France’s most vilified living author understands certain parts of the electorate very well
To call Michel Houellebecq the enfant terrible of French letters is intellectually lazy. It makes a nod to his iconoclasm, and his legal troubles for alleged incitement of hatred, while failing to say much about the content of his ideas or why he is as relevant as ever in April 2022, in the aftermath of an election that riveted people around the world.
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If only more folks got what he is about. To read Houellebecq is to inhabit a viewpoint rarely acknowledged or analyzed in any depth amid the jubilation following President Emmanuel Macron’s victory over his challenger, nationalist Marine Le Pen. In recent days, mobs have been out in the streets of France cheering the vanquishing of racism and xenophobia. They are unconcerned with the nuances of domestic politics, the sources of malaise in the midst of their society’s demographic and cultural remaking, or the legitimacy of viewpoints other than their own.
For those wondering why Macron’s margin of victory was so thin and why the race made it to a second round—the third time that a populist challenger has achieved this feat in the last two decades—it may be useful to read Houellebecq. They might just learn a thing or two about the mindsets and motives of those they despise. But don’t hold your breath. For many, it is easier to be smug about the deplorables who turned out to vote for Le Pen.
That upstart politician became the bugbear of the Parisian elite, who have no better exemplar than Cécile Prieur, editorial director of Le Nouvel Observateur. Prieur was aghast at the prospect of the incumbent having to face down the threat of a right-wing challenger, and even more mortified when Marine Le Pen made it to last Sunday’s runoff. In her editorials in the April 7 and April 14 issues of the magazine—published just days before the first round of voting, and days before the second, respectively—Prieur repeatedly decries the seeding of far-right politics across the landscape and what she calls the banalisation of such politics in France.
What all correct-thinking people should find to be abhorrent views and attitudes have become so common that they seem normal, even banal, you see. Prieur says that a Le Pen victory will lead to the stripping away of the most basic liberties in France, freedom of speech foremost among them, and will make France an autocracy along the lines of Victor Orban’s Hungary. She denounces any who might feel inclined to sit out the election and warns readers not to “play with fire” in a contest that comes down to a struggle for the survival of liberal France. The cover of the April 14 edition says it all: “Alerte Nationale.”
In other words, Le Pen voters are deplorables and irredeemables whose names should never pass the lips of any member of polite society.
Clearly they are anathema to most of the intellectual and literary classes, and here is what makes Houellebecq such a strange bird. His debut novel from 1994, Extension du Domaine de la Lutte, more or less set the template for many of his later books, and it seems no accident that the novel’s title, which literally means Extension of the Domain of the Struggle, became unrecognizably different in translation. In English editions, the title has become Whatever. Though unrelated to the original, the English title conveys a bit of critics’ and opinion-makers’ bewildered and flabbergasted reaction to the author. For them, people who flirt with far-right nationalist politics are supposed to be uncouth, ill-educated, foul-mouthed rubes too busily engaged in self-parody for anyone to take them seriously. They are not supposed to be sensitive, introspective, highly cerebral iconoclasts who go off on intellectual tangents without warning.
The problem for progressive elites is that Houellebecq redefines all those terms. Reading Whatever, you will quickly see why Houellebecq is so problematic for them on so many levels. For one thing, Houellebecq refuses to let the progressives co-opt decency. What Cécile Prieur does not want to recognize is that Houellebecq has gone where other novelists fear to tread and has illuminated, in particular, the banalization of the massacre of men, women, and children on the streets of France in terrorist attacks. On page 22 of Extension du Domaine de la Lutte, his narrator describes the aftermath of a jihadist bombing of a café on the Champs-Élysées. It has killed two patrons and left a woman blind and mutilated. This account could have come right from the headlines of France in any given year since the novel’s appearance.
An analysis of Houellebecq’s later works would not convey quite the same sense of his prescience. A novel released all the way back in 1994 anticipated the most horrific attacks France would suffer and the revulsion that not surprisingly has left some voters open to the appeal of nationalists who want to tighten controls on immigration, implement effective screening of all who seek to enter France, and rewrite citizenship laws. The attack described in Extension has become a quotidian reality. While many people may have heard of the January 2015 attack on the offices of Charlie Hebdo or the November 2015 incidents that killed 130 and plunged France into a state of emergency for months, not everyone is aware of the grinding, monotonous regularity of attacks in France in which “only” three or four people die.
Those who decry the rise of people like Le Pen have not answered the question of what voters should do when the state fails to carry out its first and most basic duty and protect them and their families. Houellebecq drives home early on his narrator’s maladjustment in a France where efforts to screen people coming across the nation’s borders are pitifully inadequate. The voice that speaks in Extension is Houellebecq or someone very much like him, and we will see him again in such books as Les Particules Élémentaires, Platforme, Soumission, Serotonin, and this year’s Anéantir, among others. The better you grasp the psychology animating the first-person voice of Extension, the more navigable the later works will be.
Bright and Undermotivated
The antihero of Extension du Domaine de la Lutte works as a sales representative for an IT firm. Like Meursault in Albert Camus’s L’Étranger, he is lonely and alienated and has an uneasy relationship with his boss, who tells him about the firm’s expansion and proposes that he go off to new markets to play a role in that growth. Unlike Meursault, this narrator does not have the option of saying no. So off he goes on trips with a colleague named Raymond Tisserand who is even more of an unprepossessing incel than himself. They meet with executives of firms in the provinces of France, engage in testy exchanges with the latter about their systems’ adequacy and efficiency, and go out to bars in their spare time where Tisserand makes pitiful attempts to hit on young women who cannot get away from him fast enough.
For want of a better term, these are a pair of spineless wimps. In another parallel with Camus, the narrator drunkenly tries to instigate a showdown on a beach between Tisserand and a man who put the moves on a young woman Tisserand wanted to talk to at a nightclub earlier in the evening, but the effort proves to be so much idle talk. That’s as it should be. The narrator is obviously not in the right in trying to provoke a fight here.
You are sure to wonder about the source of the narrator’s misery and sociopathy. Apart from his failures on the romantic front, it emerges that, for all his revulsion over the terror wrought by foreign cells, the narrator of Extension is just as much of a bloodless technocrat as anybody.
One of the field trips takes them to Rouen, where it emerges that the narrator has little interest in Jeanne d’Arc or any of the stuff of centuries past. When the narrator gets sick and has to take a long leave from work to rest in a hospital, some of those around him express surprise at how few people, with the exception of Raymond, come to his bedside to wish him well. The narrator tries to explain that he does not know anyone in Rouen and it is a place he would never think to visit if work did not take him there.
With this brief statement, he has revealed more than he may ever realize. Existing in an antiseptic space without ties of blood or kinship or shared history, this character has an unspoken disdain for the culture and civilization to which he belongs. It really is true: everything and everyone in this world is on its own plane and money is at the nexus of any points of interaction. In his relationship to the people and history of Rouen, he is not so very different from thieves who go online and try to steal personal data in order to steal money from strangers.
The men and women he passes on the streets of Rouen at dusk are as alien to him as an image of Jeanne d’Arc gazing out from the pages of a musty old book. He is much like the authorial voice of Houellebecq’s 2015 novel Soumission, which envisions a France that had elected its first Muslim president, and where, at the end of the novel, the narrator tells us that if all the cultural heritage of his nation disappeared, he would have nothing to regret. All those pretentious old historical relics die offscreen, as it were, and the protagonist’s indifference stands as a challenge to those readers who may be complicit in the antinationalist and progressive makeover of a once-proud country. Here, isn’t this what you wanted?
A question that Cécile Prieur and many of the mobs going wild in the streets, in the aftermath of Macron’s resounding triumph, must surely answer in the affirmative. Their collective response to Houellebecq: Whatever.