Thursday, September 23, 2010

Notes from the phone booth at the end of the world

I've never read any of his novels, and I wouldn't say that I agree with all of his views.

Still, Michel Houellebecq certainly interviews well. (Via A&L Daily)

On what seem to be the enormous challenges of French childhood reading:

And then there was Pif le chien, a comic book published by Editions Vaillant and sponsored by the Communist Party. I realize now when I reread it that there was a Communist bent to many of Pif’s adventures. For example, a prehistoric man would bring down the local sorcerer in single combat and explain to the tribe that they didn’t need a sorcerer and that there was no need to fear thunder. The series was very innovative and of exceptional quality. I read Baudelaire oddly early, when I was about thirteen, but Pascal was the shock of my life. I was fifteen. I was on a class trip to Germany, my first trip abroad, and strangely I had brought the Pensées of Pascal. I was terrified by this passage: “Imagine a number of men in chains, all under sentence of death, some of whom are each day butchered in the sight of the others; those remaining see their own condition in that of their fellows, and looking at each other with grief and despair await their turn. This is an image of the human condition.” I think it affected me so deeply because I was raised by my grandparents. Suddenly I realized that they were going to die and probably soon. That’s when I discovered death.

Yes....and American parents are afraid of the damage that might be caused by Heather Has Two Mommies.

Anyway...

On visiting your neighbours:

The biggest consequence of The Elementary Particles, apart from the money and not having to work, is that I have become known internationally. I’ve stopped being a tourist, for example, because my book tours have satisfied any desire I might have to travel. And as a result there are countries I have visited that you wouldn’t ordinarily go to, like Germany.

INTERVIEWER

Why do you say that?

HOUELLEBECQ

Nobody does tourism in Germany. It doesn’t exist. But they’re wrong not to. It’s not so bad.

[Ahem: as pleased as I am with this glowing appraisal, it is apparent that some people -- well...at least from the Guardian -- do do tourism in Germany, and in our little corner of it, even.]

On inspiration:

INTERVIEWER
In your preface to The Possibility of an Island, you mentioned a journalist who inspired the idea for the novel. Can you explain?
HOUELLEBECQ
It was a pretty strange moment. I was in Berlin at a café on a lake, waiting to be interviewed. It was very quiet. It was ten o’clock in the morning. There was no one around. And this German journalist arrives and, it was very curious, she wasn’t behaving normally. She didn’t have a tape recorder and she wasn’t taking notes. And she said, “I had a dream that you were in a phone booth after the end of the world and you were speaking to all of humanity but without knowing whether anyone was listening.” It was like being in a zombie film.

I'm thinking of putting him on my to-read list, not least since he's written what sounds like an intriguing book about one of my favourite authors, H.P. Lovecraft.

Any views on the matter you might wish to share?

6 comments:

KB Player said...

I'm interested that Lovecraft seems to have been a subject for serious academic interest in France before he was in the UK (dunno about the USA). I had a French friend who was doing a thesis on him. I can see why - he does do authentic horror which is really disturbing.

John Carter Wood said...

Oh yeah: those books and stories scared me when I first read them (at about 15) and when, in the last few years, I re-read them.

Ario said...

He's certainly interesting to listen to in interviews and interesting to think about.

The books themselves I found dreary, especially Atomised and Platform, mainly because of their male-adolescent focus on sex. The prose-style is kept deliberately journalistic, so language-wise there are no frills, although that in itself was fine by me. Basically, the message is a tad predictable: empty sex makes you feel... empty. But if you are curious, I found Platform the more affecting of the two, as the characters are more warmly drawn.

I didn't have the patience to finish Possibility of an Island, which seemed even more self-indulgent and lacking in imagination than late Kundera.

John Carter Wood said...

Thanks, Ario. I rather expected 'dreary': I saw the film for Atomised, which I found quite good. Though, yeah, grim. And the message was, as you say, fairly straightforward. But as a portrait of the pointlessness of decadence, and of chronic dissatisfaction, I thought not bad.

I was just wondering whether the books had any of the energy of the interview.

May give one of them a shot some time, perhaps on our next vacation.

Ario said...

I must be honest, I rated those two books highly when I first read them, disillusionment set in later on rereading and further late-night discussions (oh, I remember what it was like to be childless...).

The first two books do have something like that energy. So, yeah, definitely recommendable for your beach reading, if Stieg Larsson isn't your cup of tea.

John Carter Wood said...

Na ja, im Nachhinein ist man immer schlauer, nicht?

'Disillusionment set in later' is, by the way, as good an overall description of life as I've heard recently.