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Archive for March 22nd, 2005


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ImagesJohn Banville’s got a good piece on Houellebecq in Bookforum this month. (Unfortunately, the magazine’s not got the current issue posted yet, so I can’t link to the article…)

Utterly fascinated by Houllebecq. Have read all of his stuff. Would love to write something if I had the time.

For now, a few thoughts inspired by some of the passages that Banville quotes.

From Whatever (An English title that misses the boat entirely on what’s afoot in the real title: Extension du domaine de la lutte):

There are some authors who employ their talent in the delicate description of varying states of soul, character traits, etc. I shall not be counted among these. All that accumulation of realistic detail, with clearly differentiated characters hogging the limelight, has always seemed pure bullshit to me, I’m sorry to say.

    The pages that follow constitute a novel; I mean, a succession of anecdotes in which I am the hero. This autobiographical choice isnt’ one, really: in any case I have no other way out. If I don’t write about what I’ve seen I will suffer just the same – and perhaps a bit more so. But only a bit, I insist on this. Writing brings scant relief. It retraces, it delimits. It lends a touch of coherence, the idea of a kind of realism. One stumbles around in a cruel fog, but there is the odd pointer. Chaos is no more than a few feet away.

    The novel form is not conceived for depicting indifference or nothingness; a flatter, more terse and dreary discourse would need to be invented.

    But I don’t understand, basically, how people manage to go on living. I get the impression everybody must be unhappy; we live in such a simple world, you understand. There’s a system based on domination, money and fear – a somwhat masculine system, let’s call it Mars; there’s a feminine system based on seduction and sex, Venus let’s say. Is it really possible to live and to believe that there’s nothing else?

Well, so there we are. Houellebecq is constantly writing in such a way that signals the obsolescence of the novel form – can it’s obsolescence be doubted? – but which forms novels, as if by instinct, by habit. A mirror of how we live – the novel and the "idea in back of it" is long gone, but we write on nonetheless.

What’s’ more interesting perhaps is this construction: "Writing brings scant relief. It retraces, it delimits. It lends a touch of coherence, the idea of a kind of realism." Wish I had the French, but what are we to make of the fact that the "idea of a kind of realism" is not just an attribute of the novel, by syntactiaclly here what is "lent" to the writer by the writing, what brings "scant relief"? How is realism a relief, and what is it relieving us from?

I do think that Banville misses the ultimate joke that runs underneath The Elementary Particles like a fault-line. The novel is ostensibly narrated by one of the posthumans ("one of the" is definitely the wrong way to put it when it comes to this race that’s left individuality behind…) whose invention the novel describes. But here’s the joke: what need does this race have for the novel form itself? Why does it need to tell the story that is Houllebecq’s novel, if it truly is "posthuman"?

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March 22, 2005 at 1:26 am

Posted in literature