Hate and hedonism
INovembre, in Paris: a prize Maecenas of the prize, a pessimistic—that systematically
Photo : Sophie Bassouls Corbis / Sygma
all failed to honor MichelHouellebecq’s “Les ParticulesÉlémentaires,” and for months lecas Houellebecq had beensimmering. Schoolteachers hadprotested the book’s explicitsexuality; the author had been
Houellebecq’s novel—his second—was very French in its mixture of intellectuality and eroticism; it wasreminiscent of Tournier in the evident pride it took in its own theoretical bone structure. It also had its faults: acertain heavy-handedness, and a tendency for the characters to make speeches rather than utter dialogue. But, in itshigh ambition and its intransigence, it was clearly superior to the other immediate contender for the prize, a novelthat was very French in a different way: elegant, controlled, and old-fashioned—or, rather, classique, as I learned tosay in judges’ jargon.
Houellebecq squeaked it by a single vote. Afterward, I was talking to the president of the jury, the writer andjournalist Daniel Schneidermann, about the fuss our winner had kicked up in the press and on television. Perhaps, Isuggested, it was just that he wasn’t médiatique—mediagenic. “On the contrary,” Schneidermann (who had votedfor Houellebecq) replied. “He’s médiatique by being anti-médiatique. It’s very clever.” An hour or so later, in agilded salon of the Hotel Bristol, before literary Paris’s smartest, a shabby figure in a baggy sweater and rumpledscarlet jeans took his check and—in the spirit of his novel—declined to wallow in bourgeois expressions of pleasureor gratitude. Not all were charmed. “It’s an insult to the members of the jury,” one French publisher whispered tome, “for him to accept the prize without having washed or gone to the dry cleaner’s.”Our Maecenas also got huffy, and announced the following year that the Prix Novembre would be suspended fortwelve months, so that we could discuss its future direction. Most jury members thought this unnecessary, not to saya touch insolent; so we decamped to a new sponsor and renamed ourselves the Prix Décembre. Meanwhile, thenovel was translated into English, and Anglophones became aware of what Schneidermann had told me: its authorwas médiatique by being anti-médiatique. The literary world is one of the easiest in which to acquire a bad-boyreputation, and Houellebecq duly obliged. When the (female) profiler from the Times visited him, he gotcatatonically drunk, collapsed face down into his dinner, and told her he’d answer further questions only if she sleptwith him. Houellebecq’s wife was also enlisted, posing for the photographer in her underwear and offering a loyalquote of treasurable quality. “Michel’s not depressed,” she told the interviewer. “It’s the world that’s depressing.”If Houellebecq is, on the evidence of “The Elementary Particles,” the most potentially weighty French novelist toemerge since Tournier—and the wait has been long, and therefore overpraise understandable—his third novel,“Platform” (translated by Frank Wynne; Knopf; $25), opens with a nod in an earlier direction. No French writercould begin a novel “Father died last year” without specifically invoking Camus’s “The Stranger.” Houellebecq’snarrator is called Renault, perhaps hinting that such a man has become a mere cog in a mechanized society; but thename also chimes with Meursault, Camus’s narrator. And for a clincher: Renault’s father has been sleeping with his
North African cleaner, Aïcha, whose brother beats the old man to death. When the son is brought face to face withhis father’s murderer, he reflects, “If I had had a gun, I would have shot him without a second thought. Killing thatlittle shit . . . seemed to me a morally neutral act.” Cut to Meursault’s gunning down of the Arab on the beach inAlgiers, and his similar moral indifference to the act.
But, in the sixty years that lie between “The Stranger” and “Platform,” alienation and anomie have moved on. Sohave expressions of disrespect for the parent. As a schoolboy in the sixties, I found Meursault’s transgressiveopening words—“Mother died today. Or perhaps yesterday, I don’t know”—registering like a slap (and I wasn’t apious son, either). Nowadays, you have to slap harder:As I stood before the old man’s coffin, unpleasant thoughts came to me. He had made the most of life, the oldbastard; he was a clever cunt. “You had kids, you fucker,” I said spiritedly, “you shoved your fat cock in mymother’s cunt.” I was a bit tense, I have to admit. It’s not every day you have a death in the family. Houellebecq ups the ante; but it’s also his trademark to follow the coffinside vituperation with the wry “I was a bittense.” “The Elementary Particles” was hard to summarize (well, it’s about the third “metaphysical mutation” of thelast two thousand years, that of molecular biology, which will see cloning put an end to the fear of death and themiseries of genetic individualism . . .) without making it sound heavy; on the page, there was a satirical glee to itsdenunciations, drollery in the dystopia.
“Platform” begins very much in the mode of “The Elementary Particles,” with a radically detached male narrator, achild of the information age, excoriating the falseness of the world. He boasts the “disinterested attitude appropriateto an accounts manager” toward almost everything. He is emotionally mute, and socially, too, and thus barely ableto converse with Aïcha. When she begins criticizing Islam, he more or less agrees, though he isn’t entirely hard-lineabout it: “On an intellectual level, I was suddenly capable of acknowledging the attractions of the Muslim vagina.”Anyone not yet offended? But Houellebecq, or, rather, “Michel,” as his narrator is elidingly called, has barelystarted. Snorting contempt is coming the way of the following: Frederick Forsyth and John Grisham; JacquesChirac; the Guide du Routard (a French equivalent of the Rough Guides); package tourists; France (“a sinistercountry, utterly sinister and bureaucratic”—copy that to Bush and Blair); the Chinese; the “bunch of morons [who]died for the sake of democracy” on Omaha Beach; most men; most women; children; the unattractive; the old; theWest; Muslims; the French channel TV5; Muslims again; most artists; Muslims yet again; and finally, frequently,the narrator himself.
What does Michel approve of? Peepshows, massage parlors, pornography, Thai prostitutes, alcohol, Viagra (whichhelps you overcome the effects of alcohol), cigarettes, non-white women, masturbation, lesbianism, troilism, AgathaChristie, double penetration, fellatio, sex tourism, and women’s underwear. You may have spotted an odd one outthere. Frederick Forsyth may be a “halfwit,” while John Grisham’s books are good only for wanking into: “Iejaculated between two pages with a groan of satisfaction. They were going to stick together; didn’t matter, it wasn’tthe kind of book you read twice.” But Agatha Christie receives two pages of adulation, mainly for her novel “TheHollow,” in which she makes clear that she understands “the sin of despair.” This is “the sin of cutting oneself offfrom all warm and living human contacts”—which is, of course, the sin of Michel. “It is in our relations with otherpeople,” he remarks, “that we gain a sense of ourselves; it’s that, pretty much, that makes relations with other peopleunbearable.” Further: “Giving up on life . . . is the easiest thing a person can do”; and “Anything can happen in life,especially nothing.”The sin of despair is compounded when the sufferer is a hedonist. “Platform” is concerned with tourism, sex, and thecombination of the two. Tourism is considered the biggest single industry on the planet, a pure locus of supply anddeliberately massaged demand. One key appeal for the novelist is tourism’s psychology: not least the central,Flaubertian irony whereby anticipation and remembrance (the brochure’s false promise of happiness, the holidaysnap’s grinning lie) often prove more vivid and reliable than the moment itself. One key danger for the novelist—notalways avoided here—is that of easy satire: tourists make soft targets not just for terrorists.
Houellebecq sends Michel off on a sun-and-sex vacation; his largely crass companions include the acceptable,indeed positively attractive Valérie, who works for a travel agency. Much of the immediate plot turns on herattempts and those of her colleague Jean-Yves to revive an ailing branch of the corporation they work for. This is alladequately done, though Houellebecq’s strengths and interests as a writer are not particularly those of traditionalnarrative. His approach to a scene, and a theme, often reminds me of a joke current in Euro circles. A Britishdelegate to some E.U. committee outlines his country’s proposals, which, being British, are typically pragmatic,sensible, and detailed. The French delegate reflects noddingly on them for a considerable period of time, beforedelivering judgment: “Well, I can see that the plan will work in practice, but will it work in theory?”Thus the primary, obvious link between sex and tourism is the carnal, interpersonal (and impersonal) one. But just asimportant for Houellebecq is to find the theoretical connection. Which he does: both sex and tourism exemplify thefree market at its most free. Sex has always appeared capitalistic to Houellebecq. Here is his formulation from hisfirst novel, “Whatever”:In an economic system where unfair dismissal is prohibited, every person more or less manages to find their place.
In a sexual system where adultery is prohibited, every person more or less manages to find their bed mate. In atotally liberal economic system certain people accumulate considerable fortunes; others stagnate in unemploymentand misery. In a totally liberal sexual system certain people have a varied and exciting erotic life; others are reducedto masturbation and solitude.
This kind of swift, audacious linkage is Houellebecq at his best; he loves nothing more than working over what in“The Elementary Particles” he called “the libidinal, hedonistic American option.” But his actual writing about sex in“Platform” is curiously both pornographic and sentimental. Pornographic in the sense of taking all its moves andimages from pornography (who put what where and moved it whither, until a convulsive spurt-’n’-groan); also,written like pornography of a decent, middle-ranking kind (the translation, throughout, is exemplary). Sentimental inthat the novel’s really nice, straightforward characters are Oriental masseuses and prostitutes, who are presented asbeing without flaws, diseases, pimps, addictions, or hangups. Pornographic and sentimental in that nothing ever goeswrong with the sexual act: pneumatic bliss is always obtained, no one ever says “No” or “Stop” or even “Wait,” andyou just have to beckon to a non-white-skinned maid on the hotel terrace for her to pop into the room, quickly revealthat she is braless, and slide seamlessly into a threesome. Houellebecq sees through everything in the world exceptcommercial sex, which he describes—perhaps appropriately—like one who believes every word and picture of aholiday brochure.
And then there is love. “I really love women,” Michel tells us on the opening page. Later, he elaborates: “Myenthusiasm for pussy” is one of “my few remaining recognizable, fully human qualities.” Despite “loving women,”Michel pointedly never refers to his mother. And when this depressed, old-at-forty sex tourist gradually findshimself becoming involved with Valérie, you wonder how Houellebecq will handle it. After all, it is a piece ofliterary insolence to make such a character fall in love in the first place. So how is love different for Michel fromcommercial sex? Happily, not very. Valérie, though at first she appears rather dowdy and browbeaten, turns out tohave wonderful breasts; she is as good in bed as a Thai prostitute, and she doesn’t just go along with threesomes—she instigates them. She is by nature docile, yet she holds down a good job and is very well paid; like Michel, shescorns designer clothes. And that’s about it, really. They don’t do any of that old stuff like talking about feelings, orthinking about them; they don’t go out much together, though he does take her to a wife-swap bar and an S & Mclub. He does a spot of cooking; she is often so tired from work that it isn’t until the next morning that she can givehim a blow job. This is less insolent than fictionally disappointing. Oh, and Valérie has to die, of course, just whenshe has found happiness and the couple have decided to live on a paradise island. The setup, and execution, of thiswould have been improved upon by Grisham or Forsyth.
Why, to go back to the start, does Michel hate his father so? This is one question a normally inquisitive reader mightask after that coffinside denunciation. What do we learn of this “old bastard,” this “clever cunt,” this “moron inshorts,” this “hideously representative element” of the twentieth century? That he was over seventy when he died,that Aïcha was “very fond” of him, that he exercised a lot and owned a Toyota Land Cruiser. Hardly groundsenough, you might think. But we also learn, further on, that this monster was once struck down by a sudden,inexplicable depression. “His mountaineering friends had stood around awkwardly, powerless in the face of thedisease. The reason he immersed himself in sports, he once told me, was to stupefy himself, to stop himself fromthinking.” This is all new (we hadn’t been told before that the father was a mountaineer); and you might think, sinceMichel is himself depressed, that it might have been reason for sympathy. But this is all we get, and the fatherswiftly disappears from the narrative, as he does from Michel’s thoughts.
Within the novel, the filial hatred is just an inexplicable given. But in an interview Houellebecq gave a few yearsago in the magazine Lire he says that his parents abandoned him when he was five, leaving him in the care of agrandmother. “My father developed early on a sense of excessive guilt,” Houellebecq says. “He once told me thestrangest thing: that he devoted himself to intense physical activity so much because it stopped him thinking. He wasa mountain guide.”No reason why this strange confession shouldn’t be used by a novelist; but if it is to work it needs to be supportedfictionally. In “Platform,” the slippage between Michel R. and Michel H. is more serious than this bit ofautobiographical leaching might suggest. There are problems with the narrative, officially a first-person account byMichel R., but one that (insolently?—well, anyway, unjustifiedly) dodges into the third person if it needs to tell uswhat only Michel H. can know. (There is even an incompetent moment when Michel R. gives us his judgment on acharacter he hasn’t yet met.) Within Michel himself, there is also some curious slippage. Thus he sets off on holidaywith “two American best-sellers that I’d bought pretty much at random at the airport” (this despite feeling de haut enbas about Forsyth and Grisham); he also has the Guide du Routard. Fair enough for a sex tourist, you may think.
Later, a little surprisingly, he panics at the thought of having nothing to read. Later still, back home, he turns out tobe an assiduous reader of Auguste Comte and Milan Kundera; he also quotes confidently from Kant, Schopenhauer,and social theoreticians. Is this credibly the same character, or is it someone shifting to meet the needs of themoment?The sense of Houellebecq’s being a clever man who is a less than clever novelist obtrudes most in the novel’sdealings with Islam. Structurally, the function of what Michel calls the “absurd religion” appears to be to deliver, atthe end, an extreme and murderous disapproval of the happy sex tourists. Its running presence, however, consists ina trio of outbursts. The first is from Aïcha, who launches unasked into a denunciation of her Mecca-stupefied fatherand her useless brothers (“They get blind drunk on pastis and all the while they strut around pretending to be theguardians of the one true faith, and they treat me like a slut because I prefer to go out and work rather than marrysome stupid bastard like them”). Next, there is an Egyptian once encountered by Michel in the Valley of the Kings,an immensely cultivated and intelligent genetic engineer, for whom Muslims are “the losers of the Sahara” andIslam a religion born among “filthy Bedouin” who did nothing but “bugger their camels.” Then, there is a Jordanian
banker met in Bangkok, who in the course of a general denunciation points out that the sexual paradise promised toIslamic martyrs is much more cheaply obtainable in any hotel massage parlor. Extraordinary that three casualmeetings on three different continents should turn up three vociferous Arab Islam-despisers who disappear from thenarrative immediately their work is done. This isn’t so much an author with his thumb on the scales as oneclambering into the weighing pan and doing a tap dance. (Book-chat parenthesis: Houellebecq told Lire that hismother had become a Muslim, adding, “I can’t bear Islam.”)Before I started reading this novel, a friend gave me an unexpected warning: “There’s a scene where the narratorand his girlfriend and another woman have a threesome in the hammam at the thalassotherapy center in Dinard.” Histone hardening, he went on, “Well, I’ve been there, and it’s just not possible.” He is not a pedantic man, and hisattitude surprised me. But now I quite understand it. Fictional insolence is a high-risk venture; it must, as “TheElementary Particles” did, take you by the ear and brain and frogmarch you, convince you with the force of itsrhetoric and the rigor of its despair. It should allow no time for reactions like Hang on, that’s not true; or Surely,people aren’t that bad; or even Actually, I’d like to think this one over. “Platform,” fuelled more by opinions andriffs and moments of provocation than by thorough narrative, allows such questionings to enter the reader’s head fartoo often. Is sex like this? Is love like this? Are Muslims like this? Is humanity like this? Is Michel depressed, or isthe world depressing? Camus, who began by creating in Meursault one of the most disaffected characters in postwarfiction, ended by writing “The First Man,” in which ordinary lives are depicted with the richest observation andsympathy. The trajectory of Houellebecq’s world view will be worth following.
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FREZ-ART Chi è Massimiliano Frezzato? via Ozanam 7 (int. cortile), Torino 13 - 24 aprile 2012 Inaugurazione venerdì 12 aprile in presenza dell’artista ore 18-21 dal martedì al sabato, 15.30 – 19.15 mostra a cura di Sergio Pignatone La Little Nemo Art Gallery presenta, in esposizione e vendita, tavole originali, illustrazioni e dipinti di Massimiliano Frezzato