Monday, 19 January 2015
Houellebecq Strikes Again (Again)!
The novel is due to appear in an English translation in the autumn and already everyone is getting very excited at the "offence" it will putatively cause. But apart from the tiny minority of fanatics who would derive "offence" from a fly settling on their windowsill, I imagine most moderate Muslims will read this with an air of baffled surprise for the Muslims in this novel are far from being represented as fanatics or jihadists. On the contrary, the new President is a model of moderation and tact, distancing himself firmly from the madmen, and his minister for the universities, soon to be Foreign Minister, is represented as a man of exquisite civilisation and courtesy. True, the Sorbonne is now under Islamic colours and women are absent from the university cocktail parties, but the central character, François, an academic specialising in late 19th century literature, ends by contemplating conversion himself, resolving a midlife crisis by accepting an arranged marriage with an attractive and accommodating young undergraduate (or three, which appears to be the limit under the rules of polygamy). Why not, is the novel's final unanswered question? "Je n'aurais rien à regretter." I would have nothing to regret.
Anyone familiar with Houellebecq's work (and I confess to being a long term fan of the sacred monster) will of course have noticed the feline ironies which sustain this narrative. It is, in effect, a massive wind-up. But the author's fondness for more or less plausible futuristic scenarios in his fiction does enable him to float some very interesting ideas. The new President, Ben Abbes, dreams of, in effect, recreating the former Roman empire by shifting the centre of gravity of the European Union south, embracing north Africa and even Egypt, and his first step is to propose a move of HQ from Brussels to Athens. This is not a rough derisive polemic (Houellebecq has done those in his time) but one that forces people to think about what the future might look like. It is also a novel about religion and it is, like all his books, a novel about Michel Houellebecq.
Taking the first of these, religion, we are introduced to the central character, François, a specialist in the late 19th Century decadent, J.K. Huysmans, who after a lifetime as an atheistical aesthete, ended up embracing a fervent Catholicism. François makes a pilgrimage to the abbey where Huysmans was received and where he is moved by the black Madonna and the general religious atmosphere. He is stirred by the idea that what sustained European civilisation was Christianity and its collapse in the current consumer-individualist culture of 21st Century Europe (cue some characteristic bashing of "les baby-boomers" and much sardonic, sharply-observed descriptions of contemporary life; Houellebecq has a keen sociologist's eye for social trends). The hypothesis, whether we take it seriously or not as a recommendation for our approval, is that Muslims at least are secure in their faith and know what they believe in.
Huysmans comes over in this book as a kind of proto-Houellebecquian solitary, disenchanted with the world around him, and turning to religion, in the end, as his only hope. And this, for me was the chief pleasure of the book, not the Islamic theme, but the portrait of the central character who, like all Houellebecq's central characters, is a thinly disguised version of the author himself. His dry humour, his sardonic exactness in puncturing the fatuities around him, are endlessly diverting and often made me laugh out loud. The author, I read, is now 56 and he is starting to register the fact. François still manages a sex life of a sort (and there are the usual graphic passages which his readers have got used to expecting) but even though he is in his mid-forties he feels himself to be physically falling apart, facing a future alone in his flat with his take-away food, booze, and occasional resort to escort girls after his young girlfriend emigrates in fear to Israel. The relaxed, smooth, seemingly effortless life that awaits him if he converts to his university boss's form of Islam is a temptation, at the end of the novel, that he looks like being unable to resist.
This is, finally, a book in which not much happens. Like the eighteenth century French dialogue novels it consists mostly of conversations – with the head of the Sorbonne, with a retired security agent who has spent a lifetime observing "extremists", with colleagues and lovers – that are always interesting and amusing even if they sometimes read like small essays or polemics. Houellebecq may be an ageing enfant terrible but he is always intellectually stimulating and, at his best, a master of sardonic humour. This one is as good as anything he has done in the past.