Britain's first book blogger (November 2000)

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

The decorum of Michel Houellebecq

On Sunday night I watched The House of Mirth, the film adaptation of Edith Wharton's novel. The tragic heroine Lily Bart was played with remarkable subtlety by Gillian Anderson. Her story was very moving, if not also a little perplexing viewed from a century later. Why couldn't Lily have dispensed with polite society’s acute sense of decorum to save herself?

Her moral rigidity was matched by the elaborate costumes and precise, buttoned-up dialogue. Everything in the film worked against the kind of dramatic action and expression we expect in our entertainments. Yet this is what made Anderson's performance, and the film, all the more moving and memorable. Lily's feelings are evoked in the merest flicker of her upper lip; a flicker that could be a smile or the beginning of tears. A century later, the equivalent emotions would be revealed by an hysterical outburst, explicit violence and eventually, no doubt, an Oscar. In this sense, the film is curiously anachronistic.

Yet it is an anachronism that has become oddly popular recently. In the afterword to Author, Author, David Lodge leaves it for the reader to decide why novels about Henry James, such as his own, were appearing in close proximity to each other, as well as alongside movie adaptations. Until Sunday night, I didn’t have answer. But as I watched House of Mirth, I also read Michel Houellebecq’s Atomised, and an answer was prompted.

It's tempting to say the contrast was extreme. Yet it wasn't. For all its famed misanthropy and its stark descriptions of sex and violence, Houellebecq’s novel has a decorum as studied as any Edwardian novel. Deaths are skipped over in a sentence. Bruno’s grandmother’s dies out of sight after a terrible accident. Christiane is discovered dead at the bottom of some stairs. Annabelle’s suicide occurs in a space between her 3a.m visit to the kitchen and Michel discovering her body in the morning. Michel’s own death is uncertain. He just disappears. The novel is reticent about the moment of death. And that’s not all. Events in general are explained or passed over in dismissive, rhetorical gestures. These are the literary equivalents to the book’s notorious sexism and racism.

David Sexton of the London Evening Standard recently called Houellebecq ‘the master voice of a generation’. Curiously, what I found remarkable about Atomised is that there is no voice. Or, to be more precise, no original voice. The prose is careless; not full of mistakes but lacking care. This is not a value judgement. There is something interesting and significant in this. Houellebecq appropriates the conventions of the novel like Tommy Vercetti appropriates cars in GTA3 Vice City. The result is indeed a block of extraordinary despair.

(Incidentally, the same could be said of the songs of Modest Mouse. Compare the messy originals to the quiet reworks by Mark Kozelek. The contrast is too great to explained by levels of talent).

In Atomised there is a despair with expression as much as anything. Blanchot’s description of the procedure of de Sade’s writings might go also for Houellebecq:

[His] theoretical ideas release the irrational forces that are bound up with them. These forces at once animate and frustrate his ideas, doing so with such impetus that his ideas resists these forces, and then yield to them, seeking to master this impetus, which effectively they do, but only while simultaneously releasing other obscure forces, which will lead, twist, and pervert them anew. The result is that everything said is clear, but seems at the mercy of something unsaid, which a bit later is revealed and is again incorporated by the logic, but, in its turn, it obeys the movement of a still hidden force. In the end, everything is brought to light, everything comes to be said, but this everything is also again buried within the obscurity of unreflective thought and unformulatable moments. (from Lautréamont and Sade).

So, I thought, maybe the phenomenon of Michel Houellebecq, and the current preoccupation with Edwardian novels and novelists, is due to a renewed fascination with such obscurity. Our empathy with Lily Bart is enabled by her extreme propriety. Even in an extremely liberal age, we too feel ruined by relentless convention. The promise offered in reading Michel Houellebecq is the destruction of polite society (the society of the novel at least). And many people assume it has indeed been destroyed. Certainly, its violence cannot be resisted. But nothing has changed. Everything has been buried again.

2 comments:

  1. Lily Bart, Michel Houellebecq, and Modest Mouse, in one post. Now that's range. I'm impressed. (Houellebecq on the other hand, is highly over-rated, in my opinion.)

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