Tuesday, March 22, 2005

Refusing to grow up: on Banville on Houellebecq

I have yet to read Michel Houellebecq. This is because I asked a friend (with infallible judgement), who had, for an opinion. Shrugging his shoulders and turning his mouth down at the corners, he said: nothing special ... and when you have Thomas Bernhard

Ah yes, Thomas Bernhard: the funniest and, indeed, most readable literary iconoclast of European fiction. Odd, I’ve long thought, how the market for Houellebecq’s virulence and extremism doesn’t extend to Bernhard.

But maybe not so odd, I now think, having read John Banville’s Bookforum essay on the French writer, an essay that takes in Houellebecq's long essay on HP Lovecraft. It seems Lovecraft is the clue to why Bernhard’s name is not read close to Houellebecq’s (except here of course).

An ex-flatmate of mine owned a copy of Lovecraft’s stories. As he displayed special enthusiasm for this writer, I read one of them. I can’t remember the title but it reminded me of Borges’ The God’s Script. However, in comparison it was staggeringly poor. The writing was cringe-makingly florid, and the twist at the end was easier to guess than the one in The Sixth Sense. I mentioned all this to my flatmate, being more diplomatic about Lovecraft than I am here. Unsurprisingly, he didn’t move on to Borges.

In the essay on Lovecraft, Houellebecq’s mentions that he discovered the stories aged seven. He immersed himself in Lovecraft's world of fantasy. That rather indicates why my flatmate didn’t want to read Borges. It meant letting go of childhood naïvete and the innate, unrepeatable wonder of the world that it allows. Or rather, letting go of the nostalgia for this state. The story I read could have frightened only a seven-year-old. In Borges, fantasy is never unfettered, never innocent, and the pleasure it affords a colder heaven. A seven-year-old would most likely be non-plussed. Actually, so would my flatmate.

According to Banville's analysis and quotations, it does seem to me that Houellebecq is essentially a disillusioned Romantic – the child who resents growing up and stamps his feet as a result. The passages of extreme misanthropy are blatantly disingenuous ("For all the ferocity of his vision, Houellebecq does have a heart"). Whereas in Bernhard the narration is always subject to its itself, there is a self-satisfied arrogance in Houellebecq that refuses to be included under the terms of its observations.

Maybe the novels are more nuanced, though Banville - usually an acute critic - doesn’t bring this out. In fact, his essay is surprising for the vagueness of its praise and criticism. He says Houellebecq is darker than Beckett because he "would never allow himself, or us, those lyric transports that flickeringly illuminate the Beckettian night". If lyricism transports, then where does it take us? Somewhere nice, apparently. Yet there were transports from European cities in Beckett's time. So maybe it's not so straightforward with lyricism; perhaps that's what makes it lyrical.

Banville then uncritically quotes Houellebecq on Lovecraft: "There is something not really literary about [his] work." Yet what could be more literary in a writer than that?! Remember folks, if you can fake unliterary writing, you can make great literature!

Then later, referring to Houellebecq's court appearance over racial insults and incitement to religious hatred, he swipes at the "many French intellectuals [who] at best kept silent and at worst sided with Houellebecq's accusers". But he offers no names. Banville doesn't comment on Houellebecq's opinions and how they might be reddened by subsequent massacres of Muslims by Christians in Iraq in the last two years. Should we make of that any more than he makes of anonymous silent French intellectuals?

He also fails to mention any names again when laughing at 'critics' who ascribe Houellebecq's opinions to his peculiar upbringing (which Banville details, rather begging the question): "How simple and determined it must be, the life of the critic!" Indeed.

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