NRC, 2023-03-09

De schrijver die op zijn personages is gaan lijken

Margot Dijkgraaf, NRC, 2023 March 9

Original in Dutch

Translation to English

In the autumn of 2000, Michel Houellebecq is performing in Amsterdam. At the time I arranged to meet him, at his hotel, he does not show up. Around midnight he stumbles in. Back from the Red Light District. Still wearing his parka, he gets into bed and conducts his band members and his wife around him. They have to stand against the walls, that’s how small the room is. I am planted at the foot of the bed. His wife – miniskirt, black fishnet stockings – is instructed to make coffee, using the espresso machine she brought especially for him. She too has to stand, balancing the espresso machine on her flat hand. Grinning with delight, like an eighteenth-century French prince, he holds audience from under his down duvet.

It is a scene I have always envisioned when reading his novels since. A man who commands attention, who wants nothing more than to be the centre of attention, surrounded by a court and serving women.

Over the course of his career, Houellebecq has pulled out all the stops, probably to that end. Any fuss, any polemic was welcome. Writing, insulting, suddenly disappearing, making a film, gasping poetry into a microphone, exhibiting an excessive love for a dog, exhibiting photographs – nothing he didn’t do to stay in the limelight.

Because without the other person’s gaze, you don’t exist. This is especially the shortcoming for the novice poet or writer. Especially if that one is un-cute or shy. From the start, “Suffer! Houellebecq’s motto, which he promotes in his first collection of prose poems, Rester vivant: Méthode (1991). Any form of suffering is good, as long as it is intense: hit where it hurts. Cultivate self-hatred, collect frustrations, fail in social life, that’s where you’ll find energy to fight.

That method had results for a while. His novel Elementary particles (1998), a direct attack on the generation of May 1968, which practised the motto ‘freedom, happiness’, immediately provoked fierce reactions. That generation which, according to Houellebecq, lived for sexual debauchery and individual pleasure, bore the blame for everything that afflicts his characters: divorces, dissolute youth, social loneliness and unsatisfied sexual desire. That generation also had the women’s emancipation he despised on its conscience, as did the disappearance of religion and the rise of violence in society.

Since then, Houellebecq has had admirers who see in him the most brilliant writer of the century, and critics who believe he belongs in a psychiatric clinic. His reputation as a provocateur is then established. Some find him visionary, others sex-obsessed. Some find his language clear, others dislike his clinical, at times sociological language. Either way, the way he hopscotches between prose, poetry and essay commands admiration. He can write, and not unspiritually.

Over the years, Houellebecq stays true to his theme, analysing what is lacking in the world, it’s ‘déprimisme’ all around. Everything is the fault of the 1960s. That generation includes his own parents, about whom he has never reported anything good. Houellebecq was born in 1956, on the island of Réunion, the son of a mountain guide and a doctor, both communists. As his parents soon divorced, he spent his early childhood with his maternal grandparents, in Algeria. His father picked him up there rather suddenly and then entrusted him to his own mother, in Normandy. That is the grandmother whom Houellebecq reveres and whose maiden name he chose as a pseudonym.

Houellebecq became a biologist and agronomist, became unemployed, retrained as a computer scientist and published his first novel The World as Market and Struggle in 1994. In it, a depressed computer programmer incites a sexually frustrated colleague to murder. It is already a typical Houellebecq protagonist: an unambitious, culturally pessimistic, sad loner who yearns for sexual pleasure, for love. A loser, asking for attention like a whining toddler, looking for a woman to cry and shelter with. A pitiful man searching for a lifeline in a chaotic, violent world full of change he is not up to.

With his main characters, things go downhill more often than not. A later novel (Sérotonine, 2019) mentions a “dying animal, looking for a den in which to await its end”. Patheticism is no stranger to the ageing author.

With Houellebecq, the man is so unhappy mainly because the woman neglects her duty: she has to give the man that pleasure, in the kitchen and in bed. She must care, and be submissive. It earns Houellebecq a reputation as a misogynist. In an interview with NRC, he contradicted this: “I love women. A misogynist is someone who finds women irritating, I am a macho.” And what is actually wrong with that, the author wonders. He himself likes to put that machismo into practice. During another interview, which I had with him in Paris, he had his wife take a seat a few metres behind me so that, at a sign from him, she could hand over another cigarette or a new glass of white wine.

Such a subservient wife remains a dream, a pious illusion for many of Houellebecq’s characters. The protagonist of Platform (2001), for example, is a culture officer who travels to Thaïland. What the world needs, he knows, is a global network of brothels. Then Asian prostitutes can provide what Western men crave: sexual services. The idea becomes a reality, until a terrorist attack causes a massacre in one such sexual tourist centre.

Immediately after publication of the novel, controversy erupted: was the book now a paean to sex tourism or rather an indictment of it? World events (the September 11 and tourist attacks on Bali in 2002) gave the novel enormous topicality, further underlining the author’s visionary reputation. Houellebecq himself needed permanent security and moved to Ireland. Attention assured.

Until then, his books had generated a lot of noise and ditto income, but no major literary prize. A writer who portrays Islam as “the most stupid religion”, resulting in noise and a lawsuit, is a sensitive issue for a literary jury. But in 2010, Houellebecq was finally awarded his much-coveted, prestigious Prix Goncourt, for a quiet, nostalgic novel, for his standards. In that award-winning novel The Map and the Territory, about a visual artist who obsessively photographs utensils, he nostalgically sketches the future of France: the country is becoming a museum. In this book, no attack on Islam, no misogyny, but a father-son relationship, the art market and big money, murder and mayhem and also: Europe in the future. During this period, Houellebecq exhibits his own photographs: dark forests, misty lakes, posters of French cheese, baguettes and folklore, rusting industrial heritage. Nothing man-made is permanent in nature. France may be beautiful, but as a nation it no longer matters in the world.

Houellebecq continues that line in Subjected, a novel published on 7 January 2015, exactly on the day of the fundamentalist attack on the offices of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo. Coincidence or not, that week’s cover featured a cartoon by Houellebecq. In Onderworpen, the leader of the imaginary Muslim Brotherhood wins the French elections in 2022, after which the country will become Islamic step by step.

This is how Houellebecq portrays France, and Europe, over and over again. We must return to the way things used to be – he insists on that. Even though each new Houellebecq novel remains an event, French media are losing interest in his literary oeuvre. Abroad, his fame soars and he is often the only French writer people know.

About his private life, the author prefers to remain silent: the fact that his marriage became public in 2018 was because of the Instagram account of Carla Bruni, wife of Nicolas Sarkozy, who posted a photo of the couple. What you keep secret causes a stir when it comes out.

A year later, Sérotonine, named after an antidepressant, a white pill containing the ‘happy hormone’, was published. It is a politically-tinged novel about depression and hopelessness, in which society as a whole goes to the dogs: “no one will be happy in the West any more”.

Houellebecq turns that motif a little blacker with each book. Death lurks around the corner and there is no escape. Decay is omnipresent. That is more the case than ever in Anéantir, his latest novel from January 2022, which will be published on 10 March in Martin de Haan’s translation as Destroy.

Once again, it is a wide-ranging, ambitious novel, in which Houellebecq raises hot topics of today: healthcare, the family, the future of Europe, technological developments and, strikingly, the desire for a safe, quiet country house among the vineyards.

In Anéantir, Houellebecq certainly doesn’t hit where it hurts. He pokes a little at the wound, looking for a plaster, while, introspectively, shedding a tear over the human deficit and mourning the decay he sees around him. The tragic romantic, which Houellebecq is also, gets the upper hand here.

Step by step, the writer comes to resemble his protagonists and becomes a caricature of himself. More and more he is labelled a reactionary as a public figure, more and more he derails to the right, turns out to be a supporter of the theory of ‘the great repression’. In a recent conversation with the philosopher Michel Onfray, in Front popular magazine, Houellebecq argues that this is not a theory, but ‘a fact’.

As death approaches, Houellebecq becomes milder – at least in his novels. As a public person, he becomes increasingly right-wing

The public person Houellebecq seems to want to generate much-needed attention where the writer Houellebecq no longer succeeds. He recently collaborated on a non-literary project, an “erotic-artistic” film by Dutch collective Kirac. Having Houellebecq in a film is nothing new; he has previously featured in Near Death Experience (about a man fleeing into the mountains) and L’Enlèvement de Michel Houellebecq (following his own temporary disappearance). This new film seems to be of a different, pornographic calibre. The trailer shows the author half-naked in bed, with a young woman. When the author saw the final product, he found the film “defamatory”; it would also tell lies about his wife. Last week, he lost summary proceedings seeking an injunction against screening. Meanwhile, the trailer has been viewed all over the world and managed to secure attention in yet another slightly more extreme way.

As death approaches, the writer Houellebecq becomes milder – at least in his novels. As a public figure, on the other hand, calm wisdom with age is nonexistent. Why does Houellebecq play with fire, Libération wondered. The daily suggested that the author’s main aim is to provoke now that his great opposite, feminist author Annie Ernaux, has been awarded the Nobel Prize.

Perhaps it is different: he has lost his place as a French eighteenth-century prince on the great double bed, and his court has taken off. Perhaps Houellebecq is ever closer to Charles d’Orleans, the French prince who was locked up in an English castle for decades during the Hundred Years’ War, the man from whom Houellebecq derived the motto of Subjugated: Le monde est ennuyé de moy/ Et moy pareillement de luy. In other words: The world has had enough of me/End I equally of her.