I never felt so naked in my life.
I spot Michel Houellebecq sitting at the table waiting patiently for the interview to start when I show up with a colleague and my husband, Kurt. A few yards away, I observed him carefully. A 40-something, small, slouchy, balding, non-descript man wearing a dreary tan jacket. He is looking down and quite bored with the situation. I’ve seen that look on many a Frenchman, you know, the “I could be doing something better” glare of indifference. When I am standing near him, he realizes my presence, stands up and he looks me up and down smiling in a mischievous way that made me feel as if I’d forgotten my clothes. He takes my hand gently and with no firmness, never saying a word. He’s introduced to me and my colleagues whom he practically ignores and we all sit and order some food. All the while I felt flush and put on guard.
Compared to Camus, Celine, Sartre and Balzac, Michel Houellebecq is the equivalent of a rock-star in Europe. His controversial book is having the same effect that Being and Nothingness had on youth, a voice for a new generation, from someone whom you wouldn’t expect. It’s an existential journey trying to explain why we’re all so fucked up. And it succeeds. Elementary Particles (Les Particules Elementaires) is a monstrous and brutal novel with Balzacian grandness which takes on the most primal concerns of modern mankind. Houellebecq’s focus is on the decline of religion (he claims his characters are suffering from a lack of it), in particular, Christianity, consumerism MTV-style rape of our wallets, how the sixties hippie-dom with it’s orgy-like depravity have atomized society on the whole, to the current concern of cloning which will inevitably be performed on humans. The story is based on two brothers born to a hippie with different fathers and raised by different grandmothers. They’re two sociopathic, lonely boys destroyed by their parents’ selfish need for self-fulfillment. And they’re two men who are no different from the people who deliver your mail, answer phones, baby-sit your children and sit next to you on the train. They’re normal. And that’s why the story haunts us.
Abandoned as a baby by his parents, Michel (in the book) grows up asexual, introverted, unnaturally cerebral and intellectual. After the end of his one teenage romance and the death of his beloved grandmother, Michel devotes his life to theoretical biophysics. This desire, his only desire in this morbidly depressed life, is to developing a race of clones, free of human misery and desire, who will eventually take over the world.
Bruno is even more pathetic. He had an even lonelier childhood, spent largely at an experimental boarding school (where he is raped repeatedly by other boys and made to eat shit) and hippie campsites, where his mother, whom he eventually develops a kind of relationship with, hopes he’ll get over his sexual hang-ups. However, Bruno learns early that the sexual revolution is in fact a war. He has no belief in himself and believes he is one of the war casualties, being that in his world there are winners and losers. Fat, balding, uninteresting, jaded and desperate for love (sound like anyone?), he grows up unable to attract anyone less obviously pathetic than he is, which is exactly as he describes it. What brings these sad and stunted lives to crisis, and finally to the tragic end, is the inability of either man to love when it is handed to him on a silver platter. And Houellebecq blames this on postwar cultural and economic trends.
The book is a sweeping, scientific study of how these two boys came to be the way they are. It is not so serious that you won’t laugh. It is not so fictional that you won’t recognize yourself. It may even make you angry.
So why didn’t America get it?
Mr. Houellebecq has met us one afternoon for lunch at The Algonquin. I thought about how fitting it would be for him to be in New York for the second time and dine at the literary Mecca of yesteryear. He hadn’t even heard of it. I loved that. He’s not at all concerned about fashions, which I suppose, adds to his appeal. He doesn’t even live in Paris. He lives in Ireland. He’s real. He’s passionate. And he’s incredibly strange. The pathos-ridden emotions with which Houellebecq sprinkles in between the lines can break your heart. And in the end, that’s what this book is about. Desperate love. Love in it’s most ideal form, like the love only a child can give, the fervent love an abandoned child needs so much, life affirming love; the love we wonder if we’ve lost the capacity for. Remember when you loved like that? Houellebecq is childlike in this way, and because of this, he is courageous to write this book. It is written in a simple way, anchored with scientific studies and notions at inopportune times, trying to justify the simplicity of the moral. We all need love.
“Compared to the Fifties, it is different. Everybody wanted to love someone and have a perfect love story. Now it’s not the same thing. I don’t think it’s the same thing in America. In France the Fifties was a very special period. A period of romantic love, of baby-boom. It began in 1947-48 and it ended in 1964. It was a very strange period in France. The case of America is different because before the Second World War you were already rich and growing nation. We were a desperate nation. Clear consciences were on decline. Suddenly in 1947 maybe, something… if you read the women’s magazine’s of this period, it was absolutely stupefying. They were happy people. Women with vacuum cleaners. They were very happy. It was real. (I laugh) You’re not happy because you already have a vacuum cleaner! You don’t feel this joy!” he screams with boyish glee. It’s one of the few times we see total glee in his face, as if he’s showing us a world he knew about and he’s now sharing with us GenXers. He claims they believed in progress that never happens now. I doubt this theory, especially with all the technological progress we’ve been making, but I see his point as he slurps glass after glass of white wine.
I have never seen someone drink like Houellebecq, which says a lot, since I’m a bartender and also interviewed the notoriously inebriated singer, Bob Pollard. Pollard is an ascetic compared to Houellebecq. This is disturbing and expensive, since Pollard’s poison is Budweiser and Houellebecq prefers white burgundy. Houellebecq orders the salmon and the wine. This is the first in a line of bottles that is served, and we wonder how this is going to end. After having read the cover story of Houellebecq in the Sunday New York Times (Emily Eakin, Aug. 2000) we were scared. After all, he propositioned the journalist and scared her out of her skin. Even so, I got the feeling that Ms. Eakin was taken by Houellebecq, and Michel himself confirms this. But there’s no telling what is true with this novelist. He’s known for saying things like, “What I write is true” when a journalist questions his philosophizing. Everything about this man is a contradiction.
When asked what he does in New York at night, I get a stark naked, “Nothing.” Pause. When I press for more he says he was in Washington the night before. “Each night I do a reading. I sign books. Then I go to bed. I don’t have fun” Pause. I go on to pursue his private side and I tell him I read the New York Times story and how it made him out to be a party animal. He blankly says, “Emily was totally sexually obsessed. It’s true. It’s true. She was obsessed by sex. Do you remember, she wanted to go into a swingers’ club. You must participate. I am a very moral person.”
I’m not sure exactly what he meant but here are Ms. Eakin’s exact words: He had talked about going to Chris et Manu, a swingers’ club, on Friday night, but when I called him in the early evening, he was having second thoughts. He suggested I drop by his apartment in a see-through skirt instead. “I don’t really want to go out,” he said. “I just want to have sex.” When this failed to elicit the response he was looking for, he made a feeble attempt at blackmail. “We have reached the limit of talking,” he said. “There are things only people who have physical relations with me get to hear.” When that, too, fell flat, he lapsed into a melancholy monologue. “The journalist is the enemy of the groupie,” he said. “The groupie exists just to have sex with. The journalist wants an interview, and the journalist usually wins. I’m on the side of the groupie, but I’m too passive to put up a fight.” Before I hung up, I asked him what he was going to do. “Go to bed,” he sighed. It was 8 o’clock.
Needless to say, I don’t think he was being truthful, as Ms. Eakin clearly was going on something that Houellebecq offered to do, perhaps to show him his real side, or even to elicit more allure for his sex-ridden image. He does tell me, “You will never know the truth.”
But Ms. Eakin’s emphasis on this writer’s torment was right on. On suffering, for which he is most famous, I ask if this is in fact true. “Oh yes,” he earnestly says. We laugh. “I need it to be comfortable. It’s romantic but it’s true. If you’re okay with the world, you go to bed and you simply sleep.”
I ask him about his notorious open marriage. “Yes yes. But it depends on the seasons. The fall or the beginning of winter… my libido decreases in the winter. I’m like some kind of animal.” When I ask about how his wife, Marie-Pierre, feels about that ,he says she’s fine with it.
“You know you can make love with other women. It’s not a problem. But that you must not do if you don’t make love with your wife. A woman becomes terrible when you make love with another girl but not with her. She can’t forgive that.” But what if he falls in love with another woman? He says you must get around that. And he doesn’t get jealous of her extra-marital relationships either. “I don’t care,” he says monotone-style, which elicits some nervous laughter from us, “I’m too confident. I’m certain I am the best.”
Bottle number three. He’s beginning to giggle in a strange way. Like when there is a pause in the conversation he begins giggling to himself, like a little elf, shaking and eyes closed. Sometimes when my colleague asks a question, he will be staring at me. The more wine, the more amorous he gets. I’m using it to get more information. It’s not hard. We begin talking about his family.
He has a son with a previous wife. When asked if he’d have another one he is ambivalent, but says, “Maybe yes.” He says he would have preferred a daughter. I see him subtly, secretly click off my tape recorder. I realize he doesn’t want this on record. What he doesn’t want on record is that he doesn’t particularly care for his son. I see that he is saddened by this, disappointed by the lack of bond he has with him, the way the fictional brothers had no bond with their fathers. Perhaps this is why Bruno’s father feels so guilty about not having had more to do with his son in the novel. The lack of father-son relationships seem to predominate the story, and this is in fact auto-biographical. I pity Houellebecq intensely, because of the guilt he is feeling — so much so that in his drunkenness, he has the clarity to turn off a recorder to erase his guilt. Here he begins to drink even more heavily.
Houellebecq is genuinely in awe of the thunderbolt popularity of The Elementary Particles. One gets the feeling that he was writing for a world that doesn’t have any originality left in it. This makes him question his own success. “What’s bad in history is that in France you are not supposed to have good ideas in a book. People don’t recognize your literary thought, style or genre.” He’s amazed and surprised by his recognition because of this. “For German people it’s totally normal. It’s got a tradition of putting many ideas in a novel and is constant generally. The English are normally shocked by ideas in a novel. In my case, they were not. These are reactions I don’t really understand. Maybe Americans are closer to the French than they suppose. America often supposes there are big ideological struggles in France. It’s less true than it was.”
Back to the morality tangent I can’t seem to shake. I mean, how do you have an open-marriage, frequent sex clubs, proposition journalists, have made porn films in which you got your wife to participate and claim you are moral? One could argue that we are all animals. Animals are not monogamous. We are sexual animals. Therefore monogamy is not a natural state. Hence, one’s morality is in check. “It’s very complicated,” he says. “For example, French intellectuals make you feel that having racist feelings is worse than killing your own father. Which is actually very stupid because racist people in France are usually very normal working-class people without the work. (laughs) Another example, Catholics don’t love me because they think I am pornographic and well, maybe, but I’ve made a clear connection between sex and morals.”
He admits to making pornographic films (“in a way, yes yes”) but here is the contradiction: He’s divided between two spheres. He’s divided between the two brothers. Michel, the asexual intellectual and Bruno, the sex-starved imp who just wants love. I’ve read that total happiness for him is “being covered in clitorises”. And I am beginning to see that Mr. Houellebecq is just a man who wants to find some nirvana in the arms of someone… or something. And I’m realizing that he’s a very lonely man living in his head. However, Houellebecq claims that the book is a projection, not an autobiography.
“Sometimes I think I am seen as very provocative. But I am saying very simple things. For example, epicure… desire is bad but pleasure is bad. They’re not such different things. Something new happened in the beginning of the 20th century. People say to me that you don’t believe in individual freedom. It’s horrible. (my life) is not a real contradiction. In fact, only the Germans understand me. They are a very rich and sexual life. It has nothing to do with life. They are the most sexual people in Europe. You wouldn’t believe it. More than Italian. But all is organized. They are very polite. You should make a trip.” We all laugh and wonder.
We’re now on bottle four. He’s slurring a little now. Giggling a lot more and itching for a cigarette. He did clean off the salmon and mopped the juices with bread till the plate was bare. He’s opening up and getting deeper into the meaning of the book. And it’s the disgust that he feels about the institutions that bother him. Politics. Religion. “The end of the book is a place of pure joy. The real problem is that it becomes more and more impossible to say ‘No I’m not well’ it becomes more obligatory to say ‘It’s okay’. It’s better to say if you’re sad, then you’re sad. People lie more and more. The other problem is political correctness. You can’t say what you think anymore, so it’s a strange situation. It’s terrible.”
The idea of religion plays an important role in the book. Houellebecq doesn’t seem to have a real need for it, though he claims it’s the decline of it that is partly responsible for destroying morality. Another contradiction. But he’s hopeful that a new religion is possible from all this decay. Somehow, intellectualism and religion are not able to exist in The Elementary Particles. Perhaps this is what the new religion needs to be, a combining of both. A combining of the brothers to make one full man. The perfect person: an intellectual, sexual being that has the moralities that Michel himself claims to have. Put the three of them together, Bruno, Michel and the real Michel and you’ve got ideal man in Houellebecq’s eyes. And it begins to make sense. “I was always comfortable with Bruno. You know, it’s a pleasure.” When asked about the brothers being two sides of him. “Oh, yes, he nods quietly and vulnerably, “they are two sides of me.”
It becomes really apparent that Michel has been drinking my glass of wine since his was long finished. After I get a glass of wine from the waiter, again Michel is slurping away, philosophizing, owning what he desires. In fact, he has officially claimed it and I’ve been left with water.
“Because after the change caused by quantum physics, we find that materialism is naturally dead. So, we live in a strange situation. The people’s religion is materialism, but the scientific discoveries lead to something totally different that nobody understands. I foresee that when this is understood there is going to be a huge change.” This is what he calls the “discovery.” But he is now desperate for a cigarette and we decide to have our espressos at the lounge.
We stand up and he asks if I like cigars. I said yes, as a matter of fact I do. He suggests sanguinely that we finish the interview up in his hotel room with cognac and cigars. I stand silent and stunned. I re-introduce him to Kurt as my husband. I probably should have mentioned that before, knowing his reputation with journalists. Kurt looks taken aback but is smiling. Michel doesn’t miss a beat and says, “Then let’s go to the bar for a cigarette.”
It’s in the lounge that we got the fluff. He loves David Lynch and Brett Easton Ellis. He signs our books. My inscription implies that my fascination with his open marriage is trivial. That it’s not that complicated. That you have to stop before anyone gets hurt.
We stand up to leave and I eye him putting my pack of cigarettes into his jacket pocket. Again, claiming his desires. Claiming everything.
— Ty Wenzel
Algonquin photos by Ty Wenzel