"Murray is the best kind of literary biographer" – The Financial Times.
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Winner of the 2015 Basil Bunting Award for poetry

Thursday, 7 February 2019

Depressed? Moi? Houellebecq’s Sérotonine

Gare du Nord Eurostar Lounge two days
after publication; not yet quite in the top 10
  When the French author Michel Houellebecq’s agent, François Samuelson, warned him that his new novel (published 4 January) would provoke a reaction from feminists the novelist, practised in the art of provocation (rompu à l’art de la provocation as Le Monde put it) replied in his customary sardonic fashion: “Elles sont moins dangereuses que les islamistes.”
   Feminists are not the only ones to have been disapproving of the contentious writer in the past. He is indeed expert in upsetting people (something once considered an essential faculty in the writer; this author’s name is an extended 'trigger warning'). On cue he told Harper’s Magazine just before publication that Trump was the best President ever. I doubt if he believes that for a moment but it was time to bait the Parisian liberal commentariat.
   Yet he is popular. Translated into countless languages, his latest book, when I arrived in Paris recently two days after publication, had sold out in the first bookshop I tried but fortunately was heaped up on the counter everywhere else. At the lovely Écume des pages bookshop in the Boulevard St Germain the woman ahead of me in the queue was handling it tentatively, trying to make up her mind, as if there were a possible toxicity that she should be wary of. The bookseller understood her hesitation. He had read the first 40 pages, he said, and was willing to recommend it. Ok, she said, I’ll take one. Contrast that with the lack of animation with which we pick up the latest Costa or Man Booker garlanded fiction.
   Are feminists right? Is he a menace to women as well as all the other targets in his new book: the ecologically aware, the proprietors of smoke-free hotels, the architects of the common agricultural policy etc etc? I hesitate to say this but I thought I detected something that almost resembled mellowness. (The author has recently married for the third time, to Qianyum Lysis Li, and sent Le Monde his wedding photos in lieu of an author profile, dressed in a fetching grey morning suit and topper.) Set aside the childish contrarianism and the predictable winding-up that constitute the Houellebecq media persona in his shabby parka (already compared in Private Eye to David Threlfall in Shameless) and read the new book and I think something else emerges. This waspish observer can also write:

 Le monde extérieur était dur, impitoyable aux faibles, il ne tenait presque jamais ses promesses, et l’amour restait la seule chose en laquelle on puisse encore, peut-être, avoir foi. [The real world was hard, pitiless to the weak, it hardly ever delivered what it promised, and love remained perhaps the only thing in which one could still believe.]

Not quite a nihilist?
   The novel is called Séretonine and the narrator (let’s not fall into the obvious trap of equating him with the author though the temptations are strong) is a late 40s depressive on a medication called Captorix. The drug has left him in a state of anomie without any sexual desire, which considering the central role rather explicit sex has played in his previous six novels is a novelty. There are a couple of perfunctory erotic scenes but they are not on the former scale.  Florent, the narrator, lives regretfully at having lost through his own selfishness and stupidity Camille, one of the women in the book who are represented, I would say, in a very positive way. He tracks her down to her vet practice in northern France where she is successful, has a small child, and lives in a pleasant house by a lake. Florent realises that the love he could have enjoyed with her is now entirely focussed on her child. “It is him or me,” he reflects and the child wins out.
   In contrast the relationship he has with Yuzu, a remarkably (and comically, for a sense of humour is essential to appreciate Michel Houellebecq) selfish Japanese whom he eventually escapes from by secretly terminating the lease on his flat and moving into a Paris hotel and later a soulless flat in a tower block, is almost wholly dysfunctional and the separation does neither any harm. His job as a freelance agronomist working for the ministry of agriculture with the specific brief of marketing Normandy cheeses takes him to that region where he connects with an old university friend, Aymeric. The latter is heir to a landowning family but, like his fellow dairy farmers, simply cannot make the farm work (I won’t spoil the plot by recounting how all that is resolved). His wife runs off with a visiting pianist, dumping both the struggling and desperate Aymeric and her two small children, so the word salope which you and I are too delicate to use might be appropriate in the circumstances. And there you have it. All the other women in the story, from old flames to hotel receptionists, are presented in ways that I cannot see anyone finding objectionable.
   The great appeal of Houellebecq’s writing to me is its contemporaneity. He is writing about Europe now. His description, for example, of a vast Normandy Leclerc supermarket is both accurate and funny. His eye for detail, sardonically presented, gives the book, in spite of its sombre subject matter (a depressed middle aged man contemplating suicide as the only way out) a richly humorous flavour.
    I laughed a lot.