The publication in English of a new novel by Michel Houellebecq, The Map and the Territory, causes me to reflect for a moment on that author, and it occurs to me that whenever I put down a book by Houellebecq I almost immediately forget all about it, until I pick up the next one, which probably says something about how deeply I engage with him as a writer. So what I am about to recount might come as something as a surprise.
Earlier this year I went to a conference: ‘Myth and Subversion in the Contemporary Novel’. I hardly ever attend academic conferences, mostly because they are very tedious affairs, but I felt compelled to go to this one because the title of the conference was so very appealing: who could resist it? Moreover it took place in Madrid, at the Universidad Complutense, in springtime. My hastily written paper was called ‘Promethean Variations: From Wells to Houellebecq’ but it is worth considering what else I might have called it: ‘Michel Houellebecq and the paradigm of eternal youth’ was an early option, and so was ‘The forlorn penis of Michel Houellebecq’. The latter phrase got wedged in my thoughts (there are worse places it might have become wedged) and I could not remember whether I had truly invented it (or dreamed it, rather an awful thought) or had simply read it somewhere and forgotten where. I tried googling the phrase but without success. And yet this title, whether my own or someone else’s, is perhaps most apt. ‘The forlorn penis of Michel Houellebecq’ allows a vicarious and not altogether unfair insight into Houellbecq’s contribution to the erotics of literature – the tragic denouement of his invariably disappointed, frustrated, put-upon, self-absorbed and eventually flaccid male protagonists. And yet, joking aside, what interested me, at least in part, and what impressed me on first reading Houellebecq’s novels – which I came to only recently – was brought about by one of the most dreadful Reality TV shows I have ever had the misfortune to watch, and which I endured with growing consternation one evening in the summer of 2010 while staying at a hotel in Orléans.
The premise of this particular show was unusually inventive, even by the absurd standards of Reality TV. It involved a man in his mid forties – classical Houellebecq material – being set up to meet two ex-girlfriends; one from 25 years earlier, the other, rather ludicrously, from 35 years before, when the protagonists were only 10 years old. Harry – in spite of his years he had retained boyish good looks and a mane of white hair – was not only looking for love, but looking for someone with whom he could parent a fourth child.
Myrtle, his first true love, who went out with him when they were both 19, now lives in Los Angeles, works as a model and does not want children. Laurence, whom he last saw skiing in Chamonix in 1976, works as a gymnastics instructor at a big tourist resort in Turkey. Both of these middle-aged French women are fitness fanatics, trying to retain their youth, while Harry is actually attempting to re-live his youth. The whole premise of the show is like a televisual encapsulation of a Houellebecq novel, without the sex. Because when Harry finally settles on Myrtle and flies over to stay with her in LA she tells him he has to sleep on the sofa, and that she does not want children, definitively, ever. Harry is distraught. He has blown it with Laurence and cannot turn back. Although she is open to the idea of having a child with Harry, she looks her age, and this seems to put Harry off. By choosing Myrtle, who looks much as she did at 19, thanks to her fitness regime and some choice plastic surgery, he feels he can reclaim his youth, in spite of the fact that he has absolutely nothing in common with her and shares none of the same ambitions. Perpetual youth is the sole objective. As Houellebecq puts it in his most successful novel, Atomised: ‘sexual desire is preoccupied with youth’ and, as Isabelle, Daniel’s first wife in The Possibility of an Island remarks: All we’re trying to do is create an artificial mankind, a frivolous one that will no longer be open to seriousness or to humor, which, until it dies, will engage in an increasingly desperate quest for fun and sex; a generation of definitive kids.
Unfortunately, the text of my paper disappeared along with the hard drive of my old macbook (see post for 2 September), so I cannot regale you with the intricate arguments I made in support of my (by no means original) notion that Houellebecq’s fictions are guided by the delusional quest for the fount of eternal youth, and therefore, in some respects, embody the myth of continuous self-renewal symbolised by Prometheus. Nor can I review his new book, not having read it, but I am encouraged by reports that it marks a new departure for an author who was in danger of repeating himself interminably (it also won the Prix Goncourt, which must count for something). But here is a clip of the incorrigible Monsieur Houellebecq, being interviewed by poor old Lawrence Pollard of the ‘Culture Show’, which is apparently a TV programme, not a reggae band. My favourite quote from the interview: ‘As soon as I start talking about my life I start lying straightaway. To begin with I lie consciously and very quickly I forget that I’m lying’. How fortunate, gentle reader, that the same cannot be said of Blanco, blogging bloodhound of Ultimate Truth, or la vérité ultime as we say in France.
I’m trying to find the right words and I’m not sure I can. But my feelings for Houellebeck (after to this post of yours, thank you for the stimuli) are a confusing mix of awe and hilariousness and disgust. Quite a range. It would be a wonderful excercise to try to act as hideously once in a while. Is he just very angry or is he brilliant? Both? Yet, I’m smiling.