problem successfully, I think. Still, the book is full of quotable quotes:

The self is the synthesis of our failures but it is only a partial synthesis. 
If a man laughs, if he is the only one, in the animal kingdom, to exhibit this atrocious facial deformation, it is also the case that he is the only one, if you disregard the natural self-centredness of animals, to have attained the supreme and infernal stage of cruelty
The disappearance of tenderness always closely follows that of eroticism. There is no refined relationship, no higher union of souls, nor anything that might resemble it, or even evoke it allusively. When physical love disappears, everything disappears; a dreary, depthless irritation fills the passing days. And, with regard to physical love, I hardly had any illusions. Youth, beauty, strength: the criteria for physical love are exactly the same as those of Nazism. 
. . . art was always cosa individuale; even when it was a protest, it only had value if it was a solitary protest.  
I had probably never had a real conversation with anyone other than a woman I loved, and essentially it seemed unsurprising to me that the exchange of ideas with someone who doesn't know your body, is not in a position to secure its unhappiness or on the other hand to bring it joy, was a false and ultimately impossible exercise, for we are bodies, we are, above all, principally and almost uniquely bodies, and the state of our bodies constitutes the true explanation of the majority of our intellectual and moral conceptions. 

In The Map and the Territory, the self-reflective, even elegaic, mood is reinforced by the introduction of a character called Michel Houellebecq, a writer. He is asked by the novel's protagonist, Jed Martin, a rising art star, to pen a preface to the catalogue of his show. Jed comes to feel for the older writer the sentiments of a son. His gift of his portrait of Michel to the writer resulted in a horrendous consequence, after which the novel turns abruptly into an absorbing police procedural. The result of the investigation is rather too random for my taste, and Jed's final artwork, which he did in withdrawal from the world, affords less significance than I would have liked.

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