LÉtranger in a Strange Land
Photos by Ted Soqui
You dine with Michel Houellebecq at your peril — just ask Oliver Stone. Shortly after sharing a table with the ultracontroversial French novelist at the White Lotus, a restaurant in Hollywood known for its deafening noise and nubile Asian clientele, the film director was pulled over by the cops on Sunset Boulevard and taken down to the station, charged with driving under the influence and possession of an illegal substance. It took a $15,000 bail to get him out.
But then, nobody said hanging with the author of The Elementary Particles and Platform would be easy. Houellebecq (pronounced wellbeck) may be the only writer alive to have been accused of being a Stalinist and a Nazi, not to mention a sex maniac and a drunk. He is almost certainly the only writer to have fallen asleep while being interviewed on television. (The question was too long, he explained later.) His work has been described as racist, sexist, homophobic, reactionary, nihilistic, pornographic and repulsive, as well as moving, funny and prophetic. Three years ago, he was put on trial in Paris for inciting anti-Muslim hatred after he called Islam the world’s “most stupid religion” during an alcohol-laced interview with the French literary magazine Lire. Even those lovable Brazilians (“morons obsessed with soccer and Formula One”) have failed to escape his satirical pen.
The night after his dinner with Stone, Houellebecq, on his first visit to L.A., could be found smoking a cigarette at a sidewalk table at Mel’s Diner on Sunset Boulevard. With him were two journalists (myself and the jovial novelist Sam Lipsyte, who was profiling him for GQ), as well as Sylvie Christophe from the French Consulate, dashingly attired in a formfitting white jacket and knee-length white pants. A small, birdlike man with a waxen complexion and wispy brown hair, Houellebecq had finished picking his way through a mound of what was billed on the menu as Santa Fe Chicken Salad. (Asked what he thought of it, he described it tactfully as “something quite specific.”) The dish had now been moved aside, replaced by an enormous cup of black, glimmering liquid.
A passerby stopped at the table and stared down at the cup. “Is that a quadruple espresso?” he asked in amazement, and everyone except Houellebecq burst out laughing. What the passerby couldn’t know, of course, was that Houellebecq was a French writer; that all French writers worth their salt drink terrifyingly strong coffee, usually in enormous quantities; and that, historically, the crème de la crème like Jean-Paul Sartre have added to their coffee habit several packs of cigarettes a day along with amphetamines in the morning and barbiturates at night. It’s a tough tradition to follow, but Houellebecq was doing his best.
“How are you feeling?” I asked.
“Well, uh, I am feeling, hmm . . . tired,” he replied softly.
He squinted at me vaguely, as if pained by the white glare of the enormous billboard across the street advertising a new Disney movie. Smoke drifted out of the side of his mouth, and an inch of drooping ash fell silently onto the sleeve of his old blue windbreaker, which was spotted with white paint. Though he was nominally the center of attention, his movements and speech were so minimal it took a certain amount of concentration to remember he was there.
It was the night before the French referendum on the new EU constitution. What did Houellebecq think? Everyone leaned forward to hear his opinion.
“Well, hmm . . . It’s complicated . . . I don’t know, really,” he said, his voice barely audible above the hum of traffic. “Maybe democracy is out of control? Maybe we need another kind of system? I don’t know, it’s interesting. Why not?”
With his virtuosic repertoire of “ums” and “ers” and “hmms” and long silent pauses accompanied by frequent puffs on his ever-present cigarette, Houellebecq can dramatize the process of thinking as few novelists can. But there were times when, at the conclusion of all that process, no discernible thought appeared to have resulted. Perhaps it had something to do with the amount of alcohol he had consumed, his shaky grasp of English and sly comic sensibility.
Few doubt his intelligence on the page, however, or the sense of isolation and loneliness that underlies his satire. The tone of his work is one of radical estrangement and ennui, and his books are studded with statements bleak even for a French writer who was once frequently treated for nervous depression.
For example: “Anything can happen in this life, especially nothing.” Or: “It is in our relations with other people that we gain a sense of ourselves; it’s that, pretty much, that makes relations with other people unbearable.”
“Life is painful and disappointing,” he wrote 14 years ago in the opening sentence of his first published prose work, H.P. Lovecraft: Against the World, Against Life, a study of the American writer that has just been brought out in translation by Believer Books, an imprint of McSweeney’s. “We generally know where we stand in relation to reality and don’t care to know any more. Humanity, such as it is, inspires only an attenuated curiosity in us.”
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.”
The Elementary Particles, 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.
“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.”
Platform may 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.”
Perhaps There Is an Island, 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 Platform was written too hastily, said Island is 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 The New York Times that 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?”
“Maybe he doesn’t,” Silverblatt said when I spoke to him a couple of days later. But then he speculated shrewdly that Houellebecq is probably one of those people who, despite being without the natural sexual advantages of looks and (early on) money or fame, mastered certain basic principles of seduction and discovered that if you just ask for what you want, you will often end up getting it.
The centerpiece of the L.A. trip was a conversation about his book on Lovecraft with Lipsyte at the Armand Hammer Museum. (The event was co-sponsored by the Weekly and the French Consulate.) The discussion was bookended, McSweeney’s style, with two performances by the Velvet Hammer Burlesque troupe that didn’t quite come off. The MC, wearing a bowler hat and red jacket, was a corpulent purveyor of stale jokes that drew groans from the audience. Things got even more uncomfortable for some when three women — a thin one, a fat one and an extremely short one — took turns disrobing and shook their booties at the literati.
Though Houellebecq spoke quickly, by his standards, the performance was still judged narcoleptic even by his fans. But he became effusive when commenting on the results of the French referendum, which had now come in. Though he claims to find politics boring and belongs to no political faction, this was one bit of politics on which he was now clearly ready to pronounce.
“Well, it’s a great moment!” he enthused, delighting in the crushing setback suffered by Europe’s aloof and technocratic elites. (It would be hard to come up with a single important character from Houellebecq’s novels who would have voted yes to the constitution. In fact, it could be argued that his work, with its bewildering mix of insolent rebellion, rants against the generation of ’68 and dislike of Islam, was a clear foretaste of the constitution’s failure.)
“I am very surprised because normally the French are cowards,” he said from the stage. “When it’s important for the state, the government tells you that you have to vote yes, that you have no reason to vote no, it’s irresponsible to vote no. And they repeated it at high levels with more and more stress until the last day. And the people voted no! It’s an incredible failure.”
After the show, Houellebecq went upstairs to the reception, where he spent a couple of hours smoking cigarettes next to the THANK YOU FOR NOT SMOKING signs, autographing books, and schmoozing and posing for photographs with the dancers and other female admirers. He spent about 15 minutes talking to Kim Murphy, a.k.a. “Rocket Sapphire,” the troupe’s contortionist. Coincidentally, Murphy told me later, she was in the midst of reading one of Houellebecq’s novels. Her boyfriend has only one book in his apartment, and it’s Platform. “At the beginning, it was, like, what the hell is this?” she said about her reaction to the novel. “How am I going to read this book about this person who is not attached to the world at all? But now I can’t stop reading it.
“I found him very playful, in a coy, seductive way,” Murphy continued. “Almost like an adolescent boy, getting one over on the world. Like he’s laughing at all this stuff, you know? I don’t know his biography, but I would think that he was painfully shy and now he’s getting laid left and right. I was definitely attracted to him, and I’m not attracted to that type. Also because he’s so honest and so out there with his writing — that’s attractive.”
The reception was followed by a dinner, attended by around 20 people, at Kate Mantilini’s on Wilshire Boulevard. Houellebecq ordered a steak, heaped his salad on top of it, and helped himself to the red wine. Olivier Touraine, an L.A.-based French architect who sat across from him, seemed both excited and perturbed by his encounter with the most celebrated French writer of his generation.
“He is obviously very secluded, very isolated, there are many parts to him that he doesn’t show,” Touraine said afterward. “In a way he is an enfant terrible in a generic French way, burning the candle at both ends. But he is also the best contemporary French writer.”
Outside the restaurant, Houellebecq took a break to smoke a small cigar and talk about his literary rivals in France. “People claim to attack each other for ideological reasons, but it’s much more animalistic than that — it’s because they inhabit the same space.” Then he dropped into a martial-arts crouch and looked quickly from side to side. “They come from the left, they come from the right — it’s the kung fu littéraire!” he said, launching himself into a series of surprisingly deft swivels and kicks, dispatching his enemies one after another. But when it came to Bernard-Henri Lévy, the celebrated French philosopher known by his initials, “BHL,” Houellebecq transformed himself into a raptor out of a cheap Japanese horror movie and bit Lévy’s head off. “That was BHL, folks!”
By midnight, only the usual suspects, Christophe, Lipsyte and myself, joined this time by the leggy essayist and critic Cristina Nehring, were still at the table. Though he would be rising at dawn to drive back to San Francisco before flying home to Dublin, Houellebecq ordered another triple espresso and a further glass of red wine. A few minutes later, he asked for yet another espresso, and was told the kitchen was closed. Where else could we find some? he wanted to know. At this time of night, nowhere, he was told. Surprised by how early the city shut down, Houellebecq decided that it would be best for all concerned if we adjourned to his hotel room.
“C’est comme les pays de l’Est [It’s like Eastern Europe under communism],” he joked to Christophe, who burst out laughing.
At the hotel, Houellebecq was having trouble entering his room. The electronic eye on the door handle was supposed to turn green; this one stayed red and the lock held. Perhaps he had the wrong room? He called down to reception to find out. It was 1 in the morning now, and he seemed perfectly comfortable with his temporary homelessness. “We have to rethink the situation in global terms,” he announced grandly, tottering down the corridor.
Eventually the problem was resolved, and the drinking commenced, as did the smoking. “There is no last cigarette in my life. I am a perfectly organized smoker,” he announced, claiming never to be caught without a lighter and a pack of Silk Cuts. The shyness and reticence that had afflicted him earlier in his stay had almost entirely disappeared. Now that the EU referendum had been concluded, he joked, he would write a newspaper article urging the French to vote YES. The true question the referendum had posed, he said, boiled down to, “Are you enthusiastic, or do you just accept?”
Asked about some of the highlights of his trip, he mentioned his visit to a PetCo (where he had bought a gift for his dog) and to a dusty nutritional-supplements store on Lincoln Boulevard. Houellebecq, who believes that shopping is an overlooked literary subject, had wandered up and down the aisles for almost half an hour, gazing at bottles of algae and tubs of protein powder like an anthropologist studying the artifacts of an extinct tribe. (“Fascinating,” he murmured.) In the end, he had bought some melatonin and a Geni-Soy bar, having briefly flirted with the purchase of a bottle of “Ripped Fuel.”
“I am for the muscles,” he now declared in the hotel room. “I would like to have a lot of muscles, because women like it. I’m for bodybuilding, but it’s very exhausting.”
“Perhaps you should dedicate yourself to that,” Lipsyte suggested dryly. “It would surprise people.”
“Me more than anyone,” Houellebecq replied.
Nehring asked him about his impressions of California. “What do you think of us?” she cried plaintively.
“But people don’t understand,” he protested, saying that Californians kept demanding to know what he thought of them and their state. “Sometimes you think nothing, you have no impressions. Nothing happened, it was an ordinary story with normal people. It was a human experience.”
At the words “human experience,” Houellebecq doubled up with laughter.
Going over to the pricey silver laptop on his desk, he showed us a proposed image for the British edition of Perhaps There Is an Island. The front cover showed a very beautiful woman standing in the ocean, with only her head above water, staring straight at the viewer with brazenly seductive eyes. The back cover showed the same woman in profile, turning away. It might have been a travel poster for one of those sex-tourism agencies he wrote about in Platform. Houellebecq wasn’t sure he liked it.
Feeling about the mouse pad with his cigarette hand, he searched for another proposed cover image. The ash from his cigarette lengthened steadily until, an inch-and-a-half long, it fell onto the keyboard. Houellebecq ignored it. It was now 2 in the morning and he looked exhausted; there was a large red boil on his left earlobe that must have been painful. Soon he was being monopolized by Nehring, who sat on the floor at his feet and talked to him about love, a subject on which she is writing a book.
Houellebecq smoked and listened, his face turned aside, contributing the occasional murmured assent as Nehring talked on. In his own peculiar way, he looked happy enough. And why not? His trip to California had been a success, and by now he must be ranked as one of the more popular Frenchmen in America. Like us, he enjoys taking potshots at France (“a sinister country, utterly sinister and bureaucratic”). There is also something immensely appealing about the fact that, despite being hailed as a great novelist, in person he acts more like a standup comedian. (One who, moreover, often looks like he’s about to fall down.) In an era of phony rebels, Houellebecq is the rare real thing.
By 3 in the morning Lipsyte and Christophe were growing restless, wanting to leave. There was only one problem. Lipsyte wouldn’t leave until I left, because, as someone who would be writing his own profile of Houellebecq, he didn’t want me to witness a final scene he didn’t know about. I, in the meantime, couldn’t leave until Nehring did, because she had left her car at the Armand Hammer and I had agreed to give her a lift. So finally all four of us rose to say our goodbyes at the door, one after the other. First myself, then Lipsyte, then Christophe, then Nehring. Nehring seemed to be taking a little longer, so the rest of us went and waited by the elevators for her to finish. And waited, and waited.
“I can’t leave without her,” I told Lipsyte, who was becoming increasingly exasperated by the lateness of the hour. (He was flying back to New York the next day.) “I promised her a lift. It wouldn’t be gentlemanly just to take off.”
“Well, I can’t leave till you leave,” he replied firmly.
It was a stalemate. Five more minutes went by and Christophe crept down the corridor to assess the situation. The doorway tête-à-tête was still in progress, and it was now 3:15 a.m.
“Let’s leave,” I said.
“Okay,” said Lipsyte. “I’ll leave if you leave.”
The three of us rode the elevator down together. Only later did we realize that Nehring was writing her own piece, and the final scene was all hers.
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