Wednesday, June 21, 2017

"Atomised" by Michel Houellebecq (trs Frank Wynne)

Michel Houellebecq came to prominence in the English-speaking world following "Submission", his recent novel about an Islamic politician being elected as President of France in the 2022 election.

Amazon link
"As the 2022 French Presidential election looms, two candidates emerge as favourites: Marine Le Pen of the Front National, and the charismatic Muhammed Ben Abbes of the growing Muslim Fraternity. Forming a controversial alliance with the political left to block the Front National’s alarming ascendency, Ben Abbes sweeps to power, and overnight the country is transformed. This proves to be the death knell of French secularism, as Islamic law comes into force: women are veiled, polygamy is encouraged and, for our narrator François – misanthropic, middle-aged and alienated – life is set on a new course."
I wrote about it here.

Deciding to read more Houellebecq, I settled on his 1998 novel, "Atomised", written when he was 42. I was, in truth, in two minds about ordering it: it is extremely explicit - some have used the p-word. For instance I can't reproduce the jailbait front cover here for brand-integrity reasons.

Here's part of Houellebecq's Wikipedia entry.
"Houellebecq was born in 1956 on the French island of Réunion, the son of Lucie Ceccaldi, a French doctor born in Algeria of Corsican descent, and René Thomas, a ski instructor and mountain guide. He lived in Algeria from the age of five months until 1961, with his maternal grandmother.

"His website states that his parents "lost interest in his existence pretty quickly" and at the age of six, he was sent to France to live with his paternal grandmother, a communist, while his mother left to live a hippie lifestyle in Brazil with her newly met boyfriend. His grandmother's maiden name was Houellebecq, which he took as his pen name.

"Later, he went to Lycée Henri Moissan, a high school at Meaux in the north-east of Paris, as a boarder. He then went to Lycée Chaptal in Paris to follow preparation courses in order to qualify for Grandes écoles (elite schools). He began attending the Institut National Agronomique Paris-Grignon in 1975. He started a literary review called Karamazov and wrote poetry.

"Houellebecq graduated as an agronomist in 1980, married and had a son; then he divorced, became depressed and took up writing poetry. His first poems appeared in 1985 in the magazine La Nouvelle Revue. Six years later, in 1991, he published a biographical essay of the horror writer H. P. Lovecraft, a teenage passion, with the prophetic subtitle Against the World, Against Life. 

"Rester vivant: méthode (To Stay Alive) appeared the same year, and was followed by his first collection of poetry. Meanwhile, he worked as a computer administrator in Paris, including at the French National Assembly, before he became the so-called "pop star of the single generation", gaining fame with his debut novel Extension du domaine de la lutte in 1994 (translated by Paul Hammond and published as Whatever).

"He won the 1998 Prix Novembre for his second novel Les Particules Élémentaires (translated by Frank Wynne), published in the English-speaking world as Atomised (Heinemann, UK) or The Elementary Particles (Knopf, US).

"The novel became an instant "nihilistic classic", though Michiko Kakutani described it in The New York Times as "a deeply repugnant read". The novel won Houellebecq (along with his translator, Frank Wynne) the International Dublin Literary Award in 2002."
Here is what The Guardian has to say:
"It tells the story of two half-brothers, Bruno and Michel, both children of a libertine hippy mother who had as little as possible to do with their upbringing. Houellebecq's childhood was very similar to this; the two main characters can be seen as divergent yet related elements of his own self.

"Michel Djerzinski is a diligent, brilliant scientist who gives up his job as a researcher working on decoding genomes or whatever in order "to think". As his superior puts it: "decoding DNA, pfff . . . you decode one gene, then another and another . . . it's like following a recipe. From time to time someone comes up with better equipment and they give him the Nobel Prize. It's a joke." From which you can decipher not only that Houellebecq's cynicism is sincere and well researched, but that he can be very funny indeed. (And, in passing, that the translation would appear to be first-rate.)"
Michel is a passive, anaemic character incapable of love (or any profound emotion) who lets down all who might depend upon him. But Bruno is far worse.
"Michel's half-brother, Bruno, is a more problematic individual; where Michel has virtually no sex drive at all, Bruno is obsessed, with the unfortunate twist that for long periods of his life, he doesn't get enough. He exposes himself to a girl in the class to which he teaches literature; he is sent to a mental institution (as was Houellebecq, if not for the same reason). He goes to a hippy holiday commune, the Lieu du Changement, and the vacuity of all New Age bullshit is brilliantly attacked. ("Tantric Zen, which combined vanity, mysticism, and frottage, flourished.") Bruno is the id to Michel's ego, if you want to use specious terms."
There is a lot of Bruno in the book. Many passages describe in minute detail orgies and swinger-parties. If pornographic means 'intended to arouse' this is not that. My reaction was more that given Houellebecq's searing honesty and obsessional quest for accuracy, such people and such clubs must actually exist and, moreover, Houellebecq must be very well acquainted with them.

I think I must have led a very sheltered life.

As The Guardian concludes,
"There is not too much doubt that Houellebecq is an unpleasant person. "
He is however, an astonishingly good writer. Yet still I ponder what this novel is really about. The Guardian again:
"This is a bold and unsettling portrait of a society falling apart: the rage that both left and right, the piously religious as well as the humanists, have expressed towards Houellebecq is pretty much the rage of Caliban seeing his face in the glass."
But outside the ranks of the marginalised, déclassé intellectuals which Houellebecq so brutally chronicles, has human nature really become as comprehensively atomised and dissociated as Atomised suggests? Would this even be possible? The novel sprawls and build to an unlikely conclusion but it seems most interested in the characters of the two grotesques - Bruno and Michel.

I'm with Houellebecq's mother: this is the author working off his resentment at his rubbish childhood.

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