The Eeyore of French letters

‘Houllebecq’s novel Serotonin is yet another specimen of the thriving industry of déclinisme — disenchantment with neoliberal woes and political correctness’

Books
(Silvina Frydlewsky / Ministerio de Cultura de la Nación)

The publication of a new Houellebecq novel invariably fosters a sense of anticipation. We are by now well acquainted with his profane provocations, which one is at a loss to pin down: prophetic intuitions or freakish aberrations? Houellebecq’s detractors call him sardonic; his supporters empathetic. Serotonin is yet another specimen of the thriving industry of déclinisme, theorised by Oswald Spengler and more recently, Michel Onfray, for whom Houellebecq is the arch-analyst of Western nihilism. Disenchantment with neoliberal woes and political correctness, aka the “decline of the West”—construed as a suicide by Houellebecq—is the stock-in-trade of the “new reactionaries”, amongst whom are Éric Zemmour and Alain Finkielkraut.

In Serotonin, a conflation of anti-‘68 and anti-Europeanism serves Houellebecq’s nihilistic agenda well. Decline is indeed rife: the decimation of “the old rurality”, the narrator’s erectile problems, depression, and depleting bank account; society’s regression to the “oral stage” (taking the opportunity to deride Freud as that “Austrian clown”), the demise of civilisation and culture, initiated, we are told, by the degeneracy of Proust and Mann (dismissed as no better than “that old imbecile Goethe”) etc . . . Phew! The microcosm/macrocosm concept is amply
exemplified in this seismography of Homo occidentalis.

Detached and disillusioned, Florent-Claude Labrouste (whose sense of the absurd is provoked by a name he finds preposterous) is the archetypal Houellebecquian narrator. His sex life, at its nadir in a society bogged down in its immanence, is the centre of that multifarious decline. Whether spying on a German paedophile, stalking his former girlfriend, or watching trash TV, Florent-Claude’s life has withered into a spectator sport—apart from the odd bout of target-shooting. Thrills (mainly gastronomic or sexual) are fleeting: we have never been so liberated, yet so discontented. Houellebecq’s heightened alertness to society’s individualistic, hedonistic, and materialistic values mirrors Gilles Lipovetsky’s radiography of hypermodernity as the “age of emptiness”.

One might wince at yet another spluttering, white, middle-aged, middle-class misogynist, with his Trumpian criteria for assessing women (and who uses matching, brazen phraseology). Yet such objectification, as well as the fate of middle-aged women in our society, is spot-on; Houellebecq’s verdicts are no more ferocious than those we already endure.

Starting with a banal anecdote of sexual arousal—in a garage—the convoluted story (with its temporal layering) culminates in Florent-Claude’s poignant, regret-laden meditation on his love for Camille—an ironic echo of the protagonist of Musset’s aptly titled play, No Trifling with Love . . . ! With a touch of envy, our narrator muses on Lamartine’s effect on women, which he unexpectedly likens to Elvis Presley. A self-confessed romantic, the Eeyore of French letters feeds his narrator Lamartine’s sorrow and Baudelaire’s despair. All that 19th-century melancholic stuff (verging on Flaubertian nihilism) takes us to Proust’s revelation of loss and waste of time, and to another opportunity for lewdness. His parents’ symbiotic relationship emerges as the one pure romance in poor Florent-Claude’s life. As he “dies of sorrow”, the mooing of cows and smell of dung provide a fleeting sense of an “organic continuum” that offers a tantalising counterpoise between neo-Rousseauist fantasies and the technicalities of milk quotas. The old obsessions recur, with a twist: the plight of la France profonde, which conjures (the equally infamous) polemicist Richard Millet and the Académicien Jean Clair’s mournful Terre Natale: exercices de piété (2019), for whom meaning no longer has any meaning. The narrator’s disappearance in Serotonin can be read as a symptom of the sense of loss (the erosion of national identity and moral values) that today pervades French literature. When Florent-Claude decides to leave his most recent girlfriend (having discovered her wilder extra-mural exploits), he seeks refuge in Normandy, where he re-acquaints himself with a contemporary at the National Institute of Agronomy (Houellebecq’s alma mater), Aymeric, who struggles as a dairy farmer committed to old-style farming: a gentleman turned anti-free-trade rioter.

Prescience is hard to establish, but Serotonin positively throbs with the zeitgeist: the novel was published in the throes of the gilets jaunes insurrection, foreseen by Christophe Guilluy, the expert on “peripheral France”.

A feminist cosmopolitan liberal (which I am) may recoil from Houellebecq’s swipes at écolos, bobos and homos. The coy (which I am not) may bridle at some lapses in taste (not least, paraphilia). But Houellebecq’s nativist Frexit fantasies, which smack of Chateaubriand’s Ancien Régime, force us to confront unpalatable realities and truths.

Like his contemporary Virginie Despentes’s Vernon Subutex, Houellebecq’s project harks back to Balzac’s devising disorder through disruptive digression. Ironically, his anti-modern ethos relies on a postmodern hotchpotch where anything goes: the dizzying breadth of brand names, which might be a little tiresome (but aren’t we also bombarded with them elsewhere?), sits
happily alongside more elevated references;
our narrator claims to be hopelessly confused by his high-maintenance girlfriend’s chic luggage: is it Zadig&Voltaire or Pascal & Blaise (a nod to one of his favourite
philosophers)?

Riddled with Pascalian doubt, Houellebecq—whose pamphleteering relies on a blend of pathos and provocation—cannot be easily pigeonholed. The cynic and the romantic are two sides of the same coin. Ambiguity, the raison d’être of literature, prevails: surely something to be relished in our age of simplistic pronouncements. Houellebecq’s peculiar brand of imprecatory moralism provides an antidote to cosy complacency and to the commodification of transgression.

Houellebecq’s humour, irony, and (self-)parody, though by no means redeeming, enhance and mitigate the horror; any critique that tempers its earnestness with those ingredients is worthy of the thought-provoking, mordantly eclectic and Flaubertian Jonathan Meades. The deadpan cynic can be a tonic.

 

Serotonin
By Michel Houellebecq, translated by Shaun Whiteside
William Heinemann, 2019