Bruno and Michel—the main characters of The Elementary Particles—are half-brothers but did not meet until their teens. Their mother, Janine, abandoned them when they were infants, dropping them into the laps of aging grandparents. A beautiful French girl, she was too busy living her own life to be bothered with husband or children. In the late Fifties she could be seen on the Riviera running with the crowd made famous by the films of Roger Vadim and Brigitte Bardot. In the early Sixties she was still in the avant-garde, having abandoned St. Tropez to follow a guru to California, where she changed her name to Jane. Between their abandonment and her death the sons hardly saw her.
When we meet them in their forties Bruno and Michel are still suffering from this trauma. Bruno, the elder one, was packed off at an early age to a French boarding school where he suffered all the humiliations of Young Törless—beatings, torture, rape—at the hands of older students; this being the Sixties, order and discipline had completely evaporated. Bruno became a sexual obsessive, overwhelmed by feelings of physical inadequacy that were only intensified in the promiscuous atmosphere of the Seventies: masturbation, prostitutes, pornography, marriage, divorce, nudist colonies, swingers’ clubs. He lives in a state of sexual frenzy that fails to mask an insatiable need for love. He finally finds it one night while being fellated in a jacuzzi under the stars by a woman whose face he cannot see. They become a couple but their happiness is short-lived. The woman suffers from a degenerative bone condition and during an orgy her back breaks, leaving her a paraplegic. Within months she commits suicide and Bruno checks himself into a psychiatric hospital, never to emerge.
Michel, the younger brother, copes by checking out of the new sexual order and withdrawing into himself. He becomes a biologist working in the then young field of genetic engineering, and although he reaches the pinnacle of professional success in Paris he derives no real pleasure from his work and eventually abandons it. He lives alone and has no one to love; the days pass, then the seasons, but nothing happens. Then, quite by chance, he runs into a woman with whom he has had a furtive adolescent relationship. At the time she loved him but he found it impossible to respond, so she eventually left. In the Seventies she got pregnant by the son of Jane’s California guru, had an abortion, and spent the next two decades in fruitless search for a man who would stay with her. She wants to seduce Michel and succeeds, after a fashion, but it is soon clear that both of them are shell-shocked and no longer able to love. Still, she wants a child and Michel agrees to try. She does get pregnant but doctors discover she is rotten with cancer and must abort it. Unable to face the prospect of grueling radiation therapy with little hope of success, she kills herself. Michel oversees the cremation, then leaves France permanently for Ireland, where he devotes himself to quasi-mystical, quasi-scientific speculations about biology, technology, and human nature. He then disappears without a trace.
As one reads a summary of Michel Houellebecq’s The Elementary Particles, one’s heart sinks under the weight of déjà vu. The Sixties, sex and drugs, pop culture, divorce, ephemeral love—thanks to Philip Roth, Jay McInerney, Forrest Gump, and countless other writers and movies, we have had our noses rubbed in all of this many times before. Can any of it have escaped our attention? One would think not.
Yet to just about everyone’s surprise, The Elementary Particles provoked an enormous storm when it was published in Paris in 1998. Michel Houellebecq had already acquired a small but devoted following among the young after the publication of his short novel Extension du domaine de la lutte (“Extension of the Domain of the Struggle,” 1994), which has recently been translated under the unfortunate title Whatever. I first heard about The Elementary Particles from several French friends who had the book pressed upon them by their children, and these parents were puzzled that it struck such a deep chord with adolescents. The book quickly sold hundreds of thousands of copies and the author found himself under attack as nihilistic and worse from every possible political and literary quarter, including that of former friends with whom he had started a review, Perpendiculaire, from whose board he was purged. I cannot think of another French novel over the past two decades that has generated this much interest, debate, and animosity. Yet whenever the French talk about Houellebecq, I always feel certain that they mean something else.
The French fin de siècle began promptly on July 14, 1989. That day marked the bicentenary of the French Revolution, which eerily foreshadowed the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the end of the cold war. The mood was upbeat across Europe, which watched by satellite the multimedia extravaganza put on by the French government that night on the Champs-Elysées. And it was fitting that François Mitterrand should serve as host. While as president he had responded slowly and ineptly to the breakdown of the Soviet empire in Eastern Europe, he had done more than anyone else to move France into modern Europe; he had effectively buried the French Communist Party, and had made peace between the French left and liberal democracy. An important book published at the time by historians François Furet, Jacques Julliard, and Pierre Rosanvallon made a convincing case that Mitterrand had bridged the cultural divide over the legacy of the French Revolution, making France into a stable centrist republic, and ending the centuries-long “French exception.”1 A new age for France, in a united Europe, seemed in the offing.
But from that day forward, nothing has gone right—or so the French seem to believe. The liberal consensus in politics and economics rubbed contrary spirits the wrong way and they began to complain of the suffocating effects of la pensée unique. The racist radical right, led by Jean-Marie Le Pen’s National Front, refused to disappear, indeed seemed to gain strength whenever the economy took a dive. In 1992 Mitterrand submitted the Maastricht Treaty providing for European union to the French voters, fully confident of victory by a wide margin, only to find himself in a dogfight with opponents of further European integration on the right, left, and republican center. The treaty was ratified by the narrowest of margins. By 1993 unemployment reached 12 percent and the Socialists lost control of the National Assembly, forcing Mitterrand to spend the last two years of his term in “cohabitation” with the Gaullists. The stale perfume of la morosité was everywhere.
Jacques Chirac assumed the presidency in 1995, bringing into the government a moderate right-wing majority, which tried to reform the schools and trim social benefits. The response was a series of strikes throughout the public sector, including the schools, where teachers and students marched against the government arm in arm. Out of those strikes a new movement, called “the left of the left,” was born. Its intellectual wing was led by the famous sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, who publishes a review and founded a small publishing house, both named Liber, to militate against “neoliberalism” (the European term for unfettered capitalism), the “media” elite, and cultural Americanization.
After François Mitterrand died in 1996, it became clear that whatever one thought of his shady manner of governing and his personal duplicity, the French political scene had lost its last masterful homme politique, and it was uncertain what would become of the centrist republic. Jacques Chirac has also been forced to govern in “cohabitation” with a left-wing majority in the Assembly, which helps to maintain the center but also paralyzes it. Bold government action on all the pressing issues of the day—education, social services, crime, economic integration, the Balkans—is usually impossible. The only political gesture capable of rallying the French today appears to be the bulldozing of a McDonald’s by a sheep farmer.
Truth be told, the idea of a “centrist republic” was something of a myth and not a terribly popular one. Furet and his collaborators were, in my view, absolutely right to see that the myth of the eternal French Revolution had exhausted itself and was no longer adapted to the practical demands of modern liberal democracy. They were also right to proclaim the death of the Communist myth, which since 1917 had been subtly woven into the French revolutionary one. Working-class “consciousness” disappeared in the thirty years of prosperity following World War II, and France was becoming, like its European neighbors, a society of independent citizens with bourgeois aspirations. I even think Furet was right to assert that, objectively speaking, the French have adjusted to this new social and political order rather well.
But myths are not mirrors of social reality; they are projections of aspirations, which they also reshape over time. Furet hoped that a new “republican” myth would take hold in France, one in which the modest ambitions and capacities of liberal democracy would be accepted, while the centripetal forces of individualism and capitalism would be contained through a commitment to citizenship cultivated, as in the Third Republic, by the public schools.
While this aspiration is shared by many across the political spectrum, a more powerful countermyth grew up in the Nineties. It presents the French with a horrifying dystopian vision of their future in an atomized world of disconnected individuals, spinning in space without attachments to history, the nation, family, or friends. It is a world dominated by relentless market forces and uncontrollable technological advances that threaten all that is familiar to us, from the bioengineered food we eat to the aging of our bodies. It is, above all, a world in which love and soul have been abolished. Michel Houellebecq’s The Elementary Particles is the first literary monument to this myth.
A sketch of this monument can be found in Houellebecq’s Extension du domaine de la lutte, which is a tighter work of fiction and more successfully realized. It concerns a computer programmer who works in a Dilbert-style office, as it might have been painted by Edvard Munch. Alienated workers stick to their cubicles except for lunch and office parties, where the conviviality is forced and everyone leaves depressed. The unnamed protagonist spends his weekends and evenings alone in his spartan apartment, a brutal modernist bunker surrounded by threatening public spaces. The firm is self-consciously “dynamic”: its directors speak the cheerful langue du bois of management schools while cutting one another’s throats on the way to the top. The protagonist is not the competitive type, and is therefore hopelessly out of sync with his times. So he is shipped off with another employee, a fat, ugly poseur who is also failing badly in the corporate jungle, and together they make client calls in dreary provincial towns.
La République du centre: La Fin de l'exception française (Paris: Calmann- Lévy, 1988).↩
La République du centre: La Fin de l’exception française (Paris: Calmann- Lévy, 1988).↩