The first step for the poet is to return to the origin; that is, to suffering. The modalities of suffering are important; they are not essential. All suffering is good. All suffering is useful. All suffering bears fruit. All suffering is a universe. – Michel Houellebecq, from his manifesto Staying Alive
The most important thing to note about Michel Houellebecq (pronounced Welbeck) is that he’s French. His writing has been lionised and lampooned in equal measure. By ‘writing’ I really mean his prose because most of his poetry has only ever appeared in French before now. His work has been described as racist, sexist, homophobic, reactionary, nihilistic, pornographic and repulsive, as well as moving, funny and prophetic. The strapline on the English cover of Whatever says, “as if desperately trying to find old bottles for new wine, ‘L’Étranger for the info age.’” It’s a glib and slightly misleading sound bite, something that the author himself acknowledges, nevertheless Houellebecq’s prose style is understated, deadpan and often explanatory, reminiscent of Sartre or Camus. Whatever is the only novel by him that I own. I bought it because I’d begun to hear things about him – contradictory things – and I wanted to make my own mind up. I never finished the book, in fact I quit after only a couple of chapters which probably says more about my frame of mind at the time I attempted to read it than the book itself.
“Life is painful and disappointing,” he wrote in the opening sentence of his first published work, H.P.Lovecraft: Against the World, Against Life. It’s the kind of slogan-like statement that we associate with Sartrean philosophy – “There is no moral law,” “Man is a useless passion,” “Life is meaningless,” “The world is a nauseating mess,” “Hell is other people”. His writing also bears comparison to Baudelaire – his real literary idol – and de Sade another pair of writers who tend to divide people’s opinions. Like I said, the most important thing to note about Michel Houellebecq is that he’s French and by that I mean he comes from a literary tradition and has a mindset which is unique to writers of that nation. Being French means more than writing in French.
Although he is now infamous as a novelist Houellebecq first came to people’s attention, at least to the French people’s attention, as a poet. In 1992, his first collection of poems, La poursuite du bonheur (The Pursuit of Happiness) won the Prix Tristan Tzara. A novel, Extension du domaine de la lutte followed in 1994. In 1998 an English translation was published under the title Whatever and that’s when all the fuss began. In between a second book of poetry appeared, Le Sens du combat, poems, which won the Prix de Flore, up until then only attributed to fiction. This has now been translated as The Art of Struggle and published by Herla Publishing, an imprint of Alma Books who were kind enough to send me a review copy.
Translation is a bitch. A prime example is Camus’ novel L’Étranger which you’ll find under the title The Outsider in the UK and The Stranger in the US. Neither is accurate; Google Translate translates étrange as ‘strange’ and étranger as ‘abroad’ for example. A literal translation of Houellebecq’s first novel’s title could be ‘Extending the field of combating’ which I admit is awkward-sounding. Rather than ‘field of combating’ I’d probably have gone with ‘theatre of war’. A literal translation of Houellebecq’s second book of poetry could be ‘The Meaning of Combat’ but there’s clearly a reason why the translators have chosen to take the verb sentir which means ‘to be aware of’ or ‘to be conscious of’ and to render it as ‘art’ in the book’s title even though they translate it in two different ways within the book itself. Letters did go back and forth between them and the author and so there’s no doubt that he had a lot to say about the choice of words. He insists on doing interviews in French but since this often proves impractical he usually acquiesces and it seems his English is more than adequate.
His next book, another novel, was called Les Particules élémentaires (translated as Atomised by Frank Wynne, 2000; published in the US as The Elementary Particles). It may not have a synonym of the word ‘struggle’ in its title but in his review of the book Ivar Hagendoorn says: “Through its polarized characters it draws a radical portrait of the struggle with life at the turn of the 20st century.” I could go on through the rest of his books but I think I’ve made my point: Houellebecq writes about life in the modern world and life in the modern world is a struggle.
Reading through reviews of his novels I think I’ve noticed where the split comes between those who love him and those who loathe him: people think the points he has to make are important – he says things that need to be said – but many people object to how he says them; they don’t like his storytelling. So you can imagine that this quote by him jumped out at me:
The struggle between poetry and prose is a constant in my life. If you obey the poetic impulse, you risk becoming unreadable. If you disobey, you’re ready for a career as an honest ‘storyteller.’
In an issue of Salt Magazine the translators say this:
In one of his letters to us, Houellebecq says he feels The Way of the Struggle* is not just his best book of poetry, but his best book altogether. This might seem strange from someone whose fame is principally as a novelist. But reading his works together, it is clear his poems do not simply precede his novels but are instrumental in producing them.
Houellebecq’s poetry is as much an exploration of modernity at the end of the millennium as an exploration of the poetic forms of French nineteenth-century Romantic poetry. Houellebecq has been called the “Baudelaire of the supermarkets”, but his poetic voice is nevertheless instantly recognisable as his own. It is a voice for the new kinds of suffering brought upon man in the landscape of globalised cities, a landscape of increasingly accelerated and isolated relationships between human beings.
* Interesting. It looks as though calling the collection The Art of Struggle wasn’t always the plan.
Time and time again I kept coming across the word ‘cardboard’ in articles and reviews of Houellebecq’s books: e.g. “The Possibility of an Island is probably the worst of the novels, a long and caustic monologue against a cardboard backdrop,” (Point Magazine) or “This is supposed to be a novel of ideas, and the cardboard characters … are there so that the author can give shape to his thoughts” (San Francisco Chronicle). Personally I’m not averse to characters being a little two-dimensional (Camus’ Meursault does fine) but that’s where poetry wins hand and fist over prose because we can pretty much dispense with them.
Although his poetry is not as contentious as his prose opinions are still divided. Perry Anderson, in the London Review of Books, referred to it as “doggerel” whereas Iggy Pop is on record as saying:
I read some of Houellebecq's poetry and thought "this motherfucker can write." I recognised some of my own traits in the book, and then discovered some more.
There will be those who say that the opinion of a reviewer for an esteemed literary journal holds more water than that of a haggard old punk rocker but I’m not one of them. Both opinions are valid. There’s no accounting for taste.
For the most part the poems in The Art of Struggle are anonymous. Yes, they often have a first person narrator but it would be a mistake to assume that he’s always Houellebecq even though many of them share his traits. Take the opening stanza to ‘Mid-Afternoon’:
Gestures half-form, then end up in suffering
After walking a bit you’d rather go home
To sprawl in depression and lie on your bed,
Your body of sorrow’s heavy with presence.
Houellebecq’s depressive nature is famous. After a period of unemployment and depression, which led to several stays in psychiatric units, Houellebecq found a job working tech support at the French National Assembly. This formed the basis of his first novel in which he describes the crushingly boring lives of two computer programmers. The novel attracted a cult following and inspired a group of fans to start Perpendiculaire, a magazine based on a movement they called “depressionism”. Many of the characters he has created since have shown signs of depression.
Is depression depressing? Who would want to read anything written by someone going though depression? Like most ailments or afflictions depression is actually quite interesting from the outside. It’s not much fun on the inside – I speak from bitter experience – but that doesn’t mean you can’t produce insightful and often very funny work when depressed; again I speak from experience. The translators say of him:
During his appearances on French television at the time of the release in the Nineties of his first two novels, Houellebecq gave a fascinating depiction of someone who had not so much overcome as mastered the ills of his own depression, to the extent that depression had itself become an art.
His struggles with loneliness and depression are only the springboard from which he rises. What he sees from there is “a free-market society, where human beings themselves have been integrated within a system of exchange” as the opening poem in the collection puts it:
Dawn rises, grows, settles on the city
We’ve come through the night and not been set free
I hear the buses and the quiet hum
Of social exchange. I’m overcome with presence.
Today will happen. Invisible surfaces
Separate our suffering selves in the air
Then form and harden at a terrible pace;
But the body, still our pact with the body.
We’ve come through strain and desire
Childhood and dreams still pass us by
Not much there in a lifetime of smiling
We’re prisoners in our own clear selves.
The poem is untitled as are the majority in the book.
Poetry is not the same the world over. In English we think we can get away with calling a three-line poem with a 5-7-5 syllable count a haiku but it’s not a haiku; there’s a lot more involved. In their foreword the translators spend quite a bit of time talking about how surprisingly traditional Houellebecq’s poetry is.
In the French language the metre of a line of poetry or a whole poem is created on the number of syllables in the line, while English verse is organised according to the number of stressed and unstressed syllables in the line. Stress is produced in the poetry of both languages, and rhythm created in the interplay of the stressed and unstressed. But rhythm is not produced in the same way, nor heard in the same way.
Metre is at the heart of the verse poems of Michel Houellebecq’s book.
We have adopted meters which to us seemed flexible enough to convey the sound of reading each one of Houellebecq’s verse poems aloud, or silently; or the effects of hearing the poem reverberate. Sometimes a four-stressed line seemed right in response [to] the twelve-syllable French alexandrine … [b]ut sometimes a three-stress line seemed right.
That he has an affinity with the traditional he makes clear in his manifesto:
Believe in structure. Believe in the ancient metrics, equally. Versification is a powerful tool for the liberation of the inner life. Do not feel obliged to invent a new form. New forms are rare. One per century is already a brisk pace.
There is no explicit narrative or plot in The Art of Struggle but the setting is clear: modern life in a modern city. No pretty nature poems here:
A few months later you lose your benefits
Autumn comes back slowly like gangrene;
Money is the only thought, the only law,
You are really alone, and it lingers and insists.
(from ‘The Dole’)
What’s interesting here is that the translators have chosen to use a slang expression rather than simply translate chômage as ‘unemployment’. I’m no expert but I would’ve thought that the more colloquial chômedu would have been used if he meant ‘dole’ as opposed to ‘unemployment’. Am I being petty? The word ‘dole’ suggests a certain class to me. If you asked any of the bankers who got laid off a while back they’d probably say they were simply ‘out of work’ or ‘unemployed’ not ‘on the dole’; common people say that. This is very much a British translation. Although ‘dole’ is an expression that is known in America they would be more likely to talk about ‘welfare’ and the same goes for some of these other translations:
Tesco has stores in the USA but under the name Fresh & Easy and they simply don’t have the standing that Tesco has in the UK. Fresh & Easy operates more than 160 stores in the United States. There are almost 2,500 Tesco stores in the UK.
There are a number of prose poems in the collection. I found these more accessible on the whole than the verse poems. Like this one:
In the Limpid Air
Some say, look at what’s happening backstage. How lovely, all that machinery working so smoothly! All these inhibitions and fantasies and desires, all reflected on their own history. The technology of sex appeal. How lovely!
Alas, I’m passionate and always have been about the moments in life when things stop working; when things globally fall apart, like an omen of things to come, not just in the present, but like glimpses of eternity suppressed by the system. The survival instinct on its way out.
I know it’s hard to base a code of conduct on such extraordinary suppositions. But that’s exactly what we’re here for, difficult things. Right now we’re suspended in life like on the Californian mesas, those platforms spiralling high over nothing. The nearest neighbour is a few hundred metres away but still in sight in the limpid air (and the impossibility of reunification is written on everyone’s face). Right now we’re in life like apes at the opera grunting and jumping in harmony. Up above, a melody floats by.
And, for comparison, here’s another translation:
In the Limpid Air
Some say: look at what’s happening behind the scenes. How lovely, all this machinery working! All these inhibitions, these phantasms, these desires reflected upon their own history. All this technology of the seductive. How lovely!
Alas, I have always loved, with great passion, these moments where nothing works any more. These states of disarticulation of the global system, which presage a fate rather than a moment, which suggest an eternity elsewhere denied. The genius of the species passes on. It is difficult to found an ethic of life on such exceptional presuppositions, I know. But we are here, precisely for difficult cases. We are now living as if on mesas in California, dizzying platforms separated by the void; the nearest neighbour is a hundred meters away, but remains visible anyway, in the limpid air (and you can read the impossibility of any reunification on every face). Now we are living like monkeys at the opera, mumbling and moving about in unison. Up there somewhere, a melody passes by.
In his review of the Yale Anthology, John Palattella cited this as an example as said that this “shows that Houellebecq, besides being France's most caustic and capricious contemporary novelist, can also write mediocre prose poems.” Question: is it a mediocre poem or a mediocre translation? It’s a rhetorical question. Let’s put it this way, there was a reason Beckett did most of his own translating.
If you knew the GAN Tower
Then you’d know my life
(from untitled poem on p.47)
There’s even a photo of La Tour First (First Tower) as it’s called these days at the start of the book. It’s in an area of Paris known as La Défense which Houellebecq would know well because he worked there as a computer programmer before making his living as a writer. It crops up in two other poems:
I came across an old prole
Looking for the son he’d lost
In GAN Tower, the graveyard
Of disheartened revolutionaries.
(from untitled poem on p.73)
Slo-mo, like an organ,
A tar-blackened heart;
I can see the GAN Tower
And my life in the balance.
(from untitled poem on p.81)
I worry when there are too many allusions to things like this because it makes the poetry less accessible. The GAN Tower is clearly more than just a building to the author; it symbolises a whole period in his life. Thankfully there are not too many references like this and for the most part the poems are about nameless, faceless, city dwellers – yous, wes and Is. With the singular exception of the poem on page 93 in which “Annabelle watched her youth slipping faintly through the curtains” all the other poems are about nameless workers, consumers, neighbours, holiday-makers, humans, men, women, foetuses even, the unemployed, brothers, sisters, victims, the dead:
Open-mouthed like carps we exhale the belches of the dead. To hide the smell of death coming out of our throats, coming undefeated from our throats, we use words.
(from untitled poem on p.29)
The blurb on the back of the book says in part:
The Art of Struggle … investigates issues of alienation, individualism and disillusionment
and that about hits the nail on the head. The book is divided into four sections but I had a hard time pinpointing why he’d chosen to do this. The first section focuses on relationships (being in and looking for), the second has a group of poems that deal with work and holidaying (so, day-to-day life), the third talks a bit about the environment and the last contains many poems that mention light in various contexts (the search for enlightenment?) but these are loose descriptions at best and you may make other connections. Houellebecq touches on many issues: politics, the environment, economics, religion, the future and the day-to-day humdrum of existence. Sex is a part of life; it gets a mention but there’s nothing gratuitous. On the whole the collection is quite tame. I didn’t find that a disappointment, more of a relief actually.
My main quibble with the book is with the translation. As I’ve already said the translators include a long foreword where they explain their approach which ends up being less transliteration and more interpretation. This is why I was pleased that they have included all the poems in the original French so we have the opportunity to compare them. They have made choices and I’m sure they would be the first to admit that there have been causalities along the way, acceptable losses. Here’s one:
Et les petites morts, petits autodafés
is translated as
With little faints and little tortures
La petite mort is French for "the little death" and is a metaphor for orgasm. I wonder why they didn’t leave it in the French like the poem on page 115 where they render the line:
La joie, un moment, a eu lieu
Joy, a moment, took place
Once there was joie de vivre
My advice would be to read the original poems along with the translations; they will reveal subtleties that the translators have been unable to carry over into English. It’s clear though that a lot has been lost in translation, rhymes especially, for example the poem on page 78:
Chose entre les choses,
Chose plus fragile que les choses
Très pauvre chose
Qui attend toujours l’amour
L’amour, ou la metamorphose.
ends up as
We’re a thing among things,
A thing more fragile than things
A very poor thing
Always waiting for love
For love, or a metamorphosis.
The translators say:
This is a journey in poetry, and in our translation of this journey meaning leads sound, even though meaning is made in sound…
If you have not read any of Houellebecq’s prose then this might be a good introduction to the writer. If you have read his prose then you probably have already made your mind up: he certainly seems to be that kind of writer. But if poetry about the angst of modern life sounds like your cup of tea then I’d give this a go. And it actually ends on a surprising spiritual upbeat:
Free and conditioned by our ancient sufferings
We walked across the plain
The frozen clods echoed under our feet;
Before the war, friend, in this soil grew wheat.
Like a cross stuck in dry ground
I held on, brother
Like an iron cross, with my arms spread wide.
Today, I came back to the house of the Father.
(from ‘The Way of the Struggle’)
The bottom line is that I enjoyed this collection more than I expected. I didn’t feel that I was reading a kindred spirit, though, despite the fact we have a few things in common. None of the individual poems will be making it onto my personal top ten but since there are only about half a dozen poems on that list anyway that says more about me than the poems. This works well as a collection: these poems feel as if they belong together and they feed off each other.
You can read three more poems on the Salt Magazine site here both in French and in translation.
Houellebecq was born in 1958 in Réunion, a French colony off the coast of east Africa, parents divorced, a half sister somewhere along the way whom he doesn't see. His mother left when he was 12, to lead the "hippy life", and he hasn't seen her since. Hasn't seen his father in five years. Brought up by his grandmother, good at school, good at home. An obedient child then? "Yes." Worked as a computer expert for the National Assembly. Married, had one son, whom he doesn't see "very often", but who is now .
The release of his … novel, Platform, was accompanied by a series of lawsuits filed by four Muslim groups after the author referred to Islam as the “dumbest religion” in an interview. The charge was “inciting racial hatred,” which Houellebecq vehemently denied, claiming, “I have never displayed the least contempt for Muslims. However, I have as much contempt as ever for Islam.”
France’s national Arabic newspaper published a photograph of a drunken, dishevelled Houellebecq with the headline “This Man Hates You.” No fatwas were issued this time around, but Salman Rushdie did come to Houellebecq’s defence, writing in The Guardian:
“Platform is a good novel and Houellebecq is a fine writer who writes for serious reasons and neither he nor his book deserves to be tarred and feathered.”
[H]e was eventually cleared of the charges.
His new novel, La Carte et le territoire (The Map and the Territory) was released in September 2010 by Flammarion. Slate magazine accused him of plagiarising some passages of this book from French Wikipedia. Houellebecq denied that this was plagiarism, stating that "taking passages word for word was not stealing so long as the motives were to recycle them for artistic purposes"
In person he is serious, mournful, almost naive, which sits ill with the force and flash of the prose he writes. When last seen, Houellebecq was living on the remote Beara Peninsula on the west coast of Ireland, with his second wife and an ancient collie that came with the house. [It appears he may well have just moved to Spain, however.] … Occasionally, if some enterprising editor sends out a pretty reporter, he makes a gloomy pass. This is no more than his acolytes expect, since at least a third of a Houellebecq book consists of graphic descriptions of sexual conquest. And yet both a documentary in 2001 and a collection of essays and jottings that appeared in 2003 portray him as happily married, indifferent to praise and unambitious of fame. He is, tout court, a bit of a mystery.
David Jack, ‘Michel Houellebecq: A Lyric Poet in the Era of Late Capitalism’, Colloquy, issue 19, June 2010
 Helen Stevenson, ‘The Books Interview: Michel Houellebecq – Having some fun with dysfunction’, The Independent, 2nd January 1999
 Michel Houllebecq, H.P.Lovecraft – Against the world, against life. A translation by Robin Mackay can be found online here. He renders Houllebecq’s opening sentence as: “Life is disappointing and full of sorrow.”
 ‘Michel Houllebecq: Three Poems, translated by Timothy Mathews and Delphine Grass’, Salt Magazine, Issue 2
 ‘The Possibility of an Island (Michel Houellebecq)’, Llewtrah's Soapbox, 19th May 2008