By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
About 20 yards away, three specimens of humanity, genus Southern California, were mounting flamboyantly sculptural motorbikes and noisily gunning their engines. Heads turned to look at them, but Houellebecq merely gazed thoughtfully into the distance, his blue eyes aimed at a point about 10 feet above the bikers’ heads. He was not observing the scene so much as letting it wash over him. Either that, or he was about to fall asleep. But once the bikers departed, he pronounced their performance “quite a show.”
Now 47, Houellebecq is one of the few French novelists since Albert Camus, who died in 1960, to win a substantial audience outside France. In recent decades the country has produced enough incomprehensible philosophers, critics and theorists to fill several large cafés, but precious few writers of exportable fiction. Even in France itself, you’re as likely to see a young person on the metro reading Ian McEwan in translation as a contemporary French novelist.
That may be changing, however. “You can’t imagine how much Houellebecq has influenced French literature,” said Marie-Claude de Brunhof, a Paris-based literary scout for Knopf. “He has been copied by everyone now. Before Houellebecq, French novelists were writing about themselves. Now it’s less about Saint Germain-des-Près and their own problems. They understand they have to tell a story.”
Houellebecq’s first novel, Whatever,was about a bored, deeply unhappy software engineer who travels around France with a pitifully ugly co-worker, teaching a new computer program to business clients. It was short, pithy and filled with a visceral loathing for just about everything. (“I hate this life. I definitely do not like it,” the narrator says. “The society in which I live disgusts me; advertising sickens me; computers make me puke.”) It was based at least partly on the author’s own life and had the unmistakable tang of reality. (During the 1980s, he worked as an agricultural engineer and debugged computers for the French National Assembly, often traveling around the country to do so.) As he would continue to do in his next two novels, Houellebecq had given voice to a class of people — alienated white-collar office workers, basically — who tend to be ignored by literary novelists.
“I think that if writers don’t speak about real life, it’s because they don’t know it,” he told me when I asked him about the gloomy realism that pervades his work. It was late in the day, and we were speaking in his suite at the Wyndham Bel Age Hotel. Only near the end of the interview, when we were in almost complete darkness, did he finally turn on a light. “Many writers are journalists or teachers, so they are in a special milieu already. They don’t know the life of basic people. That’s why they don’t describe it. I think the explanation is as simple as that.”
Houellebecq paused, and took a sip of beer. “At a certain point,” he continued, “I decided to write [about] the world as if nobody had ever written [about] the world. Which is in a sense true, because there were no computer programmers 30 years ago, and it changes the way you see the world. Joyce didn’t have a television, for example. He couldn’t speak of life with television.”
TheElementaryParticles,published in 1998, was an international best-seller and made Houellebecq famous. The story of two half brothers, one an asexual scientist, the other a sex-addicted writer, it is about the end of the human race and is supposedly narrated by a member of the more evolved, peace-loving race of post-humans who, thanks to cloning, eventually replace us. Published in 1998, a time of relative optimism and economic expansion, the novel stunned people with the depth of its anger and pessimism, and the way it threw contempt on the once revolutionary baby boomers now running France and the West in general. As a child, Houellebecq was abandoned by his hippie parents and raised by his grandmother (his mother is said to have converted to Islam). This was payback time, and the fearlessness of his satire shocked France’s literary world, which didn’t seem to know what to do with him.
The problem became even more acute with the publication of Platform,a novel about the construction of a sex-tourism paradise in Thailand that is blown to pieces by Muslim terrorists, killing the narrator’s girlfriend in the process. It appeared shortly before 9/11, and has a distinctly prophetic feel. The novel’s central idea — that financially solvent but sexually uncharismatic Western men should make common cause with Third World women who “have nothing left to sell except their bodies and their unspoiled sexuality,” bringing about a mercenary sexual relationship satisfactory to both parties — was a typical Houellebecq provocation, equal parts genius and lunacy. (Outside the West, Houellebecq pointed out, there are millions of attractive women who’d be perfectly happy to marry a dullard so long as he brought home the bacon.) The book’s withering critique of Islam made it especially controversial, and all hell broke loose when Houellebecq spouted off against the religion himself in the interview in Lire.Following a suit brought by groups including the Saudi-based World Islamic League and the French Human Rights League, he was forced to defend himself in court in October 2002.