In spite of being considered one of the best contemporary French writers by many, references to Houellebecq often include comments like: his writing is crude; his writing is misogynistic; his writing is depressing; his writing is perverted; his mother hates him; he hates his mother; or, he doesn't have a real literary style. I'm no expert and there are probably plenty of other bits of fact and fiction in circulation, but the point is, he's a writer with a reputation, a kind of bad boy (age 65) of French literature.
Maybe for some of those reasons, I wasn't overly interested in reading his work until he came out with a book called Serotonin a few years ago. The title interested me, and finding a copy at Jo's house, I read and was pretty amazed by it. I remember it as the story of the demise of the small agricultural farmer, and the inconstancy of human relationships. This is what sticks in my mind, along with the recognition of a very talented writer who cares deeply and makes the reader feel. The "crude" writing, usually in vivid descriptions of sexual happenings, appears seldomly enough that even naturally prudish people like myself can handle it. More often what comes through is the writer's talent for turning the suffering of himself and others into a book worth reading.
Now that I've gone on about Serotonin, let's get to Lanzarote which I also found at Jo's house (in the pile of donations for the annual Amnesty International Booksale which hasn't taken place since 2020). In this short text, Houellebecq writes about a vacation he took to one of the Canary Islands, Lanzarote. He makes fun of the omnipresent British vacationers, and the fact that the architecture on the island seems to be built entirely around housing for tourists. (I can confirm. Lots of white concrete buildings and Brits.) In a memorable scene, he and his wife visit a swingers club where surprising (to the uninitiated) things happen involving big boxes with little holes, secret hands, tongues and other body parts. Lots of sex in this short text celebrating total freedom of expression of our sexual nature. Nonetheless, it does eventually get a bit old, admits the author; free love comes up empty some of the time.
Other texts in the book explore the history of literature and the predicament of its present and future; the author's political beliefs; and his self-dislike and awareness of old-age despite the "young, sensual, and pretty girls who want to give you their bodies in the name of love, only because you've written a few pages that touch their souls." His subjects are eternal: life, love, death, defeat; yet the ultimate beauty of the earth where "nothing in this world is as beautiful as the mist rising above the ocean."
For Christmas, husband Hubert received Houellebecq's latest work, Anéantir, from his Dad, a huge fan ("in spite of some crudeness," he said.) Although the title translates uncheerily into "Annihilate", critics say this work is "more optimistic than usual", and even "romantic". I wonder if that's due to Houellebecq's recent marriage. At any rate, I'm more likely to read it than Hubert, or I fear you, too, after this description. Stay tuned for a post when I do.