Saturday, September 17, 2011

Michel Houellebecq

Let me start with a question: Do they really have more sex in France?

Normally, I wouldn't care much about this question or its answer. However, by chance, I've read two novels recently - both by contemporary French authors - which focus almost entirely on the sexual lives of their characters. The first is Herve Le Tellier's Enough Above Love, which I reviewed in Rain Taxi. The second is Michel Houellebecq's The Elementary Particles, which is a book that caught me way off guard...

...Because while Enough About Love offers a negative account of marriage and monogamy, the novel is, at its roots, playful. Houellebecq, though, is far darker, far more severe: his book is one of sexuality turned violent, of passion reduced to painful routine. It's not quite Jelinek, but it's not so far off either.

Still, despite the miasmic qualities hovering above The Elementary Particles, the novel does make a strong case for the shifting nature of sexuality as it grows old. One of Houellebecq's characters - Michel - interacts with this vision of sex by repressing its reality all together; another character - Bruno - does the opposite, charting a course toward endless arousal. The problem, of course, is that in its infinitude, this arousal, too, becomes meaningless. Neither character, it seems, can win (and by win, Houellebecq mostly means maintain an erection).

So, while I can neither confirm nor refute the frequency with which the French are evidently making love, I can - thanks to Houellebecq's novel - corroborate one fact: which is that sex and sexuality have assumed in contemporary French fiction a metaphysical value that is at once arresting and, in its honesty, surprisingly refreshing.


  1. I don't know if they really have more sex in France, but they certainly have fewer inhibitions in talking about it.

  2. I'm the last person who would deny the pleasures of sex, but I don't think sex can bear the weight of life's meaning. In fact, I have frequently found that it is best when most frivolous.

  3. me too :) "best when frivolous" woohoo!!

  4. I think sex is part of life's meaning, but not the only part. Maybe it's the central part for some, but it isn't always. I do agree that sex is best when it's playful, light, endearing, taken both seriously and lightly at the same time. Sex can be a sacrament, too, as well as frivolous. In my experience, both of those attitudes coexist.