France’s most controversial writer has new book out as nation reels
On Friday, October 16, a Chechen Muslim refugee beheaded a French schoolteacher, Samuel Paty, in a Paris suburb, before dying in a hail of police bullets. Sooner than you could say mon dieu!, there came nationwide rallies against the extremism and hate that fueled the crime, accompanied by outpourings of sympathy for the victim. French President Emmanuel Macron’s vow to fight Islamic separatism led to a public spat with Turkey’s prime minister and the recalling of France’s envoy to Turkey.
Just nine days before the gruesome murder, the publisher Flammarion released Interventions 2020, a book of essays and articles by Michel Houellebecq, maybe the most admired and without doubt the most notorious man of letters in France today. Over the last two decades, Houellebecq has made headlines for his comments on Islam and his depictions of a supine France laid low by multiculturalism, feminism, and political correctness.
Houellebecq has been in legal trouble for his public statements and critics have often called him a racist, a xenophobe, and a trumpeter of the West’s superiority vis à vis other cultures and civilizations, but in this regard people tragically misunderstand him.
In the spotlight
To be sure, Houellebecq doesn’t go out of his way to avoid controversy. The author’s most audacious stunt to date may be his 2015 novel Submission, which envisions a near future where a Muslim candidate gets elected as France’s President and jump-starts the displacement of the national institutions and culture by foreign ones.
The near simultaneity of the publication of Interventions 2020 and the Paty murder might seem to present the crowning coincidence in the public life of a writer whose sheer prescience verges on creepy. Houellebecq’s fourth novel, Platform, at whose climax French tourist industry executives in Thailand fall prey to a horrific nightclub attack, hit bookstores near the end of August 2001, about two weeks before 9/11 and a little more than two years before an incident eerily akin to what the novel describes: the bombing attacks that rocked a tourist area of Bali, Indonesia, in October 2002.
In the two decades since Platform, French civilians have been the victims of many more terror attacks, and Houellebecq’s readership and stature have swelled. Over the course of those years, Houellebecq has developed a persona as an enfant terrible within the generally liberal and progressive world of French letters, beholden to no constraints on what he says and writes. Some view Houellebecq as a literary equivalent of Éric Zemmour, an essayist who has blasted lax immigration laws and the demographic changes sweeping France and Europe. There are those who accuse Houellebecq of writing pamphlet literature, or agitprop thinly disguised as fiction.
But Michel Houellebecq is not Éric Zemmour. People who make this comparison might be astonished to learn that Houellebecq is an accomplished poet, and that you can lose yourself for hours in his poems without coming across too many references to the stuff of today’s headlines. Some of the poems feel almost brutally apolitical. His poem “Vacances,” about the ennui he feels when watching families relax on the beach around him, feels like a gasp of existential despair, a cry from a nightmare reality that no political band-aid can ever make right.
His novels, of course, are another matter, but in an interview with the Paris Review, Houellebecq denies being familiar, let alone in agreement, with Zemmour’s views. And for all the angst, phobias, and hangups of his middle-aged male protagonists, he’s not some pseudo-literary huckster offering a patina of respectability to the neuroses of shadow-dwelling incels.
Houellebecq is a sly, funny author with a restless intellect, whose plots unfurl in a way that never feels anything other than organic. He’s a writer with broad literary, scientific, and philosophical interests who happens to have picked contemporary issues and concerns as his subject matter rather than allowing the issues and concerns to dictate his plots and scenarios.
Houellebecq’s trick is to write himself into the leading roles, and to make readers engage acutely with the minds of troubled, tormented, maladjusted, but sensitive, bright, and relatable men trying to get by in a world changing beyond recognition at breakneck speed. Try reading a few pages of Extension du Domaine de la Lutte (called “Whatever” in English), The Elementary Particles, Platform, or Submission and see if you don’t find yourself beginning to care about his protagonists even as you wish you didn’t have to hear quite so much about their romantic and sexual cachet and prowess, or lack thereof. It takes a novelist with a Dostoyevskyan élan for psychological insight to write long books about these kinds of characters that people who are not remotely like them will find absorbing.
Houellebecq’s observations about the state of contemporary life, and the differences between cultures, are bound to make him some enemies. In the Paris Review interview mentioned above, Houellebecq explains why he decided to have Mohammed Ben Abbes in Submission seize political power through the vehicle of an explicitly Muslim political party rather than simply riding to power as the candidate of one of the long-established parties in France. What it comes down to is that Ben Abbes and the other Muslims in the novel really would be cozy neither with the social liberalism of the left, nor with the nationalist rhetoric and anti-immigration stances found on the right. They need their own vehicle.
Houellebecq reminds us that the intersectional unity posited by the politically correct doesn’t exist. The world is so much more complex, and the tolerant, liberal views and attitudes that we accept as mainstream in the West would get people in trouble elsewhere. To position yourself as a champion of same-sex marriage, for example, is to take a stance contrary to prevailing attitudes in non-white, non-western parts of the world, as American filmmakers keep finding when they try to market in China a film presenting gays and lesbians in a positive light and end up having to make cuts to get the film past a censorship board.
It’s also not politically correct to acknowledge that in many nations of the Middle East and Asia, gay sex is a capital crime, and coming out is likely to get you tied to a tree and stoned to death. Women must hide themselves under veils. The Muslims in Submission need their own party because they can’t align with the nationalist right for obvious reasons, and, more importantly, they’d never get along at all with the left in France on issues like secularism, same-sex marriage, women’s rights, and the status of women in contemporary society.
Most Muslims are decent people. Islamophobia is a real problem, and we should yield to none in our sympathy for Muslims who have been the victims of hate crimes. But the politically correct have it wrong. Theirs is a storybook worldview with no grasp of the complexity of history. You might think that pointing this out makes Houellebecq a champion and chauvinist of the Western world, writing tourist brochures for European countries in the guise of novels, but that isn’t the case.
For all the controversy that flares up around his views on hot-button topics, it’s a grave disservice to Houellebecq to consider him a literary equivalent of partisan troublemakers like Zemmour. He’s as multifaceted as any writer you’ll come across. In this connection, it’s worth recalling that Penguin Classics in 1983 put out a volume called The Other Poe, containing comic and satirical works that those who always thought of Poe as a spinner of horror tales might not have encountered before. Referring to a writer’s “other” persona risks tarring that persona as a secondary one, coexisting uneasily with the first. In some cases, the “other,” long-neglected persona may be the most interesting one, and that’s arguably the case with Houellebecq.
Interventions 2020 is the newest version of a work that appeared in 1998 and underwent its first expansion in 2009. To read this fascinating book is to get to know “the other Houellebecq,” a writer just as real as the hellraiser you’ve heard about, but not nearly as widely known.
Far from being a right-wing pundit, Houellebecq agrees with leftists like Jean-Pierre Chevènement who have sharply criticized the current federal arrangement in Europe, which yokes together, under a common currency and political system, nation-states with utterly different identities. Houellebecq’s analysis of life in Germany is likely to anger any far-right nationalists there who think their country’s traditional identity is something to celebrate. In his essay “L’Allemand,” he dissects the order and efficiency for which Germans are famous, and notes the tendency of an awfully large number of Germans to gravitate south.
Going to Spain is popular when they take a vacation, and especially when they retire. In Houellebecq’s analysis, Germany itself is “Country A,” where everything is geared to a fault toward a regimented, productive manner of living, and the nation’s residents stay there as long as they can force themselves to do so before migrating to “Country B,” where they can relax and enjoy life for a change. Other countries, like France, where life has neither the order of the former type of place nor the lassitude of the latter, represent “Country C.” It’s an original way of looking at things, though I don’t happen to agree with Houellebecq. To my mind, the unsurpassed book fairs, spas, bars, and restaurants of Germany are just a few of the things that make life there eminently enjoyable.
Houellebecq is similarly withering about Sweden, where a university he visits is virtually the only thing he finds to admire, and, particularly, about France itself. In his essay “Calais, Pas-de-Calais,” he describes a seaside resort that’s dead during the day and barely comes to life at all in the evening, and then only in the worst possible sense of alive, as drunk people make their noxious presence felt all around. The town suffered utter devastation during the Second World War and has never really bounced back, despite having decades to do so.
In place of the ancient town center you’d expect to find, with places of historical and antiquarian interest, there is a casino. It’s a pretty sorry locale. In Houellebecq’s analysis, the people of communities like Calais need to think hard about whether it makes sense for them to be part of the European federation, with all the economic consequences that entails, but there can be no doubt that in this and other essays he is urging his countrymen not to look for external causes of their decline but to take a look in the mirror and describe what they see there.
Here’s what some people don’t get about Houellebecq. His feelings for France may cross the line from tough love into something bitter and savage. Remember how Jello Biafra of the Dead Kennedys sang that punk isn’t dead, it just deserves to die “when it becomes another stale cartoon”? To my mind, Houellebecq’s ruminations about France convey a message in a similar kind of spirit.
This is what makes the ending of Submission so quietly devastating. Foreign institutions and culture are supplanting French ones, but Houellebecq doesn’t go on for pages and pages about the tragedy of this process, lamenting the fall from cultural primacy of Bibliothèque de la Pléiade texts, Gallimard editions, Livres de Poche, Mont-Saint-Michel, Notre-Dame de Paris, the Louvre, the café society of France, Jeanne D’Arc, Blaise Pascal, Charles de Gaulle, Édith Piaf, all the great writers and thinkers and artists and musicians the country has produced, and all that is idiosyncratically French. Who appreciates them anymore, anyway? Those things die quietly, offscreen as it were, and at the very end of the novel, the narrator says simply that if he went off and started a new life, leaving everything behind, “Je n’aurais rien à regretter.”
I’d have nothing to regret.