Authors: Michel Houellebecq
Tags: #Fiction, #Classics
In a near-future France, François, a middle-aged academic, is watching his life slowly dwindle to nothing. His sex drive is diminished, his parents are dead, and his lifelong obsession – the ideas and works of the nineteenth-century novelist Joris-Karl Huysmans – has led him nowhere. In a late-capitalist society where consumerism has become the new religion, François is spiritually barren, but seeking to fill the vacuum of his existence.
And he is not alone. As the 2022 Presidential election approaches, two candidates emerge as favourites: Marine Le Pen of the Front National, and Muhammed Ben Abbes of the nascent Muslim Fraternity. Forming a controversial alliance with the mainstream parties, Ben Abbes sweeps to power, and overnight the country is transformed. Islamic law comes into force: women are veiled, polygamy is encouraged and, for François, life is set on a new course.
is both a devastating satire and a profound meditation on isolation, faith and love. It is a startling new work by one of the most provocative and prescient novelists of today.
Michel Houellebecq is a French novelist, poet and literary critic. His novels include the international bestseller
The Map and the Territory
, which won the 2010 Prix Goncourt. He lives in France.
Lorin Stein is the editor of
The Paris Review.
He lives in New York.
The Possibility of an Island
The Map and the Territory
H. P. Lovecraft: Against the World, Against Life
Public Enemies (with Bernard-Henri Levy)
A noise recalled him to Saint-Sulpice; the choir was leaving; the church was about to close. ‘I should have tried to pray,’ he thought. ‘It would have been better than sitting here in the empty church, dreaming in my chair – but pray? I have no desire to pray. I am haunted by Catholicism, intoxicated by its atmosphere of incense and wax. I hover on its outskirts, moved to tears by its prayers, touched to the very marrow by its psalms and chants. I am thoroughly disgusted with my life, I am sick of myself but so far from changing my ways! And yet … and yet … if I am troubled in these chapels, as soon as I leave them I become unmoved and dry. In the end,’ he told himself, as he rose and followed the last ones out, shepherded by the Swiss guard, ‘in the end, my heart is hardened and smoked dry by dissipation. I am good for nothing.’
– J.-K. Huysmans,
Through all the years of my sad youth Huysmans remained a companion, a faithful friend; never once did I doubt him, never once was I tempted to drop him or take up another subject; then, one afternoon in June 2007, after waiting and putting it off as long as I could, even slightly longer than was allowed, I defended my dissertation, ‘Joris-Karl Huysmans: Out of the Tunnel’, before the jury of the University of Paris IV-Sorbonne. The next morning (or maybe that evening, I don’t remember: I spent the night of my defence alone and very drunk) I realised that part of my life, probably the best part, was behind me.
So it goes, in the remaining Western social democracies, when you finish your studies, but most students don’t notice right away because they’re hypnotised by the desire for money or, if they’re more primitive, the desire for consumer goods (though these cases of acute product-addiction are unusual: the mature, thoughtful majority develop a fascination with that ‘tireless Proteus’, money itself). Above all they’re hypnotised by the desire to make their mark, to carve out an enviable social position in a world that they believe and indeed hope will be competitive, galvanised as they are by the worship of fleeting icons: athletes, fashion or Web designers, film stars and models.
For various psychological reasons that I have neither the skill nor the desire to analyse, I wasn’t that way at all. On 1 April 1866, at the age of eighteen, Joris-Karl Huysmans began his career as a low-ranking civil servant in the French Ministry of the Interior and Ecclesiastical Affairs. In 1874 he published, at his own expense, a first collection of prose poems,
Le drageoir à épices
. It received very little attention, except for one extremely warm review by Théodore de Banville. Such were his quiet beginnings.
His life as a bureaucrat went on, and so did the rest of his life. On 3 September 1893, he received the Légion d’Honneur for public service. In 1898 he retired, having completed – once leaves of absence were taken into account – his mandatory thirty years of employment. In that time he had managed to write books that made me consider him a friend more than a hundred years later. Much, maybe too much, has been written about literature. (I know better than anyone; I’m an expert in the field.) Yet the special thing about literature, the
major art form
of a Western civilisation now ending before our very eyes, is not hard to define. Like literature, music can overwhelm you with sudden emotion, can move you to absolute sorrow or ecstasy; like literature, painting has the power to astonish, and to make you see the world through fresh eyes. But only literature can put you in touch with another human spirit, as a whole, with all its weaknesses and grandeurs, its limitations, its pettinesses, its obsessions, its beliefs; with whatever it finds moving, interesting, exciting or repugnant. Only literature can give you access to a spirit from beyond the grave – a more direct, more complete, deeper access than you’d have in conversation with a friend. Even in our deepest, most lasting friendships, we never speak as openly as when we face a blank page and address a reader we do not know. The beauty of an author’s style, the music of his sentences have their importance in literature, of course; the depth of an author’s reflections, the originality of his thought certainly can’t be overlooked; but an author is above all a human being, present in his books, and whether he writes very well or very badly hardly matters – as long as he gets the books written and is, indeed, present in them. (It’s strange that something so simple, so seemingly universal, should actually be so rare, and that this rarity, so easy to observe, should receive so little attention from philosophers in any discipline: for in principle human beings possess, if not the same quality, at least the same quantity of being; in principle they are all more or less equally
; and yet this is not the impression they give, at a distance of several centuries, and all too often, as we turn pages that seem to have been dictated more by the spirit of the age than by an individual, we watch these wavering, ever more ghostly, anonymous beings dissolve before our eyes.) In the same way, to love a book is, above all, to love its author: we want to meet him again, we want to spend our days with him. During the seven years it took me to write my dissertation, I lived with Huysmans, in his more or less permanent presence. Born in the rue Suger, having lived in the rue de Sèvres and the rue Monsieur, Huysmans died in the rue Saint-Placide and was buried in Montparnasse. He spent almost his entire life within the boundaries of the Sixth Arrondissement of Paris, just as he spent his professional life, thirty years and more of it, in the Ministry of the Interior and Ecclesiastical Affairs. I, too, lived in the Sixth Arrondissement, in a damp, cold, utterly cheerless room – the windows overlooked a tiny courtyard, practically a well. When I got up in the morning, I had to turn on the light. I was poor, and if I’d been given one of those polls that are always trying to ‘take the pulse of the under-25s’, I would certainly have ticked the box marked ‘struggling’, And yet the morning after I defended my dissertation (or maybe that same night), my first reaction was that I had lost something priceless, something I’d never get back: my freedom. For several years, the last vestiges of a dying welfare state (scholarships, student discounts, health care, mediocre but cheap meals in the student cafeteria) had allowed me to spend my waking hours the way I chose: in the easy intellectual company of a friend. As André Breton pointed out, Huysmans’ sense of humour is uniquely generous. He lets the reader stay one step ahead of him, inviting us to laugh at him, and his overly plaintive, awful or ludicrous descriptions, even before he laughs at himself. No one appreciated that generosity more than I did, as I received my rations of celeriac remoulade and salt cod, each in its little compartment of the metal hospital tray issued by the Bullier student cafeteria (whose unfortunate patrons clearly had nowhere else to go, and had obviously been kicked out of all the acceptable student cafeterias, but who still had their student IDs – you couldn’t take away their student IDs), and I thought of Huysmans’ epithets – the
sole – and imagined what he might make of those metal cells, which he’d never known, and I felt a little less unhappy, a little less alone, in the Bullier student cafeteria.
But that was all over now. My entire youth was over. Soon (very soon), I would have to see about entering the workforce. The prospect left me cold.
The academic study of literature leads basically nowhere, as we all know, unless you happen to be an especially gifted student, in which case it prepares you for a career teaching the academic study of literature – it is, in other words, a rather farcical system that exists solely to replicate itself and yet manages to fail more than 95 per cent of the time. Still, it’s harmless, and can even have a certain marginal value. A young woman applying for a sales job at Céline or Hermès should naturally attend to her appearance above all; but a degree in literature can constitute a secondary asset, since it guarantees the employer, in the absence of any useful skills, a certain intellectual agility that could lead to professional development – besides which, literature has always carried positive connotations in the world of luxury goods.
For my part, I knew I was one of those ‘gifted’ few. I’d written a good dissertation and I expected an honourable mention. All the same, I was pleasantly surprised to receive a
, and even more surprised when I saw the committee’s report, which was excellent, practically dithyrambic. Suddenly a tenured position as a senior lecturer was within my reach, if I wanted it. Which meant that my boring, predictable life continued to resemble Huysmans’ a century and a half before. I had begun my adult life at a university and would probably end it the same way, maybe even at the same one (though in fact this wasn’t quite the case: I had taken my degree at the University of Paris IV-Sorbonne and was appointed by Paris III, slightly less prestigious but also in the Fifth Arrondissement, just around the corner).
I’d never felt the slightest vocation for teaching – and my fifteen years as a teacher had only confirmed that initial lack of calling. What little private tutoring I’d done, to raise my standard of living, soon convinced me that the transmission of knowledge was generally impossible, the variance of intelligence extreme, and that nothing could undo or even mitigate this basic inequality. Worse, maybe, I didn’t like young people and never had, even when I might have been numbered among them. Being young implied, it seemed to me, a certain enthusiasm for life, or else a certain defiance, accompanied in either case by a vague sense of superiority towards the generation that one had been called on to replace. I’d never had those sorts of feelings. I did have some friends when I was young – or, more precisely, there were other students with whom I could contemplate having coffee or a beer between classes and not feel disgust. Mostly I had mistresses – or rather, as people said then (and maybe still do), I had
, roughly one a year. These relationships followed a fairly regular pattern. They would start at the beginning of the academic year, with a seminar, an exchange of class notes, or what have you, one of the many social occasions, so common in student life, that disappear when we enter the workforce, plunging most of us into a stupefying and radical solitude. The relationship would take its course as the year went by. Nights were spent at one person’s place or the other’s (in fact, I’d usually stay at theirs, since the grim, not to say insalubrious, atmosphere at mine hardly lent itself to
); sexual acts took place (to what I like to think was our mutual satisfaction). When we came back from the summer holiday and the academic year began again, the relationship would end, almost always at the girl’s initiative.
Things had changed
over the summer. This was the reason they’d give, usually without further elaboration. A few, clearly less eager to spare me, would explain that they had
. Yeah, and so? Wasn’t I
, too? In hindsight, these factual accounts strike me as insufficient. They had indeed met someone, I fully concede that; but what made them lend so much weight to this encounter – enough to end our relationship and involve them in a new one – was merely the application of a powerful but unspoken model of amorous behaviour, a model all the more powerful because it remained unspoken.