For Stacey and Missy
Since a French novelist, Annie Ernaux, won the 2022 Nobel Prize, while many followers of French letters thought the controversial Michel Houellebecq was more deserving, this seems like a good time to update an essay from thirty years ago called “The Last French Novels” (Romanic Review, 83, 4 ), where I analyzed Alain Robbe-Grillet’s La jalousie and Marguerite Duras’ Le ravissement de Lol V. Stein as exemplary works of an era that I felt could go no farther in the novel’s exploration of the triangle of mimetic desire. Of the two, I gave the nod to Duras.
I wasn’t implying that there would be no more French novels, even “good” French novels, merely that the postwar revolution defined by the nouveau roman had reached its apogee with these two masterpieces, and that future French novels could no longer pretend to be prolonging the attempt to renew the novel form. An effort that, as I see it, can be traced back to Flaubert’s 1869 L’éducation sentimentale, which ends with the protagonist Frédéric rehearsing with his soul-brother Deslauriers a story (histoire) whose action is anterior to—and trumps—the action of the novel, the story of their adolescent experience in a brothel where, intimidated by the prostitutes, Frédéric fled, and the penniless Deslauriers was obliged to follow. And after they go over this tale for the nth time, the novel concludes as they both exclaim: C’est là ce que nous avons eu de meilleur!—That was the best thing in our lives!
The end of the era of postwar literary creativity has been even more clearly perceptible in the realm of criticism, where the age of post-structuralism, deconstruction, Derrida, Foucault, Lacan… what American English Departments called “French Theory,” inaugurated in the US in 1966 by Girard and Richard Macksey with their Johns Hopkins colloquium, “The Languages of Criticism and the Sciences of Man,” has also ceased to be productive—as witness the scholarship it has ceased to inspire.
Houellebecq’s latest (2022) and longest (730-page) novel deserves a more thorough analysis than I can give it here. But it seems clear that precisely because, of all its author’s works, it stresses the “novelistic” quality of a highly plotted narrative, it makes no attempt to refute my claim that the bourgeois novel as a story of desire, whose history Lukács, Girard, and many others had traced, has no more space to evolve in, and that it is no longer by deconstructing but by sabotaging the novel form that Houellebecq is able to convey the work’s strangely touching message of “true love” as the final solution to the paradox of human desire.
As one who has striven to read this often off-putting writer with sympathy, I indeed found in Anéantir a unique intensity of human feeling that makes the reader want to admire it as a masterpiece, even as its apparent sincerity is paradoxically dependent on the author’s deliberate disappointment of the reader’s expectation of a coherent narrative experience.
Why did Houellebecq deliberately refrain from tying up the strands of what had started out as a complex plot that blended the 2027 campaign for the French presidency with a mysterious series of pinpoint anarcho-terrorist attacks, the first three of which are discovered to be located at three vertices of a pentagram (!), and the awaited two others situated at two other strategically critical points in Europe? Could this be Houellebecq’s definitive answer to the question he posed to the novel form in his very first novel, Extension du domaine de la lutte (1994)—translated ineptly as Whatever—where, in reaction to what he calls the “progressive obliteration (effacement) of human relations” in our era, he asserts that “The novel form is not conceived for depicting indifference, nor nothingness: one would have to invent a form (articulation) more banal, more concise, and more mournful” (48-9).
I believe that Houellebecq deliberately sabotaged this plot after creating the personal focus characteristic of what György Lukács called The Historical Novel in the family of the protagonist Paul Raison, an assistant to the all-powerful economics minister Bruno (modeled on the current minister Bruno Le Maire, apparently a personal acquaintance of the author). Raison’s father, a retired member of the secret police, falls into a coma and subsequently suffers from locked-in syndrome, a subject that distracts us from but does not at first appear to subvert the “public” plot. But on Paul’s discovery after visiting a dentist (one wonders why he had waited so long) that he is dying of an inoperable cancer of the jaw, the author abandons the book’s ostensible plotline altogether to concentrate on Paul and his wife Prudence (presumably a Beatles reference) for the last two hundred-odd pages.
Thus the title Anéantir, (to) annihilate, which had promised a tale of apocalyptic destruction presumably resulting from the sinister activities of the terrorists, must be re-thought as referring to the protagonist’s own death, the focus of most existentialist novels.
In consequence, the last part of the novel is altogether devoid of Houellebecq’s usual cynicism—one critic on Goodreads claimed that it vindicated his belief that Houellebecq had always been a romantic. Indeed, this author’s notorious cynicism and obsession with the details of physical sexuality do seem to mark him as a disillusioned believer in true love. Paul’s ever-clearer awareness of his imminent death corresponds to an ever-deepening love-relationship with his wife. Whereas at the beginning of the novel they were living separately and seemingly on the road to divorce, by the end, they find a bittersweet consolation for his final departure by fantasizing a series of Wiccan-Hindu-Buddhist incarnations in the course of which they imagine themselves remaining together. On the novel’s last page, Paul describes his bittersweet fortune:
Perhaps in truth the world was right, perhaps [the couple] have no place in a reality that they had passed through with frightened incomprehension. But they had been lucky, very lucky. For most people, the passage was solitary from start to finish. (730)
Admittedly I have not attempted to read the considerable number of reviews and essays that Anéantir has provoked. But if those on Goodreads are, if not professional critics, a reasonable sample of “good readers,” it seems to me notable that none among either the lovers or the haters of the novel has come up with my hypothesis: that the incoherence of the plot is neither a legitimate plot device, reflecting the fact that the impending death of the protagonist makes the military-political-mystical intrigue simply unimportant, nor is it, as a few readers reproachfully remarked, simply a compositional flaw, an involuntary violation of the principles of novel construction.
No, Houellebecq is too intelligent and too perverse to fall into either of these categories. In my judgment, this can only be a deliberate subversion of the novel form, enacted as a protest against what is after all the “absurd” limitation of individual life in a universe in which one can talk about samsara and reincarnation, but where the individual is insufficiently attached to a real human community to allow him to conceive his life in terms of intergenerational continuity. It is surely no accident that Paul and Prudence have no children.**
Thus in contrast to the nouveaux romanciers, Houellebecq has no pretension of positively transforming the traditional novel structure. No doubt this example of his characteristic in-your-face-ness might be considered, here as elsewhere in his oeuvre, as an element of “deconstruction.” Yet “deconstruction” does not excuse the inelegance of the procedure, in contrast with the sometimes tedious but always highly self-conscious techniques of the by means of which the nouveau romancier demonstrates the irrelevance of the traditional novel form.
How can this ostensibly naïve author, who writes only about the world of her personal experience with no apparent attempt at fictionalizing, be paired with a writer who had ended his second novel, Les particules élémentaires (1998), with the last humans giving way to a new species whose “corrected” DNA allowed them to live forever without aging? Or, to borrow a phrase from the Vietnam era, in what way can she as well as he be described as helping to destroy the novel in order to save it?
From the broadest perspective, with a technique both more and less sophisticated, she does much the same thing that he does. Houellebecq addresses the reader monotonically as “the author,” which is to say that like Balzac or Dickens, while haranguing the reader, mixing personal observations with storytelling the way your neighborhood storyteller would do, he never takes the “meta” role of the writer discussing with the reader the composition of his text. Whereas Ernaux deliberately and frequently changes registers between just telling the story, whether of her mother, her father, a love affair…, and commenting both on her writing as a process and on her personal/authorial self-consciousness.
No, this is not jarring like Houellebecq’s turning away from his high-level plot to focus on his everyman protagonist, precisely because it announces itself as transparent to the reader—as though any use of language, whether fiction or autobiography or “autofiction” like the quasi-autobiographical works by Butor and Robbe-Grillet, could be transparent. But in the end, the direct self-revelations that punctuate Ernaux’ narrative have the same effect as Houellebecq’s apparently faulty plot construction: that of subverting the novel form, making it do what it was not meant to do, as opposed to the new novel that insisted above all on its belief in this form.
Writing a novel from the point of view of the husband as an “absent” character as in La jalousie, or as the lover-observer of Lol who ends up as the object of her manipulation-observation, is in neither case breaking the pact whereby the author sets the rules for his place in the narrative discourse. Whereas writing an apparently straightforward narrative only to change the plot under the implicit force of an unexpected emotional bonding with the principal character, or less jarringly, periodically commenting on the effectiveness of one’s own narrative in its attempt to bring out the “truth” of its subject—both these formal gestures go beyond the traditional limits of narrative, and not as mere parenthetical extra-diegetic gestures like a film comedy “talking to” the audience behind the back of the plot, but as crucial elements of the works themselves.
Both Houellebecq and Ernaux add one more twist of the spiral, or the Moebius strip, of the audience’s “contract” with the author, a twist that affords the novel a capacity for self-deconstruction that cannot be reinterpreted as reflective of a proposed new ontology of human interaction which the novel would seek, using whatever tricks and meta-tricks, simply to depict.
Une femme (1987), like all of Ernaux’ novels, presents itself to the reader as an (auto)biographical document. Unlike most French novels, its title page does not contain the word roman, and we are obliged to understand it as an attempt to describe its protagonist, Ernaux’ mother, as authentically as possible. This little book, like most of Ernaux’ novels covering barely 100-odd small pages, begins with her mother’s death and burial provoking in the author a reflection on how this death affected her. Then, three weeks after the burial, she “surmounted the terror of writing on a blank page. . . as the beginning of a book, not of a letter . . . ‘my mother is dead.’” (21) And on the next page, “I am going to continue to write about my mother.” And in conclusion to this meta-meditation,
What I best hope to write is situated no doubt at the confluence of the familial and the social, of myth and history. My project is of a literary nature, because it involves seeking a truth about my mother that can only be reached through words. . . . But I hope to remain, in a certain sense, on a level beneath (au-dessous de) literature (23).
Thus the narrative, as is typical of Ernaux, announces itself within itself, and accompanies its substantive subject with reflections on its composition, not in an opaque manner for us to discover as in a nouveau roman, but as an explicit running commentary.
The unspoken element of Une femme is that it is in effect the story of what made it possible for Ernaux herself to write it. That is, the story of her mother is at the same time that of her own origin, and more specifically, of her mother’s emergence from the “mute” rural proletariat, through factory work and then the ownership of a marginal but functioning grocery store cum café, into a self-reflecting universe where for her daughter, not only reading (as her mother had already done) but writing—joining the “dominant” class—finally became possible. Which emergence also required, as we learn, the childhood death of a sister from diphtheria two years before her own birth—her parents having decided, like many French couples in their class, to have only a single child “so that he/she might be happier” (42).
Thus Annie’s birth in 1940 permits her to write about her mother and thereby, in her turn, to “bring her into the world” (43). After which she returns to her opening sentence about her mother’s death to tell us, “This is a sentence that I can now bear, and even read . . . as if it were written by someone else” (43). There follows a reflection on her attitudes toward both her writing and the elements of her past that it evokes, in her effort to “present the truth about my mother” (44).
There is no need for me to go farther in order to make the point that this kind of writing, like Houellebecq’s but in a very different manner, is incompatible with either the novel or autobiography as a genre. The movement to what we would call the meta-level is deliberately not separate from the biographical narration; the “voice” we hear is the same, and is meant to be understood as present in the strictly third-person passages, where we cannot help feeling ourselvesin the presence of the narrator as of someone not just telling a story but trying to get it right, writing in an attempt to capture an objective truth.
Perhaps the clearest statement of the meta-novelistic nature of the book comes a few pages later:
I am attempting not to consider my mother’s violence, her excesses of tenderness, her reproaches as merely personal traits of character, but to situate them also with respect to her history and her social condition. This way of writing, which seems to me to go in the direction of truth, helps me to liberate myself from the loneliness and obscurity of individual memory by the discovery of a more general meaning. Yet I feel that something in me resists this, wanting to conserve from my mother merely affective images, warmth and tears, without giving them a meaning. (52)
This tension between the objective and the personal is resolved—we might say, by the (writing of the) novel itself as therapy and transcendence—in its final paragraphs:
This is not a biography, nor of course a novel, perhaps something between literature, sociology, and history. It was necessary that my mother, born in a dominated milieu that she wanted to escape, become history, in order that I might feel less alone and artificial in the dominant world of words and ideas into which, following her desire, I have moved.
I will no longer hear her voice. It is she, and her words, her hands, her gestures, her way of laughing and walking, that united the woman that I am with the child I had been. I have lost the last link to the world into which I was born/from which I emerged (le monde dont je suis issue). (106)
Here the conflict between novelistic objectivity and personal sentiment has disappeared; each receives its own paragraph, as two necessary components of the novel which the latter’s composition alone could perform the centrifuge-like task of separating out—a task that may be said to be accomplished by all modern novels, and by Proust’s most programmatically. But precisely, Proust’s work, however personal, remains throughout a novel, whereas Ernaux’ “literature, sociology…” makes it impossible for the reader to situate her work as either fiction or (auto)biography.
This is not, as we must judge Anéantir, an external deconstruction of the novel, a violation of the reader’s normal expectation of a coherent discourse. There is nothing in Une femme that violates our expectations. But by what we must assume to be the truth of the novel’s assertions, in contrast with those of a fiction, we find ourselves engaged with a universe in which, in contrast with those of non-fiction, we had no prior objective interest.
Indeed, we cannot see either the mother or the author herself as merely a representative of a certain class of people. Ernaux’ career, now crowned with the Nobel Prize, is defined by this attempt to make her mother, as she had previously done with her father in La place (1983), neither a heroine of fiction nor a sociological case study, but a fellow soul whom the author saves from obscurity and in doing so, saves herself—through an act of love that, more smoothly than Houellebecq’s fictional refocusing, goes beyond the framework of fiction.
Thirty years after “The Last French Novels,” it is once again the woman’s project that carries the greater conviction.
**As a potential piece of evidence for this judgment, Houellebecq takes the unusual step of including at the end of the novel two pages of Remerciements. After thanking various medical experts for their help, he adds a passage (733) thanking one Astrid Nielsen, as he claims he could not do in person, for making him realize “for the first time” that, whatever happened, “I had to finish this book.”
Without speculating on exactly how this revelation was obtained, we can say that the very fact of thanking a friend for inspiring him to finish a 700-page novel helps explain my “sabotage” thesis: it implies that he had actually thought of abandoning it altogether, suggesting that the formally incomplete ending was a gesture of last resort rather than the finale of a planned scenario—yet a gesture he was willing to affirm as his own.