Unreconciled: Poems 1991-2013 review: novel ideas
Michel Houellebecq sends postcards from the disenchanted universe his fiction also covers
Michel Houellebecq: some of the poems read like capsule treatments of the philosophical questions that are in his novels. Photograph: Nicolas Guerin/Getty Images
Unreconciled: Poems 1991 - 2013
Michel Houellebecq Trans. Gavin Bowd
Reread in light of upheavals since its publication two years ago, Michel Houellebecq’s most recent novel, Submission, reveals itself to be a more profound work than it initially seemed.
More than a satire of a liberal Europe so limp it bows to the superior virility of political Islam, Submission now reads like a lonely flare of lucidity in the darkness of a civilisation that is disappearing before our eyes – a civilisation, the book suggests, that wants to disappear.
It is increasingly hard to argue against Houellebecq being the most important novelist alive. Before he became a novelist in 1994, however, Houellebecq was a poet, and he has never quite abandoned the habit. Unreconciled, a bilingual selection of poems he wrote over more than two decades, offers us a glimpse of the writer Houellebecq would have been had he never crossed the generic border.
And what kind of writer is that? Well, first and foremost, one we’d never have heard of. Houellebecq the poet is far from talentless, but his chilly, rarefied, metaphysically inclined poems lack the gut-punch force of the novels that ensured his notoriety.
Stark and frightening
Some of the poems read like capsule treatments of the philosophical questions those novels explore. His obsessions were there from the outset: the cruel arena of liberated sex; the impossibility of love in a pitiless modernity; the destiny of the human species; the emptiness of life in a consumer society; and what Blaise Pascal called “the misery of man without God”.
The poems are postcards from a disenchanted universe that is stark and frightening, divested of religious illusions and the shelter of a vanished morality.
One poem, Love, Love, lays out in eight stanzas the thesis of Houellebecq’s first novel Extension du domaine de la lutte (unsatisfyingly translated as Whatever). In sum: we are sexual beings who exist in an all-out war for sexual resources. Some are seductive and “They will know orgasms”; the others live and die without the balm of tenderness or the respite of pleasure. Atoms in the void, bodies fuck and get fucked; then they grow old and repulsive. Since the erotic “liberation” of the 1960s, a new sexual underclass of “all those who have never been loved, / Who have never pleased,” live out bitter lives of anguish and masturbation.
“There is neither destiny nor fidelity,
Just bodies that attract;
With no attachment and especially no pity,
We play and tear apart.”
Houellebecq is a troubled man. Familiarity with his oeuvre leaves no doubt that the world has damaged him in ways that can never be fixed. Houellebecq’s genius was to find out what his agony meant, to trace his personal fractures until they revealed the deepest traumas of a society and an age. No-one has been more interestingly unhappy than Houellebecq.
In Unreconciled, poem after poem reiterates this pain. The desolate images and sighs of despair roll past like flat and featureless scenery. Hollow voices gust through a flatlining society, the groans of molecular phantoms who suffer and perish without meaning.
“You’re truly alone. And you drag on, and you drag on.”
“There is nothing left behind our smiles.”
“Isolated monads drifting . . . In the Continent hypermarket.”
“Night is never dark enough / To put an end to it all.”
“Perhaps life is an error.”
“God how life is monotonous.”
“The appeal for pity / Resonates in the void.”
Houellebecq, or his poetic avatar, goes on holiday a few times, but nothing changes:
“Down below, the young tried to establish loving relations
And I felt like ceasing to live.”
Afflicted by a severe and pervasive alienation, the poetic subject gazes upon “humans” from outside:
“I believe these people know each other [ . . . ]
I would like to feel part of their species.”
One poem, the book’s shortest, is childish in its pleading desperation:
“Why can we never
Depth of vision
There is little tonal variance: undifferentiated, the pages turn like empty years in the life of their despairing, depersonalised subject. There are moments of love – a real love, which challenges the suicidal lucidity. But this love passes, leaving its subject even more broken. The title of one poem – “ My dad was a solitary and barbarous cunt” – is an indicator of the wince-inducing nastiness to come; then the depressive impassivity resumes.
Unreconciled will not win Houellebecq many new converts, and will appeal mainly to those already fascinated by this fearless and desperate artist. The humour that charms his novels is absent; there is little of the sociological analysis, nor the violence, pornography or vitriol.
Too often people make their minds up in advance about Houellebecq, shunning him for being something he is not. If all there was to him was the shock-factor of a total nihilism, he’d hardly be worth talking about. Houellebecq’s brilliance lies both in the depth of his vision, and the coexistence in his work of extreme cynicism and yearning sincerity. The novels are unmissable – the poems, alas, are optional.
Rob Doyle’s most recent book, This Is the Ritual, is published by Bloomsbury and The Lilliput Press.