Authors: Michel Houellebecq
Tags: #Fiction, #Classics
The way things were supposed to work (and I have no reason to think much has changed), young people, after a brief period of sexual vagabondage in their very early teens, were expected to settle down in exclusive, strictly monogamous relationships involving activities (outings, weekends, holidays) that were not only sexual, but social. At the same time, there was nothing final about these relationships. Instead, they were thought of as apprenticeships – in a sense, as
(a practice that was generally seen in the professional world as a step towards one’s first job). Relationships of variable duration (a year being, according to my own observations, an acceptable amount of time) and of variable number (an average of ten to twenty might be considered a reasonable estimate) were supposed to succeed one another until they ended, like an apotheosis, with the last relationship, this one conjugal and final, which would lead, via the begetting of children, to the formation of a family.
The complete idiocy of this model became plain to me only much later – rather recently, in fact – when I happened to see Aurélie and then, a few weeks later, Sandra. (But if it had been Chloé or Violaine, I’m convinced I would have reached the same conclusion.) The moment I walked into the Basque restaurant where Aurélie was meeting me for dinner, I knew I was in for a grim evening. Despite the two bottles of white Irouléguy that I drank almost entirely by myself, I found it harder and harder, and after a while, almost impossible, to keep up a reasonable level of friendly conversation. For reasons I didn’t entirely understand, it suddenly seemed tactless, almost unthinkable, to talk about the old days. As for the present, it was clear that Aurélie had never managed to form a long-term relationship, that casual sex filled her with growing disgust, that her personal life was headed for complete and utter disaster. There were various signs that she’d tried to settle down, at least once, and had never recovered from her failure. From the sour and bitter way she talked about her male colleagues (in the end we’d been reduced to discussing her professional life: she was head of communications for an association of Bordeaux winemakers, so she travelled a lot to promote French wines, mostly in Asia) it was painfully clear that she had been
through the wringer
. Even so, I was surprised when, just as she was about to get out of the taxi, she invited me up ‘for a nightcap’. She’s really hit rock bottom, I thought. From the moment the lift doors shut, I knew nothing was going to happen. I didn’t even want to see her naked, I’d rather have avoided it, and yet it came to pass, and only confirmed what I’d already imagined. Her emotions may have been through the wringer, but her body had been damaged beyond repair. Her buttocks and breasts were no more than sacks of emaciated flesh, shrunken, flabby and pendulous. She could no longer – she could never again – be considered an object of desire.
My meal with Sandra followed a similar pattern, albeit with small variations (seafood restaurant, job with the CEO of a multinational pharmaceutical company), and it ended much the same way, except it seemed to me that Sandra, who was plumper and jollier than Aurélie, hadn’t let herself go to the same degree. She was sad, very sad, and I knew her sorrow would overwhelm her in the end; like Aurélie, she was nothing but a bird in an oil slick; but she had retained, if I can put it this way, a superior ability to flap her wings. In one or two years she would give up any last matrimonial ambitions, her imperfectly extinguished sensuality would lead her to seek out the company of young men, she would become what we used to call a
, and no doubt she’d go on this way for several years, ten at the most, before the sagging of her flesh became prohibitive, and condemned her to a lasting solitude.
In my twenties, when I got hard-ons all the time, sometimes for no good reason, as though in a vacuum, I might have gone for someone like her. It would have been more satisfying, and paid better, than my tutorials. Back then I think I could have
, but now of course it was totally out of the question, since my erections were rarer and less dependable and required bodies that were firm, supple and flawless.
My own sex life, during my early years as a lecturer at Paris III, hadn’t evolved in any notable way. Year after year, I kept sleeping with students, and the fact that we were now teacher and student didn’t change things much at all. At the beginning, there was scarcely any age difference between us. Only gradually did an element of transgression enter in, and this had more to do with my rising academic status than with my age, real or apparent. In short, I benefitted from that basic inequality between men, whose erotic potential diminishes very slowly as they age, and women, for whom the collapse comes with shocking brutality from year to year, or even from month to month. The one real change, since my student years, was that now I was usually the one who broke it off when the academic year began. It wasn’t that I was a Don Juan, or yearned for some kind of untrammelled sexual freedom. Unlike my colleague Steve, who also taught nineteenth-century literature to the first- and second-year students, I didn’t spend the first days of university eagerly checking out the ‘new talent’. (With his sweatshirts, his Converse and his vaguely Californian looks, he always reminded me of Thierry Lhermitte in
, emerging from his cabana every week to assess the new crop at the resort.) If I broke up with these girls, it was more out of a sense of discouragement, of lassitude: I just didn’t feel up to maintaining a relationship, and I didn’t want to disappoint them or lead them on. Then over the course of the academic year I’d change my mind, owing to factors that were external and incidental – generally, a short skirt.
Then that stopped, too. I’d left Myriam at the end of September, now it was already mid-April, the academic year was coming to an end, and still I hadn’t replaced her. Although I had been made a full professor, and so had reached a sort of end point in my academic career, I didn’t think the two facts were connected. By contrast, it was just after things ended with Myriam that I saw Aurélie, and Sandra, and there I did feel a connection – a disturbing, unpleasant, uncomfortable connection. Because as I looked back over the years, I had to admit that my exes and I were much closer than we realised. Our episodic sexual relations, pursued with no hope of any lasting attachment, had left us disillusioned in similar ways. Unlike them, I had no one to talk to about these things, since intimacy isn’t something men talk about. They may talk about politics, literature, stocks or sports, depending on the man, but about their love lives they keep silent, even to their dying breath.
Had I fallen prey, in middle age, to a kind of andropause? It wouldn’t have surprised me. To find out for sure I decided to spend my evenings on YouPorn, which over the years had grown into a sort of porn encyclopedia. The results were immediate and extremely reassuring. YouPorn catered to the fantasies of normal men all over the world, and within minutes it became clear that I was an utterly normal man. This was not something I took for granted. After all, I’d devoted years of my life to the study of a man who was often considered a kind of
, whose sexuality was therefore not entirely clear. At any rate, the experiment put my mind at rest. Some of the videos were superb (shot by a crew from Los Angeles, complete with a lighting designer, cameramen and cinematographer), some were wretched but ‘vintage’ (German amateurs), and all were based on the same few crowd-pleasing scenarios. In one of the most common, some man (young? old? both versions existed) had been foolish enough to let his penis curl up for a nap in his pants or boxers. Two young women, of varying race, would alert him to the oversight and, this accomplished, would stop at nothing until they liberated his organ from its temporary abode. They’d coax it out with the sluttiest kind of badinage, all in a spirit of friendship and feminine complicity. The penis would pass from one mouth to the other, tongues crossing paths like restless flocks of swallows in the sombre skies above the Seine-et-Marne when they prepare to leave Europe for their winter migration. The man, destroyed at the moment of his assumption, would utter a few weak words: appallingly weak in the French films (‘
Oh putain je jouis!
’: more or less what you’d expect from a nation of regicides), more beautiful and intense from those true believers the Americans (‘Oh my God!’ ‘Oh Jesus Christ!’), like an injunction not to neglect God’s gifts (blow jobs, roast chicken). At any rate I got a hard-on, too, sitting in front of my twenty-seven-inch iMac, and all was well.
Once I was made a professor, my reduced course load meant I could get all my teaching done on Wednesdays. From eight to ten, I had Nineteenth-Century Literature with the second years, while Steve taught the same class to the first years in the lecture hall next door. From eleven to one, I taught an upper-level class on the Decadents and Symbolists. Then, from three to six, I led a seminar where I answered questions from the doctoral students.
I liked to catch the metro a little after seven to give myself the illusion that I was one of the ‘early risers’ of France, the workers and tradesmen. I was the only one who enjoyed this fantasy, clearly, because when I gave my lecture, at eight, the hall was almost completely empty except for a small knot of chillingly serious Chinese women who rarely spoke to one another, let alone anyone else. The moment they walked in, they turned on their smartphones so they could record my entire lecture. This didn’t stop them from taking notes in their large spiral notebooks. They never interrupted, they never asked any questions, and the two hours were over before I knew it. Coming out of the class I’d see Steve, who would have had a similar showing, only in his case the Chinese students were replaced by veiled North Africans, all just as serious and inscrutable. He’d almost always invite me for a drink – usually mint tea in the Paris Mosque, a few blocks from the university. I didn’t like mint tea, or the Paris Mosque, and I didn’t much like Steve, but still I went. I think he was grateful for my company, because he wasn’t really respected by his colleagues. In fact, it was an open question how he’d been named a senior lecturer when he’d never published in an important journal, or even a minor one, and when all he’d written was a vague dissertation on Rimbaud, a
if ever there was one, as Marie-Françoise Tanneur had explained to me. She was another colleague, an authority on Balzac. Millions of dissertations were written on Rimbaud, in every university in France, the francophone countries and beyond. Rimbaud was the world’s most beaten-to-death subject, with the possible exception of Flaubert, so all a person had to do was look for two or three old dissertations from provincial universities and basically mix them together. Who could check? No one had the resources or the desire to sift through hundreds of millions of turgid, overwritten pages on the
by a bunch of colourless drones. The advancement of Steve’s career at the university, according to Marie-Françoise, was due entirely to the fact that he was
eating Big Delouze’s pussy
. This seemed possible, albeit surprising. With her broad shoulders, her grey crew cut and her courses in ‘gender studies’, Chantal Delouze, the president of Paris III, had always struck me as a dyed-in-the-wool lesbian, but I could have been wrong, or maybe she bore a hatred towards men that expressed itself in fantasies of domination. Maybe forcing Steve, with his pretty, vapid little face and his long silken curls, to kneel down between her chunky thighs brought her to new and hitherto unknown heights of ecstasy. True or false, I couldn’t get the image out of my head that morning, on the terrace of the tea room of the Paris Mosque, as I watched him suck on his repulsive apple-scented hookah.
As usual, his conversation revolved around academic appointments and promotions. I never heard him willingly talk about anything else. That morning he was nattering on about a new appointment, a twenty-five-year-old lecturer who’d done his dissertation on Léon Bloy and who, according to Steve, had ‘nativist connections’. I lit a cigarette, playing for time as I tried to think why Steve would give a fuck. For a moment I thought his inner
man of the left
had been roused, then I reasoned with myself: his inner man of the left was fast asleep, and nothing less than a political shift in the leadership of the French university system could ever rouse him. It must be a sign, he said, especially since they just promoted Amar Rezki, who worked on early-twentieth-century anti-Semitic writers. Plus, he insisted, the Conference of University Presidents had recently joined a boycott against academic exchanges with Israeli scholars, which had begun with a group of English universities …
As he turned his attention to his hookah, which had got stopped up, I stole a glance at my watch. It was only ten thirty, I could hardly pretend to be late for my next class. Then a topic of conversation occurred to me: there had been more talk lately about a project, first proposed four or five years ago, to create a replica of the Sorbonne in Dubai (or was it Bahrain? Qatar? I always got them mixed up). Oxford had a similar plan in the works. Clearly the antiquity of our two universities had caught some petro-monarch’s eye. If the project went through, there’d be real financial opportunities for a young lecturer like Steve. Had he considered throwing his hat into the ring with a little anti-Zionist agitation? And did he think there might be anything in it for me?
I shot Steve a probing glance. The kid wasn’t very bright, he was easy to rattle, and this had the desired effect. ‘As a Bloy scholar,’ he stammered, ‘you must know a lot about this nativist, anti-Semitic, um …’ I sighed, exhausted. Bloy wasn’t an anti-Semite, and I wasn’t a Bloy scholar. Bloy had come up, naturally, in the course of my research on Huysmans, and I’d compared their use of language in my one published work,
Vertigos of Coining
– no doubt the summit of my intellectual achievements. At any rate, it had been well-reviewed in
, and probably accounted for my being made a professor. In fact, many of the strange words used by Huysmans were not coinages but rare borrowings, specific to certain trades or regional dialects. My thesis was that Huysmans never stopped being a Naturalist, that he took pains to incorporate the real speech of ordinary people into his work, and that, in a sense, he remained the same socialist who had attended Zola’s soirees in Medan as a young man. Even as he grew to despise the left, he maintained his old aversion to capitalism, money and anything having to do with bourgeois values. He was the very type of a
, whereas Bloy, desperate for commercial and social success, used his incessant neologisms to call attention to himself, to set himself up as a persecuted spiritual luminary misunderstood by the common run of men. Having assumed the role of mystico-elitist in the literary world of his day, Bloy never stopped marvelling at his own failure, or at the indifference with which society, quite reasonably, greeted his imprecations. He was, Huysmans wrote, ‘an unfortunate man, whose pride is truly diabolical and whose hatred knows no bounds’. From the beginning Bloy struck me as the prototype of the
, who truly exalts in his faith and zeal only when he’s convinced that the people around him are going to hell. And yet when I wrote my dissertation I’d been in touch with various left-wing Catholic-royalist circles who worshipped Bloy and Bernanos, and who were always trying to interest me in some manuscript letter or other, until I realised they had nothing to offer, absolutely nothing – no document that I couldn’t easily find for myself in the usual scholarly collections.