Empty Days

Thursday, June 24, 2004



Against Houellebecq - literature as fine style.

A lot of people in France hate Houellebecq and (or?) his popularity. They find him lacking both in content and in style. They write devastating critiques where they essentially wonder how it is that anyone should like Houellebecq - how it's even possible. Usually, their own analysis makes it so that they can't answer this question; or rather, the only possible answer is too impolite to utter ("those who like M.H. must be tasteless and/or brainless").

But what is really interesting is how such outright haters justify their dislike. There are basically two categories of Houellebecq-bashers: those who hate his ideas (usually extremely ideological leftist types who probably never read the books for all the accounts in the press) and those who just can't stand the man in general and evoke his supposedly bad style as the crux of all his sins. This latter category usually appeals to traditionally revered authors as their model alternative (read: taste). However, this style-bashing sounds mostly like a cover-up for their real motives which are simply that they hate what the man has to say in the first place. Example:
Écrivain. Romancier. Littérature. Houellebecq. Cherchez l’intrus.
Alors voilà, tout a commencé ainsi : un écrivain(1) sort un premier roman (Extension du domaine de la lutte) qui raille la société de consommation et raconte la solitude sexuelle, intellectuelle et morale d’un homme perdu dans le « monde comme supermarché ». Depuis, on ne peut plus échapper à Michel Houellebecq*.

Extension du domaine de la lutte a été publié en 1994 par un petit éditeur de qualité, Maurice Nadeau, après, selon les dires de ce dernier, plus d’un an d’hésitation(2). L’ouvrage devient très vite ce que l’on appelle un livre « culte »** - ce qui signifie qu’on en vend peu, mais à des lecteurs passionnés(3). Quatre années passent, le phénomène Houellebecq se développe(4). Arrive la rentrée littéraire de septembre 1998 : son second roman, Les particules élémentaires, est publié par une nouvelle maison d’édition (pas de chance pour Maurice Nadeau !), d’une tout autre importance commerciale et médiatique* : Flammarion. La parution de ce roman suscite aussitôt un engouement démesuré* : couvertures de magazines, émissions télévisées, interviews multiples. Le terrible « monde comme supermarché» paraît sans doute moins rebutant à Michel Houellebecq lorsqu’il lui permet de faire exploser les ventes de son livre*.

Houellebecq frôle même le monde comme hypermarché au moment de la remise du prix Goncourt 1998, que de nombreux critiques regrettent de voir attribué à Confidences pour confidences de Paule Constant (Gallimard) plutôt qu’aux Particules élémentaires. Ces mêmes critiques sont d’ordinaire moins prompts à dénoncer les attributions régulières de ce prix à de mauvais livres(5). Mais rendons grâce à leur jugement littéraire : oui, Michel Houellebecq méritait le Goncourt. Puisqu’il a lui aussi écrit un mauvais livre.

Un mauvais livre ? Un livre ? Autour du phénomène Houellebecq, tout le monde oublie qu’il faut parler de littérature***(6). On l’accuse d’être réactionnaire, raciste, stalinien, anti-homo, antitout et le reste(7). Comme si cela avait quelque importance. Comme si l’on ignorait que le talent littéraire peut coexister avec la sombre folie d’un homme - voir le cas Céline pour prendre l’exemple le plus connu***.
....
Houellebecq a donc de la culture (scientifique et sociologique), de l’idée, et de l’ambition : ses romans prétendent donner une vision globale de la société*, ce qui est somme toute assez rare dans la production française actuelle. Mais tout cela réuni ne suffit pas à faire un bon écrivain. Cela fait tout au plus un écrivain plus malin que les mauvais écrivains - titre que nous ne lui contestons assurément pas. Le titre de bon écrivain, quant à lui, ne peut être donné qu’à quelqu’un qui possède un style littéraire***. Mais quel est le style de Houellebecq ?
(*) Obscene self-promotion, unwarranted pretention
(**) Good only for a paltry few, probably teenagers
(***) Now let's see what good literature should be like


So what is this glorified "style litteraire" that is apparently the hallmark of all great writers? The author of the critique goes on to refer to Kafka (irony), to Celine (dialogue), Vialatte (minor writer, able translator of Kafka), Saint-John Perse (poetry), and a certain Jean-Patrick Manchette (contemporary author of elegant parisian thrillers).

Unfortunately, it doesn't occur to the spiteful critic that Kafka's "style", for instance, is a horror by any standards of fine writing - and the only reason we love him so and reserve him a place in the literary pantheon is because of the force of his uncanny imagination and his poignantly timely thought. It also does not occur to the not-so-venerable critic that Vialatte, for all his free-flowing finery, is a writer of little interest in his own right, despite the fleeting pleasure his books provide when you perchance get down to read them.

This all-too-french school-bred confusion between fine writing style and literature is not new and has pushed many a critic and reader to believe himself a writer and spoil the fiction-stand with his exquisite exercises in fine styling. Appealing to this sad misunderstanding is not simply narrow-minded, it is nefarious as to the well-being and meaning of literature - if it should be conceived as something more than just an able arrangement of words and paragraphs.

I could go on and on, but suffice it to say that Dostoevsky, of all people, was not universally loved in his lifetime and many have decried his reactionary utopian ideas, and more still have denounced his novels as near-trash for their over-excited hyperbolical melodramatic manner. As to style... Turguenev had style - Dostoevsky most certainly did not.

***

NB: the short-sightedness of this school-bred arbitor gustibus is well apparent when he bashes Houellebecq for his "unnatural" dialogue techniques - never realizing that this is a pastich of de Sade, entirely meant and meaningful for the fabric of the novel.

In fact I'd love to read a bad critique of Houellebecq - but I'd like it to at least have some insight as to what literature consists of.

Instead I hear nothing but this (from another bored one):
Il ne s'agit pas, bien sûr, de prôner un retour à on ne sait quel ordre moral, car ce serait encore plus ridicule que les efforts déployés au cours de ces quatre cents pages d'ennui pour nous convaincre - comme si nous l'ignorions ! - que notre époque va mal. Relisons simplement dans ce registre Sade, Mirabeau, Apollinaire, qui, eux au moins***, savaient ce qu'écrire veut dire.
Yes, of course, I agree - Sade is a much better writer than Houellebecq. Indeed this is so. But I don't need Houellebecq to be better than Sade - I need him to be just what he is, as he is, here and now: Houellebecq, the guy who's got something to say.

(Incidentally, I disliked the intitial chapters of his first novel, Extension du domaine de la lutte - he tried for a regular novel and it was awkward, boring and useless for the rest of the book - which is where Houellebecq-as-such was finally revealed.)





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