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19 January 2022updated 21 Jan 2022 11:12am

Michel Houellebecq and the soul of France

Sex, death, politics and terrorism – and the return of the great writer.

By Andrew Hussey

It is hard to think of any writer in the English-speaking world equivalent to the cultural and political phenomenon that is the French novelist and provocateur Michel Houellebecq. When Houellebecq first came to international prominence with his great novels Atomised (1998) and Platform (2001), he wrote as an outsider. His characters – primarily male – were disillusioned, cynical, given to alcoholism and general despair about the decline of Western civilisation. He grappled with big subjects – race, religion, sex, terrorism and death – always in a tone that veered from irony into vicious, sneering sarcasm. He was a bestseller nonetheless, partly because his books were page-turners, and partly because he tapped into the mood of self-doubt that characterised French society, as it still does today.

Since then his status in France has shifted. He is now treated as something like a national monument. In 2010 he was awarded the Prix Goncourt, the country’s most prestigious literary prize, for his novel The Map and the Territory, and soon afterwards he returned to France after ten years of living in Ireland. In 2019 he was made a knight in the National Order of the Légion d’Honneur, the equivalent of an OBE and an award that dates back to Napoleon Bonaparte.

[See also: Éric Zemmour: the “TV-friendly fascist” who thinks he can be France’s next president]

These days, a new Houellebecq novel is met with a mixture of reverence and anticipation long before publication, and on arrival is almost treated as a national event. Houellebecq, once a man of the left, has acquired the rare and unusual position of being a writer who has not only a deep understanding of the complexity of France in the early 21st century, but a direct impact on political life in the country. What he says matters. He may once have been seen as a snarky outsider with deliberately provocative and unsettling views, but, aged 65, he is now a part of the fabric of everyday French life.

This process has become more marked since the publication of his novel Submission (2015), which imagined an Islamist government in France that had come to power in alliance with the political left. Submission, by a horrible coincidence, was published on 7 January 2015, the day of the Charlie Hebdo massacre. Thereafter it seemed prescient if not prophetic of the Islamist attacks and massacres that horrified France, and the world, later that year – most notably the Paris attacks of Friday 13 November, in which 130 people were killed.

It is notable that Houellebecq’s new book Anéantir (best translated into English as “Destroy” or “Annihilate”) was also published on 7 January this year, if only perhaps to make the defiant point that Michel Houellebecq is a survivor, still writing, despite the horrors of 2015.

Unsurprisingly, on the day of publication my local bookshop in Paris had sold out of Anéantir within a few hours. Houellebecq’s publisher, Flammarion,
ordered an initial print run of 300,000 copies (a huge number for a literary writer) but it seems likely that the sales of the book will quickly exceed that figure. One explanation for Houellebecq’s enduring popularity is that although he writes about 21st-century issues, he does so more like a 19th-century writer, creating, in the mode of Honoré de Balzac or Émile Zola, a complete world in which you can immerse yourself.

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Anéantir is 736 pages long, and so there is indeed much to be immersed in. It is, however, an open question whether the book deserves so much of the reader’s attention. The critics have mostly been kind to Houellebecq so far. This applies across the political spectrum, from the right-wing Le Figaro, whose critic Sébastien Lapaque described it as a study of the “melancholy of the human condition”, to the decidedly left-wing Libération, where it was praised as moving between “tragedy and irony without ever losing hope”. There were a few dissenting voices in L’Obs and Les Inrockuptibles, magazines generally favourable to Houellebecq, but most reviews have suggested that Anéantir may be his masterpiece.

In truth, much of the book is a slog. It begins promisingly enough as a kind of political thriller, set in 2026 and 2027 in the run-up to the presidential elections. Real figures appear: the far-right politicians Éric Zemmour (praised by Houellebecq in his non-fiction collection Interventions 2020) and Marine Le Pen are named, and the unnamed president is easily identifiable as Emmanuel Macron. Other named characters include Philippe Lançon, the author and contributor to Charlie Hebdo who was seriously injured in the Islamist attack of 7 January, and who wrote a compelling memoir of his physical and mental recovery called Disturbance.  

[See also: France’s silent majority: How a political class was left behind]

Anéantir begins with the kind of mystery that is not too far removed from the much-praised television series Le Bureau des Légendes, which reveals the inner workings of the French version of MI6. The main character Paul Raison, a senior official at the ministry of the economy and finance, is puzzled by a series of cyber-attacks that escape all explanation. One of the attacks features a video depicting the beheading of the minister Bruno Juge – a character widely rumoured to be based on the politician Bruno Le Maire. He has worked for the Macron government since 2017 as minister of the economy and finance, and is claimed as a friend by Houellebecq. In 2019 Le Maire received death threats, including bullets sent in the post.

The premise of the novel is intriguing but the pace is slow. It slackens further as we spend more time with Raison, who is middle-aged, melancholic (by now a staple of Houellebecq’s fiction) and given to introspection and meditations on his not-very-successful sexual past. Paul’s marriage is under strain. His wife, Prudence, is named after the song “Dear Prudence” from the Beatles’ White Album, which Paul wistfully judges “not to be one of their better works”.  She is in favour of veganism, and prefers yoga and meditation to sex.

The plot becomes even more convoluted and at times you have the feeling of reading three books at once. The writing is often flat and overloaded with detail. There are too many digressions. Yet the book quickens when Paul’s personal life is disrupted by the news that his father has had a stroke.

At this point, the novel turns into a family saga, describing how a dysfunctional family can be brought together by the sickness of a parent. When Paul himself falls ill from a cancerous tumour and contemplates his own death, Anéantir is transformed into an extended meditation on human frailty and the lack of spirituality in the Western world.

[See also: Emmanuel Carrère: “I need to be honest about myself. Otherwise, why write?]

These final chapters are moving as Houellebecq displays compassion and empathy, and a belief in the redemptive power of love. Far beyond politics, these are the real themes of the book. They are also the reasons why Anéantir, for all its faults, is worth reading.

There has been much talk in the French press that the tenderness revealed in Anéantir is the sign of a new, more “mature” Michel Houellebecq. But it could also be argued that he is returning to his roots. Houellebecq began his career as a poet, and the final pages of Anéantir seem to me to be much closer in tone and style to his early poems – they recalled Philip Larkin or early Morrissey from the Smiths – than the cynicism and apparent heartlessness of the novels.

“Anéantir” is due to be published in translation in the UK later this year

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This article appears in the 19 Jan 2022 issue of the New Statesman, The end of the party