There are plenty of important novels to look forward to this autumn, including Margaret Atwood’s sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale and a 25th spy story from John le Carré. Yet for some readers perhaps the most significant will prove to be a translation — the English version at last of Michel Houellebecq’s new novel, Serotonin.
Published in France in January, with an initial print run of 320,000 copies, Serotonin appeared in German, Italian and Spanish versions just days later. Why we have had to wait so long is not clear. It is particularly a pity because this most prescient of novelists — who foresaw Islamist terror in holiday resorts in Muslim countries in Platform (2001), and envisaged Islamic government in France in Submission (2015), just before the Charlie Hebdo attacks — is addressing directly the discontents of rural France underpinning the Gilets Jaunes movement. No novel has been more pertinent this year — yet it’s still not available in English for another month.
Serotonin is the confession of a man in despair. At 46, Florent-Claude Labrouste looks back on his life as he contemplates ending it. The only child of parents so devoted to each other that they committed joint suicide when one fell ill, he has only ever felt a limited connection to the world.
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Florent feels he has never properly taken charge of his life and now his chances are vanishing. He has become dependent on a new anti-depressant, Captorix, favouring the production of serotonin, that allows him to function in a minimal way but causes loss of libido and impotence. The dying like to see, for one last time, the people who played a part in their lives, he observes — and Florent revisits his own past, as he dismantles his life.
After taking a degree in agronomy (as did Houellebecq), Florent has been employed by biotechnology company Monsanto and then the Ministry of Agriculture, working on the promotion internationally of Normandy cheeses.
His best friend at college, a music-loving aristocrat called Aymeric d’Harcourt-Olonde, has dedicated his life, and the family estates, to dairy farming in the most responsible, humane way — and is now facing financial ruin as a result, abandoned moreover by his wife and children. Aymeric leads local farmers in a protest against government policies, a motorway blockade ending in violence more shocking even than anything actually seen in France this year.
Sympathetic though he may be, nobody is better placed than Florent to understand that being compelled to compete in European and global markets is forcing French farmers out of business, with tragic human consequences, whether among milk producers or apricot growers. His own activities, promoting reasonable protection measures, have all proved useless. Free trade has invariably triumphed.
So there’s the political thrust to the novel. Houellebecq is a determined opponent of the EU — and, although otherwise finding the British irritating, he is an admirer of Brexit. In a recent article praising Donald Trump, he wrote: “It’s my belief that we in Europe have neither a common language nor common values nor common interests, that, in a word, Europe doesn’t exist, and that it will never constitute a people or support a possible democracy … In short, Europe is just a dumb idea that has turned into a bad dream, from which we shall eventually wake up.”
Yet, reading Serotonin again, in Shaun Whiteside’s translation which captures Houellebecq’s voice very well, it is clear that this subject is secondary, though, to the theme that has always driven his work: the question of the possibility of love, the only happiness, in a world of liberty and materialism. He once told an interviewer that “the question whether love still exists plays the same role in my novels as the question of God’s existence in Dostoevsky”.
Whether love still exists plays the same role in my novels as the question of God in Dostoevsky.
Florent looks back on the women in his life and concludes that he has known happiness and thrown it away, for which he deserves nothing less than death.
Houellebecq has always been shamelessly clear about love and sex, and the chances of any long-lived happiness in a society in which youth and desirability are traded in a free market. At the start of his literary career, in 1991, he published a Baudelairean manifesto for writing poetry, Rester Vivant (Staying Alive), to which he has adhered ever since. He began by saying the world is an extension of suffering. “All suffering is good; all suffering is useful; all suffering bears fruit…”
He urged would-be poets to go for the sore places. “Put your finger on the wound and press hard. Dig in to the subjects nobody want to hear about. The other side of the décor. Insist on illness, agony, ugliness. Talk about death and oblivion. About jealousy, indifference, frustration, the absence of love. Become abject and you will be true.” The truth is scandalous but nothing has value without it, he said. Do not be afraid. “Remember: basically, you’re already dead.” Some 20 years later, an interviewer asked him how he had the nerve to write some of the things he did. “Oh, it’s easy. I just pretend I’m already dead,” he replied.
Houellebecq’s second novel, Atomised of 1998, won him fame, enormous sales and the Impac Prize in 2002. Yet he was still disdained for many years by the French literary establishment, who treated him as a hick who had never studied literature. In Le Monde, Pierre Assouline said Houellebecq’s 2005 novel The Possibility of an Island was so boring he had to take a bath of Nabokov to recover his appetite for life and literature. The then literary editor of Le Figaro, Angelo Rinaldi, called it “science fiction in the hands of a pissed-up chemist” and compared his prose to a leaky tap. He was persistently denied the Prix Goncourt he deserved.
All that has now changed. He was awarded the Goncourt in 2010 for The Map and the Territory and this year he was presented with the Légion d’Honneur by Emmanuel Macron (Houellebecq conducted a long interview with Macron in 2016, in which Macron flattered him by knowledgeably comparing him to the novelist Céline, while Houellebecq tried unsuccessfully to convert Macron to government by referendum).
Last September he got married for the third time, to Qianyum Lysis Li, a Chinese woman 20 years his junior, whom he met because she was working on a study of his writing. Carla Bruni-Sarkozy revealed on her Instagram account she had attended the wedding.
In French cinemas this week, Houellebecq, now 62, appears in a new film, Thalasso, about a pair of old codgers in a sea-water spa in Cabourg. Houellebecq, France’s most celebrated writer, appears as himself, alongside Gérard Depardieu, its best known actor, also playing himself. One critic has compared their turn to Laurel and Hardy.
Thus does the subject of scandal — the novelist still writing so brutally about the impossibility of happiness — become a national treasure.
Serotonin, translated by Shaun Whiteside, is published by Heinemann at £20 on September 26. Pre-order it here.