France’s biggest literary star Michel Houellebecq was back in bookstores on Friday, with many eager to find out what the famous premonitory author has to say amid a murderous election campaign.
Houellebecq is selling in large numbers: 300,000 copies have been ordered for the French release of his eighth novel “Aneantir” (“Annihiler”), with an English edition scheduled for later this year.
And he has a strange knack for capturing the moment.
His 2015 novel “Submission” about a Muslim who wins the presidency, which taps into the fears of the right about the rise of Islam, was released on the day of the Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris.
His next novel, “Sérotonine”, on the plight of rural farmers, appeared at the same time as the French countryside was exploding with the demonstrations of “yellow vests”.
The new book looks just as current. It takes place in an election in 2027 with characters who clearly resemble current politicians, including President Emmanuel Macron, who faces a tough real-life re-election battle in April.
But the focus of the novel ultimately turns out to be more personal, as the narrator discusses his relationship with a dying father and a estranged wife.
Houellebecq himself, who cultivates the image of a depressive reactionary, rejects any grand intention in his work.
“Deep down, I’m just a whore. I write for the applause. Not for the money, but to be loved, admired,” he told Le Monde last week, between several drinks of white wine.
“Cantankerous old uncle” The unusual traces of love and even hope in the new book suggest the chain smoker in his 60s, who secretly married for the third time in 2018, could ‘soften slightly with age.
“You don’t have to celebrate evil to be a good writer,” he told Le Monde.
But there is still a lot of misogynistic and xenophobic vitriol familiar to its characters, alongside rants about France’s spiritual and cultural decline.
For many critics, this is too much.
“From a young writer who was very lucid about society, Houellebecq has become a sort of cantankerous old uncle completely overwhelmed by his time,” writes the left-wing magazine Les Inrockuptibles.
But many other critics, across the political spectrum, have been full of praise.
Le Monde went into ecstasies over “fleeting moments, in the midst of loneliness and dereliction, which make you cry”.
Houellebecq was a darling of the left in the 1990s, when his uncompromising tales of the outsiders of globalization and sexual liberation in novels such as “Atomized” and “Platform” struck a chord in the whole world.
But in recent years that same pessimism (he summed it up as “the suicide of modernity”) has adapted better to right-wing fears about the decline of nation, church, and family – as well as the misogyny of “incel” men, who accuse gender equality of leaving them sexless.
In 2020, he published an essay book praising writer Eric Zemmour, now a far-right presidential candidate who has divergent views against migrants.
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