Now that I am several books into my Houellebecq Project, I feel that I have, by accident, gone about this in exactly the right way. The first Houellebecq I tried was La Carte et le Territoire, his most recent novel, which won him last year’s Prix Goncourt in France, and a novel which is, by Houellebecquian standards, rather tame. I don’t mean that it doesn’t have any shock to it, or any social criticism, but compared to the other works of his that I’ve now read, those elements come in a softer, less wince-inducing package.
There are two issues that seem to bother most Houllebecq readers: his portrayal of sex, and the fact that it is difficult to decipher whether the racist, sexist and other harsh comments in his work come from Houellebecq himself or from his characters—as Litlove points out in a recent comment, this is because his main characters almost always appear to be, at least in part, some incarnation of Houellebecq himself. That lack of separation is problematic.
But La Carte et le Territoire had very little in terms of provocation, in either of those areas. It was definitely a provocative text, but easy to read. I say all of this because it was pure dumb luck that I read that novel first and thus became curious to figure out what all the fuss was about.
Now, my second bit of luck came from my own strange obsession with reading an author in chronological order. I like nothing better than beginning with a writer’s earliest work and moving forward. For Houellebecq, this meant taking up with his long essay, H.P. Lovecraft: Contre le Monde, Contre la vie (H.P. Lovecraft: Against the World, Against Life, Eng. trans. Dorna Khazeni). And it was really fascinating. An essay that endeared Houellebecq to me, mostly because of the care he takes in writing about Lovecraft.
Who knows if Lovecraft was the single most important writerly reference point for Houellebecq, but he is clearly a huge influence. The essay is pure homage, but a serious study as well, filled with critical and autobiographical interpretation. However, the essay does more than just tell me about Lovecraft, it tells me about Houellebecq. As I am slowly coming to understand through Houellebecq’s other work, he is not able to remove himself from anything he writes. (I find this both a source of his brilliance and a possible weakness, but I will get to that in another review.) So in nearly every assessment of Lovecraft, Houellebecq is inside the message, leaving little clues to his own writing and his own vision:
Quand on aime la vie, on ne lit pas. On ne va guère au cinéma non plus, d’ailleurs. Quoi qu’on en dise, l’accès à l’univers artistique est plus ou moins réservé à ceux qui en ont un peu marre. [ A person who loves life doesn’t read. And rarely goes to the movies, as well. No matter what people say on the matter, access to the artistic universe is more or less reserved for those who are just a little sick of it all.]
Le style de compte rendu d’observations scientifiques utilisé par HPL dans ses dernières nouvelles répond au principe suivant: plus les événements et les entités décrites seront monstrueuses et inconcevables, plus la description sera précise et clinique. Il faut un scalpel pour décortiquer l’innommable.
Tout impressionnisme est donc à bannir. Il s’agit de construire une littérature vertigineuse : et il n’y a pas de vertige sans une certaine disproportion d’échelle, sans une certaine juxtaposition du minutieux et de l’illimité, du ponctuel et de l’infini.
[The style HPL uses in his later short stories, like a summary of scientific jottings, responds to the following idea: the more monstrous and inconceivable the events and beings described, the more precise and clinical the description. One needs a scalpel to dissect the unnamable.
Thus, impressionism is to be banned. This means creating a vertiginous literature: and there is no vertigo without a certain difference of scale, without a certain juxtaposition of the meticulous with the limitless, of the specific with infinity.]
Si le style de Lovecraft est déplorable, on peut gaiement conclure que le style n’a, en littérature, pas la moindre importance ; et passer à autre chose.
Ce point de vue stupide peut cependant se comprendre. Il faut bien dire que HPL ne participe guère de cette conception élégante, subtile, minimaliste et retenue qui rallie en général tous les suffrages.
[If Lovecraft’s style is deplorable, we can happily conclude that style has not the least importance in literature; and then move on to something else.
This stupid point of view is, however, understandable. One must admit that HPL hardly ever contributes to the elegant, subtle, minimalist and restrained craft which tends to win the most votes.]
The last two quotes I’ve given here end up informing a short discussion suggesting that if your job as a writer is to discuss the horrors of the world, writing them beautifully is a form of hypocrisy. Houellebecq criticizes certain Lovecraft passages, for their obviously bad writing, but at the same time he applauds the fact that Lovecraft’s form mimics his content.
And this is easy to see in Houellebecq’s own writing. He isn’t interested in wasting time writing about something horrific in a carefully-worked style. An ass in an ass. An ugly person is an ugly person. In La Carte et le Territoire, when he describes a vicious murder, he uses a clinical and distant style. Indeed, that book has something of the crime novel to it.
But he can write beautifully, and this is something I’ve discovered as I’ve moved forward in his work. This has gone on long enough for today, so I won’t parade out the examples.
Let me finish, however, with a mention of one other point that I’d like to discuss in my next post. In Contre le Monde, Contre la Vie, Houellebecq reflects on Lovecraft’s racism as the transformative element of his writing. He writes:
Toute grande passion, qu’elle soit amour ou haine, finit par produire une œuvre authentique. On peut le déplorer, mais il faut le reconnaître : Lovecraft est plutôt du côté de la haine ; de la haine et de la peur. [All great passion, whether a question of love or hate, finishes in the production of a genuine work of art. We can lament the fact, but we must acknowledge that Lovecraft is more about hate; hate and fear.]
And then he asserts that the secret of Lovecraft’s genius is that:
…il a réussi à transformer son dégoût de la vie en une hostilité agissante. […he managed to transform his disgust for life into a powerfully efficient hostility.]
This sentence has become the phrase I keep going back to as I read forward in Houellebecq, and I want to consider how it actually describes Houellebecq just as well as Lovecraft.
FYI – All translations provided here are mine, and rather quick ones at that.