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In France, great writers are feted - and read

This is a hard winter: hard in France, where the president appears reduced to going on his knees before his electorate to ward off anarchy; and hard for Britons living in France, watching the dishonesty and incompetence of Westminster politicians in providing anything approaching leadership with respect to Britain’s future relationship – if any – with the European Union. It is at such times that one searches for consolation. 

There are, of course, many: and I am reminded of one thing France and the French have to celebrate by the publication on January 4 of the new novel by Michel Houellebecq, Sérotonine.

Houellebecq can claim to be Europe’s, and indeed possibly the world’s, greatest living novelist. He is to my mind without question France’s foremost living creative artist: there is no practising French composer, architect, painter, film director and certainly no writer to rival him.

His development is a tribute to the seriousness of French literary culture (which continues to produce numerous novelists of a quality rare in other western countries), something about which France can be immensely proud. In Britain, great writers are a minority sport, and seen as curiosities. In France, they are celebrated, and read, so widely that the initial print run of Sérotonine was 320,000 copies.

Houellebecq, who trained as an agronomist and worked as a computer manager before becoming a full-time writer, is almost 63. Wikipedia says of him that “literary critics have labelled Michel Houellebecq’s novels ‘vulgar’, ‘pamphlet literature’ and ‘pornography’; he has been accused of obscenity, racism, misogyny and Islamophobia.” Well, some literary critics have, mostly American. In Europe, and especially in his native land, Houellebecq is feted.  

He is a miserablist: he writes about a fractured society, about doomed relationships, about ill-will between people, but above all about the evils of consumerism. He is often represented as an enemy of the free market; but he is essentially hostile to the obsession with consumption, and how material objects and sensations become substitutes for more profound experiences.

Nihilism runs through his work, starting with his first novel, Extension du domaine de la lutte (1994); literally “extension of the field of struggle”, the title of whose English translation is Whatever. It is a short novel about defeat, loneliness and isolation, the unsatisfactoriness of human existence. The failure of the unnamed hero to hold down a relationship with a woman, and of his suicidal workmate even to start one, anticipates Les Particules Élémentaires, his second novel – and the one that made his name – in 1998. Published in English as Atomised, it is the story of two-half brothers from a dysfunctional family (not unlike Houellebecq’s) that leads to one brother becoming a sex addict.

It is a matter of debate between European and American literary critics about whether how Houellebecq writes about sex – as he does extensively in Atomised and even more in his next novel, Plateforme (2001), which looks at sex tourism – is pornography: but his descriptions are so anatomical and free of eroticism that possibly only the puritanical American mind could find them titillating.  Plateforme also launched another theme in his oeuvre that would have massive resonance years later: his attitude to Islam.

The resort where the sex tourism is depicted is the target of a terrorist attack; it was taken as a premonition of the Bali bombings, which happened the year after publication. Fast forward to January 2015, and Houellebecq’s SoumissionSubmission – was published on the very morning Islamic terrorists attacked the offices of Charlie Hebdo and massacred many of those it found there; Houellebecq was featured on the cover that morning.

Yet the argument of Soumission is subtly different. Set at the time of the 2022 presidential election, it depicts a first-round win for Marine Le Pen, with the right, left and Islamic Front candidates coming within fractions of a per cent of each other in second, third and fourth place. The problem is that it is the Islamic Front candidate who comes second: and the leaders of the two other parties then have to decide which of the final candidates to ask their supporters to vote for.

They choose the Islamic Front, and it wins: Houellebecq’s message, which he echoed in pre-publication interviews, was that many people had lost respect for authority in France, and things had to change. The book reflects the ease with which the culture of which the French are so proud, and of which they claim to be such careful guardians, can be surrendered. As usual, there is a theme of personal depravity running through the story.

François, the anti-hero, is a fortysomething lecturer at the Sorbonne whose main interest in his work is the opportunity it gives him to seduce his female students. Yet his latest conquest is a Jewish girl who finds the new atmosphere in France so poisonous that she and her family emigrate to Israel. Meanwhile, François’s superior at what is now called The Islamic University of Paris tries to persuade him to accept the new order, not least on the grounds that he now has four wives, the youngest of whom, he says smugly, is only 15.

For all his critiques of the effect of consumerism and the free market on human relationships, what seems to disturb Houellebecq most is France losing control of its ability to be French. He finds little positive about immigration, and his later works have been interpreted as attacks on the European Union: he is a souverainiste.

Sérotonine, on which I am about to embark, continues the idea of Houellebecq as prophet by depicting a riot by, effectively gilets jaunes.

But his genius lies in his ability to write and communicate, not as a soothsayer. He is one of France’s glories, and a country that has him – whatever he thinks of it as a nation in decline – has something to feel good about.

An English translation of Sérotonine is due in September.

Simon Heffer, the renowned political commentator and historian, turns his gaze to French politics. Simon Heffer is also a columnist for the Daily and Sunday Telegraphs

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