His mother wanted to bash his teeth out – yet Michel Houellebecq may be the greatest living novelist

Houellebecq in 2023
Houellebecq in 2023 - Joel Saget/AFP via Getty Images
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When writing before about Michel Houellebecq, I have usually made two things clear, never wishing to mislead my readers. First, Houellebecq is the high priest of miserabilism, constantly reminding his followers that it is a horrible world out there and that life, if no longer necessarily short, is frequently still nasty and brutish. But the second point about him is that he is as close to a genius as any writer today; his books hum with insights about the human condition, and if he isn’t the greatest living novelist, I’d like to know who is.

Yet, as with most great writers, with Houellebecq it can be a question of, as the French say, chacun à son goût: he will not please all tastes, however superbly he constructs his novels and expresses his thoughts. His imagination was perhaps stranded more in the sewers than usual with his second work of fiction, Les Particules élémentaires, written in 1998. It is about two half-brothers who are victims of their (separate) upbringings: the Philip Larkin theme about the effects of “mum and dad” dominates the narrative. The novel is apocalyptic, and this seems to account for the title given to its English translation, Atomised. For all the value we put on our lives, we are merely elementary particles; a point proved by Michel, one of the half-brothers, who trains as a molecular biologist and develops a programme of human cloning.

The men have in common their mother, a drug-soaked 1960s degenerate for whom the label “hippie” does not quite convey the adequate sense of her atrociousness. After she clears off to her succession of communes, Michel is brought up by his grandmother. The author and his mother had a remarkably similar trajectory, leaving him despising her and, after the most unflattering portrayal imaginable of her in the novel, her threatening to knock his teeth out with her walking stick. Some critics have seen Atomised as an epic of self-obsession, but if Houellebecq’s own sense of abandonment by his parents was even half so grim as his fictional counterpart’s, then he may be forgiven this attempt to get it out of his system.

Houellebecq in 1999, soon after the publication of Atomised
Houellebecq in 1999, soon after the publication of Atomised - Leonardo Cendamo/Getty

Much of the book is superficially repellent – especially the details about the persecution of Michel’s half-brother, Bruno, while he is at the sort of bestial boarding school that some would have you believe only the English can specialise in. At least Michel’s grandmother shows some interest in him: but as he pursues studies that end up becoming not merely life-changing but world-changing – with existence losing its magic and mystery and becoming simply about atoms – he becomes introverted in the extreme (one suspects a degree of autism) and finds it almost impossible to forge normal relationships with others, not least Annabelle, the schoolfriend who dotes on him. Eventually – more than 20 years later – they attempt intimacy and it is a disaster.

The stories of both men turn, in the end, on the elimination of normal human feelings (a process apparently begun by their parents, especially their mother), and their role in the creation of life. Bruno’s course is, however, rather different from his brother’s. He becomes a sex addict, relying on the services of prostitutes, until he eventually meets a woman as interested in these matters as he is. I do not wish to spoil the book as, despite its less-than-vanilla content, it is superb, and I hope some of you will think of reading it; but her end is predictable, albeit in an unpredictable way (few characters leave Houellebecq novels in a conventional way) and Bruno is eventually liberated from a mental asylum (where he has been consigned because of an inability to control himself while out in public) by his more rational, but no-less damaged, half-brother.

The book is laced with mordant humour, with the human species able to save itself only by destroying its means of survival. No one should read it expecting to be uplifted. But it will suit the author’s fellow cynics, and all who know not to take life at face value. The English translation, by Frank Wynne, is of the highest order, but if you read French, read the original, because Houellebecq’s genius rests not least on what a supreme stylist he is.

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