Ageing roué Michel Houellebecq, the Serge Gainsbourg of the literary world, has won France’s most prestigious literary prize for his latest novel, La Carte et le Territoire (The Map and the Territory). Not before time, his supporters will say. But, then again, Houellebecq has long polarised opinion, and Les Cartes et le Territoire - featuring a foul-smelling, alcoholic, atrociously dressed writer called Michel Houellebecq, who is murdered in brutal fashion - promises to entrench that reputation.
He was interviewed by the Paris Review last month. He discussed his literary influences, his upbringing in France and Algeria, his avant garde family life, the art of fiction, sex and love in a material world, the cult of youth, metaphysics and the role of context in forming a provocative style. I recommend reading the entire piece, but here are some extracts:
On love and marriage: "I think there is a sharp contrast for most people between life at university, where they meet lots of people, and the moment when they enter the workforce, when they basically no longer meet anyone. Life becomes dull. So as a result people get married to have a personal life. I could elaborate but I think everyone understands."
On writing of mundane reality: "There was a lot of art for art’s sake, people writing in the tradition of the nouveau roman. There was nothing about people with office jobs."
Of The Elementary Particles: "The real inspiration was the experiments of Alain Aspect in 1982. They demonstrated the EPR paradox: that when particles interact, their destinies become linked. When you act on one, the effect spreads instantly to the other; even if they are great distances apart. That really struck me, to think that if two are connected once, they will be forever. It marks a fundamental philosophical shift. Ever since the disappearance of religious belief, the current reigning philosophy has been materialism, which says we are alone and reduces humanity to biology. Man as calculable as billiard balls and completely perishable. That worldview is undermined by the EPR paradox. So the novel was inspired by this idea of what could be the next metaphysical mutation. It has to be less depressing than materialism. Which, let’s face it, is pretty depressing."
On love: "I’d say that the question whether love still exists plays the same role in my novels as the question of God’s existence in Dostoyevsky…The materialist idea that we are alone, we live alone and we die alone. That’s not very compatible with love."
On explicitness and gratuity in his fiction: "I don’t think that’s what was shocking. What shocked people was that I depicted sexual failure. I wrote about sexuality in a nonglorifying way. Most of all I described a basic reality: a person filled with sexual desire who can’t satisfy it."
On sex: "It’s strange, I’m fifty years old and I still haven’t made up my mind whether sex is good or not."
On didacticism: "What I think, fundamentally, is that you can’t do anything about major societal changes. It may be regrettable that the family unit is disappearing. You could argue that it increases human suffering. But regrettable or not, there’s nothing we can do…I show the disasters produced by the liberalization of values."
On his childhood: "I have vague memories of playgrounds with leaves. I also remember the smell of tear gas, which I liked. I remember things about the war, like machine-gun fire in the streets."
On the cult of youth: "The disappearance of patrimonial transmission means that an old guy today is just a useless ruin. The thing we value most of all is youth, which means that life automatically becomes depressing, because life consists, on the whole, of getting old."