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
“Platform was so controversial in an ominous sort of way,” de Brunhof told me. “He’s the only one who mixes his own sense of humor with a terrible despair about what’s happening in the world, and that is very unusual. But when his humor falls on people who recognize themselves, they don’t like it. It was a very interesting trial. It was like a theater show, with all the people in there. Those who defended him were excellent.”
Houellebecq’s acquittal was treated in the press as a victory for freedom of speech, particularly since the author himself did not back down. (“I have never shown the slightest contempt for Muslims,” he stated to the panel of judges, “but I have as much contempt as ever for Islam.”) Nonetheless, I suggested to Houellebecq, the fact that there was a trial at all was surely a much greater victory for the power of Muslim intimidation.
“Yes, I think so,” he agreed. “I think what I said will never be said again.”
Platformmay have had strong things to say about Islam, but it was just as despairing about Houellebecq’s own society. What remains with the reader is its portrayal of First World loneliness — the loneliness of someone who, like the book’s narrator (also named Michel), has 128 television channels but no real friends. “For the West, I do not feel hatred. At most I feel a great contempt,” he says near the end of the book. “I know only that every single one of us reeks of selfishness, masochism, and death. We have created a system in which it has simply become impossible to live, and what’s more, we continue to export it.”
I asked Houellebecq if Europe’s status as a largely post-religious society was a major factor in his writing.
“Yes. I think it’s one of the most important points in the life of people, in society in general,” he replied.
“And what do you think of a society that is post-religious, or not religious?”
“I don’t ask myself if it’s better or no, because it’s not a choice. People don’t really choose to believe or not. I think it’s more difficult to live without a religion, definitely.”
“Is that part of the unhappiness that you’re describing?”
“Yes, certainly. I think after a certain number of generations you forget the hope itself. France is not the most interesting country [in that regard]. For example, Ireland is very spectacular — very quick decline of religion. It was one of the most Catholic countries in the world. The truth is nearly incredible if you examine it calmly. Nobody could have predicted it.”
PerhapsThereIsanIsland,Houellebecq’s forthcoming novel about cloning, will be published in France at the end of the summer. Houellebecq was unwilling to discuss it, saying only that he wasn’t convinced of “the opposition between human dignity and cloning,” pointing to twins as a natural manifestation of the phenomenon. But de Brunhof, who believes that Platformwas written too hastily, said Islandis by far Houellebecq’s most serious book and his masterpiece. (When she wrote to Houellebecq saying as much, he replied, “Yes, I know.”) Parts of it, she said, are extremely moving, and the ending is both romantic and melancholic. “Some people who read the manuscript were mesmerized.”
Houellebecq had arrived in California about five days earlier, when he flew into San Francisco, where Believer Books is headquartered, to publicize his study of Lovecraft. There was a call on a Bay Area Web site, which referred to him as “the most hated man in Europe” and “the new face of Nazism,” to picket a public talk he gave with the author Daniel Handler. No protesters showed up.
From San Francisco, he was driven down to Los Angeles along the Pacific Coast Highway by Dorna Khazeni, the L.A.-based translator of the Lovecraft book, with Lipsyte and Christophe riding in back. This was his first trip to California, but Houellebecq slept through the most scenic part of the drive.
“He was very silent during the trip. It took time to get to know how we could communicate with him,” said Christophe. “I think he really liked the elephant seals on the beach near San Simeon. He liked the Madonna Inn too. For some reason, I knew that this kind of crazy design would appeal to him. He said to me, ‘Oh yes, the design is very well done. But, you know, I also like the hunting-trophy kind of kitsch — the animals hanging on the wall.’ ”
The first stop in Los Angeles was at KCRW in Santa Monica to tape an interview with Michael Silverblatt, the hyperintellectual host of Bookworm.Houellebecq’s novels are notorious for their explicit sex scenes and lovingly detailed descriptions of threesomes and orgies, most of which, we are led to believe, are based on the author’s own experiences. (Though he is married, he once told an interviewer for TheNewYorkTimesthat he slept with 25 different women a year.) Yet catching sight of him for the first time at the radio station — pale, thin, with a prim body language more suggestive of an old lady than a bedroom athlete — the first thought that came to mind was, “How does this guy ever get laid?”