The poor old horse

John Banville

John Banville

Maurice Blanchot invites us to perform a thought experiment. Imagine, he muses, the last writer, the very last, ‘with whom would disappear, without anyone noticing it, the little mystery of writing’. What would be the result of this demise? A great silence would fall, certainly, but behind the silence something would be detected, the approach of a new sound.

Nothing serious, nothing loud; scarcely a murmur, which will add nothing to the great tumult of cities from which we think we suffer. Its only characteristic: it is incessant. Once heard, it cannot stop being heard, and since one never truly hears it, since it escapes all understanding, it also escapes all distraction, it is all the more present when we turn away from it: the echo, in advance, of what has not been said and will never be said.

The murmur of this ‘unknown and meaningless language … capable of destroying all the others’ insinuates itself into every moment and level of our lives. ‘It is beneath everything we say, behind each familiar thought, submerging, engulfing, although imperceptible, all the honest words of man; it is the third part of each dialogue, the echo confronting each monologue.’

For Blanchot, ‘a writer is one who imposes silence on this speech, and a literary work is … a rich resting place of silence, a firm defence and a high wall against this eloquent immensity that addresses us by turning us away from ourselves’. The writer is the dictator, ‘the man of dictare, of imperious repetition … the providential man, called into being to obliterate the fog of ambiguity of phantom language with his commands and iron decisions’. It is the dictator who enters, ‘more than anyone else, into a relationship of intimacy with the initial rumour. It is at that price alone that he can
silence it …’*


Among the dictators of silence, few in recent times have made so loud a noise in the world as Michel Houellebecq. The inevitable comparison is with Salman Rushdie, for Houellebecq too has provoked the wrath of the Islamic world. In 2002 he was brought to court in France by a group of powerful Muslim institutions, including the National Federation of French Muslims and the World Islamic League, who accused him, under an obscure protocol of French law, of racial insults and incitement to religious hatred, after an interview in the magazine Lire in which he declared Islam to be a dangerous and stupid religion.

Houellebecq’s court appearance provoked shock, outrage, and laughter, in equal proportions. He dismissed the charges brought against him by pointing out that he had not criticized Muslims, only their religion, which he had a right to do in a free society. Asked if he realized that his remarks could have contravened the French Penal Code, he replied that he did not, since he had never read the Code. ‘It is excessively long,’ he remarked, ‘and I suspect that there are many boring passages.’ All this would seem mere comedy, another lively entry in the annals of France’s excitable literary life, if we had not the example of Rushdie and the fatwa, and if the French media and many French intellectuals had not at best kept silent and at worst sided with Houellebecq’s accusers.

The reception accorded Houellebecq’s work in some influential quarters is equally disturbing, and puzzling. The French literary world, still dominated by the surviving would-be Jacobins of May 1968, has largely dismissed his novels. A number of anglophone reviewers have been no more kind – the New York Times found Atomised ‘a deeply repugnant read’, the London Sunday Times described it as ‘pretentious, banal, badly written and boring’, and the Times said that Houellebecq was no more a novelist of ideas than the comedian Benny Hill. Such passionate vituperation is hard to understand. Have these critics, if critics they are, not read Sade, or Céline, or Georges Bataille – have they not read Swift?

Although Houellebecq insists, as any artist will, that it is not he but his work that is of consequence, a little biographical background is necessary in his case, given the public and controversial nature of that case. He was born Michel Thomas, on the French-ruled island of Réunion, in the Indian Ocean, in 1958. His father was a mountain guide, his mother an anaesthetist. The couple seem to have been less than ideal parents. When Michel was still a young child his mother left his father for a Muslim man, and converted to Islam; of course, many critics see here the seed of the adult Houellebecq’s animosity to Islam. Then, at the age of six, Michel was abandoned to the care of his grandmother, whose name, Houellebecq, he adopted when he first began to publish. Granny Houellebecq was a Stalinist, and those same critics detect in this a cause for Houellebecq’s animosity toward ideologues of the left. How simple and determined it must be, the life of the critic!

In France, Houellebecq trained as an agricultural engineer, but went to work as an administrator in the computer department of the French National Assembly. He suffered from depression, and spent some time in psychiatric clinics. He was married, divorced, and married again, in 1999, when with his wife he moved to Ireland, and now lives on Bere Island in Bantry Bay. His writings include a biography of the American writer of macabre tales, H.P. Lovecraft – titled, suggestively, Contre le monde, contre la vie – and several volumes of poetry. His novels to date are Extension du domain de la lutte, 1994, in English Whatever; Les Particules elémentaires, 1999, in English Atomised; Lanzarote, 2000; and Plateforme, 2001, in English Platform.**


No sooner does it seem that the traditional novel is safely dead at last than someone comes along and flogs the poor old horse into life again. Michel Houellebecq wields a vigorous whip. In form, his novels are entirely straightforward, and very readable; they would have done a brisk turnover in a Victorian lending-library, after a few editorial suppressions. They tell of ‘ordinary’ people going about their ‘ordinary’ lives. True, these are lives of noisy desperation, hindered by psychoses, prey to boredom and accidie, and permeated from top to bottom by sex. In other words, just like the home-life of our own dear selves. Houellebecq’s tone varies between jaded bitterness and disgusted denunciation; the narrative voice in all the books seems furious at itself for having begun to speak at all and, having begun, for being compelled to go on to the end. But Houellebecq knows, as Beckett knows, that the murmur must be kept at bay, that the silence, our silence, must be preserved. Yet Houellebecq is darker even than Beckett, and would never allow himself, or us, those lyric transports which flickeringly illuminate the Beckettian night.

It would be interesting to know how Houellebecq’s first novel gained its English title. Irresistibly, one imagines a telephone exchange between English publisher and French author as to how the rather grand and revolutionary-sounding Extension du domain de la lutte might be translated, terminating in an electronic shrug and a murmured, ‘Whatever …’. For all the iconoclastic belligerence of his persona, Houellebecq presents himself as firmly within the tradition of Gallic désenchantement – if one can speak of someone being disenchanted who shows so little sign of having been enchanted in the first place – with baleful Sartrean stare and negligently dangling Camusian cigarette permanently in place.

Yet Houellebecq possesses one quality in which the Left Bank existentialists of the 1940s and ’50s were notably lacking, that is, humour. Houellebecq’s fiction is horribly funny. Often the joke is achieved by a po-faced conjunction of the grandiloquent and the thumpingly mundane. The first page of Whatever is headed by a tag from Romans XIII – The night is far spent, the day is at hand: let us therefore cast off the works of darkness, and let us put on the armour of light – the radiant promise of which is immediately extinguished by the opening paragraph:

Friday evening I was invited to a party at a colleague from work’s house. There were thirty-odd of us, all middle management aged between twenty-five and forty. At a certain moment some stupid bitch started removing her clothes. She took off her T-shirt, then her bra, then her skirt, and as she did she pulled the most incredible faces. She twirled around in her skimpy panties for a few seconds more and then, not knowing what else to do, began getting dressed again. She’s a girl, what’s more, who doesn’t sleep with anyone. Which only underlines the absurdity of her behaviour.

This is a remarkably representative statement of Houellebecq’s themes and effects, culled from the drab world of office drudges, with its weary salaciousness, its misogyny, its surly awareness of the futility of all its stratagems of transcendence and escape. Indeed, Whatever is all of Houellebecq in nuce. It states repeatedly, in baldest terms, the essentials of his dour aesthetic:

There are some authors who employ their talent in the delicate description of varying states of soul, character traits, etc. I shall not be counted among these. All that accumulation of realistic detail, with clearly differentiated characters hogging the limelight, has always seemed pure bullshit to me, I’m sorry to say.

The pages that follow constitute a novel; I mean, a succession of anecdotes in which I am the hero. This autobiographical choice isn’t one, really: in any case I have no other way out. If I don’t write about what I’ve seen I will suffer just the same – and perhaps a bit more so. But only a bit, I insist on this. Writing brings scant relief. It retraces, it delimits. It lends a touch of coherence, the idea of a kind of realism. One stumbles around in a cruel fog, but there is the odd pointer. Chaos is no more than a few feet away.

The novel form is not conceived for depicting indifference or nothingness; a flatter, more terse and dreary discourse would need to be invented.

But I don’t understand, basically, how people manage to go on living. I get the impression everybody must be unhappy; we live in such a simple world, you understand. There’s a system based on domination, money and fear – a somewhat masculine system, let’s call it Mars; there’s a feminine system based on seduction and sex, Venus let’s say. And that’s it. Is it really possible to live and to believe that there’s nothing else?

Despite the opening disclaimers as to the deliberate absence of ‘realistic detail’ and ‘clearly differentiated characters’, the novel’s protagonist – hero is really too large a word – is a convincing and even compelling, even appealing, creation, in all his shambling incompetence and emotional disarray. He is a Meursault without the energy or interest to commit a murder, even a pointless one – ‘It’s not that I feel tremendously low; it’s rather that the world around me appears high.’ He is a computer technician who in his spare time writes peculiar little stories about animals, such as Dialogues Between a Cow and a Filly, ‘a meditation on ethics, you might say’, a couple of paragraphs of which are quoted. ‘The God presented in this short story was not, one observes, a merciful God.’

Whatever pays its sly and sardonic tributes to the great French tradition. In the opening pages the protagonist has forgotten where he parked his car and finds himself wandering in search of it through the Rue Marcel-Sembat, the Rue Marcel-Dassault … ‘there were a lot of Marcels about’, while in the book’s central section he falls seriously ill in Rouen, the birthplace that Flaubert detested. Indeed, while it could hardly be described as Proustian, the book, all dreamy drift and sour recollection, does have something of the minutely observed inconsequentiality of Flaubert’s masterpiece, L’Education sentimentale.

The writer Houellebecq most resembles, however, is Simenon – not the Maigret Simenon, but the Simeon of the romans durs, as he called them, such as Dirty Snow or Monsieur Monde Vanishes, masterpieces of tight-lipped existential desperation.


There is one aspect in which Whatever differs from the three novels that followed it, and that is the relative absence of sex. Sex, ‘the only game left to adults’ [Platform], is a commodity – one deliberately chooses the word – in which the other books are soaked. In Atomised, the main character Michel’s half-brother Bruno devotes his life to the pursuit of women, or at least of what women can provide – in fact, Houellebecq and Benny Hill would probably see eye to ogling eye – while at the heart of Platform is a detailed and, it must be said, numbingly tedious account of the setting up and running of a sex-tourism venture in Thailand. Lanzarote, a brief, fictionalized account of a package holiday on that eponymous isle, interspersed with gnomic photographs of the island’s rock formations taken by Houellebecq himself, is little more than the tale of a young man getting lucky with two lesbians on a beach – ‘Barbara’s excitement continued to mount … I myself found myself close to coming in Pam’s mouth’.

It is hard to know how seriously Houellebecq intends us to take all this. Certainly he expends a great deal of writerly energy on his erotic scenes, yet for all the unblinking explicitness of the descriptions, the sex itself is curiously old-fashioned. Women are treasured, but mainly as receptacles for men and their desires. Rivers of semen gush through these pages – ‘small clouds floated like spatters of sperm between the pines’ [Atomised] – a great deal of it disappearing down the throats of women. Houellebecq’s females never seem to menstruate, or go to the lavatory, and are ready at all times, day or night, in private or in public, to perform such acts as may be required of them by men; nor do they evince the slightest fear of or interest in getting pregnant, of which, in any case, there is not the faintest danger, in Houellebecq’s world. True, the women enjoy the sex as much as the men do, but in a free, undemanding and uncomplicated way that few women, or men, would recognize from their own experience. Sometimes Michel has a thought for AIDS, but his partners merrily brush aside any such qualms.

Yet all these couplings, all these threesomes and foursomes, take place in a curiously innocent, almost Edenic glow. In a horrible world, these melancholy concumbences are the only reliable source of authenticity and affectless delight.

A source of permanent, accessible pleasure, our genitals exist. The god who created our misfortune, who made us short-lived, vain and cruel, has also provided this form of meagre compensation. If we couldn’t have sex from time to time, what would life be? [Platform]


Atomised is Houellebecq’s masterpiece so far. What might be its premise is re-stated in a passage from the book that followed it, Platform:

It is wrong to pretend that human beings are unique, that they carry within them an irreplaceable individuality; as far as I was concerned, at any rate, I could not distinguish any trace of such an individuality. As often as not it is futile to wear yourself out trying to distinguish individual destinies and personalities. When all’s said and done, the idea of the uniqueness of the individual is nothing more than pompous absurdity. We remember our own lives, Schopenhauer wrote somewhere, a little better than a novel we once read. That’s about right: a little, no more.

The hero of Atomised – in this case the word is not too large – is Michel Djerzinski, a molecular biologist, who at the end of the book, having given up his position at the Galway Centre for Genetic Research in Ireland (!), retires to a cottage on the Sky Road in Clifden – ‘There’s something very special about this country’ – to complete, between the years 2000 and 2009, his magnum opus, an eighty-page distillation of a life’s work devoted to the proposition ‘that humanity must disappear, that humanity would give way to a new species which was asexual and immortal, a species which had outgrown individuality, individuation and progress’. After Djerzinski has gone ‘into the sea’, his successor, Hubczejak – a private play, one suspects, on another hard-to-pronounce name beginning with H – makes a synthesis of his work and presents it to an at first disbelieving world. Dzerzinski’s conviction is that

any genetic code, however complex, could be noted in a standard, structurally stable form, isolated from any mutations. This meant that every cell contained within it the possibility of being perfectly copied. Every animal species, however highly evolved, could be transformed into a similar species, reproduced by cloning and therefore immortal.

At the close of the book the twenty-first century is half done and humanity as we know it has all but disappeared, its place taken by a new species of Djerzinskian immortals. ‘There remain some humans of the old species, particularly in areas long dominated by religious doctrine. Their reproductive levels fall year on year, however, and at present their extinction seems inevitable.’ It is a strangely compelling, strangely moving conceit, this peaceful making way by the old order for a new. The book’s reigning spirit is Auguste Comte (1798–1857), follower of Saint-Simon and founder of the religion of Positivism, the rules of which he laid down in his Système de Politique Positive. Supremely silly as Comte’s philosophy of altruism is – the Positivist religionist must, among numerous other devotional duties, pray three times a day to his mother, wife and daughter, and wear a waistcoat buttoned down the back so that it can be put on and taken off only with the help of others – it had a worldwide influence, not least in France.

What are we to make of the Comtean aspects of Houellebecq’s work? For all the darkness of his vision, gleams of light now and then break through – ‘In the absence of love, nothing can be sanctified’ [Platform] – but what a peculiar light it is, as it seeks to illuminate these arid landscapes where the only solace for us dying humans is the sad game of sex. Djerzinski’s ‘great leap’, according to Hubczejak, is ‘the fact that he was able … to restore the possibility of love’, while Djerzinski himself in one of his final works, Meditations on Interweaving – inspired, not incidentally, by the Book of Kells – ponders the central motive force of our lives in rhapsodic tones worthy of D.H. Lawrence at his most ecstatic or, indeed, of The Sound of Music at its most saccharine:

The lover hears his lover’s voice over mountains and oceans; over mountains and oceans a mother hears the cry of her child. Love binds, and it binds for ever. Good binds, while evil unravels. Separation is another word for evil; it is also another word for deceit. All that exists is a magnificent interweaving, vast and reciprocal.

Yet Atomised is genuinely affecting in its vision of the end of the ‘brave and unfortunate species’ that we human beings were and our replacement by the brave-new-worlders made possible by Djerzinski’s ‘risky interpretations of the postulates of quantum mechanics’. Houellebecq, if we are to take him at his word, and not think ourselves mocked by his fanciful flights, achieves a profound insight into the nature of our collective death-wish, as well as our wistful hope for something to survive, even if that something is not ourselves. The omniscient narrator, dedicating his book ‘to humanity’, meditates on what is past and passing and to come:

History exists, it is elemental, it dominates, its rule is inexorable. But outside the strict confines of history, the ultimate ambition of this book is to salute the brave and unfortunate species which created us. This vile, unhappy race, barely different from the apes, had such noble aspirations. Tortured, contradictory, individualistic, quarrelsome, it was capable of extraordinary violence, but nonetheless never quite abandoned a belief in love. This species which, for the first time in history, was able to envisage the possibility of its passing and which, some years later, proved capable of bringing it about. As the last members of this species are extinguished, we think it just to render this last tribute to humanity, a homage which itself will one day disappear, buried beneath the sands of time.

And yet, after the death of the last man, what a swelling murmur would come back, what a gabble, of all the things left unsaid at our passing. And who would there be, among the immortals, to impose the necessary silence?

*Les Particules elémentaires was translated as The Elementary Particles in the US edition. Paul Hammond translated Whatever, Frank Wynn the three subsequent novels.
**Maurice Blanchot, ‘Death of the Last Writer’, in The Book to Come, translated by Charlotte Mandel, Stanford University Press, 2003.

Read more in The Dublin Review issue No. 17 Winter 2004–5