Flammarion, 2015 (English translation)
This book is about the life of a French academic who cares about almost nothing except the 19th century writer Joris-Karl Huysmans, but who discovers that the spark he inherits from Huysmans is snuffed out by the reality of 21st century France. Although he ends up converting to Islam, and despite Houellebecq’s grumbling about Islam in public interviews, this book is not an analysis of Islam at all, and people looking for one will be disappointed. It contains elements of a political manifesto, but attributing some viewpoint to Houellebecq would eliminate the psychological crux of the narrative. Islam is neither the disease killing France nor the magic potion to cure the narrator. Islam is simply a reality happening in France. Whether it becomes a comfortable or uncomfortable reality, a Self or an Other, is the decision of the milquetoast narrator and millions like him.
Tens of thousands of intelligent French people have converted to Islam (far more than in England). So why a novel, rather than a biography of René Guénon? This is a question that unappreciative reviewers who zip through the book finding nothing unusual about it need to ask. Why is the narrator so normal—and why is he so abnormal? He keeps on talking about Huysmans. “Well,” says the putatively leftist reviewer, “he’s a Huysmans specialist. That’s his job.” But what is a job? The narrator François is propelled around the country by Huysmans; he wants the religious conviction that Huymans had. It’s more than just a job for him. Who cares? Well, this question itself is the problem. Is Huysmans not of the West, and is the narrator not of the West, and are we not of the West? How is it that Huysmans became a moldy old “object of study,” and the narrator an alienated professor, and the reader segregated from both of them? How did this strange “normal” way of relating to literature arise, and where did our commonalities go? Houellebecq wants us to be confused by the narrator’s alienation, as much as the narrator is confused himself. He does not want to give us a sociological study about some object of research; he wants us to feel that we need to examine ourselves, that something has gone wrong.
François is free from some of the illusions of his generation. He recognizes the illusory nature of money. Money is a means to get what you want; but what he wants is the consolation and intimacy of books. He recognizes, too, the illusion of free love, and is bemused by how women seem to brush past him, guided by something unwritten (et d’autant plus puissant qu’il demeurait implicite) to drift from person to person without lasting bonds. Throughout Houellebecq’s novels, modern society encourages voracious sexual appetites, so that the sexless are forced to participate as well. François is more mundane than sexless, but one gets a feeling that he ought to be able to rise above shallow relationships.
But he is penned in by some strange limits imposed by “libertine” society. Despite his ability to appreciate Huysman’s intimate portraits of the inner lives of men and women, he finds that he is unable to articulate his own inner life in conversation (car les conversations sur la vie intime ne font pas partie des sujets considérés comme admissibles dans la société des hommes). Pre-modern literature, by giving him a taste of truth, has ruined his life, since he cannot share that truth with others; at the very least, his girlfriends do not care, and he cannot conceive of a willing audience. Thus François becomes a prototypical Houellebecqian protagonist, locked into a sinecure and unable to form close personal relationships; “un pauvre type”.
A solitary existence, living in a world that was nothing but him and Huysmans, gave him some respite for a time. But now he is thrust into a world he does not want any part of: the 21st century liberal arts academy, its disconnect from the meaning of literature, and its endless, circular obsession with what is strangely called “identity”. Immediately, without even bothering to describe the narrator’s politics, Houellebecq gives us three conflicting images: a discussion of a university president practicing identity politics (gender studies) and a Ph.D. candidate’s thesis on the “identitarian” movement, right in the shadow of the Grand Mosque of Paris.
What is an identity? To some, it is a political battle cry. François feels no such thrills. He can write about his literary passion, but his writing can neither change the world nor reveal his authentic frustration, as in some of Houellebecq’s prior novels. Identity politics is not his thing; but he cannot escape the ground shaking beneath his feet. His Jewish girlfriend suddenly leaves for Israel. Neither the “identitarians” nor the Muslims represent the France she believes in. But what is that France? One English review has already commented on François’ self-pitying words, “There is no Israel for me,” but I also liked his girlfriend’s confused attempt to find a heritage she can claim: “J’aime la France! … J’aime, je sais pas… j’aime le fromage!” There is not only no Israel for François to flee to, there is no France for him either. There is only the after-image of Huysmans, transposed onto an unrecognizable cultural wasteland, where “identitarians” prowl after scraps.
To be fair, Houellebecq does not imagine the collapse of civilization. He imagines a peaceful Socialist-Muslim joint government that models itself after Chestertonian Distributism. This is, perhaps, a rather optimistic ideal of what the world like look like in 2022. The new, forward-looking government has solved many social problems by including Muslims in its governing alliance, and it feels like a sorte d’empire romain reconstitué. But as Oswald Spengler said, the Roman Empire only arose when the Republic had been defeated. They may cheer on the name of Chesterton, but the true king of France in 2022 is Spengler, constantly whispering his memento mori into the ear of the newly crowned Caesar (sorry for the mental image). At last the deus ex machina, a guy named Rediger, appears, accompanied by his nubile young wife Aisha, to convert the narrator to Islam; Rediger speaks precisely to François’s insecurities and worries, and proposes that, just like in Histoire d’O, Islam makes it possible for women to submit to men, and human beings to God.
Houellebecq is not actually arguing that this is the natural order of the world. In fact, by placing this argument into the context of François’s hedonism, he immediately problematizes it. The Histoire d’O-citing convert Islam that Houellebecq imagines in a half-sardonic, half-nihilistic tone clearly does not escape his criticism. It is not a French Islam, but an anti-French anti-Islam, based on a muddled confusion of both Middle Eastern and Western European traditions. But what is François supposed to do? No Christian or atheist has been able to offer him any hope. Only the East offers the faint glimmering of a road he can walk. Perhaps if he walks it long enough, his lie will begin to seem like truth.
The correct response to the end of the book is not despair, or excitement, but pathos. But those who skim the book looking for political arguments to use in their own little battles will naturally not only miss the point, but in fact do damage to whatever remaining value literature has to the Western European tradition. It is the darkest of ironies. Houellebecq’s character François loses faith in Huysmans, because he cannot hope to bring Huysmans to people around him. He burns his past; Islam is his only remaining path. Houellebecq writes a book about this, and the clickbait reviewers of the decayed “public sphere” deny him the ability to really connect with his readers, even as he lives. It is no wonder that Houellebecq has declared himself exasperated with having to promote his book, and as of this week has canceled all future interviews about it. But what of Europe?
Posted: May 26th, 2015 | Book Reviews