Beginning of December 2021. Under the gilding of the Richelieu amphitheater of the Paris-Sorbonne University, supported by the laughter of an audience won over to his cause, Michel Houellebecq dissertation on his work: “I disagree with the idea that you have to accept the world as it is. […] I tell the world as it is but I do not accept it. The audience relishes.
On the occasion of the inaugural session of a university seminar Returning to the writer’s legacy, Houellebecq came out of his promotional retirement which he had begun a few years earlier with the release of his latest book, Serotonin. He agreed to publicly discuss his conception of literature just before the publication ofAnnihilate, a 736-page political fiction where the 65-year-old author deals with the question of the end of life.
Landmark of an era
From his first novel The extension of the field of the fight published in 1994, Michel Houellebecq has established himself as a singular voice in the literature French, translated into some forty languages, which sets the pace for the publication calendar and captures media attention. We comment, analyze and criticize his novels in the light of current events and the polemical formulas that appear there. “I become a kind of landmark in the imagination of an era”, he observes sunk in his old armchair. The literary press has also invented a word to make Michel Houellebecq worth comparison: houellebecquien.
“The more it goes, the more we hear about the term houellebecquien, notes Agathe Novak-Lechevalier, lecturer at the University of Paris-Nanterre and author of Houellebecq, the art of consolation. It is particularly used by critics to describe the work of other writers. Many first-time novelists or established authors trying their hand at a new genre are immediately compared to Goncourt Prize 2010. During the new literary season in September, several novels such as those by Marin de Viry, The Ark of Mesalliance or that of Abel Quentin, The Seer of Etampes, have received the label.
“I don’t know if we can speak of a type of Houellebecquian novel. It refers more to a vision of the world., decides the specialist when it comes to questioning the influence of Michel Houellebecq on contemporary literature. This disenchanted vision, the writer declines it over his novels. For almost thirty years, he has taken a caustic, even cruel look at consumer society.
Back to reality
In the universe drawn by the novels of the author of Elementary particles the garish supermarket shelves, the highway, sinister office towers, television hosts like Julien Lepers or Jean-Pierre Pernaut and politicians like François Hollande or Éric Zemmour settle in. “Michel Houellebecq participated in a form of return to reality in contemporary literature”, notes Caroline Julliot, lecturer at Le Mans University who directs the book Misery of man without God – Michel Houellebecq and the question of faith with her colleague Agathe Novak-Lechevalier.
Influenced by science fiction authors such as Maurice Georges Dantec or Howard Phillips Lovecraft but above all by the realist novel of the 19and century, the writer has always had the project of representing the contemporary world and exploring the movements that shake it up. “Michel Houellebecq’s ambition is to find the flaws in society and press on them”, puts Caroline Julliot into perspective.
In this way, Michel Houellebecq pushes realism to the point of exacerbation and puts it under tension. In the winter of 2015, Michel Houellebecq signs Submission. The plot begins with the approach of the presidential election of 2022. He describes a France where identity clashes are breaking out and the election of a President of the Republic from a Muslim political party is essential as a recourse. Questioned by a listener from the France Inter antenna on the likelihood of this projection on the day of the book’s release, the novelist will detail: “It takes a lot longer, it takes several decades. It’s a classic effect of concentration and dramatization.”
Michel Houellebecq is accustomed toanticipation close. This is perhaps one of the most characteristic features of his work. “Many of his books take place a few months or a few years after the publication of his novels. It’s a way of talking about the contemporary world without sinking into journalistic chronicle while moving away from classic science fiction. details the specialist of the writer, Agathe Novak-Lechevalier.
A floating reality emerges where fictional characters and public figures rub shoulders. The border is blurring. “He maintains the confusion as if he liked to be misread. It gives the feeling of always being on a ridge line between reality and fiction. remarks Caroline Julliot who had also questioned the place of transgression in the work of Michel Houellebecq in Extension of the domain of the norm or transgression of the transgression.
This promiscuity between beings on paper and existing protagonists is not new in literature. “He writes as in the nineteenthand century, slice Caroline Julliot. He has a natural conception of storytelling.” Unlike the proponents of New Roman, a current that agitated the second half of the 20thand century and aimed to refound the notion of character, Michel Houellebecq fits into the mold of classical authors. “For him, Balzac is the father of every novelist”, recalls Agathe Novak-Lechevalier.
Bellanger, Messina and Duteurtre
The author of Platform does not feel the desire to be at the origin of stylistic innovations. There are quite a few recognizable formalities in thewriting by Michel Houellebecq. One of them has been widely taken up by Aurélien Bellanger, a novelist who claims Houellebecq’s influence on his writing: scientific digressions. During his first novels, the author ofAnnihilate had gotten into the habit of quoting long informal passages from scientific reports or taking inspiration from encyclopedia entries in order to reinforce the bibliographic effect of his approach. A process taken up by Bellanger in Greater Paris in 2017 and in information theory, in 2012. This device had also earned Houellebecq, at the start of his career, the reproach of a lack of style.
If Aurélien Bellanger claims to be from the Houellebecquian furrow (he also entered literature with the publication in 2010 of an essay to the glory of his master, Houellebecq, romantic writer), He is not the only one. Since the publication of its first title, False start, Marion Messina shares a private correspondence with Michel Houellebecq and has several times expressed her joy at being compared to him. More established authors such as Benoît Duteurtre or Marin de Viry display their closeness to the novelist.
But not all writers exhibit authorship. “Michel Houellebecq vitrifies literary returns so much that young authors are reluctant to define themselves as Houellebecquians”, point Agathe Novak-Lechevalier. The name Houellebecq can crush. The new novelists in search of their own identity fear being locked in the shadow of the mentor.
At the same time, the media outlets of Michel Houellebecq can offend. “Michel Houellebecq does not currently do school in a claimed way”, notes Caroline Julliot. The novelist has followers, but he did not found a genre. Only Houellebecq really does Houellebecq and the book industry is satisfied with that.