France’s literary event of the year took place this week with the publication of Michel Houellebecq’s new novel, Serotonin. Named after the brain chemical that regulates mood, his seventh novel has been described by one French newspaper as ‘prophesying the yellow vest movement’.
The critics have lavished praise and the public are plucking it from the shelves. The initial print run was 320,000, which is quite something given that the average run for a novel in France is 5,000 copies. And it’s selling so fast that I haven’t been able to obtain a copy from the booksellers close to where I live in Paris. It’s a similar story in Germany, where the print run of 80,000 is virtually unheard of for a foreign author, and Spain. British fans of Houellebecq will have to wait until September for the English edition.
Why is this 62-year-old Frenchman so popular across Europe? It’s easy to explain, when you take into consideration the prescience of his prose but more specifically his courage in tackling subjects that most of his contemporaries shy away from. His 2001 novel Platform, about an Islamist attack on a resort in Thailand, was published eight days before 9/11. Submission, the dystopian novel that depicted an Islamist party winning the 2022 presidential election, was released on 7 January 2015. Hours later, two Islamist gunmen shot dead some of the staff of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo.
Like Submission, Serotonin is narrated by a morose middle-aged white man who is worn down by sexual anxiety and spiritual torpor. His penis, like his country, doesn’t possess the grandeur that it once did. Quitting the city and returning to his native Normandy, the protagonist, Florent-Claude Labrouste, discovers a countryside and a people ruined by EU policies. Farmers desperate at the consequences of globalisation blockade roads in an attempt to force politicians to act. This leads to a deadly confrontation with the police.
While no one in Serotonin wears a yellow vest, the story otherwise bears an uncanny resemblance to the protests of the past two months. Houellebecq captures the agony of French farmers, who, according to a report last year, are killing themselves at a rate of one every two days. ‘It’s not exactly the gilets jaunes, which are a more sociologically and politically heterogeneous movement,’ said Agathe Novak-Lechevalier, author of a recent book on Houellebecq. ‘[But] when the gilets jaunes of today say they are rediscovering camaraderie and fraternity at the demonstrations, this is the kind of suffering from solitude that Houellebecq has been exploring from the start.’
For many years, Houellebecq was regarded by many of the French establishment as a bigoted oddball. Critical of all religion, he reserves a particular disdain for Islam. His description of the religion as ‘the stupidest’ landed him in court in 2002, where he was cleared of inciting racism. He remained unrepentant. When the Guardian asked him in 2015 if he was an Islamophobe, he replied: ‘Probably, yes, but the word phobia means fear rather than hatred.’
In the days before Submission hit the shelves Houellebecq was called all manner of things. Laurent Joffrin, the publication director of the left-leaning newspaper Libération, accused Houellebecq of reintroducing far-right themes into high literature by ‘subtly playing on the fears of the French’.
As it turned out, some of those fears were warranted. The events at Charlie Hebdo led to increased sales of Submission, meaning that it even found a publisher across the Channel. The British publishing industry had the courage to put into print a book that wasn’t totally complimentary about Islam. Ever since The Satanic Verses, most British publishers have been terrified of any novel that could be construed as critical of Islam.
Houellebecq’s willingness to speak his mind in an age of stifling literary conformity has earned him the predictable epithet of the ‘enfant terrible’ of French literature, and in a recent interview with Harper’s Magazine he didn’t shy away from this reputation. Not only did he dare to suggest that Donald Trump was doing a good job, but he then described the EU as ‘a dumb idea that has gradually turned into a bad dream’. Houellebecq is no Anglophile but he admitted that in voting for Brexit, ‘the British had once again shown themselves to be more courageous than us in the face of empire’.
One man who can’t get enough of Houellebecq, somewhat surprisingly, is Emmanuel Macron. The pair first met in 2016 when Houellebecq interviewed the then minister of the economy. Houellebecq was guest editor of Les Inrockuptibles, a cultural magazine, and he thought it would be interesting to chat to the young whizzkid. Houellebecq later told friends: ‘He’s bizarre. When I arrived, he jumped on me and kissed me.’ The author made such an impression on Macron that he invited him to dine at his apartment in Bercy. This time it was Macron regaling friends with an anecdote, of how they’d talked so late into the night that Houellebecq slept on his sofa.
Last week, Macron awarded Houellebecq the Légion d’Honneur, France’s highest distinction. Some were surprised the author accepted, but according to a presidential source, Houellebecq is ‘respectful of institutions’. The story goes that a few weeks before Christmas, he had dined with one of Macron’s advisers and during the meal complained at his lack of official recognition.
Macron will no doubt read Houellebecq’s latest novel with interest. Perhaps it may even provide him with a better understanding as to why there is so much social unrest sweeping through the France he presides over. The French call their discontent ‘ras-le-bol’: a mix of despair, depression and pessimism that is being felt by millions, particularly those of Houellebecq’s generation, who are old enough to recall the Trente Glorieuses when it was considered a stroke of good fortune to be born French.
This is the true gilets jaune generation, not the young thugs going on the rampage each Saturday in Paris, Bordeaux and Toulouse. The men and women camped peacefully on roundabouts in rural France are in their forties, fifties and sixties; they were the first to don yellow vests and are determined to remain at their posts despite government declarations to the contrary. Serotonin will help them pass the time of day. Whether it lifts their spirits is another matter.