Longer listens: Michel Houellebecq

Published June 12, 2006 6:30PM (EDT)

It's not easy being a provocateur these days. Stephen Metcalf describes the dilemma well in his review of Michel Houellebecq's latest novel, "The Possibility of an Island," writing, "How can you lord your solitary ego over mankind when mankind admits, in every perfume ad, that it thinks precisely as you do?" Yet Houellebecq, as any serious French novelist must, bravely soldiers on in his misanthropy. In 2002, his comments during an interview for his novel "Platform" landed Hoellebecq in a Paris court under charges of inciting religious and racial hatred. In the interview, Houellebecq called Islam "the most stupid religion" and said that the Quran was "badly written" and made him fall to the ground in despair. He has also been known to preach the merits of the sex trade for raising the standing of third-world countries. In "The Possibility of an Island," a radical narcissist intellectual (not unlike Hoellebecq himself) becomes the first in a line of clones that end up living, as Metcalf writes, in "a world ravaged by environmental disaster and almost completely devoid of human interaction." A sort of Brave New World for the melancholy set.

Interviews with Houellebecq, when he gives them, are generally an adventure. He may deride Islam or, more likely, make a pass at the interviewer. The accounts of these interviews tend to be mostly about the circumstance surrounding them -- about the difficulties of arranging time with Houellebecq at his cottage in Ireland or some such. And most of his interviews are in French -- but in 2001, Houellebecq sat down with Michael Silverblatt of "Bookworm" to talk (28:29, Real Audio) about one his earliest books, "H.P. Lovecraft: Against the World, Against Life," a monograph on the American horror writer. Houellebecq comes across as quite affable and struggles admirably with his English as he and Silverblatt discuss misanthropy and pessimism in literature and in life. "If people were happy, I don't think literature would disappear," says Houllebecq, "but it would be very different. Maybe there would be more poetry, because novels are not made to describe happiness. Only poetry can, I think ... but the art of the novel is not made for that." Later he reveals the importance of sleepiness to his writing, "I always write when I am not exactly awake ... It can take me maybe five hours to awaken completely. And when you completely awaken your working day is finished because ... being absolutely awake is the opposite to creativity."

-- Ira Boudway

By Salon Staff

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