Monday, August 29, 2005

Houellebecq's New Novel + Nabokov's Lolita + Hurricane Katrina

HouellebecqMy DR impressions post last week mentioned Michel Houellebecq (well'-beck'), who over the past decade has become not only one of the major voices in French literature, but also one of the most controversial the global literary marketplace. Houellebecq first gained attention in the English-speaking world for his award-winning 1998 dystopic novel The Elementary Particles (published as Atomised by in the UK, Les particules élémentaires in French). In this nihilistic, yet enthralling work, Houellebecq crafted a compelling fictional carapace around his experiences growing up during the culturally and politically transitional period of late-1960s and early 1970s France. Splitting himself into two characters, the Djerzinski half-brothers Michel, an asexual geneticist, and Bruno, a sadsack laborer, Houellebecq produced a bleak, intertwining narrative of their lives, told through the framing device of a narrative view set retrospectively 50 years in the future, that relentlessly assailed the liberal ethos of his parents' generation. Along the way, and utilizing an ironic, magnetic anti-style laced with philosophical musings and nodes of factlets, he managed to trash the French society and its politics, immigrants, Blacks, sex workers, White European women, homosexuals, and, one might argue convincingly, much of the culture of contemporary European liberal democratic societies in general. Michel's discovery of a method to reproduce the human species without sexual reproduction through cloning, along with Bruno's mental breakdown and institutionalization, represented the apotheosis of Houellebecq's negative perspective.

Houellebecq's viewpoint, however, isn't conservative in the traditional sense, or even classically liberal, by which I mean that he isn't calling for a return to the France of pre-1968 or for responsible and restrained and reduced state power; instead, it is a kind of pessimistic, post-Schopenhaurian postmodernism--though not Luddite or anti-technological--in that he suggests that contemporary liberalism and its conservative reflections have left us with few options, most of them bad and ultimately anti-humanist or post-human(ist). Only something cataclysmic, some destructive and possibly purifying or at least transhuman force--though not religion--will work in the end, even if humankind as we know it is gone. Houellebecq follows in the tradition of right-wing authors and predecessors such as Louis-Fernand Céline and Drieu la Rochelle, though without their virulent anti-Semitism; instead, he trains his crosshairs on France's and Europe's largest minorities, while also not forgetting to savage White people. He thus succeeds in being both avant-garde (or perhaps outre-garde) in terms of his message and his formal approach, with its critique of realism, and arrière-garde, in his pessimism and teleology. In addition, Houellebecq larded the book with frank sexual depictions verging on the pornographic, or shading into them, which generated considerable criticism in France; the sex scenes also contributed to hearty sales. The novel, which continues to fascinate me for a number of reasons, later won the Prix Novembre; four years later, it received the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award.

He followed the success--and succès de scandale--of Elementary Particles with Platform (Plateform, 2001), a longer, less artful, even more dyspeptic novel whose plot centers on European sex tourism in Asia, while also including in its plotline a critique of the very type of fundamentalist Islamic terrorism that would erupt on September 11. In Platform, which ranges in its settings from urban and rural France to Thailand, the author stepped up his critiques of the French bureaucratic state, contemporary society, and male-female sexual relations, though the narrative does including a moving, romantic plot line which, as par for the course, ends in tragedy. Houellebecq's sexual depictions in this novel were, at least in my opinion, even more explicit than in the previous one, or in his first, the 1994 narrative run-through for the subsequent works, Whatever (Extension du domaine de la lutte), while his melding of expositions and philosophical ruminations with the narrative line was far more creaky than in the prior novel. Like Elementary Particles, the text both disturbed and fascinated me, to a large degree because of Houellebecq's ability to encompass all of his troubling enthusiasms within the larger frame of an engaging contemporary work of fiction. The novel didn't simply draw a larger readership; published extracts of it, along with an offensive interview in Lire, led France's Human Rights League, the Saudi World Islamic league, and mosques in France, to bring charges of insulting Islamic and provoking racial hatred against him. A French three-judge panel, however, acquitted him. (Shortly before publishing Platform, he issued Lanzarote, a flimsy, repellant kernel of the story that later became Platform, set in Spain, with turgid descriptions of a Houellebecquian protagonist engaging in a threesome with lesbians, and beautiful photographs of the islands' moon-like topography.)

Since the controversies surrounding Platform, Houellebecq has seen the translation and publication in English of one of his earliest books, HP Lovecraft: Against the World, Against Life, an idiosyncratic study of the American horror writing H. P. Lovecraft (1890-1937), whose racism and anti-ethnic fervor, classism and misogyny unsurprisingly struck a chord with the French author. Clamor had been rising, nevertheless, for his next novel, which will soon appear under the English title The Possibility of an Island (La possibilité d'une île), and is provoking a critical ruckus. In fact, according to the Independent, one of France's major critics, French Academy member and Le Figaro literary critic Angelo Rinaldi, preposterously claimed to have found a marked up galley of the text on a park bench in Eastern Paris. He pronounced the 488-page novel "ridiculous," a "damp squib," that he could imagine nothing more "arid, impoverished and obscure," and went on to say that "luck often comes to the aid of a journalist. On this occasion, it may have given [me] a scoop but it did not give me much happiness." The Independent piece ultimately questions whether Rinaldi wasn't party to a clever PR stunt, since Houellebecq's publisher Fayard had severely restricted journalists' access to the new work. In any event, his review has stoked more controversy and potentially higher sales in the new work.

Meanwhile in Der Spiegel, Roman Leick, in his piece "Can Humans Survive without Sex?" offers another take, noting in its laudatory overview-review that it takes only three pages for Houellebecq to get to the sex:

It doesn't take him long to get to his anatomical point; it only takes three pages and about 50 lines for the vagina to make its first appearance. Michel Houellebecq, the sharp-tongued observer of current reality, the harbinger of middle-class misery, the dispassionate witness to the decline of postmodern society, is in his obsessive element: the female gender as the focal point of a life that is otherwise nothing but an arduous journey that offers no particularly convincing reason to be completed.

Der Spiegel also provides a run-down of the plot, which utilizes the science fiction genre to tell another bleak tale of human and post-human interaction. Global catastrophes, religious fanaticism, suicide, ageism and misogyny, and so forth all supposedly make their appearance, with the futuristic world depicted as one in which clones have achieved a condition of sexless, electronically-mediated rationalism, which in Houellebecq's view, as opposed to a Platonic or neo-Kantian one, spells only "monotony, the routine of life interrupted only by sporadic exchanges of thoughts, leads to sadness, melancholy and apathy." The novel ends in a quasi-humanistic, romantic moment, which might point to the fact that for all his misanthropy, there is another side to Houellebecq; rather than dispassion, somewhere inside lies the wellspring for the lamentations of our contemporary world that underscore his texts. Even among the clones, this review seems to assert, Houellebecq holds out a vision of hope. Or does he?

The English version of The Possibility of an Island arrives in British bookstores in November. I'll be reading it as soon as the university's library makes it available.

NabokovSpeaking of controversial, enduringly provocative texts, the Boston Globe notes that this is the 50th anniversary of one of the greatest and most disturbing novels written in English, Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita, which was published in "two pale green volumes" from Maurice Girodias's Paris-based Olympia Press in September 1955. The Globe piece, "The Seduction: At 50, Nabokov's Lolita Still Seduced--and Disturbs," by Harvard scholar Leland de la Durantaye, details the history and reception of the work, and Nabokov's personal thoughts about it.

Nabokov saw Humbert Humbert, the "nympheleptic" protagonist, as a "scoundrel" and yet not, de la Durantaye tells us, but ironically as a profoundly "moral man" at the end. The parallel tracks of Humbert Humbert's psyche, of his consciousness, which Nabokov mirrors in his protagonist's name itself, become clearer as the novel proceeds. More importantly, de la Durantaye makes the argument that it is precisely Nabokov's rhetorical gifts--his utterly convincing excesses--in this novel, that provide the work's true moral and ethical statement. I'm not sure I agree, or rather, I'm not sure this either fully borne out by the work itself or enough, but it's an interesting argument, and the book, as de la Durantaye says, remains both beguilingly seductive and disturbing.

My thoughts and prayers are with the residents of southeastern Louisiana and coastal Mississippi and Alabama, who've been hit by one of the worst storms, Hurricane Katrina, in recent memory. Early reports suggest that while the storm's strength waned before it hit land, and though it curved eastward, avoiding direct impact on the low-lying city of New Orleans, it still wreaked tremendous damage. Huge swaths of the city and the coastal areas appear to be underwater, since some of its levees broke, and lacking electricity. The 145 mph winds, which made this a Category 4 storm, tore apart or shaved the roofs and sides off many buildings (including puncturing and stripping part of the Louisiana Superdome's roof), strewed debris, from trash to cars and boats, and felled trees, powerlines, and out in the gulf oil rigs. I would imagine that the three states alone are facing close to $10 billion in losses, but the human costs really are incalculable. Unfortunately too, Hurricane Katrina churns on, leaving its awful trail of destruction.

One of the things I've been thinking about repeatedly is the lack of options for the poor during catastrophic events like this. Although the Louisiana Superdome provided a large-scale lee for thousands of New Orleanians, what options were there for the rest of those who didn't have a place to go, or for people outside the city and in the nearby rural and littoral regions if they couldn't afford to hop in a car or on a bus and flee to the northwest? What about those shut in their homes, the homeless, including elderly residents who might not have friends or family to assist them, and other indigent people like runaways, the impoverished mentally ill, and drug addicts who didn't hear and couldn't heed New Orleans mayor C. Ray Nagin's call to evacuate the city or even head to the Superdome, which in any case can hold about 70,000 people? Were and are there standing emergency plans for them? In general, do most municipalities, in their emergency planning scenarios, take into account the needs of their most vulnerable residents? Do they even care? Does anyone know if there have been inquiries or studies into this?

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