When Michel Houellebecq’s latest novel was published in France it drew mixed reviews. The temptation to judge a book by its cover proved too much for some, who foresaw in Anéantir (a title probably best translated as “destroy” or “annihilate” – we await the English edition) yet another tale of pessimism, depression and failure, punctuated by graphic descriptions of sex and other bodily functions. They were not entirely disappointed.
The book has another feature that attracted disfavour: at 730 pages it is long, thanks to the author’s determination to explore the minds of his characters. It is also hard to say what it is about (though I shall attempt to do so). Having just buried myself in it as a holiday read, it seems to me that a man who can claim to be one of the world’s greatest novelists has done no harm to his reputation with his eighth novel.
In each of his last two books – Soumission (Submission) in 2015 and Sérotonine (Serotonin) in 2019, Houellebecq set out his profound disappointment with France and the French. Soumission, which by a tragic coincidence was published on the day of the Charlie Hebdo massacre, dealt with the country’s refusal to defend its culture and values against those of radical Islam; Sérotonine focused on its decadence and what the author considered its shift towards the acceptance of a failing morality.
Anéantir, set at the time of France’s 2027 presidential election, continues these themes: its politicians are ciphers manipulated by spin doctors (a notion that resonates beyond France); bourgeois family life is inherently dysfunctional; as technology comes to control the world, the democratic state is helpless in the face of cyber-terrorists; bonds of trust between individuals are sometimes hopelessly fragile. It would take a supreme idealist to argue that all this belongs in the realms of fiction.
The principal character, Paul Raison, is a senior functionnaire in France’s economic ministry. His minister, Bruno Juge (probably based on the French politician Bruno Le Maire, a friend of the author), is touted as a potential president, but the country’s unnamed leader (presumably Macron) decides to anoint another more pliable politician on condition that he runs on a joint ticket with Juge, and remains a figurehead, while Juge does the serious work.
All this happens against a background of personal and public disquiet. Both Raison and Juge have dysfunctional marriages; and Raison’s family life is in tatters. His mother, a sculptor, has died before the book starts, falling from a great height in a church whose gargoyles she was restoring. His father, who has a new partner, is felled by a stroke and left in a vegetative state.
His sister, Cécile, is a devout, almost fanatical, Roman Catholic forced to use her gifts as a cook to support herself and her husband, a shiftless, unemployed notary; to make matters worse the well-heeled people who employ her are so rude and self-obsessed that they barely notice her existence. His younger brother, Aurélien, is an art conservator, married to a revolting journalist who exhibits all the empathy of a brick – she ultimately betrays him in the most appalling fashion. When Raison seeks the services of a prostitute she turns out to be Cécile’s daughter. They make a pact not to reveal what has happened, one of the novel’s rare instances of trust being maintained.
Themes from earlier works – notably the author’s dislike of Islamism and his apparent belief that the free market undermines normal human relationships – are less obvious here. Although Houellebecq’s vision of France in the near future is far from uplifting, this novel does have one positive theme: Paul Raison and his wife, Prudence – who begin the novel living separately in the same Paris flat – slowly, and entirely believably, become close again, the strength of their revived union forged mainly by the litany of misfortunes that befall their family, and for which Cécile’s orthodox religious devotions offer no protection.
In many ways this is the author’s most credible novel. Read it in French if you can, because he writes superbly, or await the translation. In England, the white, educated, middle-aged male author is increasingly disregarded; yet we have no one, male or female, to match Houellebecq.