Michel Houellebecq in Profile: Background information when reading Submission

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by Michel Houellebecq

Submission by Michel Houellebecq X
Submission by Michel Houellebecq
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  • First Published:
    Oct 2015, 256 pages

    Oct 2016, 256 pages


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Book Reviewed by:
Sinéad Fitzgibbon
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Michel Houellebecq in Profile

This article relates to Submission

Print Review

Michel Houellebecq Michel Houellebecq (pronounced mish-elle wellbeck) is nothing if not an autobiographical writer. He has, in fact, become the poster child for a movement, prevalent in contemporary French literature, known as "auto-fiction" which sees authors unashamedly use fictionalized versions of their own lives in their novels. Autobiographical writing is addressed directly in Submission (fittingly through the protagonist, François). "An author is above all a human being, present in his books," he says, "and whether he writes well or very badly hardly matters as long as he gets the books written and is, indeed, present in them." François goes on to say that "to love a book is to love its author: we want to meet him again, we want to spend our days with him." Assuming we take this last remark as holding true, we could say that, conversely, to dislike a book is to dislike its author...and Houellebecq is indeed one author some find very difficult to warm to.

Famously cynical and fatalistic, traits common to his chief protagonists, Houellebecq (who admitted in an interview with The Paris Review that he is a "curmudgeonly pain in the ass") embodies the essence of "miserablism," or the tendency to adopt a consistently miserable outlook on life. In fact, Houellebecq more than embodies it, he seems to revel in it. He embraces with nihilistic abandon a state of permanent depression and existential pessimism. He has for example posited, also in The Paris Review interview, that "entering the workforce is like entering the grave" and that "if people don't have a sex life, it's not for some moral reason, it's just because they're ugly" (both theories explored in his first novel, Whatever). Loneliness, disenchantment, lack of fulfilment are common themes throughout Houellebecq's novels. His main protagonists (always male) are often afflicted with a heightened sense of their inadequacy when it comes to physical attractiveness; whereas his female characters have a tendency to end up physically hurt, if not dead.

So, from where does such bleak pessimism originate? The answer, it seems, goes all the way back to childhood.

Houellebecq was born on the French island of Réunion in the Indian Ocean in February 1958. His father, Réne Thomas, was a ski-instructor, while his mother, Lucie Ceccaldi, was a doctor and, crucially, a woman of no maternal instinct. Neither parent was interested in the boy, and by the age of six he had been shipped off to live with his maternal grandmother in northern France (whose maiden name he subsequently adopted).

The boy, it seems, never recovered from the rejection. In an interview with BBC Radio 4, Louise Wardle, a filmmaker who produced a documentary on Houellebecq (The Trouble with Michel) in 2001, says, "It was obvious he is very angry with his parents for being selfish, as he sees it, self-indulgent Westerners, he accuses them of being hippies and neglecting him." His official website states that his parents "lost all interest in his existence." The relationship was never to recover. Indeed, in Atomised, he viciously satirized his hippy parents, while his mother described him as "an evil stupid little bastard who, alas, came from my womb."

As a teenager, parental rejection was compounded by rejection of girls his own age. As his friend and fellow writer, Frédéric Beigbeder, recalls in Wardle's documentary, "The first time I met Michel, we listened to a record by the Moody Blues and he was crying, crying, crying because he explain me [sic] that when he was young, girls didn't want to dance slow in parties with him because he was too ugly. He comes from a very, very, very sad youth."

Is it too simplistic to pin all of Michel Houellebecq's idiosyncrasies on his difficult childhood? His friend Beigbeder doesn't seem to think so, and as such, maybe the final word should go to him: "Perhaps he should be dead," Beigbeder has said. "If I had had a childhood like him I would have killed myself. He is a zombie back from the dead and telling us what it is like."

Picture of Michel Houellebecq by Michael Lionstar

Filed under Books and Authors

This "beyond the book article" relates to Submission. It originally ran in October 2015 and has been updated for the October 2016 paperback edition. Go to magazine.

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