PRINT October 2000


Michel Houellebecq

ONE OF THE MORE TELLING recent developments in French cultural life has been the sudden nostalgia for Jean-Paul Sartre coinciding with the twentieth anniversary of his death this year. No one really misses Sartre's ideas about “Being” or the Communist International, but a reconsideration of the place he filled in French culture has signaled a genuine EU-era cultural identity crisis. He was the last in a long line of engaged and very public intellectuals, a tradition that included, in the twentieth century alone, Zola, Malraux, Camus; if France is no longer turning out Voltaire-quality men of letters, then what is France? Or, put another way, why has the most gifted French writer in several generations, forty-one-year-old Michel Houellebecq, just come out with a pop CD?

Houellebecq is the author of the 1998 novel Les Particules élémentaires, a controversial bestseller in France, Germany, and Holland—scheduled to be published this month by Knopf as The Elementary Particles—that highlighted a cultural fault line in France between the rising generation and the established left-intellectual elites, which is to say, the generation of '68. The book was praised extensively by the most influential cultural weekly in the country, Les Inrockuptibles, but was passed over for most of the major literary prizes, including the prestigious Prix Goncourt. The soixante huitards understood the book as a frontal assault on their most cherished ideals. That generation took to the barricades in the belief that the freedom of the individual was worth dying for; Houellebecq's characters—in effect the offspring of the '68ers—aren't persuaded it's enough to live for. Feminism, sexual liberation, freedom from religion, and the reorganization of the bourgeois family haven't made people freer or even happier, Houellebecq's novel seems to suggest, just lonelier, more depressed, and more dissatisfied with what culture has left to offer. Here's what happens after one character confesses to another her love of Brazilian dance.

“Sophie,” announced Bruno, “I could go on vacation to Brazil tomorrow. I'd look around a favela. The windows of the minibus would be bulletproof. In the morning, I'd go sightseeing. Check out eight-year-old murderers who dream of growing up to be gangsters; thirteen-year-old prostitutes dying of AIDS. I'd spend the afternoon at the beach surrounded by filthy-rich drug barons and pimps. I'm sure that in such a passionate, not to mention liberal, society I could shake off the malaise of Western civilization. You're right, Sophie: I'll go straight to a travel agent as soon as I get home.

How peculiarly French that the same generation which had reclaimed Céline's literary genius despite his anti-Semitism could fail to take the satirical elements in The Elementary Particles as anything more than a narrow harangue meant to undermine the political legacy of May '68. The book's intelligence is certainly critical, but it is also comprehensive and precise, which, together with its narrative force, is what makes The Elementary Particles a major achievement in contemporary fiction. It tells the story of two half brothers—Bruno, a writer, and Michel, a scientist—who muddle their way through their broken lives, alternately seeking and avoiding relationships with family and lovers, biding their time at work, and touring the French countryside and sex resorts, until they reach, quite literally, the end of man. Michel's work is responsible for a new, genetically engineered species of humans, “asexual and immortal, a species which had outgrown individuality, individuation and progress.”

Houellebecq began his writing career as a poet, and his recently released album, Présence humaine, his first, is best seen as an extension of his poetry. The instrumental work here sounds a lot like the pretechno synthesizer stuff that passed for French rock before MC Solaar, Air, and DJ Dimitri. Though Houellebecq doesn't play an instrument himself, he handles the lyrics, speaking (not singing) in a voice that registers somewhere around Leonard Cohen's bass. If the music is pretty insipid, the lyrics, drawn from the several volumes of Houellebecq's poetry, are not half bad. This is from the seventh and longest song on the album, “Plein été”: “Je suis le chien blessé, le technicien de surface / Et je suis la bouée qui soutient l'enfant mort.” (“I'm the wounded dog, the technician of surface / And I'm the life preserver propping up the dead child.”) In contemporary French poetry, this sort of raw imagery passes for direct statement. It's as rare as rhyming quatrains, which Houellebecq also uses. To find it, you have to go back to Baudelaire, the master technician of surface.

Indeed, if Sartre's politically engaged intellectual constitutes one tradition in French letters, Baudelaire's darker, more solitary poet works the other. Skeptical of petitions to man's rational side, Baudelaire is hardly anyone's idea of an engaged intellectual, and Houellebecq is at least as suspicious. “I don't believe in democracy or rational choices,” he told me recently. “I'm not interested in freedom. It's not a clear concept. Freedom is a mystery that sometimes happens to people.”

If the legacy of May ‘68, with its universalist claims to individual freedom, has really amounted to nothing more than dysfunctional families, psychotropic drugs, and swingers’ clubs (changistes), then maybe France really does need a Sartre to lead it out of the darkness. Houellebecq, for his part, imagines France's EU nightmare—a species without individuation, without nation. Despite his clear lack of interest in the task, Houellebecq, it seems, will once again be asked to play the engaged intellectual. With the Human Genome Project now reaping Neil Armstrong–size headlines across the world, The Elementary Particles will no doubt get caught up in the inevitable swirl of debates on the ethics of genetic engineering. What sorts of limits should we set on genetic manipulation? Shouldn't mankind press ahead with scientific progress and leave the philosophy till later? “I think all my books have ethical lessons,” says Houellebecq. “But ethical lessons are so simple, aren't they?” It's the sort of moment Sartre lived for.

Lee Smith is a senior editor at Talk.