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The new novel by the most scathing author in Europe
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Michel Houellebecq has good claim to be the most interesting novelist of our times. Sérotonine, his seventh novel, was published in France last Friday with an initial print run of 320,000 copies, and it’s out this week in German, Italian and Spanish too. Yet, laggard as ever, the English translation won’t be published until September.
Houellebecq has often shown alarming prescience in his fiction. Submission, foreseeing France submitting to Islam in 2022, was published on the very day of the Charlie Hebdo attacks in January 2015.
Since then he has foresworn interviews and publicity, although he recently published a contrarian article in Harper’s magazine calling Trump one of the best American presidents, Europe a dumb idea that has turned into a bad dream, and Brexit courageous. In the autumn, at a prize celebrating Oswald Spengler, the pessimist author of The Decline of the West, Houellebecq suggested that France wasn’t so much committing suicide as being murdered by the EU.
Sérotonine has already been hailed as a “gilets jaunes” novel before the event. In one of the key scenes despairing farmers, heavily armed, blockade an intersection of the A13 Caen-Paris motorway, torching agricultural machines — and 11 people die in an exchange of fire with the riot police.
The novel burns with anger about how French farmers are increasingly abandoning the land and being driven to suicide after being forced to match European industrial farming standards and exposed to a globalised free market. Yet this polemical component is not fully integrated with the usual Houellebecq story of an ageing white man to whom nothing matters more than lost erotic rapture.
The narrator, Florent-Claude Labrouste (he detests his florid name), is yet another Houellebecq alter ego, the only child of parents who committed joint suicide, at 46 a man adrift. Like Houellebecq, he has a degree in agriculture. After initially working for the agrochemical and biotechnology company Monsanto he has joined the regional directorate of agriculture in Normandy, working on the promotion of local French cheeses.
Now, deeply depressed, Labrouste is dismantling his life, feeling that he is finished on just about every front. He breaks up with his girlfriend, a Japanese woman called Yuzu 20 years his junior, whom he has come to think of as a poisonous spider, sucking the life out of him. He quits his job and abandons his flat in Paris, holing up in a chain hotel which still has smoking rooms.
A doctor prescribes him a new-generation antidepressant called Captorix which, favouring the production of serotonin, stabilises his life to the point where he can keep himself clean and more or less functioning, but at the cost of leaving him impotent, with no libido.
We follow Labrouste’s movements over a period of weeks, as he returns to Normandy; to visit Aymeric, his best friend from college, an aristocrat and landowner who has tried to become a good farmer but, abandoned by his wife and daughters, is ruined, alcoholic and suicidal; and also to discover what became of Camille, the woman who, aged 19, was his greatest love.
The dying like to see, for one last time, the people who played a part in their lives, he observes — and so he organises what he calls “a mini-ceremony of farewells around my libido, or to put it more concretely, around my [ deleted ], as it is about to end its service; I was hoping to see all the women who had honoured it, who had loved it in their own way”. He has known love and happiness and betrayed it, deserving death for that, he tells us.
He tracks down Camille, now a country vet and single parent to a small boy, and he spies on her, aghast to discover that she has not changed at all, at 35 still possessed of the gamine allure she had when they met. They broke up, he reveals, when he had the terrible idea of screwing a black British work colleague with a great bum, and Camille caught him at it, the worst moment of his life. And that’s how he has ended up quite alone, in a hotel room, eating hummus, his sentimental life reduced to the contents of his MacBook Air.
So here’s yet another Houellebecq character, romantically insisting that, in this pitiless world, only love matters, while being focused on blowjobs and pussies. A sonorous final paragraph even invokes Christ, exasperated by the hardening of hearts.
Sérotonine reads at times dangerously close to self-parody, just another serving of Houellebecq’s now familiar style, cutting between brand names and sweeping generalisations, exhilarating in its nihilism, often very funny and always enjoyable but now perfectly stylised. Yet the anger he expresses here about the destruction of the deep France that he loves could not be more to the point, reflecting deep despair about what is happening now.
There’s no British equivalent to Houellebecq. After years of being shunned by the French establishment, he has now been fully embraced by it. On New Year’s Day, he was awarded the Légion d’honneur. Just so.
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https://www.theguardian.com/books/2019/ ... discontent
'Vanquished white male': Houellebecq's new novel predicts French discontent
He is idolised as France’s biggest literary export, a controversial poet-provocateur who holds up a mirror to the grim truths of contemporary France.
So when Michel Houellebecq’s long-awaited novel, Serotonin, hit French bookstores on Friday morning with a massive print run of 320,000 copies, translations in several countries, and the author for the first time staying silent and refusing any interviews or media promotion, it was proclaimed a national event.
The novel’s release was accompanied by the Légion d’honneur, France’s highest national honour, being bestowed on the 62-year-old enfant terrible for his services to French literature by the president, Emmanuel Macron.
Serotonin, the story of a lovesick agricultural engineer who writes trade reports for the French agriculture ministry and loathes the EU, has been hailed by the French media as scathing and visionary. The novel rails against politicians who “do not fight for the interests of their people but are ready to die to defend free trade”.
Written before the current gilets jaunes anti-government movement began blockading roundabouts and tollbooths across France, it features desperate farmers in Normandy who stage an armed blockade of roads amid police clashes.
Houellebecq and his despairing, white, middle-aged, male narrators are seen as eerie predictors of the national mood. His last novel, Submission, which envisioned a France subjected to sharia law after electing a Muslim president in 2022, was published on 7 January 2015 and featured on the cover of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo just before terrorists stormed the offices of the publication and shot dead 12 people.
Platform, his earlier controversial novel about sex tourism and terrorism, came out a year before the Bali bombings of 2002.
Serotonin “confirms [Houellebecq’s] status as a visionary and he earns his stripes as a great novelist of the people”, wrote the rightwing paper Le Figaro.
The novel follows a typical Houellebecqian anti-hero: lonely, dissatisfied and ranking the sexual talents and bodies of the women he once slept with, as he returns to the Normandy countryside, remembering lost love. The narrator, an agriculture consultant, once worked for the agrochemical conglomerate Monsanto before an unsuccessful stint devising new ways of promoting Normandy cheese. He finds few joys in modern urban life, bar the array of hummus varieties in city-centre supermarkets.
In a recent article for Harpers, Houellebecq lauded Donald Trump for his protectionist policies, calling him “one of the best American presidents I’ve ever seen”, and praised Brexit: “The British get on my nerves, but their courage cannot be denied.” Serotonin, which will be published in English in September, viciously criticises free trade. Houellebecq has said he does not vote in elections, only in referendums.
As often is the case with Houellebecq, throwaway lines caused offence even before publication, with an MP for Macron’s La République En Marche party complaining that his narrator had called the western town of Niort the “ugliest place in France” and suggesting the novelist should “get out of his Parisian bubble” and explore the town.
Gilets jaunes resume protests and clash with Paris riot police - video
Indeed, being trapped in a Parisian bubble as a superstar writer is something Houellebecq has lamented. If he once embodied the anonymous, nihilistic man on the drab concrete outskirts, on France’s periphery, he has become such a wealthy figure that he complained at the last presidential election: “I’m part of the globalised elite now.”
Houellebecq’s worldwide fame came from his deliberately nihilistic novels depicting men trapped in loveless existences, admiring of casual sex. This seventh novel, in which a narrator looks back in detail at past girlfriends in terms of how they dealt with his [ deleted ], caused even some of his greatest admirers, such as the critic Nelly Kaprièlian from the magazine Les Inrocks, to concede: “He’s missed the Me Too movement – that’s obvious.”
Kaprièlian told French radio that his “dated” view of women was her only reservation about the new novel. A reference to bestiality and a description of a discovery of child abuse imagery on a suspect’s computer in the novel also irked some critics. Elisabeth Philippe wrote in L’Obs: “That whole aesthetic of the ‘old white male’ is dated, past its sell-by date and clearly no longer brings anything good. ‘What’s the point in trying to save a vanquished old white male?’ the narrator asks. What’s the point, indeed.”
Although Houellebecq has shut himself away from the media – he recently left it to his friend Carla Bruni, the singer and supermodel married to the former president Nicolas Sarkozy, to reveal on Instagram his latest marriage – he has not given up on cinema. Houellebecq has often appeared behind and in front of the camera, and has reportedly been filming with the actor Gérard Depardieu, with the two men playing characters at a seaside spa.
Meanwhile, Charlie Hebdo magazine, which in 2015 had featured Houellebecq on its cover as a haggard Nostradamus preparing to celebrate Ramadan, published a brief paragraph saying a new Houellebecq novel was about to be released. “We won’t be saying anything bad about it: the last time we did wasn’t a success for us.”
https://www.theatlantic.com/entertainme ... eu/580165/
A Novel Made for the “Yellow Vest” Moment
Michel Houellebecq’s latest provocation takes aim at the EU.
Jan 13, 2019
Michel Houellebecq in 2014Philippe Matsas / Flammarion
PARIS—In Michel Houellebecq’s 2015 novel, Submission, the narrator converts to Islam after France has elected a Muslim president. The book’s imagined future tapped into (and also questioned) a pervasive fear in some quarters of France that Muslims were taking over. It was hailed by the French right as prescient when it debuted the same day terrorists killed 12 people at the satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo.
Now France’s most provocative novelist has done it again. Houellebecq’s latest novel, Serotonin, came out in the country last week to rave reviews, and was an instant best-seller, capturing a new moment. It contains a scathing critique of the European Union and imagines farmers blocking roadways and taking up arms against the state. And it arrived in the throes of the “yellow vest” protest movement, an inchoate populist revolt against the government of Emmanuel Macron that sprung up last fall and is causing a national reckoning around the economy.
Read: France’s fuel-tax protests expose the limits of Macron’s mandate
Although it’s a sophisticated work of literature written in a mournful key, Serotonin might as well have a jacket blurb from Steve Bannon. Or from a pharmaceutical company that manufactures antidepressants. The novel, Houellebecq’s seventh, takes its name from the chemical that helps generate a sense of well-being in the human body. In the book, Houellebecq draws a not-so-subtle connection between body and state, between the declining health of the protagonist and the health of French society. The work’s themes include the effects of antidepressants on the male libido, the difficulty of sustaining meaningful relationships, and the impossibility of finding happiness, let alone spiritual satisfaction, in a consumer society. Consider it as The Magic Mountain for the post-Brexit era.
This time around, the typically Houellebecqian protagonist—a depressive, melancholic middle-aged man—is an agricultural engineer who, in the early days after the introduction of the euro, moves to Normandy to help promote the export of the region’s cheeses. There he finds farmers, including ones from ancient noble families, whose livelihoods have been upended by free trade and milk quotas mandated by the EU, which the protagonist believes has suffocated France’s economy and the country’s sense of identity.
Say what you want about Houellebecq, and there’s a lot to say, but he’s definitely keeping the novel as a form relevant. He is indeed one of the chief engines of France’s thriving decline industry, in which books decrying how terrible everything has become in the country and in the West are often best-sellers. (Other stalwarts in the industry include the French right-wing media personality and writer Éric Zemmour and the essayist Michel Onfray.) French media have reported that bookstores hope sales of Serotonin will boost business. Houellebecq’s publisher has already done a second printing of 50,000 copies after an initial print run of 300,000.
Houellebecq has not given any interviews since Serotonin debuted, but he recently published an essay in Harper’s Magazine praising Donald Trump, especially his free-trade policies and his dislike of the European Union. “Europe is just a dumb idea that has gradually turned into a bad dream, from which we shall eventually wake up,” Houellebecq wrote, adding that he also supported Brexit. And although Houellebecq has not openly expressed support for the far-right National Rally party, formerly the National Front, of Marine Le Pen, his views put him in line with it and other right-wing sovereignist movements on the rise across Europe.
“I’m ready to vote for anyone as long as he proposes leaving the European Union and NATO,” Houellebecq said in October in an interview with Valeurs Actuelles, a right-wing French magazine that put him on its cover with the headline: “Houellebecq: The Great Prophecy.” For the piece, the publication accompanied the author to Brussels, where he received a prize named after Oswald Spengler, the cultural historian and author of The Decline of the West, which appeared in two volumes in 1918 and 1922. (Last year, Valeurs Actuelles also had a cover with an image of George Soros and the headline “The Billionaire Plotting Against France.”)
Read: How Hungary ran George Soros out of town
For all his pessimism, and a new novel about the impossibility of happiness, Houellebecq actually seems to be thriving. In September, he married his third wife, Qianyun Lysis Li, a woman whom he met—wait for it—when she was writing a thesis on his work. Nicolas Sarkozy was among the guests and Carla Bruni-Sarkozy posted photos of the couple on Instagram. (Houellebecq has said he admires the former president, but didn’t support him because he doesn’t vote in presidential elections.)
It would seem the novelist is more interested in social diagnosis than political cure. In its interview, Valeurs Actuelles said Houellebecq “lives the paradox of being one of the most-read and least listened-to figures of our time.” But what exactly is Serotonin telling us? As with Houellebecq’s earlier novels, Serotonin is suffused with a nostalgic longing for an unattainable past—before the European Union, before the euro limited the economic sovereignty of member states, driving French farmers to despair and worse, and before the sexual revolution seemed to put individual pleasure before family duty.
Houellebecq has always been provocative, especially in his depictions of women. With Serotonin, this treatment flies decisively against the prevailing winds. I’m curious how Serotonin will be received when it appears in English. (It’s scheduled to be published in Britain this fall and in the United States by Farrar, Straus and Giroux next year.) Pretty much every female character in the novel is described by her blow-job skills; the protagonist leaves his girlfriend when he discovers she’s involved in orgies with animals; he has an affair with a black university student because he’s drawn to the young woman’s [deleted], as he puts it.
I was struck recently when an interviewer on French public radio remarked that Houellebecq “seems to have missed #MeToo”—referring to the movement less as a shorthand for women fighting against sexual harassment, than for women more broadly being considered fully-formed human beings. The host’s interlocutor, Nelly Kaprièlian, a literary critic at the indie French weekly magazine Les Inrockuptibles who’s written widely and thoughtfully on Houellebecq over the years, responded that, in her view, the novelist’s greatest flaw is the weakness of his female characters.
Though pretty terrible on women, Houellebecq is better on economics. The narrator of Serotonin is hyper-aware of product names and doesn’t seem to find happiness among the 20 brands of hummus available at his local supermarket, a message that consumer society is spiritually unfulfilling. He also remarks at one point on the fact that some Parisians can earn more money renting out their inherited apartments than they would by having actual jobs. The tension between inherited wealth and generated income is one of the key questions for the French economy today.
In Serotonin, power and powerlessness—emotional, sexual, political, economic—are big motifs. “Is he a visionary or a cynic?” Le Figaro wrote in a front-page editorial that praised the novel and called Houellebecq’s books “the symptoms of the innumerable ills that are eating away at us.” A radio program on France Culture dedicated to Serotonin asked if Houellebecq was “an anti-modern writer or a modern guru?” In Le Monde, Bruno Viard, a literature professor, wrote that Houellebecq might be categorized as a reactionary, but was in fact more ambiguous. “Houellebecq is fundamentally anti-liberal—unlike the left, which is anti-liberal in economics but liberal in morality, and the right, which is the opposite. So he’s unclassifiable,” Viard wrote.
Other French critics have commented on Houellebecq’s evolution from the darling of left-wing magazines like Les Inrockuptibles to that of far-right ones like Valeurs Actuelles. But Houellebecq has captured something in his trajectory from the alt-weekly to the alt-right. It’s not so much that his views have changed, but that the political landscape around him has changed in ways that reflect his outlook. Maybe he is a visionary after all. And his is a grim vision indeed.