The Houellebecquian novel, a new literary movement?

Early December 2021. Under the gilding of the Richelieu amphitheater at the Université Paris-Sorbonne, supported by the laughter of an audience committed to his cause, Michel Houellebecq discusses his work: “I disagree with the idea that you have to accept the world as it is. […] I tell the world what it is like, but I don’t accept it. The public likes it.

On the occasion of the inaugural session of a university seminar on returning to the writer’s legacy, Houellebecq came out of his promotional retirement begun a few years earlier with the launch of his latest book, Serotonin. He agreed to publicly discuss his conception of literature shortly before the publication ofannihilate, a 736-page political fiction where the 65-year-old author deals with the issue of the end of life.

landmark of an epoch

From your first novel The expanse of the battlefield Published in 1994, Michel Houellebecq has established himself as a singular voice in French literature, translated into some forty languages, punctuating the publication calendar and capturing media attention. We comment, analyze and criticize his novels in the light of current events and the polemical formulas that appear there. “I became a kind of landmark in the imagination of an era”, he watches slumped in his old armchair. The literary press also invented a word to compare Michel Houellebecq: houellebecquien.

“The more it goes, the more we hear about the term houellebecquiennotes Agathe Novak-Lechevalier, professor at the University of Paris-Nanterre and author of Houellebecq, the art of consolation. It is particularly used by critics to describe the work of other writers. Many first-time novelists or established authors trying a new genre are immediately likened to the 2010 Goncourt Award. The Ark of the Mesaliance or that of Abel Quentin, The Seer of Etampesreceived the seal.

“I don’t know if we can speak of a Houellebecquian type of novel. It refers more to a world view., decides the specialist when questioning Michel Houellebecq’s influence on contemporary literature. This disenchanted vision, the writer declines in his novels. For nearly thirty years, he has cast a caustic, even cruel, look at consumer society.

Back to reality

In the universe designed by the novels of the author of elementary particles the gaudy supermarket shelves, the highway, the sinister office towers, television presenters like Julien Lepers or Jean-Pierre Pernaut and politicians like François Hollande or Éric Zemmour set up shop. “Michel Houellebecq participated in a form of return to reality in contemporary literature”, notes Caroline Julliot, a professor at the University of Le Mans who directs the book Misery of Man Without GodMichel Houellebecq and the question of faith with her colleague Agathe Novak-Lechevalier.

Influenced by science fiction authors such as Maurice Georges Dantec or Howard Phillips Lovecraft but above all by the realist novel of the 19th centuryand century, the writer has always had the project of representing the contemporary world and exploring the movements that agitate it. “Michel Houellebecq’s ambition is to find the faults in society and put pressure on them”, with and perspective Caroline Julliot.

In this way, Michel Houellebecq takes realism to the point of exacerbation and puts it under tension. In the winter of 2015, Michel Houellebecq signs Submission. The plot begins with the approach of the presidential elections of 2022. It describes a France where identity clashes break out and the election of a President of the Republic from a Muslim political party is essential as a resource. Asked by a listener of the France Inter antenna about the likelihood of this projection on the day of the book’s launch, the novelist details: “It takes much longer, it takes several decades. It’s a classic effect of concentration and role play.”


Michel Houellebecq is used to close anticipation. This is perhaps one of the most characteristic features of his work. “Many of his books take place a few months or a few years after the publication of his novels. It’s a way of talking about the contemporary world without diving into journalistic chronicle and moving away from classic science fiction. details the writer’s expert, Agathe Novak-Lechevalier.

A floating reality emerges where fictional characters and public figures meet. The border is blurring. “He maintains the confusion as if he likes to be misunderstood. It gives the feeling of always being on the edge between reality and fiction. comments Caroline Julliot who also questioned the place of transgression in the work of Michel Houellebecq in Extension of the domain of the norm or transgression of the transgression.

This promiscuity between beings on paper and existing protagonists is nothing new in literature. “He writes like in the 19th centuryand century, portion Caroline Julliot. He has a natural conception of storytelling.” Unlike the proponents of the New Roman, a current that stirred the second half of the 20th century.and XIX and with the aim of refounding the notion of character, Michel Houellebecq fits the molds of classic authors. “For him, Balzac is the father of every novelist”, recalls Agathe Novak-Lechevalier.

Bellanger, Messina and Duteurtre

the author of Platform does not feel the desire to be at the origin of stylistic innovations. There are relatively few recognizable formalities in Michel Houellebecq’s writing. One of them was widely taken up by Aurélien Bellanger, a novelist who claims the influence of Houellebecq in his writing: scientific digressions. During his first novels, the author ofAnnihilate he had acquired the habit of citing long informal excerpts from scientific reports or drawing inspiration from encyclopedia entries to reinforce the bibliographic effect of his approach. A process taken up by Bellanger in Greater Paris in 2017 and in information theoryin 2012. This device also earned Houellebecq, at the beginning of his career, the censure of lack of style.

If Aurélien Bellanger claims to be from the Houellebecquian groove (he also entered literature with the 2010 publication of an essay for the glory of his master, Houellebecq, romantic writer), He is not the only one. Since the publication of its first title, false match, Marion Messina shares a private correspondence with Michel Houellebecq and has several times expressed her joy at being compared to him. More renowned authors, such as Benoît Duteurtre or Marin de Viry, show their proximity to the novelist.

But not all writers exhibit authorship. “Michel Houellebecq so vitrifies literary returns that young authors are reluctant to define themselves as Houellebecquians,” point Agathe Novak-Lechevalier. The name Houellebecq can crush. New novelists in search of their own identity fear being trapped in the shadow of their mentor.

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At the same time, Michel Houellebecq’s media can offend. “Michel Houellebecq currently does not teach in a claimed way”, notes Caroline Julliot. The novelist has a following, but he did not found a genre. Only Houellebecq really does Houellebecq and the book industry is happy with that.

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