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The Disappearance of Michel Houellebecq: French chin-stroking at its very best

23 September 2014

2:59 PM

23 September 2014

2:59 PM

Just when you thought Bernard-Henri Lévy had taken a chin-stroking national stereotype as far as it could possibly go, you open Le Monde‘s business pages and see this.

Bernard Maris, one of France’s most respected financial correspondents, has written a 160-page book entitled Houellebecq Économiste. Maris’s book sets out its stall as an economic reading of the writer’s oeuvre, promising amongst other delights, a Malthusian interpretation of his 2005 novel The Possibility of an Island and an analysis of the division of labour in The Map and the Territory. Imagine Robert Peston writing a Hobbesian study of Irvine Welsh and you’re halfway there.

I like Houellebecq’s novels. He’s either the Start-rite Céline or Rod Liddle gone feral, depending on where you’re coming from, but he’s very readable and never less than entertaining. All the same, you can’t help but feel that Maris’s book jumps the pseudy shark just a little.

In any case, a translation is unlikely to appear here. It would be laughed out of existence before it got anywhere near an acquisitions meeting. Several years ago, I remember a British lefty rag running a series of articles by public intellectuals, complaining that – wait for it – public intellectuals weren’t taken seriously in this country. They were right, too.

Now I don’t know about you, but I’ve always believed this is for the good. Just because we shout down cultural soothsayers doesn’t make us anti-intellectual. Suspend your scepticism and what do you get? Alain de Botton. That’s what.

Oddly, I think Houellebecq might agree. Guillaume Nicloux’s film The Disappearance of Michel Houellebecq stars its subject as – you guessed it – himself. He’s a bedraggled and lonely drunk, smoking throughout, looking miserable, holding forth on subjects from Le Corbusier to Mozart to how Sweden is ‘the most fascist country in Europe’.

For reasons that are never entirely explained, Houellebecq is abducted by a bunch of provincial hard-men and taken to a safe house in the countryside. Not a lot happens: they have a lot of vaguely farcical conversations, Houellebecq whines about not being allowed a cigarette lighter and one of his kidnappers takes exception to his book on H.P. Lovecraft. But it’s all cheerfully amoral and actually rather charming.

Houellebecq’s casually offensive portrayal of himself makes a mockery of those who venerate him – the most excrutiating scene comes when an earnest fan collars him to discuss literary theory. You can imagine how it plays out. It’s like an episode of Alan Partridge without the gags, or an instalment of Michael Winterbottom’s Steve Coogan vehicle The Trip that was actually worth watching. Reverential this ain’t – and for the most part, it’s very, very funny.

Could you honestly say that about any other film about contemporary literature? And more to the point, can you imagine, say, Richard Dawkins committing to this kind of star vehicle? Or what about Will Self? Or – oh god, one can only pray – de Bottom himself? No. But I’d pay to see it.

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