So I finished up my post earlier this week on Houellebecq’s H.P. Lovecraft: Contre la Vie, Contre le Monde with Houellebecq asserting that the key to Lovecraft’s genius is that he managed to transform his feelings of disgust (about life and social changes he had no control over) into a form of creative hostility. I think it would be quite easy to use this same sentence and exchange the word Lovecraft for Houellebecq. Simple as that. Not hard to see why one writer admired the other.
But Houellebecq’s disgust is of a different variety than what I understand of Lovecraft’s. Lovecraft couldn’t stand the world he lived in, so he created alien worlds to escape into, taking his anger and frustration and working them out or increasing them, both symbolically and overtly, in those new worlds. (This is more or less Houellebecq’s reading.) Now, for Houellebecq, I get the feeling that he is profoundly, overwhelmingly, devastatingly disappointed in human nature. Like Lovecraft, he is revolted by society, but unlike Lovecraft, he is not quite willing to reject it and escape away. Houellebecq is still interested.
His disgust is palpable, but there is more sorrow than hostility in much of what he writes. Every once in a while something horrible does surge up and out of a text, taking the reader more or less by surprise, but then the tone resettles around Houellebecq’s grief. Yes, grief. I think this might be the best word for it – Houellebecq is in a state of perpetual mourning for what he understands of society.
And grief is something that often turns a person inward, so it isn’t a surprise that Houellebecq cannot get himself out of his stories. As I wrote earlier, I think this inability to remove himself from the literary equations he poses and tries to solve is a tricky issue of his writing but it also contributes to the unique nature of his work.
In all honesty, I can see now that one of the reasons I’ve become so interested in Houellebecq is that I usually prefer my writers to stay out of their stories. I tend to balk at, or, at the very least, disregard biographical details when I’m considering a text. I want to be able to consider the literary landscape and the characters without worrying whether the author is speaking from experience or made it all up. I’ve always felt that it shouldn’t matter.
However, because of his unsettling merge of author and character, Houellebecq forces me to consider him biographically at almost every step of the way. My knee-jerk reaction would usually be, “Grow up, get over yourself, get a therapist, and do something truly creative.” But his honesty is actually engaging. His perspective is even seductive—I think humans can be pretty rotten, too—as well as off-putting and that combination is hard to put down.