Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

March 27, 2015

My Secret Fascination with Michel Houellebecq

Filed under: Counterpunch,Film,literature — louisproyect @ 1:06 pm

A Quixotic Longing for a Benign Authority

My Secret Fascination with Michel Houellebecq


I attended the press screening for “The Kidnapping of Michel Houellebecq” with the expectation that I would learn something about the controversial novelist whose name has become synonymous with Islamophobia. Fully expecting his character (he plays himself) to be a cross between Pamela Geller and Salman Rushdie, I was surprised—if not shocked—to see him rendered as a genial, self-deprecating and altogether likeable individual who wins over his kidnappers in the course of the film. Since the film is fiction, it was up to writer/director Guillaume Nicloux to imagine a writer who met his own ideals—and implicitly that of Houellebecq as well. So instead of imagining the kidnappers as jihadists anxious to take vengeance on a writer who has insulted Islam, they are instead three apolitical but physically intimidating men hired by an unidentified party on a contract basis.

Luc the ringleader is a longhaired Roma with the body of a sumo wrestler who tells Houellebecq that he trained Israeli soldiers in the martial arts including the technique needed to rip off an enemy’s ear, not the sort of person you would want to trifle with. But in a scene that epitomizes the film’s off-kilter comic sense, the tensest moment between captors and captive is over some detail in Houellebecq’s first book—a biography of the Gothic novelist H.P. Lovecraft. Luc insists that the book describes Houellebecq purloining a sweat-stained cushion that belonged to Lovecraft from some museum, which he denies is in the book. As Luc grows increasingly angry at Houellebecq’s denial, the author follows the Falstaffian principle that discretion is the better part of valor and states that he might have forgotten what he wrote after all. Since Houellebecq has the appearance of a Bowery flophouse resident and drinks glass after glass of wine throughout the film (one suspects that it was not grape juice), we suspect that Luc had it right all along.

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  1. Louis: You’re not the only one who can’t entirely write off Michel Houellebecq. I keep reading his books though I find most of his opinions abhorrent. It has to do with my wanting to keep up with what’s happening in Paris. I launched into ‘Soumission’ expecting to find more of the Muslim-baiting we are getting in Europe just now from all the parties on the right and even from the center. Surprise. I found one scathing satire on French university people pictured in all their small-minded careerism and another, just as cutting, on a dried-up bachelor hedonist, a cautious egoist, very much like M.H. as he has often pictured himself. All this is set in the framework of a harmless story like ‘Looking Backward’ or some H.G. Wells’ speculation on the future. ‘Soumission’ is better than his other novels. The quote from Trotsky about Céline on the previous post is pertinent. Both novelists are sewer rats. Houellebecq hasn’t Céline’s power as a writer, but he does have something to say worth listening to.

    Comment by Peter Byrne — March 27, 2015 @ 3:16 pm

  2. “I keep reading his books though I find most of his opinions abhorrent.”

    I have the same response to the 1990s novels of James Ellroy, like “L.A. Confidential”, “White Jazz” and “American Tabloid”. i dislike his offensive social beliefs, while appreciating his rendering of the hypermasculine catastrophe of postwar America, told through the prism of police/mob interaction in Los Angeles.

    In his perverse vision, LA was a testing ground for police/intelligence/mafia relationships that first went national and then international, much like Giuliani’s zero tolerance policing of low income communities of color in the 1990s. Timoney, one of the participants in this effort, provided assistance to Bahrain in its repression of protesters. Ellroy’s protagonists graduated to participation in the training of anti-Castro Cubans and the assassination of JFK, even if, in an instance of irony beyond the ability of Oliver Stone to appreciate, they didn’t actually get to carry out the job. His novels are also noteworthy for highlighting how sexuality was repressed before the sexual revolution to avoid abuse and public humiliation.

    By the way, “White Jazz” is a disciplined achievement for a novelist. Ellroy carved all extraneous expression out of his narrative and dialogue, abandoning the richness of “L. A. Confidential” through the creation of sharp, incisive language and an interior world of character that allowed readers to fill in the gaps through their imagination.

    Comment by Richard Estes — March 28, 2015 @ 6:29 am

  3. Ellroy is one of those novelists whose views on politics and social issues aren’t anchored to anything. They can go one way or the contrary. His writing comes from his gut, his instincts, not from principle. He makes stories out of his fantasies. He says as much in his memoir, “My Dark Places,” talking about the L.A. riots in 1965:

    “L.A. was burning. I wanted to kill all the rioters and turn L.A. into Cinder City myself. The riot thrilled me. […] I ran stories from diverse perspectives. I became both riot cop and riot provocateur. I lived lives fucked over by history. I spread my empathy around. I distributed moral shading equitably. I didn’t analyze the cause of the riot or prophesy its ramifications. My public stance was “Fuck the niggers.” My concurrent narrative fantasies stressed the culpable white cops. I never questioned the contradiction. I didn’t know that storytelling was my only true voice. (p.153)

    So is it worth reading Ellroy’s fantasies? I think so. He sets them down with a lot of skill and color. The trick is to not to forget he’s been pretty well “fucked over by history” too, personal history.

    Comment by Peter Byrne — March 28, 2015 @ 10:44 am

  4. Fassbinder once praised the “naivete” of Hitchcock in telling stories that he would have never had the guts to tell. Much the same applies to Ellroy, I think. By writing a fantastical alternative history through fiction from “his gut, his instincts”, he drives home the violent misogyny, racism and homophobia of the time in a visceral way, all the compelling, and paradoxically authentic, precisely because of the lack of social and ideological calculation.

    Comment by Richard Estes — March 28, 2015 @ 4:12 pm

  5. I was intrigued by the comment about King, since the first and only thing I ever read by him, a short story in a horror anthology, struck me as so completely amateurish that I’ve been willing to accept the word of everybody who says he can’t write decent prose, particularly since his books are so damn long (I really liked the Clive Barker story in the collection, though). Could somebody recommend something that might convince me?

    Comment by godoggo — March 28, 2015 @ 8:35 pm

  6. Godoggo, read “The Shining”. It is fairly long but a great read. Plus, you are probably familiar with the story from the film.

    Comment by louisproyect — March 28, 2015 @ 8:39 pm

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