Enfant terrible

A new novel by Michel Houellebecq (pronounced: Well-beck) is a major literary event in France. L’enfant terrible of French letters is loved by many and detested by some but leaves few readers indifferent.

I was set to dislike the fellow. First of all because I have an automatic distrust of the intellectual. You must understand that in France, ‘intellectual’ is a profession. Writer, journalist, political theorist and philosopher: all are taken far more seriously than in the commercially driven culture from which I hail. They are respected fonts of wisdom that drive opinion in this country.

Secondly because, well…look at the photo. He appears to the picture of the debauched, jaded version of the intellectual, a sort of Serge Gainsbourg of letters. Strike two. Thirdly because his work is controversial and I assumed that his point of view would be distasteful.

But then I read one of his novels. I don’t often read in French as it feels less natural to me than English. Frankly, it’s more work. But when the voice is right it makes all the difference.  And his voice spoke to me. Not only because I understood it, but because he has a style that is intimate, natural, relatable. I liked his voice. So I read another. And became a fan.

Houellebecq is hated by many because he speaks his truth (his version of the truth: all that any writer can do) and it is not one which is politically correct, or even palatable to some. But it is certainly representative of the thoughts and fears of many French people.

Now perhaps you’ll think I’m being pretentious, supporting the very thing I purport to distrust. Intellectuals, writers, artists. But there is one thing that I hold dear and it is the freedom to say or think anything. I posted about this before back when the last wave of terror began in France and some of the comments perfectly captured the way I feel about free speech, whether actual censorship or via the cult of the thought police.

I haven’t read Houellebecq’s new book yet. It’s called Serotonin and it’s on my list. If you’re interested, it’s apparently already translated into English and several other languages.

Interestingly, the novel seems to predict the the current movement of social unrest in France, or at least to have had its finger on the pulse of the discontent behind it.

The author isn’t doing a book tour or making any public appearances for now. This seems to be upsetting le tout Paris, but I can understand why. He doesn’t need the publicity and it’s bound to lead to awkward questions.

What do you think: should writers be expected to defend their political beliefs or be given a pass as free thinkers?

13 thoughts on “Enfant terrible

  1. I have never read him and I must admit that I have some preconceived ideas about him. I certainly don’t like some of his misogynistic, racist and other form of comments. I do agree that he has a right to express himself but I have a right not to agree with him. Though, I probably should read one of his novel to get over some of my preconceived ideas… I should know better than to base my opinion on other people criticism of his work and read him. I guess I will add him to my list of reading. Though, I must admit that despite having French as my mother tongue, I don’t often read French author; they don’t seem to be my cup of tea. (Suzanne)

    1. How interesting that you read more in English, Suzanne. I guess that explains your ease in the language (although obviously you are fully bilingual). I can totally understand what you mean about not wanting to read in French. Sometimes I think language is so closely associated with a way of seeing the world that you really have to change your mindset to appreciate works of literature. Will be interesting to see what you think of Houellebecq; my personal feeling was that the media created more of a monster than what I found on the page. But I am used to reading stories with tough subjects in fiction, which doesn’t mean you necessarily agree with all of the story.

      1. I realized that I wasn’t very clear in my note. I do read in French but mostly Quebec writer or writers from other French countries but the literature from France doesn’t often appeal to me. I often don’t like the stories, their point of view or their very elitist views. There are a few French writers that I enjoy but they aren’t numerous… I do read a lot in English probably because as a North American I relate more to stories written in Canada or the US though I also enjoy British and Indian authors. I guess that I am a bit weird!!!

      2. Rereading your comment, I realize it was my wrong interpretation of ‘French’ authors that created the confusion! I tend of think of French as the language rather than the country (also with ‘English’). But I do now see what you mean. French authors from France writing on the country’s culture and themes would potentially be quite foreign for Canadian audiences. I also enjoy Indian authors and different cultural perspectives in English. I’m not sure that many current French (French) authors translate well in English — although I can think of a few I’ve enjoyed like Muriel Barbery. In the end, I think reading in any language is all good!

  2. How fascinating. Not Michel Houellebecq (though he may well be, even though I admit his photo turns me off). But fascinating that writers and journalists are considered part of the intellectual society, who are revered in France. In the U.S. the only group who seem truly revered are Hollywood stars – or social media stars – both which set my teeth on edge. I’m a writer and yet few in my country think that is a high-end profession. They feel sorry for me in some ways, because they know a writer makes little money. They also don’t understand what ‘being a writer’ means, and they don’t ask. The definitely think it means something boring. However, when I talk to children in the elementary classroom system (about my children’s book Birds of Paradise), there I’m revered as a celebrity. asked for my “autograph,” and followed as if I’m the pied piper. It feels good, for a person to be honored for the value of her words (even if the story is about two birds who are lonely and scared). 🙂 Thanks for the interesting post.

    1. The cultural comparison is interesting, isn’t it? I think the US (also Canada and many other English-speaking countries) really buys into the star system. So if an author is a famously successful best-seller, like JK Rowling for example, they are put on a pedestal along with the film and pop culture stars. Everyone else is somehow lesser. I guess there are similarities in France, but they really do take their writers and intellectuals seriously here. Which is why I am more hesitant to say I’m a writer, as it creates all kinds of expectations… 🤓 But I actually do work as a freelance corporate writer, while also writing memoir and fiction (as yet unpublished…), so I have to own it. How lovely that the schoolkids recognize you as a celeb! 😊 I say enjoy whatever recognition you get for this (often) thankless task of writing. Of course we do it because we love it, but a bit of love sure helps! Glad you enjoyed the post.

  3. From this point of view, France and Italy seem to be very similar. We, too, have a group of “Intellettuali”, whose job is, effectively, to be just that. However, they are (in my humble opinion) increasingly disconnected from the reality of the country and, additionally, way too hung up on the ideas of the 1970s, when they all were young or growing up.

    Having said that, and linking to your post on freedom of speech, I think there should be limits to it. This is very much a Latin view, I think, at least compared to what my Anglo-Saxon colleagues and friends say. To me one cannot be peddling falsity or hate speech: the UK paid a dear price, in terms of terrorism, by letting people like Abu Hamza, or Anjem Choudary, brainwash vulnerable young men; ideologies like the ones of islamism (or white supremacy) shouldn’t be allowed to spread in my humble opinion. But this doesn’t mean that one shouldn’t be critical of, say, immigration or be more right-wing than someone else… it’s the extremisms that are harmful.

    Fabrizio

    1. Hey, thanks for the thoughtful comment, Fabrizio! I agree that limits to freedom of speech is to some extent a Latin view. I’ve often heard it expressed in France and you’re right, our two countries are quite similar in many ways. To me, the problem is the line. Who should decide, on what criteria? So much of what certain elected politicians say is ‘hate’ speech. 😩 That, to me, opens a door to dangerous manipulation which is (potentially) as bad a solution as the problem itself. But I do agree: extremism of all kinds is the real danger.

      1. It’s a good question; personally, I’d be lumping Le Pen and Salvini – whose party I honestly loathe, and I’m a northener – in the hate speech category. One can say that we should be reducing immigration, deporting those who commit crimes and so on and so forth, but them two go far beyond and incite violence. My 2p!

  4. Fiction usually gives a reason for a character’s difficult views and motivation but that can also make them more insidious and seductive. I’m all for free speech but I suppose I mainly read stuff that accords with my own view, including newspapers. Not bad to read stuff that challenges your own ideas, and important to assess the argument behind the views you find abhorrent.

    1. When I read fiction I sort of ‘suspend disbelief’ in a moral way. If the writing works, I can accept world views different from my own, but only if there is a real connection on a human level. Somehow Houellebecq’s characters have always worked for me and frankly, I haven’t found his views to be that shocking — I think people jump on bandwagons and see the worst where they want to see it. Perhaps it is confirmation bias in both cases? But I do agree: we tend to seek common views in what we read or watch and it’s good to push the boundaries from time to time.

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