It’s 2022. François is bored. He’s a middle-aged lecturer at the Sorbonne and an expert on J.-K. Huysmans, the famous nineteenth-century Decadent author. But François’s own decadence is considerably smaller in scale. He sleeps with his students, eats microwave dinners, rereads Huysmans, queues up YouPorn.
Meanwhile, it’s election season. And although Francois feels “about as political as a bath towel,” things are getting pretty interesting. In an alliance with the Socialists, France’s new Islamic party sweeps to power.
In a profile of Houellebecq in The New Yorker, Adam Gopnik called him “not merely a satirist but—more unusually—a sincere satirist, genuinely saddened by the absurdities of history and the madnesses of mankind.” We’re pleased to share an excerpt from the first chapter of his new novel, Submission.
Through all the years of my sad youth Huysmans remained a companion, a faithful friend; never once did I doubt him, never once was I tempted to drop him or take up another subject; then, one afternoon in June 2007, after waiting and putting it off as long as I could, even slightly longer than was allowed, I defended my dissertation, “Joris-Karl Huysmans: Out of the Tunnel,” before the jury of the University of Paris IV–Sorbonne. The next morning (or maybe that evening, I don’t remember: I spent the night of my defense alone and very drunk) I realized that part of my life, probably the best part, was behind me.
So it goes, in the remaining Western social democracies, when you ﬁnish your studies, but most students don’t notice right away because they’re hypnotized by the desire for money or, if they’re more primitive, by the desire for consumer goods (though these cases of acute product-addiction are unusual: the mature, thoughtful majority develop a fascination with that “tireless Proteus,” money itself). Above all they’re hypnotized by the desire to make their mark, to carve out an enviable social position in a world that they believe and indeed hope will be competitive, galvanized as they are by the worship of ﬂeeting icons: athletes, fashion or Web designers, movie stars, and models.
For various psychological reasons that I have neither the skill nor the desire to analyze, I wasn’t that way at all. On April 1, 1866, at the age of eighteen, Joris-Karl Huysmans began his career as a low-ranking civil servant in the French Ministry of the Interior and Ecclesiastical Affairs. In 1874 he published, at his own expense, a ﬁrst collection of prose poems, Le drageoir à épices. It received next to no attention, apart from one extremely warm review by Théodore de Banville. Such were his quiet beginnings.
His life as a bureaucrat went on, and so did the rest of his life. On September 3, 1893, he received the Légion d’Honneur for public service. In 1898 he retired, having completed—once leaves of absence were taken into account—his mandatory thirty years of employment. In that time he had managed to write books that made me consider him a friend more than a hundred years later. Much, maybe too much, has been written about literature. (I know better than anyone; I’m an expert in the ﬁeld.) Yet the special thing about literature, the major art form of a Western civilization now ending before our very eyes, is not hard to deﬁne. Like literature, music can overwhelm you with sudden emotion, can move you to absolute sorrow or ecstasy; like literature, painting has the power to astonish, and to make you see the world through fresh eyes. But only literature can put you in touch with another human spirit, as a whole, with all its weaknesses and grandeurs, its limitations, its pettinesses, its obsessions, its beliefs; with whatever it ﬁnds moving, interesting, exciting, or repugnant. Only literature can grant you access to a spirit from beyond the grave—a more direct, more complete, deeper access than you’d have in conversation with a friend. Even in our deepest, most lasting friendships, we never speak so openly as when we face a blank page and address an unknown reader. The beauty of an author’s style, the music of his sentences, have their importance in literature, of course; the depth of an author’s reﬂections, the originality of his thought, certainly can’t be overlooked; but an author is above all a human being, present in his books, and whether he writes very well or very badly hardly matters—as long as he gets the books written and is, indeed, present in them. (It’s strange that something so simple, so seemingly universal, should actually be so rare, and that this rarity, so easily observed, should receive so little attention from philosophers in any discipline: for in principle human beings possess, if not the same quality, at least the same quantity, of being; in principle they are all more or less equally present; and yet this is not the impression they give, at a distance of several centuries, and all too often, as we turn pages that seem to have been dictated more by the spirit of the age than by an individual, we watch these wavering, ever more ghostly, anonymous beings dissolve before our eyes.) In the same way, to love a book is, above all, to love its author: we wish to meet him again, we wish to spend our days with him. During the seven years it took me to write my dissertation, I got to live with Huysmans, in his more or less permanent presence. Born in the rue Suger, having lived in the rue de Sèvres and the rue Monsieur, Huysmans died in the rue Saint-Placide and was buried in Montparnasse. He spent almost his entire life within the boundaries of the Sixth Arrondissement of Paris, just as he spent his professional life, thirty years and more, in the Ministry of the Interior and Ecclesiastical Affairs. I, too, lived in the Sixth Arrondissement, in a damp, cold, utterly cheerless room—the windows overlooked a tiny courtyard, practically a well. When I got up in the morning, I had to turn on the light. I was poor, and if I’d been given one of those polls that are always trying to “take the pulse of the under-25s,” I would certainly have checked the box marked “struggling.” And yet the morning after I defended my dissertation (or maybe that same night), my ﬁrst feeling was that I had lost something priceless, something I’d never get back: my freedom. For several years, the last vestiges of a dying welfare state (scholarships, student discounts, health care, mediocre but cheap meals in the student cafeteria) had allowed me to spend my waking hours the way I chose: in the easy intellectual company of a friend. As André Breton pointed out, Huysmans’s sense of humor is uniquely generous. He lets the reader stay one step ahead of him, inviting us to laugh at him, and his overly plaintive, awful, or ludicrous descriptions, even before he laughs at himself. No one could have appreciated that generosity more than I did, as I received my rations of celery remoulade and cod puree, each in its little compartment of the metal hospital tray issued by the Bullier student cafeteria (whose unfortunate patrons clearly had nowhere else to go, and had obviously been kicked out of all the acceptable student cafeterias, but who still had their student IDs—you couldn’t take away their student IDs), and I thought of Huysmans’s epithets—the woebegone cheese, the grievous sole—and imagined what he might make of those metal cells, which he’d never known, and I felt a little bit less unhappy, a little bit less alone, in the Bullier student cafeteria.
But that was all over now. My entire youth was over. Soon (very soon), I would have to see about entering the workforce. The prospect left me cold.
Michel Houellebecq is a French novelist, poet, and literary critic. His novels include the international bestseller The Elementary Particles and The Map and the Territory, which won the 2010 Prix Goncourt. He lives in France.
Lorin Stein is the editor of The Paris Review and editor-at-large at Farrar, Straus and Giroux. He lives in New York.
YOU MIGHT ALSO LIKE: