Another Controversial Classic
One of the most fabled parts of the vast world of literature, French literature has produced some of the most prominent writers who gifted the world with some of the most revered and popular literary titles. From the classic works of Alexandre Dumas and Victor Hugo to the more contemporary works of Marcel Proust and Jean-Paul Sartre, French literature is a necessary part of the literary world. In its vaunted halls, are In Search of Lost Time, Madame Bovary, The Count of Monte Cristo, Les Miserables, and The Three Musketeers. They have fed the imaginations of many a reader. They have been translated into different languages and form an integral part of the study of world literature. They have transcended time and remain seminal in the contemporary, underlining the contributions of French literature.
Another name that stands out in contemporary French literature is Michel Houellebecq. Born Michael Thomas – he, later on, adopted his paternal grandmother’s maiden name after his parents refused to have anything to do with him – Houellebecq rose above his circumstances to become one of the most discussed writers not only in the ambit of French literature but of world literature as a whole. His prolific career has earned him several accolades across the world. His foray into literature started with the publication of his poems in the magazine La Nouvelle Revue. In 1994, he made the switch to full-length prose with the publication of his debut novel, Extension du domaine de la lutte. However, it was with his second novel, Les Particules élémentaires that Houellebecq made his biggest breakthrough.
His book caught the attention of both French literary and intellectual circles, even winning the 1998 Prix Novembre and was even considered the frontrunner for the more prestigious Prix Goncourt; he did not win the Prix Goncourt that year but would win it a couple of years later with a different work. After earning the local spotlight, Houellebecq’s sophomore novel would catapult him to global recognition. Les Particules élémentaires was made available to the anglophone with the English translation of Frank Wynne, a prolific translator who, in 2022, became the first translator to chair the panel of judging panel of the International Booker Prize. The British version of the book carried the title Atomised while the American version carried the more literal translation of the French title, The Elementary Particles.
“Uneducated man is terrified of the idea of space; he imagines it to be vast, dark, and yawning. He imagines beings in the elementary form of spheres, isolated in space, curled up in space, crushed by the eternal weight of three dimensions. Terrified of the idea of pace, human beings turn in upon themselves, they feel cold, they feel afraid. At best, they move in spaces, greet one another sadly when they meet. But this space is within them, it is nothing but their mental creation.”~ Michel Houellebecq, Atomised
Atomised chronicled the story of two half-brothers: Michel Djerzinski and Bruno Clément. The two brothers were born two years apart, with Michel born in 1956 and Bruno in 1958. They shared the same hippie-type mother but were raised separately. Michel was raised by his paternal grandmother while Bruno was shuffled from one boarding school to another. Bruno grew up in an environment that was emotionally detached and abusive. Meanwhile, Michel’s grandmother doted on him. He was looked after and cared for. However, Michel was introverted and emotionally distant, unable to compensate for his grandmother’s overflowing love. Meanwhile, Janine, their mother, after abandoning her children bolted for the sunny beaches of California where she became a part of a commune.
Being raised separately, the two brothers knew very little about each other until they unknowingly started attending the same school. The unexpected intersection in their young life, however, did little to bridge the gap between them. The different manners by which they were raised greatly contributed to their development as adults. Their mother’s abandonment also left a gaping hole in their lives. This has paved two divergent roads which each would pursue. In the book’s prologue, we learn about Michel’s disappearance. Before his disappearance, Michel worked his way to becoming a successful and first-rate molecular biologist. His brilliant works made him “a serious candidate for the Nobel Prize.” His intellectual prowess was a contrast to his emotional and sexual isolation.
Meanwhile, Bruno pursued a path that would be the antithesis of his brother’s. After experiencing bullying and abuse at boarding schools he attended, Bruno set himself a life brimming with failure. He tried his hand at writing only to fail. He entered a loveless marriage and a job as a teacher at a high school. These were magnified by his lack of physical appeal and charm. He has an extremely active libido and his obsession with sex started when he hit puberty. However, he got rejected by women, hence, he started finding pleasure in masturbation and fantasies of ”neurotic Lolitas.” He grew up to be an unhappy adult as his life was marked with failures, unhappiness, and frustrations which only grew bigger as he advanced in life.
The novel was divided into three sections. In the first section, Houellebecq adopted a neutral tone, almost academic. This part was more preoccupied with introducing the characters but not from the lens of a seasoned storyteller. It was less storytelling and more on careful laying out of the landscape of the story. We learn about the motivations of the main characters and the pivotal moments in their lives. There was a shift in the tone as the story entered the second and third sections. From a formal tone, the story then adopted a more intimate voice as the story dug deeper into the story of the two brothers. It was in the story’s last two-thirds that the lives of the two brothers started to unravel, with the story weaving in and out of the perspective of Michel and Bruno.
“Last, he saw the mental aggregate of space and its opposite. He saw the mental conflict through which space was structured, and saw it disappear. He saw space as a thin line separating line separating two spheres. In the first sphere there was being, then space, and in the second was non-being and the destruction of the individual. Calmly, without a moment’s hesitation, he turned and walked towards the second sphere.”~ Michel Houellebecq, Atomised
Atomised, however, does not reduce itself to a mere chronicle of the life of two brothers. As the story advanced, what floated to the surface were Houellebecq’s penetrating social commentaries, with an emphasis on modern French society. Following the end of the Second World War, French society has undergone a severe transformation, including moral and spiritual. People have lost themselves in their individuality. They have become incapable of building meaningful ties or connections with their fellows and their environment. Janine, who was a child of the war, for instance, severed her ties with her children. Michel also isolated himself from society while Bruno, in turn, was cut off by society, his motivations superficial.
Houellebecq’s astute observations of society drove the story. His penetrating lens saw how people have become detached from each other; we have become “atomised”. This is the trade-off for our fixation with individuality, As such, we are living in a society that is bereft of any real meaning. The society in which we are living has become empty and barren. We wallow in superficial pursuits in order to give our own existence a semblance of purpose or meaning. Bruno resorted to his sexual exploits while Michel to his intellectual pursuits. Their mother, on the other hand, pursued a path toward reclaiming her youth. The experiences of Janine, Michel, and Bruno are reflections of our own struggle to find purpose. However, neither Michel nor Bruno was the representation of this society Houellebecq was indicting in his novel.
Around this main theme, Houellebecq built the story and also tackled several seminal and even dark subjects. Existentialism was prevalent in the story. With the pressures we face in surviving today’s society, we cannot escape from existential questions; there were also philosophical overtones to the story. There were also references to depression, and mental health awareness. There were also contrasts, such as childhood and adulthood, happiness and suffering, and youth and decay, that were subtly underscored in the story. Death, one of the few things that Michel was palpably afraid of, was another theme that was explored in the story. At one point, Bruno contemplated the death of his grandfather. One character even committed suicide. But while the novel was riddled with humor, it contained vivid depictions of controversial subjects, from racism, pedophilia, and torture. The dynamics of modern romantic relationships were also captured in the story.
But if there was one thing that stood out in the book, one subject that has come to define and characterize it, it would be its overflowing reference to sex and sexual desire. The brothers’ story, after all, ran parallel to the era of the sexual awakening of the 1960s. The book was riddled with countless mentions of the male and female genitalia, the mammary glands, and orgasms, among others. The book was relentless in its preoccupation with and depiction of sexual desire. Even Michel, who was primarily portrayed as asexual, built his biological studies around sexual reproduction. There was an unchecked liberality in the manner by which Houellebecq used sex to drive the story. The book was brimming with vivid and graphic images, bordering on the pornographic, that earned the book the general public’s scorn and distaste. For sure, the book’s extensive reference to anything sexual makes it a rather challenging read.
“Contemporary consciousness is no longer equipped to deal with our mortality. More than at anhy time or in any other civilisation, human beings are obsessed with ageing. Each individual has a simple view of the future: a time will come when the sum of pleasures that life has left to offer is outweighed by the sum of pain (one can actually feel the meter ticking, and it ticks, inevitably towards the end) . This weighing up of pleasure and pain which, sooner or later, everyone is forced to make, leads logically, at a certain age, to suicide.”~ Michel Houellebecq, Atomised
Some critics and readers lauded the book and Houellebecq’s ambitious undertaking. It was also a thought-provoking work. Houellebecq, along with Wynne, would even go on and win the prestigious International Dublin Literary Award in 2002. However, the book’s exploration of dark and problematic subjects, magnified by its bleakness and, at times, pessimistic tone, made it an inevitable subject of controversy and intrigue; it contained apologetic elements for eugenics. Some literary critics did not hold back in their criticism of the book. Michiko Kakutani, a renowned literary critic, described the book as “a deeply repugnant read” in her review for The New York Times.
In Houellebecq’s native France, the book was both celebrated and condemned. There was an overwhelming backlash. Michel Dennery, the founder of the Le prix Novembre which was won by Houellebecq, has resigned from his post. He disapproved of Houellebecq and his win; Le prix Novembre would later be renamed to Le prix Décembre. However, even before the book’s publication, Houellebecq has already foreseen its fate. Two years before the book’s release, he famously said that the book will either destroy him or make him famous. It exactly had that impact.
Beyond the controversy it has stirred, the impact of Houellebecq and his breakthrough novel, Les Particules élémentaires, cannot be denied. Atomised is a mordant study of modern society. The book also introduced the idea of metaphysical mutation: “that is to say radical, global transformations in values to which the majority subscribe.” The book is a multilayered masterpiece that covered a vast spectrum of subjects, ranging from existential to cultural, to scientific to philosophical, and even to historical. The convergence of these subjects elevated Atomised to a modern literary classic. It is an ambitious undertaking, a book of many ideas held together by Houellebecq’s masterful storytelling. It was a thought-provoking book that catapulted Houellebecq to global recognition and consciousness.
“In this space of which they are so afraid, human beings learn how to live and to die, in their mental space, separation, distance and suffering are born. There is little to add to this. The lover hears his lover’s voice over mountains and oceans; over mountains and oceans a mother hears the cry of her child. Love binds, nd it binds forever. Good binds, while evil unravels. Separation is another word for deceit All that exists is magnificent, interweaving, vast and reciprocal.”~ Michel Houellebecq, Atomised
Characters (30%) – 24%
Plot (30%) – 19%
Writing (25%) – 21%
Overall Impact (15%) – 14%
When I obtained a copy of Michel Houellebecq’s Atomised, one of the first things that I noticed was its rather interesting cover of a young woman with nothing on except her underwear. Typically, this is a book I would avoid; both the cover and the title felt off for me. It did not help that I have never read any of Michel Houellebecq’s work before. I was also reluctant to start with Atomised because of what I perceived as references to science; I am still trying to find my footing in science fiction. But I guess, the inner curious cat in me made me rethink my choices. After all, I always look forward to the prospect of reading the work of a new-to-me writer. The thing with new experiences is that I am not always prepared for what is headed my way. At the onset, I was thrown off by the sexual overtones of the book. Masturbation, sex, and lust filled up about three-fourths of the story; this was somehow reminiscent of Hungarian writer Péter Nádas’s Parallel Stories. It was a challenging read, to say the least. However, it is also one of the few books that repay your persistence as the story redeemed itself as the story drew to a close. There was a positive and hopeful message at the end.
Author: Michel Houellebecq
Translator (from French): Frank Wynne
Publishing Date: 2001
Number of Pages: 379
Genre: Science, Literary
Half-brothers Michel and Bruno have a mother in common but little else. Michel is a molecular biologist, a thinker and idealist, a man with no erotic life to speak of and little in the way of human society. Bruno, by contrast is a libertine, though more in theory than in practice, his endless lust being all too rarely reciprocated. Both are symptomatic members of our atomised society, where religion has given way to shallow ‘new age’ philosophies and love to meaningless sexual connections.
Atomised tells the story of two brothers, but the real subject of the novel is the dismantling of contemporary society and its assumptions, its political incorrectness, and its caustic and penetrating asides on everything from anthropology to the problem pages of girls’ magazines.
About the Author
Michel Thomas was born on February 26, 1956 or 1958, in Saint-Pierre, Réunion, France with a physician for a mother and a ski instructor/mountain guide for a father. When he was still an infant, Michel was sent by his parents to his maternal grandmother in Algeria. When he was six, he was sent to France to live with his paternal grandmother, a communist. He, later on, adopted his paternal grandmother’s maiden name, Houellebecq, as his pen name. Meanwhile, his parents divorced.
He went to Lycée Henri Moissan, a high school at Meaux north-east of Paris, as a boarder before attending Lycée Chaptal in Paris in preparation to qualify for grandes écoles (elite schools). In 1975, he started attending the Institut National Agronomique Paris-Grignon. He completed his degree in agronomy (a branch of agriculture) in 1980. He excelled in the sciences but he was more captivated by the company of writers in Paris. He then started a literary review called Karamazov, named after Fyodor Dostoevsky’s last novel. He3 also started writing poetry. He submitted some of his poems to the magazine La Nouvelle Revue which published some of his earlier works.
With the encouragement of his editor, Michel Bulteau, Houellebecq wrote for a series Bulteau initiated at Éditions le Rocher publishing house. This opened an opportunity for Houellebecq to publish H.P. Lovecraft: contre le monde, contre la vie (H.P. Lovecraft: Against the World, Against Life), a biography, in 1991. In the same year, he published a collection of short prose meditations, Rester vivant: méthode (To Stay Alive: A Method), and his first book of poetry, La Poursuite du bonheur (The Pursuit of Happiness). In 1994, he finally published his first novel, Extension du domaine de la lutte (Whatever), a novel inspired by his job as a computer administrator in Paris, including at the French National Assembly. He worked as a computer programmer to support his budding literary career.
Houellebecq breakthrough in the international literary scene came in 1998 with the publication of his second novel, Les Particules élémentaires (The Elementary Particles in the United States and Atomised in the United Kingdom). The book stirred controversy for its themes but it would go on to win the prestigious International Dublin Literary Award in 2002. His succeeding novels include Plateforme (2001, Platform), La Possibilité d’une île (2005, The Possibility of an Island), and Sérotonine (2019, Serotonin). His most recent novel, Anéantir was published in 2022. He also published collections of poetry, essays, and articles. He also received a score of accolades for his career and his works, including the 2010 Le prix Goncourt for La Carte et le territoire (2010, The Map and the Territory) and the 2019 Austrian State Prize for European Literature.
Apart from writing, Houellebecq has also released studio albums and has acted in films. He has also directed a film based on his novels. Houellebecq is currently residing in France; he previously spent years living in Ireland before moving back to France.