The novelist Michel Houellebecq has repeatedly claimed that he was at his happiest in life in his first literary incarnation as a little-known troubadour poet, appearing at literary festivals and winning the attention of a small circle of enthusiasts. In a 2005 interview with the magazine Les Inrockuptibles he said that he views his poetry as his most accomplished work to date. “Compared to a poet, no novelist has or can ever have a style,” Houellebecq wrote in his exchange of letters with the philosopher Bernard Henri-Levy published under the title Public Enemies in 2008 – he can only work with “certain harmonies”.
If Houellebecq’s novels can be said to have a “style”, then the closest approximation might be to Balzac’s demotic anti-style (he himself cites Balzac as a key influence), in which a weird commingling of folk tales, melodrama and proto-Gothic sensibility is married to a keen social realism to build up a rich picture of the whole sweep of 19th century experience.
Houellebecq’s mostly blunt, affectless prose veers between abstruse sociological speculation, pornographic episodes, and compelling reflections on both high and low culture. Moments of lyricism are fleeting.
Houellebecq’s plots are schematically identical (depressed middle-aged man slowly withdraws from the world around him until he finds himself without friends, family or loved ones THE END). In his latest novel, a depressed male protagonist, Florent-Claude Labrouste (“I hate my first name,” he admits) leaves his girlfriend and his job in Paris and goes to stay in Normandy with an old friend from university, now a farmer. He finds that he has gone to seed, his business model shattered by cheap imports and new costs imposed by diktat from Brussels. The farmers launch a series of protests which end in complete failure. Labrouste then progressively withdraws from social life until he finds himself utterly alone, without friends, family… okay you get the picture.
Houellebecq’s philosophical outlook is a curious synthesis of left, right, Enlightenment and anti-Enlightenment ideas – at times, it’s boilerplate Marxism (he wrote in his debut novel Extension du domaine de la lutte that, “economic liberalism is an extension of the domain of the struggle, its extension to all ages and all classes of society”). He laments the atomisation of French society and the spread of social nihilism in terms familiar to the academic affection for declinist thinking – think how many books have been published in recent years in France with titles like Illusions gauloises or Le suicide français. He is sharply critical of the legacy of the soixante-huitards – a set of viewpoints he shares with New Right thinkers like Alain Finkielkraut.
Serotonin was marketed to the Anglophone world as Houellebecq’s Gilets Jaunes novel. It isn’t really anything of the sort (although I understand the temptation to further popularise the notion that Houellebecq is gifted with prophetic powers – his 2001 novel Plateforme culminates with a massive terror attack on a Thai beach remarkably similar to the Bali bombings). The imagery Houellebecq employs to illustrate the farmers’ protests – wasted produce piled up in village squares, sheep let loose on town halls, and tractors wheeled onto motorways to block traffic – will be familiar to anyone who has followed French politics over the past thirty years.