Towards the end of Michel Houellebecq’s first novel, Extension du domaine de la lutte (1994), translated into English under the dismal title Whatever (1998), the nameless protagonist falls into a severe depression. He leaves a note on his desk saying ‘I AM SICK,’ and checks himself into a ‘rest home’. Relations with his psychologist are not easy:
She took me to task for speaking in general, overly sociological, terms. This, according to her, was not interesting: instead I ought to try and involve myself, try and ‘get myself centred’.
– But I’ve had a bellyful of myself, I objected.
– As a psychologist I can’t accept such a statement, nor encourage it in any way. In speaking of society all the time you create a barrier behind which you can hide.
It’s obvious that Houellebecq’s novels contain a strong vein of autobiography. The main character is always immediately recognisable. He is a Parisian civil servant or middle manager, aged between thirty and fifty, depressed, isolated, alienated, miserably obsessed by sex, given to sociological conjecture and blasé, sometimes very funny asides. In Plateforme (2001, translated as Platform, 2003) he is even called Michel. Nevertheless, it’s a shock, on reading Denis Demonpion’s biography, to learn quite how much of Houellebecq’s life has been thrust raw – though often distorted – into his novels. It’s no surprise that his first novel is, like many first novels, closely modelled on the author’s life: like the young Michel Houellebecq, the narrator of Whatever works as an IT technician, contracted out to install software at various depressing provincial outposts of the Ministry of Agriculture. What is rather surprising is that at least three of the characters – Philip Schnäbele, Jean-Yves Fréhaut and Catherine Lechardoy – actually exist, and have simply been plonked into the book. Understandably, they took it badly: they are represented, like many characters in Houellebecq’s novels, as pointless and pathetic. (‘Her ugly little face is glum, she regularly wipes her glasses. I even wonder if she hasn’t been crying; I can just picture her breaking into sobs in the morning as she gets dressed, all alone.’) Demonpion records the grievances of Schnäbele (in the novel, a self-aggrandising IT manager known as ‘the Serpent’), who has no memory of meeting Houellebecq: ‘I recognise myself in his descriptions. He describes my office, mentioning the posters that I had up at that time, which proves that he was physically there – but from a very biased point of view. That said, an author has every right to his freedom of expression. I just wish he’d changed my name.’
Houellebecq has consistently exercised a similar freedom of expression with respect to his parents. The mother in Les Particules élémentaires (1998, translated as Atomised, 2000) is an appalling proto-hippy slut, who dumps her kids on their grandparents, and on one occasion leaves her young son locked in a hot attic room in pools of his own urine and excrement. She then joins a sinister cult and spends much of her time bedding young men and boys. Although the more sensational aspects are Houellebecq’s invention, this character shares a great deal of his mother’s biography: she too was born to a pied-noir family in Algeria, became a student radical, trained as a doctor and then lived an alternative, itinerant lifestyle. But again Houellebecq upstages the invention, by giving the character his mother’s maiden name, Janine Ceccaldi. As Demonpion reports, his mother ‘flipped’ when she read the book: she flew to Paris from her home in Réunion and considered sueing her estranged son.
Houellebecq’s father, an admirer of Céline, was more sanguine when he found himself killed off at the beginning of Platform, in an updated and energetically offensive version of the opening of L’Etranger:
Father died last year. I don’t subscribe to the theory by which we only become truly adult when our parents die; we never become truly adult.
As I stood before the old man’s coffin, unpleasant thoughts came to me. He had made the most of life, the old bastard; he was a clever cunt. ‘You had kids, you fucker . . .’ I said spiritedly, ‘you shoved your fat cock in my mother’s cunt.’ Well, I was a bit tense, I have to admit; it’s not every day you have a death in the family.
Houellebecq’s father’s house provides the backdrop for these first few scenes, and his North African lodger the model for Aïcha, the narrator’s father’s young lover, whose brother has murdered the older man. This mixture of documentary detail and lurid fantasy is a recurring pattern in Houellebecq’s fiction. He was successfully prosecuted by the owner of a New Age holiday camp which was described in Atomised – very accurately, except that it was depicted (like many locations in Houllebecq’s novels) as a torrid den of anonymous sex. Yves Donnars was keen that his business should avoid an unearned reputation for sexualité de groupe, so he took Houellebecq to court. The author reluctantly changed the name in later editions.
Fiction often seems like a form of revenge on the world; Houellebecq’s is an extreme case. Read alongside his biography, his novels turn out to be filled with highly specific attacks on jobs, places and people that have, in one way or another, pissed him off. Most of all, though, in their characters, their tone and their underlying thinking, they represent a sustained act of vengeance against his parents and their way of life.
Houellebecq non autorisé is a decent, intelligent hack-job. Demonpion, a journalist for the weekly news magazine Le Point, is prone to cliché and has a few exasperating tics, such as always describing what people are wearing (‘replied the writer, wearing a checked Vichy shirt’). On the other hand, he has done his research, and the book is full of entertaining and illuminating detail, and ends, rather unusually, with an astrological projection of its subject, written by Houellebecq’s friend Françoise Hardy, the 1960s pop star. At one point, Houellebecq thought of adding his own footnotes to Demonpion’s text, but negotiations between the two broke down. This collaboration would have made the biography more interesting, but might also have muddied the waters: Houellebecq is not a reliable witness. Demonpion’s real coup was securing the co-operation of Houellebecq’s parents, and his biography is built around a series of interviews with them.
Houellebecq was born Michel Thomas in 1956 in Réunion, where his mother was working as a doctor. His father had been a lorry driver and a ski instructor. Bruno in Atomised is born in the same year: ‘The couple quickly realised that the burden of caring for a small child was incompatible with their personal freedom and, in 1958, they agreed to send Bruno to Algeria to live with his maternal grandmother.’ Houellebecq’s parents set off across Africa in a 2CV five months after their son’s birth and left him with his grandparents in Algiers. He lived there until 1961, when, with the Algerian war of independence nearing its end, he was sent to live with his paternal grandmother, Henriette, in the Yonne, south-east of Paris. By this time, his parents had divorced. Michel only saw them during the holidays. ‘I grew up with the clear knowledge that a grave injustice had been done to me,’ he told one interviewer. ‘What I felt for them was mostly fear, as far as my father was concerned, and a clear disgust vis-à-vis my mother.’ Responding to Demonpion’s biography on his website, he wrote: ‘Until my death, I will remain an abandoned little child, howling from fear and cold, starved of caresses.’
All Houellebecq’s books have the same theoretical underpinning: a modest extension of the argument of the Communist Manifesto, proposing that what we call sexual freedom is in fact the last stage in the free market’s resolution of personal wealth into exchange value. This is laid out in the section of his first novel that explains its ironically grandiose title:
Just like unrestrained economic liberalism, and for similar reasons, sexual liberalism produces phenomena of absolute pauperisation. Some men make love every day; others five or six times in their life, or never. Some make love with dozens of women; others with none. It’s what’s known as ‘the law of the market’. 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 a totally liberal economic system, certain people accumulate considerable fortunes; others stagnate in unemployment in misery. In a totally liberal sexual system, certain people have a varied and exciting erotic life; others are reduced to masturbation and solitude. Economic liberalism is an extension of the domain of the struggle, its extension to all ages and all classes of society. Sexual liberalism is likewise an extension of the domain of the struggle, its extension to all ages and all classes of society.
His later novels explore various solutions: in Atomised, the naturist resort at Cap d’Agde is described as a ‘sexual social democracy’, in which French, German and Scandinavian couples swap partners and share their love with lonely single men, in an atmosphere of ‘discipline and respect for the social contract’. In Platform, sex tourism is proposed as a radical free-market solution, allowing sexual paupers to achieve the same consumer satisfaction they have at Monoprix: rich but ugly Westerners and the poor but handsome of the Third World share resources.
But Houellebecq’s novels also clearly and vituperatively blame his parents and their generation – the hippies and the soixante-huitards – for the sexual misery in which many of his characters live, and for all kinds of social ills besides. In Atomised, Bruno’s parents are horribly compromised, carnal people. His father (‘give a gorilla a mobile phone and you’ve got the general idea’) is a cosmetic surgeon, one of the first to benefit from ‘the use of sex in marketing and the resulting breakdown of the traditional couple’. Their heinousness doesn’t end there: his mother’s fellow cultists, not satisfied with free love, turn to ritual murder. According to Bruno, we shouldn’t be surprised: ‘Actionists, beatniks, hippies and serial killers were all pure libertarians who advanced the rights of the individual against social norms and against what they believed to be the hypocrisy of morality, sentiment, justice and pity. From this point of view, Charles Manson was not some monstrous aberration in the hippy movement, but its logical conclusion.’
‘I’ve lived my life rather than his,’ Houellebecq’s father admits to Demonpion. ‘But I knew he was in good hands.’ Houellebecq always describes his time growing up with his grandmother Henriette as a short episode of idyllic happiness in a largely miserable life. If Houellebecq’s parents serve as his symbols of self-indulgent evil, Henriette represents the ultimate good: it’s tempting to see in this the origin of the sharp division in his books between cynicism and hatred, on the one hand, and sentimentality, on the other. Henriette is memorialised in the description of the life and death of Bruno’s grandmother, once again closely based on the facts:
After the death of her husband, she had worked in a factory and brought up her four children; in midwinter she drew water from the pump in the courtyard so that they could wash. At 60, having just retired from the factory, she agreed to look after her son’s only child. He had wanted for nothing – clean clothes, good Sunday lunches and love. All these things she had done for him.
When Michel came to publish his first poems, he did so under Henriette’s maiden name, Houellebecq, later adopting it as his legal surname.
He was an introverted, bookish child, who did very well at school but sometimes had trouble getting on with other children. According to his father, he was afflicted by existential angst even then: ‘Very early on in life, he was conscious of the futility of existence, of the difficulty of living.’ His mother’s less sympathetic assessment is that he was ‘mentally gifted, emotionally subnormal’. He was sent to board at a lycée in Meaux, where he was probably bullied, and where the older boys led a mini-insurrection in May 1968 – no doubt adding to his growing horror of leftist radicalism. But he made friends: plenty of Demonpion’s interviewees, from all periods of his life, report that although unusual and sometimes difficult, Houellebecq is also funny and charming. He then went to Paris to cram for university entrance, studying science subjects, particularly biology, and starting to live the solitary urban lifestyle often described in his fiction. In the studio flat that his father had bought him, he lived off dry bread, mustard and whisky; there was no furniture except a bed and two posters: one of Iggy Pop, the other of Jacques Chirac.
In 1975, Houellebecq enrolled at the Institut National Agronomique Paris-Grignon to study agricultural engineering. This seems to have been a bad idea: the atmosphere was left-leaning, jolly and carousing. Some classmates remember him as an ‘uptight intellectual poseur’ with an ‘extraterrestrial’ way about him. There are also various descriptions of his abject misery after falling in love and being rejected. Nevertheless, he seems to have enjoyed himself, making a few good friends, especially among the children of the Catholic squirearchy – Demonpion suggests that he was both sympathetic to their view of the world and, as a working-class boy, impressed by their social status. He read Dostoevsky and science fiction, discovered Schopenhauer, published an arts magazine, and made a short gothic film under the pseudonym d’Evel de Smythe-Winter. And he had at least one girlfriend, who remembers him, and his immoderate love of Camembert, fondly.
In 1978, his grandmother Henriette died – by all accounts a devastating experience for him. Despite his diploma from the INA, he was unable to get a job; he spent two years at film school, but nothing came of it, and he found himself unemployed again. At 24, he married the younger sister of one of his aristocratic college friends. They had a son, and she had to work to support them both, until eventually a friend pulled some strings to get him a job in IT. He hated it, and began to suffer from clinical depression, having to be hospitalised on various occasions. The parallels with the plot and mood of Whatever are close: ‘I don’t like this world. I definitely do not like it. The society in which I live disgusts me; advertising sickens me; computers make me puke. My entire work as a computer expert consists of adding to the data, the cross-referencing, the criteria of rational decision-making. It has no meaning.’
After four years, his marriage broke up. Both Atomised and his new novel feature a first wife and child, who are described with indifference and casual brutality: ‘Today it’s almost impossible for me to remember why I married my first wife; if I was to come across her in the street, I don’t even think I’d be able to recognise her,’ says the main character in The Possibility of an Island. ‘On the day of my son’s suicide, I made a tomato omelette . . . I had never loved that child: he was as stupid as his mother, and as nasty as his father.’
Writing seems to have saved Houellebecq. In 1991, he published his first collection of poetry, a manifesto for depressed poets called Rester vivant, méthode: ‘Your existence is nothing more than a tissue of sufferings. You think you can manage to lay them out in a coherent form. Your objective, at this stage: to live long enough to do it’ (the translation, from Houellebecq’s website, is by Richard Davies). But, around the same time, he also found a comfortable job in a sympathetic environment, in the IT department of the French National Assembly. His poetry brought him a small group of admirers, though his first prose book, H.P. Lovecraft: Against the World, against Life (1991), attracted little interest. It’s a strange, messianic celebration of the seminal fantasy and horror writer – more revealing of Houellebecq’s own Schopenhauer-derived pessimism and intentions as a writer than of Lovecraft:
Life is painful and disappointing. It is useless, therefore, to write new realistic novels. 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. All those prodigiously refined ‘notations’, ‘situations’, anecdotes . . . All they do, once the book has been set aside, is reinforce the slight revulsion that is already adequately nourished by any one of our ‘real life’ days.
In 1992, he met Marie-Pierre Gauthier, whom he would marry in 1998. She worked in publishing and became, effectively, his unpaid literary agent: submitting his first novel to scores of publishers, until it was eventually taken on by Editions Maurice Nadeau and became a cult success. According to those who know the couple, she is also the model for the principle of female good in his novels, embodied in Valérie in Platform and Christiane in Atomised – gentle, intelligent, sexually accommodating, an appreciative audience for the miserable male character’s autobiographical ramblings and highfalutin theoretical talk; ‘consolatrice’ is Demonpion’s apt word. Gauthier seems to have been an enthusiastic participant in the Houellebecq project. She went with him to Parisian swingers’ clubs and to the naturist camp Cap d’Agde; she starred in his soft-porn movie; in the run-up to the publication of Platform, she had sex with him in front of a photographer. The rest of Houellebecq’s story is a matter of public record, to which Demonpion adds little. Atomised became a bestseller at home and abroad. It won the Prix Novembre, though it missed out on the Goncourt. The publication of Platform saw him prosecuted for incitement to racial hatred, after describing Islam as ‘the most idiotic religion’ in a promotional interview. (His exact words were: ‘La religion le plus con, c’est quand même l’Islam.’) He argued that he was entitled to criticise Islam, and that he had never conflated Muslims with Arabs; he was cleared; the book sold 200,000 copies in two weeks.
Houellebecq has established himself as one of the great international brands of popular literary fiction. But there is a great deal of disagreement over whether he’s a genius, a fraud or a reprobate. Responses to his novels largely fall into three categories. The first is euphoric: Houellebecq as visionary. According to this view, he sees the dehumanising effects of the market, the breakdown of religion and the family, and the unbearable tensions of Western life: the sexual misery, the inevitable conflict between Western morals and Islam. His novels are regarded as having a prophetic quality: Platform, published two years before the Bali bombing, ends with an assault by Islamists on a decadent tourist resort in Thailand. His then publisher, Flammarion, apologised for any offence caused by the novel on 10 September 2001. By this time, Houellebecq was in hiding in Ireland after receiving death threats. ‘You’re saved,’ the writer Michel Déon told him as they watched the planes fly into the World Trade Center.
The second view is that, though his perspective is not necessarily right – and probably rather regrettable – it’s an interesting and prevalent one, and illuminates the attitude of many people in modern France and Europe. As Salman Rushdie put it, ‘Platform is a novel to go to if you want to understand the France beyond the liberal intelligentsia, the France that gave the left such a bloody nose in the last presidential election, and whose discontents and prejudices the extreme right was able to exploit.’ On this view, Houellebecq speaks, though in a rarefied and intellectual tone, for les beaufs – the hicks, the Le Penistes. This is also true in the realm of sexual politics: he represents unreconstructed man, slavering and masturbatory, whose existence tends to get glossed over in the era of supposed sexual liberation and equality. As an unnamed Dutch academic quoted in a recent Sunday Times profile remarked, he reveals ‘the vile 20 per cent of himself’ that most people keep hidden.
The third attitude is outright disapproval. Houellebecq is a disgusting sexist, racist, eugenicist and pervert, who ought to repulse us. He is a professional provocateur, a marketing whizz, whose success is down to his courting of controversy, to the racist jokes and great dollops of pornography in his work.
After the publication of Atomised, he was ejected from Les Perpendiculaires, a leftish writers’ collective to which he belonged. As far as they were concerned, the novel was ‘a machine of war’ for his ultra-right ideas: a flashy way of expressing intolerant conservative regret at the decline of traditional social structures, at women’s liberation and the growth of immigration. This is tidily expressed by Bruno’s rant about one of his black students:
He always wore a baseball cap and a pair of Nikes; I was convinced he had a huge dick. All the girls threw themselves at this big baboon and here I was trying to teach them about Mallarmé – what the fuck was the point? This is the way the world ends, I thought bitterly, people worshipping in front of big dicks, like hamadryas baboons.
(In the original, it’s ‘civilisation occidentale’, not ‘the world’, which ends – making the point even clearer.)
The answer, of course, is that Houellebecq is a mixture of all three – and this mixture is probably the key to his success. There’s little point in denying that he has some profoundly fascistic tendencies (the biography reveals that he is, or at least was, a committed racist). Like Céline, he’s a right-wing misanthrope who has produced a genuinely perceptive and resonant picture of French society – obscenified and isolating. He’s also a careless writer (in his view the modern world doesn’t deserve anything better). His fiction is often crude and repetitive. His observations, bracing at first, seem specious and grating when repeated, in almost identical form, in novel after novel. It’s frequently obvious that he is simply dressing up his personal obsessions as something more significant, or cannily repackaging popular prejudices as grand philosophical positions. On the evidence of The Possibility of an Island, his latest novel, he would be the first to admit all this.
Daniel, a celebrated and super-rich stand-up comedian, has built his career ‘on the commercial exploitation of bad instincts’ – pandering to the prejudices of his audience, by producing shows with titles like ‘Munch on My Gaza Strip (My Huge Jewish Settler)’. He knows he’s overrated, and thinks it’s funny that he is regarded as a ‘humanist’ and a representative of free speech, when in fact he despises most humans and is rather against freedom.
Wealthy and bored, he lives in a huge villa in Almeria. He separates from his wife, Marie, largely because she’s getting a bit old and saggy, and doesn’t like sex enough. He then meets and falls in love with Esther, a beautiful young actress from Madrid, who, ‘like all very pretty young girls, was basically only good for fucking’. She gives him many days and nights of pleasure, which are described at great length. But, inevitably, she doesn’t want to spend her life with Daniel, and decides to pursue a career as an actress in America. At her leaving party, he finds her in a bedroom sandwiched between two handsome, muscular young men. Daniel takes solace in the dubious generalisation that, ‘for Esther, as for all the young girls of her generation, sexuality was just a pleasant pastime, driven by seduction and eroticism, which implied no particular sentimental commitment.’ Even so, the episode drives Daniel to despair, thoughts of death etc.
Meanwhile, Daniel has become involved with a thinly fictionalised version of the Raelian cult, with which Houellebecq has himself flirted. The Raelians believe that human life was begun by visiting aliens named the Elohim. This message was revealed to Claude Vorilhon, a sports journalist from Clermont-Ferrand, when he was visiting the crater at Puy-de-Lassolas in 1973. A flying saucer descended, and a four-foot alien told him to build an embassy to facilitate further contact. The Raelians also believe that cloning will allow us to live eternally, and indeed claim to have cloned human babies already. They are called the Elohimites in The Possibility of an Island. Every other chapter is narrated from a post-nuclear future, by one of Daniel’s genetic successors. As in Atomised, which has a similar but less intrusive science-fiction structure, these future humans are sexless immortals, looking back in pity at the desperate rutting of their predecessors. Daniel24 lives in Daniel’s house in Almeria; outside his electric fence, sexually reproducing mortals have survived, as ‘savages’ – ‘slightly more intelligent monkeys, and, for this reason, more dangerous’.
It’s difficult to summarise further without sounding completely mad. Let’s just say that the plot illustrates the Schopenhauerian principle that people are trapped between pain and striving, on the one hand, and boredom and emptiness, on the other. The original Daniel suffers from the first, the future Daniels from the second. Daniel25 sets off across Spain, hoping to find a fabled community of real humans, and to learn what they meant by love, sex and laughter. By and large, The Possibility of an Island seems like the result of a very uninteresting experiment: to see how much Houellebecq can get away with, how slapdash, how misogynistic, how programmatically ‘controversial’ he can be. It showcases many of his fascist instincts. Daniel’s clones shoot humans for the hell of it, witnessing ‘without regret the disappearance of the species’. They tell us that the post-apocalyptic world they inhabit is the result of the Eurabian civil war currently being gleefully predicted by Le Penistes and unhinged neo-cons.
When Houellebecq’s novels work, it’s because he has three interlocking talents: his sense of humour; his sharp, aphoristic way with ideas; and his ability to write perceptive, alienated and detailed accounts of everyday activities – working in offices, going on package tours. The new novel provides the odd striking aphorism and the descriptions of life in the cult are initially interesting. But, strangely enough, since Daniel is meant to be a comedian, it’s all deadly unfunny. Disastrously ricocheting between scepticism and credulity, cynicism and sentimentality, The Possibility of an Island offers mostly pointless hate and filth. As Yves Donnars, the owner of the New Age holiday camp, complained: ‘I got the impression that he saw himself as a redresser of wrongs, but one who loves to wallow in the muck, while saying: “Look, society is even more disgusting than I am.”’