Clearly stated in The Male Harem bylaws: “All flattery welcome. False praise included. If you’re a liar just be a good one.” Who doesn’t love to be praised? Michel Houellebecq, it seems.
France’s persistent enfant terrible was recently described by Alexandra Wolfe in the Wall Street Journal as being “accused of misogyny, anti-Muslim bigotry and (more generally) nihilism, based in large part on the vulgar, resentful, unhappy characters in his novels.” At a surly sixty-one, he has done nothing to discourage that sentiment.
Houellebecq writes about cheery subjects like dystopian societies and sexual obsession. Over the years he has been taken to court for inciting hatred, awarded France’s prestigious Prix Goncourt, and cultivated a reputation as “one of Europe’s most controversial cultural figures.”
He even has a healthy Twitter following. (There are several Houellebecq handles including a “fake” one which is probably the real one.) Not that he’s a social media geek. In a culture where intellectual is still a noun, Houellebecq is a real writer of real books that examine, for better and mostly worse, human nature.
Sex scenes can be the hardest to write, he tells Wolfe, because of the nature of sensuality. “Language isn’t really made for descriptions of sensual physical experiences. … There’s a dissolution of perceptions in sex which makes everything kind of blurry.” A brash contrarian who concedes to the je ne sais quoi of sex? The Sultanette needed a closer look at this specimen.
So when I learned that he was scheduled to appear at noon at New York’s premier cultural haunt, the Albertine Library of the French Consulate, I was there at 11:00 o’clock on the dot. For the next two hours I enjoyed VIP status behind the press section’s velvet rope.
At noon it was announced that the author was running late. Soon the beau monde became bored with air-kissing and started squirming in their seats. Things didn’t look good. (Lauren Collins in The New Yorker describes the time Houellebecq missed the opening of the Channel Tunnel “because he wasn’t getting along with an official from the Culture Ministry.”) At 1:00pm, the apologetic announcement. Regrettably, Monsieur Houellebecq was under the weather.
I dragged myself out to the reception area and the table loaded down with the his books. Did the no-show deserve my investment? A New York Times Book Review blurb on Platform (2004, Vintage/Random House) said: “A terrific writer, funny and prophetic … feverishly alive to the world around him.” I bought the paperback and fled to lunch.
I needed to fuel up for the next venue the author was alleged to appear at – a presentation of his photography titled “French Bashing” now showing at the Venus gallery on Madison Avenue. Houellebecq has been taking pictures for decades but has only begun to show them and this was his New York premiere. Primed for more abuse, I was eager to see what the Journal had described as the medium “in which he has expressed his relentless dark view of modern France: Photography.”
As threatened, the first room of the show is nearly pitch black – better to enhance the bleak images described in the press release as “a continent on the verge of decomposition.” Quotes from the author’s book like, “I had no more reason to kill myself than most of these people did” add to the mood.
Then just as you’re convinced that Houellebecq would be a lousy representative for the French chamber of commerce, you part back a heavy velvet curtain and are assaulted by blinding light and saturated color. In this second room the floor is paved in laminated travel posters, emphasizing kitschy “visions of tourism” framed against a white wall under fluorescent lighting. All this stimulation and still no Houellebecq. I’d had my fill of dystopia and was ready for a dry martini.
And lo! As I headed for the elevator, the doors opened to disgorge what had to be the man. The sullen presence, the protective entourage. I followed the group back into the gallery and circled him warily considering an approach strategy. No, the thought of extracting a conversation out of him was slightly less appealing than chatting-up Ted Bundy. Satisfied with the sighting, I escaped to the gilded glow of the Mark Hotel lounge.
Later that night I crawled into bed with the novel that I’d picked up at Albertine. Platform might be raw in parts, I reasoned, but The Times blurb did say Houellebecq was “feverishly alive to the world around him.” With feverish anticipation, I opened the book. It began, “Father died last year.”
You might not want to take Houellebecq to bed with you but in a world where the conversation appears increasingly ordered around choosing sides, it may be healthy to dwell occasionally in the dark. When asked by Wolfe what he plans to do next, Houellebecq replied, “I don’t know. I never know.”
Michel Houellebecq: French Bashing is showing at Venus, 980 Madison Avenue until August 4.