In 1994 Michel Houellebecq published his first novel, which was bizarrely translated into English as Whatever. I say 'bizarre' because the English title misses out the meaning behind the original title Extension du domaine de la lutte. Houellebecq's allusion was to the Marxist class struggle ('lutte') of financially rich and financially poor being extended to the sex rich and the sex poor. Les Particules élémentaires continues and extends the arguments.
It was expected by many that this novel would win the Prix Goncourt of 1998, although it came as a great surprise – indeed as a shock to many – that Paule Constant won with Confidence pour confidence. Some reviewers even compared this unexpected result to the 'scandal' of Guy Mazeline winning the 1932 Goncourt with Les Loups (a book and a writer long forgotten) instead of Céline's masterpiece Voyage au bout de la nuit. Houellebecq eventually won the Goncourt with La Carte et le territoire, although not before a second unexpected occurrence: oddly, in 2005 François Weyergans's Trois Jours chez ma mère was absent from the first selection, but appeared in the second and third selections and went on to beat Houellebecq's La Possibilité d'une île (Island).
The above are a few examples of Goncourt oddities, although perhaps the oddest thing in the history of Les Particules élémentaires is Lucie Ceccaldi – Houellebecq's eighty-three-year-old mother – turning up on the French literary scene in 2008 not only in an attempt to denounce her son as a liar, but to do so in her book L'Innocente, a 413-page rant.
Controversy has not so much dogged Houellebecq throughout his writing career as helped him to achieve a very high level of fame over a relatively short time. Does he deserve it, or is this book in particular just the pessimistic, pretentious verbiage that some people have attacked it for? In a word, yes, I think he does deserve high acclaim.
But it's difficult, in a few words, to say what kind of book this is. It is to a small extent fictionalised autobiography, certainly, but it is also a denunciation of the hippie period and contemporary French society in general, it is a pornographic novel, a horror story, a scientific tract, and even a work of science fiction. In parts, it also manages to be surprisingly tender.
Michel Djerzinski and his half-brother Bruno have been abandoned by their mother, who has gone off to join a hippie colony. Michel grows up to be a molecular biologist with little desire for sex and an inability to love. Bruno is physically and sexually abused at school, and grows up obsessed with sex, to the point of it driving him mad: at one point, as a school teacher he masturbates in front of a fifteen-year-old girl and he subsequently becomes an inmate in a psychiatric hospital.
Via Bruno in particular, Les Particules élémentaires attacks the soixante-huitards (the hippie generation) for their hedonism and suggests that one of the natural results of this attitude was the monster Charles Manson. (I wholly disagree with this theory, but no matter.)
The body's decay and the ageing process in general are prominent in the novel, and in spite of both Bruno and Michel finding brief companionship (of rather different kinds) in Christiane and Annabelle respectively, both women kill themselves: the first as a result of paralysis, the second after a hysterectomy.
Bruno finishes up going back to the psychiatric hospital, his libido lost in a chemical straitjacket. But although Michel also eventually kills himself, it's not without creating a great name for himself as a scientist – cloning, creating the people of the future: immortal and sterile.
My other posts on Michel Houellebecq:
Michel Houellebecq: Platforme | Platform
Michel Houellebecq: La Carte et le territoire | The Map and the Territory