For all the noise and hullabaloo his fiction has generated in person Michel Houellebecq is, somewhat ironically, a rather quiet and unassuming individual who shuffles awkwardly into and out of crowded rooms surrounded by plumes of blue/grey cigarette smoke bellowing from his nostrils in that ever-so-French way, his belongings (cigarettes, lighter, notebook presumably) carried with him in a nondescript polythene bag. His hair always parted; his face distant, unmoved and stoic, the eyes almost always bored - a curt little man ill at ease with the world. Unlike Salman Rushdie, who himself has ruffled a few feathers in the Muslim world, Michel Houellebecq likes to shun the limelight. Michel Houellebecq is not at his happiest in the company of his own species (although he has been known to drunkenly demand sex with female interviewers on the rare occasion). You can almost sense him wanting to gag in the corner when no one is looking - or so one imagines.
When writers are young they are eager to convey their innermost literary desires to just about anyone who will care to listen. They want to be understood and, more importantly, they want to be admired. On balance they want to create something new, fresh and unheard of that will utterly astound all that cross its path. So, they write narcissistic manifestos in the vain hope that someone will listen, these guiding principles rarely, if ever, see the light of day of course. But some invariably do. Michel Houellebecq has had the intelligence [others would say gall] to disguise his as a scholarly critique of another's oeuvre, concentrating on another person's desires, tools of the trade and frame of mind thus, craftily, removing himself from the picture - but, as they say, the clues are there and Houellebecq can be found lurking in the shadows on every page. Both H. P Lovecraft and Michel Houellebecq are complicated individuals indeed and it's probably Houellebecq, for the reasons just stated, who is the more complicated of the two. Having not read much H. P Lovecraft I have, however, read a lot of Michel Houellebecq. Houellebecq first started H.P. Lovecraft: Against the world, against life in 1988 and even then his mixed intentions were ostensible from the outset:
From the very first sentence in Against the world, against life Houellebecq is clear in his intent:
"Lovecraft had in fact always been a racist" [Against the world, against life Pg 103]
"That evening, after a day of hurried cabling and arranging, I bade my host adieu and took a train for San Francisco. In less than a month I was in Dunedin; where, however, I found that little was known of the strange cult-members who had lingered in the old sea-taverns. Waterfront scum was far too common for special mention; though there was vague talk about one inland trip these mongrels had made, during which faint drumming and red flame were noted on the distant hills." [The Call of Cthulhu 1926]
Houellebecq is interested in this side of Lovecraft - and it is interesting that he leaves his thoughts on this subject until the end of the book where he likens Lovecraft to a:
"…trapped animal who is forced to share his cage with other different and frightening creatures" [Against the world, against life Pg 104]
This is the chapter that most readers will probably be interested in due to Houellebecq's own alleged racism. As stated earlier Houellebecq has not entirely found himself short of racial controversy in the past. All of this is well documented, of course. During an interview in 2001 with Lire magazine he had dared to call Islam "the stupidest religion". The Islamic and Christian community, to a somewhat lesser degree it has to be said, was in uproar. He was immediately taken to task by the Arab League. Curiously they didn't seem to pick up the "I totally reject all monotheistic religions" that subsequently followed in the very same interview. Strikingly, and in a rather similar way to this calculated omission, one presumes, Christopher Hitchens has never been taken to task for announcing, in a high profile Guardian interview, the greatest evil in the world is "Christianity, Judaism and Islam".
By honing in on only one of the three monotheisms Houellebecq's prosecutors could label him the hell-bent aggressor, the surly intellect who is against all who follow Islam: primarily Muslims. Quite simple really. Towards the end of 2002 Houellebecq appeared before a tribunal in Paris charged with "inciting racial hatred". At one point, when asked if he knew he had violated French Law Houellebecq harangued the prosecution, after admitting, in fact, he had never read the penal code; delivering his now infamous quip:
"It is excessively long, and I suspect that there are many boring passages"
Such witticisms harked back to Wilde and only served as a reinforcement of his already nonconformist public image. Such banter is typical Houellebecq insouciance - a rebuttal which swiftly put this whole, rather absurd affair, behind him once and for all. Most readers will want to see what light, if any at all he sheds on this most contentious of subjects. Unfortunately it's not that much - a meagre five pages. He mentions that Lovecraft's racism "became something of a phobia" [Against the world, against life Pg 104] that began to seep into his later work. Houellebecq sees this racial "phobia" as a product of Lovecraft's own misanthropy. It is quite an alluring argument: if one purports to hate his own species, he must invariably begin to hate each race in the same species too? Surely the two go hand in hand? Houellebecq continues to point out that "unequivocally" the victim in Lovecraft's fiction is almost always a white Anglo-Saxon Protestant male university professor not too dissimilar to himself. And as for the servants and townsfolk that prowl his landscapes, they are generally:
"...half-breeds, mulattos, of mixed blood, 'among the lowest of the species'" [Against the world, against life Pg 107]
It seems Houellebecq is more interested in Lovecraft's racial hatred as a symptom, a human condition, rather than an ideology. In Houellebecq's own fiction we see character's suffering from a similar sickness. In Platform, Houellebecq's most racially litigious novel, although most have smatterings of racist content, we see characters that openly criticise others of different race and creed - always of Muslim origin. Houellebecq's characters, although racist in their views and actions, are suffering from the very same malaise that haunted Lovecraft, caused, it seems by the same, perceived, breakdown in western values and society. In the same way Houellebecq views Lovecraft as a failure:
"He was pierced to the core by his failures, by what seemed like his wholly natural and fundamental predisposition to failure. And in his literary universe too, there could be only one part for him: that of the victim." [Against the world, against life Pg 107]
It is this idea that Houellebecq fuels his fiction with, most of his characters and especially his narrators, to varying degrees of intensity, are victims of their own and society's making. They are somnambulists, wandering the earth punch-drunk on the side-effects of a society devoid of any meaning. They are collectively lost and searching for something that is unobtainable or, more importantly, someone to blame - and when, as readers, we are nauseated by the various bile Houellebecq's characters spew forth onto the page, then surely, some of that nausea is aimed at ourselves too? Because, when don't humans find other humans to blame? Unlike Lovecraft, Michel Houellebecq is not a racist because he feels "life itself is evil" [Against the world, against life Pg 111]. If his characters hate each other because of this, then so be it, it seems. Houellebecq draws this conclusion in the penultimate chapter in the book and it is, in fact, Houellebecq's very own assumption used to justify all that may be said, or indeed, may happen within his fiction. Lovecraft retreated, ever the bitterer, away from life due to this same, most negative conclusion and Houellebecq attacks our own, perceived superior, assumptions because of it. When Houellebecq writes:
"As an author of horror fiction (and one of the finest) he brutally takes racism back to its essential and most profound core: fear" [Against the world, against life Pg 22]
It is hardly an excuse for the rabid racism Lovecraft was guilty of, but it is interesting when taken into account regarding Houellebecq's own fiction. His novels are literally peppered with characters that are gripped with fear: fear of race, fear of class, fear of themselves, of sexual failure, of society and modernity, in fact, every conceivable fear known. The characters in Houellebecq's fiction react as only they can, some passively and some actively. It is these active reactions that almost always cause the most controversy for the reader. Most Houellebecqian characters react against the current climate, this fractured planet we all share and in the west, unfortunately, Islam is the current enemy. It is the easiest conclusion to draw: react against that which we do not understand. Sheer ignorance leads to this and coupled with a vitriolic distrust of their very own western values we see a total breakdown. The so-called enemy has no chance of being understood in this polarized climate.
The hard part for the reader, one presumes, is deciphering which part is Houellebecq's own voice and which part isn't. Like Lovecraft, Houellebecq uses his distain for us and the world to invigorate his writing, but unlike Lovecraft he is not intrinsically racist, he merely attacks everything that we desperately cling on to. In fact, it has been stated in the past that Houellebecq writes from the side of his alleged enemy: an extremist Muslim. His views of the growing decline of western culture brought on by moral collapse are strikingly similar to those of extremist Muslim persuasion. But one does not have to go quite this far for Houellebecq is unlike anyone and has adopted a posture, that of a misanthrope, and he is sticking to it through thick and thin, tipping as many apple-carts as he possibly can along the way, the more, and this his most ironical twist, the merrier.
HP Lovecraft: Against the world, against life is a veritable portmanteau containing, when unlocked, the numerous signposts to the abundant avenues and dark pathways Houellebecq cares to tread within his equally sinister fictions. Using this misanthropic model of Lovecraft's landscape to enrich a philosophy of literary direction and scope. This fiery manifesto is a true testament to Houellebecq's vision - it is a love, once born out of admiration and writerly desire, that has since grown into an important literary document: that of Houellebecq's own propose and consequence. H. P. Lovecraft is simply the scaffold around Michel Houellebecq's grand design.
Lee Rourke 2005
Correction: Due to an editing error, Stephen King’s introduction to HP Lovecraft: Against the world, against life indicated that Arkham House, the publishing company founded in 1939 by August Derleth and Donald Wandrei, was “no more.” Arkham House, the preeminent publisher of H.P. Lovecraft’s work, is in fact alive and well, and can be found at arkhamhouse.com