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Half an hour late, the sound of panting comes from the stairs. More time passes. Getting up to the first floor of Paris’s snooty Monsieur Bleu restaurant in the Palais de Tokyo museum of contemporary art seems to be a challenge. Finally Michel Houellebecq, France’s best-selling novelist — and, as he will explain, the best living novelist on earth — makes it into the room. Now that he no longer receives security protection against Islamist terrorists, he is alone. Nearing the table, he exudes a whiff of alcohol.
In most of his publicity portraits, Houellebecq looks revolting. But in the flesh he is rather elegant, even handsome. (With most writers and their publicity photos, it’s precisely the other way around.) He apologises for being late, orders a mid-afternoon bottle of white wine, and lights a cigarette as if France had not banned smoking in restaurants in 2008. Luckily, we are alone in the room. He holds his cigarette delicately between forefinger and middle finger, like a genteel lady from a bygone age.
Most novelists aren’t very visual people. That’s why they developed an ear for words. But Houellebecq is a gifted photographer. An exhibition consisting mostly of his photographs, called Rester vivant (“To Stay Alive”, also the title of his debut collection in 1991), opens in the Palais de Tokyo on Thursday. His pictures chart the same great theme as his novels: the collapse of western civilisation. And nobody incarnates that collapsing civilisation better than Houellebecq himself.
He was born in the French island of Réunion in the Indian Ocean in 1956 (or, perhaps, 1958, he thinks). Abandoned soon afterwards by his hippie mother, he was raised mostly in French exurbs, and has ended up incapable of believing in anything. Read against this background, his philosophical novels are peculiarly autobiographical. His standard main character is a godless Frenchman bereft of family and other traditional structures, living in an ugly modern world in which everything — especially sex — has been reduced to a consumerist free market.
I put it to him that he is the atomised modern man he always rails against.
“Yes, yes,” he agrees. “I’m railing against myself. I deplore what I am.”
The photographs in the exhibition cover recognisably Houellebecquian subjects: mass tourism, shopping malls, ugly bits of France, and (almost the only pictures featuring humans) erotic photographs of women.
We leaf through a printout of his photos, and end up studying a half-naked portrait of his ex-girlfriend Esther. He admits she was “a bit the model” for the character Esther in his novel The Possibility of an Island (2005). His photographs feed his writing, he explains. “I always go to a place to take pictures before writing scenes.”
But don’t these erotic pictures support feminist accusations that he treats women as sex objects?
“That one,” he points at Esther, “she is alluring but she isn’t only alluring. That’s not a sex object, it’s an object of love.” And think of the female characters in his novels, he continues. Whereas his standard main male character is lost and weak, “My variety is my female characters. The women are a more diverse world, more distinct personalities.” He speaks softly, slowly, almost as if to himself.
Is he saying he views women as sex objects but also as more than that? “Yes. But I don’t want to reconcile myself with the feminists. Their criticisms are completely idiotic because I’m not misogynist at all. But ‘Islamophobe’, that isn’t wrong.”
He has been called “Islamophobe” at least since the publication of his novel Platform in 2001. The book, which ends with an Islamist assault on a decadent Thai tourist resort, prompted death threats. On September 10 2001 his publisher Flammarion apologised for any offence caused. “You’re saved,” the writer Michel Déon told him the next day as they watched the planes hit the World Trade Center. Submission, Houellebecq’s most recent novel, imagines France electing an Islamist president. The day the book appeared, January 7 2015, terrorists shot up the offices of the Charlie Hebdo newspaper in Paris. Houellebecq says, “Enormous numbers of Europeans are now afraid of Islam — and they aren’t wrong to be afraid. Enormous numbers of Arabs are also afraid of Islam, because they were used to a liveable Islam.” He speaks without obvious anger, or indeed any energy at all.
We pour ourselves more wine.
If he despairs of France, as Submission suggests, why stay here? “Because I’m too old to move. It’s too tiring. I ask myself why I returned to France [in 2012, after living in Ireland], and the first idea that came to me was that it was to write Submission. When I left France [in 1999], nobody was talking about Islam. When I returned, people were talking only about that. So, obviously, it struck me.
“Now that the book’s written, I could leave again. This is a bizarre country. Liberty of expression is very restricted. And yet there are always things that emerge.”
What kind of things? “Let’s say Éric Zemmour.” Zemmour is a best-selling far-right polemicist who laments immigration and French decline. Does Houellebecq admire him? “That’s not really my sentiment, but let’s say he has succeeded in existing despite frenetic opposition to him.”
By this point Houellebecq is mumbling almost inaudibly. Yet he seems quite happy to keep answering questions. He gives the impression of having no sense of a schedule, or a busy world outside. Now that he is here, in this empty room, with his bottle of wine, talking about his work, he seems to have abandoned all thought of ever leaving.
More than perhaps any other serious European novelist, Houellebecq reaches a broad public. Submission sold 345,000 copies in France alone in its first 12 days after publication. “Public acclaim”, he says, “has real pertinence. Typically, the public’s judgement of a novel is an emotional judgement of affection or hatred for the characters: ‘I don’t like Esther,’ ‘Chloé disgusts me,’ that sort of thing. It’s a way of reacting to novels that I find very just.”
But public acclaim also disgusts him. He recites some lyrics from the American singer Iggy Pop (with whom he has a mutual admiration society):
You can convince the world
That you’re some kind of superstar
When an asshole is what you are.
“I’m a little bit a star, and I perfectly recognise myself in those words,” he says. “I find that a perfect text. Inside oneself, one knows one is overrated. Still, rather me than someone else. The other writers who take themselves for superstars are actually less good than me. So why not me? Even so, it’s a bit ridiculous.”
I start saying, “Are there no writers today who you . . . ” and Houellebecq interrupts: “No, I am the best.” He then hastens to limit his claim: “I am not the best in general: in the past there were others better than me. But, currently, I am the best.”
I fumble for a retort. Finally, I come up with, “How about Philip Roth?”
“Look, we won’t speak badly of Philip Roth in the interview, there is no purpose in that, but I find that he repeats himself. It’s often the same book, in my view.”
If Houellebecq is the best, how can public and critics overrate him?
“They overrate me because they lack culture. There are always exceptions but in France most people who exercise the function of literary critic have read Céline, a bit of Proust, Camus, Sartre, but they barely know the 19th century. Next to Balzac I am little, tout petit. What I envy in him is this ubiquity that allows him to get into the skin of a labourer, a concierge, a banker. For me that’s the greatest thing.”
As I probe for parallels between Houellebecq and Balzac, Houellebecq says: “He mostly appeared as an essential witness of his era towards the end, and especially after his death. I have become famous earlier in my life than Balzac did.” But Houellebecq grants that he, too, is a significant witness of his era: “I am recognised for that, and rightly so.”
Occasionally as he talks, his eyes slowly slide shut. I worry he will soon be asleep.
What will he write about next? “I’d like to devote myself a bit to the ultra-rich. I feel they have become a central subject.” However: “The fact is that I don’t know the rich. I don’t know how they live. And as a little disciple of the immense Balzac, I’d like to know this world that is closed to me. I’d have to go and see people. And now people distrust me. When they meet me, they know they risk serving as the model for a character. But I’d like to meet the rich. Maybe this article will help.”
I ask whether writers peak and then decline like athletes. Houellebecq replies, “I’m still at a good age. In general, one does best at 60. I believe I can still do one great book. Not two.”
Rumours of his death that flourished in 2011 (after he forgot to show up for a book tour through the Low Countries) were premature. One day, though, the collapse will be complete. Together we examine a photograph of a skull framed by Coca-Cola cans, above a plaque that reads, “Michel HOUELLEBECQ 1958-2037.”
Houellebecq explains: “It’s a present I received by post, a real little mausoleum. An author I don’t know sent it to me, as a sort of homage. I took it as an act of love. I really liked this sculpture, and as I was the only one to like it, I put it in the exhibition. I don’t know who the author is, I’ve lost his details. I hope he will make himself known on the occasion of the exhibition.”
‘Rester vivant’, Palais de Tokyo, Paris 75016, June 23-September 11
Main photograph: Barbara d’Alessandri/Starface
Exhibition images: courtesy of the artist and Air de Paris, Paris