Michel Houellebecq is undoubtedly the most famous contemporary French writer. The first print run in France of his latest novel, Sérotonine, was 330,000 copies. No other serious French author comes anywhere near to his popularity.
Houellebecq (pronounced WELL-beck, more or less) is both a visionary and a pornographer. Once you’ve read a few of his books, you recognize what are almost certainly his sexual fantasies. But no author is as gifted as he as a seer. He predicted the rise of Islamic terrorism in France, and his new book predicted—with amazing foresight—the eruption of the mass protest in provincial France known as the gilets jaunes (yellow vests).
His theme is, above all, the lack of transcendent purpose in Western consumer society, especially among the middle classes and the educated—who are, of course, his main readers. According to him, they are exhausted and disabused pleasure-seekers with no purpose but short-term enjoyment or sensation-seeking, pleasure and sensation becoming themselves ever more fleeting and ever less rewarding.
In a society with little religious faith, little respect for tradition, and no collective political goal, everything becomes superficial, even sexual relations (as his pornographic passages are supposed to illustrate). And no one is sharper than Houellebecq in his observations of the absurdity of modern life. These, in my view, are the principal value in reading him.
I had a Houellebecquian moment in Paris on May 1, a public holiday. I went for lunch with my wife and two acquaintances to one of our local restaurants, a simple and unpretentious place. The restaurant was almost full, and the atmosphere rather like that of a Sunday lunch. On the wall at the far end of the place was a large television screen, silently relaying the news.
As I ate my magret de canard, I could not help watching the rioters in Montparnasse on the television. Many wearing masks, they were attempting to throw rocks through the window of a van. They were doing it, of course, for the good of society. The glass cracked, but no matter how many rocks they threw, it would not break. Then they tried to overturn the van on to its side, with equal lack of success. All this took place under the observation and cameras of journalists, almost as numerous as the rioters themselves. In other places, violent confrontations with riot police broke out. You could almost smell the tear gas through the TV screen, but I was the only one in the restaurant who paid any attention to it.
“Oh, it’s always like that,” said one of our acquaintances, resuming his meal when I pointed it out to him. I have heard it said (which doesn’t necessarily make it true) that President Emanuel Macron likes a good riot because it allows him to present himself as the last bulwark against chaos.
Houellebecq would have loved the absurdity of a peaceful restaurant relaying pictures of a riot taking place not far away, none of the customers taking the slightest notice of it—thereby thwarting the rioters’ desire for attention. As the Hapsburg Austrians used to say, the situation is catastrophic but not serious.
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