A splendid article. Such a pity that so many of the comments exhibit such philistine incomprehension. I daresay their authors are looking for a forceful, contentious, contemptuous argument, something to rub the other side’s nose in it and assert the adamantine rectitude of “our side’s” position. Well, that – as Douglas Murray has emphasised – is one of the problems we face today: too much argument, too much malice and contempt; too much in the way of laboured grappling with political issues and things in the news. Here, instead of all that, we have an oasis of confession and appreciation; of humility and sympathy; in short, of culture. This is the civilisation which all the rough hewn eloquence of the debating chamber is supposed to defend. And to greet this open, tender, humane document with the churlish ignorance and spite on display below the line is grotesque. It is bad as anything the left might say and shows how completely society has been been drenched in the first, greatest mistake the left can make – Lenin’s mistake – which is to treat existence as conflict. Make that blunder and you end up treating others as enemies or slaves. Solzhenitsyn saw this, too. It is, perhaps, a tactical weakness of the right, that bearing the burdens of reality and pity and pessimism on its back, it retreats, it escapes, it compromises. But should the right forget these things, it forgets itself and the defence of culture against monstrous Leninism is lost.
Yes, as you get older you become incredibly grateful for having been able to read so much. Today I was reading a new-ish novel, Light Perpetual, by Francis Spufford (he can really write) and he uses a plot device to gather his characters at the beginning of the novel, which made me think: ‘like The Bridge of San Luis Rey’ and then think ‘who on earth would read Thornton Wilder these days?”
So many great recent novelists – William Golding, Anthony Burgess – are never mentioned now. I suppose they can’t compete with Netflix, but they were essential companions in helping me come to see life as I do. I don’t really think streaming services can adequately replace the habit of reading good literature – the avalanche of stuff pouring down the channels onto screens doesn’t lend itself to reflective explorations of other perspectives.
Red Plenty was another work of his I enjoyed greatly.
to those who ask ‘Who?’ or ‘What?’ in the comments I suggest “Submission” – although only from 2015, so a long way from his first – is a good place to start!
Yes, or Serotonine.
Agreed – though I’ve found great satisfaction in any of Monsieur Houellebecq’s novels I’ve so far read, “Serotonine” was a notable delight.
I second submission. More accessible and timely. Can’t you see Mélenchon and Macron aligning with an nascent Islamist party to deny Le-Pen the presidency? (In the name of stopping French fascism, we must get into bed with Islamic fascists.) As Le-Pen rises in the polls, this story is believable in a way it wasn’t 6 years ago.
Eloquently put, sir.
Very good article. I share his views regarding paperbacks. If you are mobile or like to read lying down, paperbacks are the best. I have read many of his books. Some in French. He’s a wonderful writer.
I have’nt read any of this gentleman’s books, but this article made me like him so I will try one of them. Can someone please tell me which one I should read first ?
He’s a little too fond of describing buggery, bestiality and paedophilia for my liking, so be warned. “Soumission” is definitely worth a read though, especially at this time.
Oh dear, thank you for the warning.
I will have a look at ‘Soumission’, thanks.
Me neither but everyone seems to rate “Submission” .
The novel imagines a situation in which a Muslim party upholding Islamist and patriarchal values is able to win the 2022 presidential election in France with the support of the Socialist Party.
I read Soumission first followed by Serotonine, both in French, and thought they were great. I’m now about a quarter of the way into Les Particules Elementaires, which I haven’t quite got the hang of but sense myself warming to.
I finally gave up on Elementary Particles. But I don’t speak French, so perhaps it got lost in translation for me.
I find it engaging – not my favourite of his oeuvre, but still a book I shall revisit, I am sure.
Submission. Absolutely. In light of the French Presidential election this week, the scenario he presents there is completely believable.
My recommendation would be “The Possibility of an Island”, followed by “Elementary Particles”, then maybe his bookish length monograph on Lovecraft (you don’t really have to know anything about Lovecraft, it’s an interesting read and provides at least as much insight into Houellebecq, if not more, than Lovecraft). In a lot of ways Houellebecq is stylistically a pre-modern novelist, so to my sensibilities his less Science Fiction-y stuff feels a little off-key, but it works gloriously in the SF genre with a sort of updated H.G. Wells vibe, and, in fact, I consider “The Possibility of an Island” to be an example of a perfect New Wave SF novel. The translation of both the novels I recommended is pretty good, but “The Possibility of an Island” definitely has a different feel in the French.
Thanks for your suggestions, and to all the others also.
I loved the Jack London books when I was a child.
Any thing that gets a child reading is good.
“Any thing that gets a child reading is good.”
In theory, absolutely right.
But have you seen some of the pernicious crap that gets published today, especially that targetted for children?
Hmmm. I’m no longer sure.
The oeuvre of Nigel Molesworth might keep their attention??
Indeed. The prunes are revolting…
I’ve made a resolution only to read books by white men from now on, until a vague date in the future when wokeness is properly on the run.
If that’s not irony then it’s plain crass.
i read them. But I couldn’t get enough of Biggles.
Jusqu’a hier soir, j’ai lu 72 pages de Les Particules Elementaires.
Vous es peut-être maso?
Ca doit etre ainsi, vu que j’ai lu le plupart de la reste de ses livres.
quelle perte de vie
C’est mon croix que je dois supporter.
On t’a sonné?
I’ve only read Seratonin, in French, so I may have missed something – but then you miss something when you read in translation anyway. It’s a difficult read, extremely bleak, but his great skill is to write without illusion. What he writes in this essay here is interesting, because it suggests a lost happiness, a lost innocence – which acknowledges that happiness is possible; something that’s not at all obvious when reading his work. He’s a disenchanted romantic, perhaps , even a moralist, despite, or maybe because of, the descriptions of sexual degradation.
My generation read Jean Genet. And of course, Baudelaire. Even as a young carefree hippy I knew, in my heart of hearts, that it was pretty degrading stuff, and I wouldn’t share it with my girlfriend – She was worth far more. I assume that this guy is the same. Squalor is squalor, whatever the fancy accent.
I love this article-one of my favorite games is guessing what’s on my favorite author’s bookshelves and Houellebecq is great fun to try to suss out–I remember about 10 years ago my girlfriend read “The Possibility of an Island” at my suggestion and she said it reminded her of the book about ‘the dogs’. I was thrilled to find an article where Houelllebecq said that Simak’s “City” was a masterpiece :).
It isn’t true that ‘only’ reading can prepare one for life’s tragedies. Life’s tragedies prepare one for the next tragedy and other real people help you to endure them. Life itself is the primary experience reading is secondary though important.
Always look on the bright side eh
Henry Miller would have liked him.
Do you think so? Miller’s novels seemed to me to be full of life and energy (very American!) whereas Houellebecq doesn’t strike me that way.
The two are writing in different eras, don’t forget. Miller is scandalously underrated for reasons that have nothing to do with literary merit, but for Houellebecq (who has Phillistines of his own to contend with) to recapitulate the sensibilities of the 1920s and 30s would be pointless.
I read two or three DIckens books as a child, but even then was somewhat put off by the ridiculous contrived “jokey” names of many of his characters. Doubtless he had many good qualities, as both a writer and a person, but I imagine he must have had a rather tiresome and laboured sense of humour!
Don’t be such an Ebenezer Scrooge!
It might be worth trying again. I didn’t get into Dickens until my thirties, and was then captivated.
The characters in Dickens’ novels are designed to be accessible to the casual reader and children. They are successful at that – but at a cost of being almost useless as giving insight into the real world.
I gather that it is Dickens who is responsible for the myth that Victorian fathers were cold and not interested in their children.
He was himself a terrible father, apparently.
Gulliver’s Travels – a book for all times –
Moby d**k – we have a captain Ahab president of Russia –
(I see there is inbuilt editing here!)
“Only reading can prepare us for life’s tragedies”What a load of twaddle! Your statement is
Are you saying that only those who read books can be prepared ‘for life’s tragedies’?
In my life-experience many people who read a lot of books know almost nothing. They fill their heads with stories and cannot tell you anything about the one they read last week.
Novels are not life – the successful author creates a story that people like to read – that doesn’t make it helpful.
I have no problem with people reading lots of books if they enjoy that, but stop pretending that it’s anything more than entertainment.
If you believe the people in the real-world are like to characters in these fictions you will get a very distorted view of life.
Look up and look out of the window – reality beckons.