Michelle Bailat-Jones

Writer, Translator, Reader

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.

8 Responses to “final thoughts: Houellebecq on Lovecraft”

  1. Stefanie

    It’s really interesting what you say about Houellebecq, his disgust and grief. I’ve not read him so I could be off base, but it sounds like he doesn’t try to do anything about his disgust and grief. What keeps him from imagining a way for human nature/ society to change? Or from escaping into a utopian vision? And does he include himself in his disgust over human nature / society?

    • Michelle

      He definitely does not spare himself from his own disgust, especially in his newest novel, in which he’s actually a character; he’s a horrible, pathetic individual. (Who then gets murdered, in a really insane murder). And as far as I can tell, he’s not interested in creating an alternate utopian vision. He’s just trying to be as honest as possible about what he perceives our current society to be. Whether he is correct or not is up for fiery debate.
      I hate to psychoanalyze Houellebecq because a) I’m not trained to do so and b) it feels condescending, but he clearly suffers from serious depression. Perhaps writing is one way he negotiates his depression.

  2. Lilian Nattel

    It sounds like he had a tough row to hoe in terms of his clear sightedness. There is enough to be disgusted at and grieve over in human behaviour, but most of us need to be more optimistic than that. It must have been hard for him to be unable to get away from it.

    • Michelle

      Yes, as I mention to Stefanie, he does appear unable to get away from his pessimistic vision. On the one hand, it has been a source of incredible creativity for him, so perhaps that is another reason he can’t get out of it. On the other, he may run out some day of different ways to say the same thing.

  3. Dorothy W.

    I can’t decide if you are making me want to read Houellebecq or not! I think I have less patience for the kind of anger and disgust you’re describing here — I’d be tempted to say “Grow up!” too, but your feeling that he is an engaging writer is intriguing, and I wonder what I would make of him.

    • Michelle

      Maybe when I am all finished, I’ll have a book suggestion. He is hard for me to figure out. The sections of Les Particules Elémentaires (Elementary Particles) that I read last night had none of that disgust and anger, they were just sad. This is the book that made him famous, really, and I can see why.

  4. litlove

    When you get to the end of Particules elementaires, you’ll find the one place where Houellebecq DOES envisage an alternative solution to humanity and its problems. The ending is the best part of that book, but it’s not comforting in any way. But I won’t say more and spoil it! I’m fascinated by what you say about grief. That is so interesting. There are certain emotional stages that mourners pass through, and anger is one of them. Perhaps Houellebecq is fixated here? And maybe as he continues to write, he’ll mark a transit through some of the other stages? I need to read more of his later work, knowing only the early books. I do think though that there is a complex provocation at work in his writing. I feel he’s saying – this is true, isn’t it? That we don’t want to look at ugly people or be associated with them, that all our ideals get commodified and sold in time, that loving is always mixed up with a dose of hatred and aggression. He asks us to agree with some of the worst parts of humanity or else taunts us with hypocrisy if we don’t. I’m very interested in how we can say things that people don’t want to hear – Houellebecq is intriguing to me for that reason.

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