Michel Houellebecq — don’t worry, it’s pronounced Welbeck, just like Danny the soccer player — is surely the most important novelist to have been publishing not only in France but in all of Europe over the past three decades. His work has become renowned for the unnerving accuracy of its insight into the immediate future, making him seem a kind of novelistic Cassandra.
Houellebecq is also France’s most controversial literary figure, long disdained by the media there as an upstart and a vulgarian. His work has always been alarmingly explicit, famously so about fellatio. Beyond his books, Houellebecq has been taken to court for inciting racial hatred (but eventually cleared of all charges), he has been interviewed drunk and propositioned female journalists. Houellebecq has not only not cared about seeming disreputable but actively embraced it, cultivating an aesthetic of dishevelment and repeatedly saying the unsayable.
Yet what he says seems to come true.
In Platform, published in 2001, he foresaw Islamist terror attacks on holiday resorts well before the Bali bombings of 2002 and the others that have followed. On January 7, 2015, he published Submission, which imagined a Muslim party winning the 2022 French presidential election. On that day the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, with Houellebecq on its cover, was attacked. Twelve people died. Even his last and weakest novel, Serotonin in 2019, probed painfully into the discontents of rural France that found expression in the gilets jaunes movement.
Yet the real force of his work lies not in such specific acts of anticipation, but in his pitilessly clear-sighted analysis of Western society as a whole. He wrote about the brutality of life in which youth and desirability are traded on a free market in his searing second novel, Atomised, in 1998, which featured two half-brothers struggling in a loveless world. It won him enormous sales and international fame. And although agnostic, he has always maintained that a society without faith cannot survive — and that in such a world aging and death strip everything from the individual, with love alone standing against annihilation.
It is the combination of this withering clarity about the overall conditions of modern life and his specific engagement with present-day developments and events that gives his fiction such power and purchase. There is nothing equivalent.
Houellebecq’s work has become renowned for the unnerving accuracy of its insight into the immediate future, making him seem a kind of novelistic Cassandra.
Naturally Houellebecq’s pronouncements are keenly awaited in France, and anéantir (“annihilate”, in the lower case, like a dictionary definition), his eighth novel, has been published there in a print run of 300,000, in the form of a luxurious hardback, like a pre-emptive collector’s edition. It is precisely timed to be read before the forthcoming presidential elections, as it is set over the period of the next ones in 2027. Such was the excitement that the text was pirated digitally before release.
Yet its critical reception in France so far has been muted, dismissed as being all about old white men again. Perhaps the years of controversy are taking their toll: Houellebecq, now 65, is still ostracized, despite his extraordinary track record of insight and prophecy, and despite official recognition. He won the Goncourt prize, at last, in 2010 and in 2019 Emmanuel Macron inducted him into the Légion d’Honneur.
Houellebecq has not been so admiring of Macron. “He’s bizarre, he’s a bit of mutant,” he says. In anéantir he tactfully assumes the president, never actually named but clearly based on Macron, has been re-elected this year, but five years later, as per the French constitution, faces having to step down after two terms. His Putin-style plan is to install a puppet president for the interim, so that he can make a comeback and reform the constitution to make himself even more powerful. The president’s only real conviction is that he was made to be president, it is said.
Running alongside this thread there’s a wacky, almost Dan Brown-worthy plot about occult terrorists. Initially the attacks are virtual simulations, mysteriously released on the Internet, including the ultra-realistic guillotining of the finance minister, Bruno Juge, a character modeled on a friend of Houellebecq’s, the real finance minister, Bruno Le Maire.
Then these attacks become real. A ship is sunk, a donor sperm company incinerated. The secret services are baffled. It appears to be the work of unidentified deep ecologists, perhaps pagans, drawing a giant pentagram across Europe …
Houellebecq, now 65, is still ostracized, despite his extraordinary track record of insight and prophecy.
Yet the real story here, one that gradually takes over the whole novel, is that of Bruno Juge’s ministerial confidant, Paul Raison, a man nearing 50, another Houellebecqian alter ego.
Paul and his wife, Prudence, another high-ranking civil servant, live together in a fine apartment in the ministerial district of Bercy — but their marriage has died. They have no children, have not had sex in ten years and scarcely meet any more.
And then both face mortality. Paul’s father, a retired secret service officer himself — perhaps the man to track down the terrorists? — has a severe stroke, leaving him speechless and paraplegic. His care, in a specialist unit and then at home, lovingly attended by his partner and family, is described in detail — such elder care, and rejection of euthanasia, being one of Houellebecq’s burning causes.
Meanwhile Prudence’s mother is killed in a car crash, her father left speechlessly depressed and alone. The couple slowly, with infinite gentleness, come together again to face these realities.
Yet no sooner have they recovered their love than Paul is diagnosed with oral cancer. The final section of more than 100 pages is profoundly moving: a kind of contemporary equivalent to Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich. Houellebecq has always set love against death as starkly as possible, but never more tellingly than here (and, yes, there is fellatio in extremis, including one session said to take three hours).
Anéantir itself is long too — it relates 14 of Paul’s dreams at length — and does seem to have changed direction in the course of writing. It turns away from politics and prophecy to a simple human story. But it is irresistible, a book only he could have written, one that deserves to be available in English as soon as possible.
Surprisingly Houellebecq’s last word in an endnote is that he has decided he should stop now as a novelist. Let’s hope not.
Anéantir is currently available in its original French, with an English translation to follow
David Sexton is a freelance film and book critic