Michel Houellebecq: “Cuando me miro al espejo, me doy miedo”
Marc Bassets, Le Pais, 2023 April 1
Translation to English
Michel Houellebecq: “When I look in the mirror, I’m scared”.
The French writer talks to EL PAÍS about the emotional impact that the controversy over the Dutch experimental film in which he appears having sex has had on him. And he talks about literature, pension reform and Emmanuel Macron.
Michel Houellebecq is going through an existential slump and he tells it like this, without half-measures.
“I’m going very badly, yes,” the French writer assures EL PAÍS. “I feel rage, and I feel like hurting those who persecute me, but it can’t be. And I feel ashamed, not only out of modesty, but because I have been made a fool of.”
The reason for the crisis is the experimental film Kirac 27, by Dutch artist Stefan Ruitenbeek, a member of the Kirac collective, in which Houellebecq (La Réunion, 67) allegedly appears having sex. The author of Serotonin and Annihilation has tried in court to stop its diffusion. Without success. On Tuesday, a court in Amsterdam gave Ruitenbeek a free hand after a few weeks earlier another in Paris did the same.
There is a contract involved and there are consenting adults who allowed themselves to be filmed, but the lead actor considers himself cheated by Ruitenbeek. And at the moment he is in his apartment in Paris, not in the mood to go out and even less to be photographed. And he says he doesn’t know what to do.
Question: Are you going to appeal the Dutch court’s decision?
Answer. I don’t know at the moment. In my opinion, my chances of success are almost nil.
Q. What will you do if it spreads?
R. Look, at first, nothing. I don’t know.
Q. Are you anxious that the film could be seen by the whole world?
R. Yes, very much. I don’t feel like appearing in this film against my will, it’s very unpleasant.
Houellebecq speaks quietly and slowly, in a monotone. He leaves long silences before answering. He thinks about the answers.
“Indeed, I was very stupid,” he says at one point in the conversation, which took place by phone early Friday afternoon. And he recalls that in November he had a sexual encounter in Paris in which he participated with his wife, Qianyum Lysis Li, and Dutchwoman Jini van Rooijen.
The sequence was filmed by Ruitenbeek. It was to feed Van Rooijen’s account on the adult content platform OnlyFans. But Houellebecq says he ultimately preferred that it not be aired. And even less that Ruitenbeek should use it for the film project that at the end of December the two were to launch in Amsterdam and for which they signed a contract, which Houellebecq now reneges on.
Later, another sequence was shot with Houellebecq kissing a woman in a hotel bed, a moment that appears in a trailer for the film. A few days later, the writer and the filmmaker began quarreling. “Yes, I was unquestionably naive,” he admits. “I’m not the only one, in fact. It happens with insurance contracts, which people sign without really reading. My agent, because I have an agent, did the math and has had me sign about 400 contracts since we’ve known each other. I’ve gotten used to trusting, to signing without reading”.
Question: Do you feel embarrassed to think that maybe it will spread and many people will see you in a very intimate situation?
Answer. I feel, although with much less force, more or less what women who are raped feel. I have the impression that my body does not belong to me. I have the impression that I feel ashamed too. And the third thing is a distrust and a lack of interest in sexual relations now. It is distressing.
Q. Since this episode?
R. Yes, since this episode I don’t have sexual relations at all.
Q. Because of this?
R. A distrust has set in.
Q. Fear of sex?
R. Yes… The idea that there is something dangerous, that you have to be suspicious.
The conversation drifts into an intimate, delicate terrain. Houellebecq is one of those writers who writes and gives his opinion without a net. His sex scenes are his trademark. Modesty is not exactly his thing, although he has almost always told them in a fictional key. Not this time. When asked if she can specify what she means by lack of confidence, she replies: “It’s just that I can’t get it up. I don’t know… I don’t think raped women manage to sleep with their husbands either”.
P. You were saying a moment ago that you feel, with less strength, what a raped woman feels.
R. I think it is worse for a raped woman, and the worst of the worst is when the rapist spreads the rape on the Internet. It’s hard for me to imagine how she might feel. I can imagine it, but multiplying by 10 what I feel. It is a very painful situation.
From that moment on, because of the lack of trust, I just can’t get it up. I don’t know… I don’t think raped women manage to sleep with their husbands either.”
Houellebecq wants to write a book about the episode with the Dutch film, it is his immediate project: “I will change the names of the people, except for me, I will write it in the first person. I think that, more or less, it’s the only thing I know how to do and it can do me good by helping me to destroy the memory.” He explains that he is currently reading the novel Babbit, by Sinclair Lewis. And, when asked if he reads Spanish literature, he quotes Javier Cercas. “And another whose name I don’t remember, he does rather obscure books…. Isn’t there someone called Antonio Muñoz Molina?”. Among his French contemporaries he praises Emmanuel Carrère. “French literature is not doing badly at the moment,” he says. The three Nobel Prizes in 15 years attest to that. “Yes,” he nods, “Modiano’s not bad at all.”
Question: What about Annie Ernaux? She had no kind words for you after winning the Nobel Prize.
Answer. To be honest, I haven’t really read her. I won’t say anything bad about her because I don’t know her well.
Q. Do you dream of the Nobel?
R. I have very little chance because there have been quite a few French people who have won it these days.
P. It is said that it is also for ideological reasons.
R. Yes, it can play a role. And there is another thing: in France I am not one of the favorite authors in the universities, there are more theses on Annie Ernaux than on me. I don’t think the Nobel jury has time to read everything. They must pre-select with the number of university papers dedicated to an author, I guess that plays a role.
P. You are considered a reactionary writer, does it bother you, is it a fair label, unfair?
R. I don’t think it is fundamentally fair, because to be a reactionary it is not enough to consider that, in some aspects, society was better before. You also have to say that we can go back, and I don’t believe that. I tend to think that we never go back. There is something irreversible about all historical movements. So to want to go back, you have to imagine that it’s possible, and I don’t imagine that.
Houellebecq discusses the conversation he had last fall with the intellectual Michel Onfray that led the Grand Mosque of Paris to denounce him for incitement to hatred against Muslims. After meeting with the rector of the Grand Mosque, Chems-Eddine Hafiz, he withdrew the complaint and Houellebecq corrected some of his statements. “Indeed, some paragraphs were stupid,” he admits. He adds: “That was more classic [than the current case], because I have had opinions that have provoked controversy because they shocked many people. Now it’s not my opinions: it’s my body that is attacked. This has never happened to me before.
Question. In your interview with Onfray, you expressed the fear of a civil war in France.
Answer. I corrected this later. I do not believe in it. For several reasons. Many elements are needed for a civil war. It is not true that the policemen cannot enter some neighborhoods. They are forced to go with armored squads, they are attacked, but they succeed. For there to be a civil war, even the army would not be able to enter some neighborhoods, and we are far from that. In a civil war, like the one in Spain, there are areas controlled by one camp and others by another. So no, I don’t think there will be a civil war in the immediate future.
P. Abroad, it is striking how France is rising up against the pension reform, with the images of the demonstrations, the burning garbage?
R. French people have long been asked whether they are for or against this pension reform, and from the beginning they have been against it. People continue to support the strikes, even if it bothers them that the trains are not running or that the garbage is not being collected. The obstinacy of the government is truly surprising. I don’t think it will get the reform through. The unions feel supported and will continue.
P. You know Emmanuel Macron, how do you see him today?
R. He is not someone easy to understand. I think he has a strong feeling of intellectual superiority and does not understand the situation. He still believes that he is young, that he has upset everything and that he is going to upset everything. Politically it is true. He has destroyed the left, the Socialist Party, and he has almost destroyed the right-wing party, the Republicans. His operation has been a success, he has built a central bloc which is in the majority. It is a banal idea what I will tell you, but the presidents of the Republic tend to lose touch.
Macron has a strong feeling of intellectual superiority and does not understand the situation.”
Q. Did you vote for Macron?
R. This goes without saying. First, because I am in favor of the secret ballot, it is an important principle. And I do not want to try to influence my readers, it is not my idea of my relationship with the reader.
Before ending the interview, Houellebecq is asked if it is possible to go to his house to photograph him. He replies: “I would really prefer not to. I’m in a sad state. I look exhausted. When I look in the mirror, I get scared. I don’t sleep. It’s not the best time.
Translation to Dutch
Michel Houellebecq: “Als ik in de spiegel kijk, ben ik bang”.
Vanaf dat moment, door het gebrek aan vertrouwen, krijg ik hem niet meer omhoog. Ik weet het niet… Ik denk dat het verkrachte vrouwen ook niet lukt om met hun man naar bed te gaan”.
R. Dit spreekt voor zich. Ten eerste omdat ik voorstander ben van de geheime stemming, het is een belangrijk principe. En ik wil niet proberen mijn lezers te beïnvloeden, dat is niet mijn idee van mijn relatie met de lezer.