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Germany’s (French) lit bad boy: Michel Houellebecq

Why is French author Michel Houellebecq so beloved in Germany?

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Serotonin came out in Germany on January 7, four years to the day since the release of Submission and the Charlie Hebdo shooting. Photo by Philippe Matsas

Michel Houellebecq’s latest opus was released to the usual flurry of TV news reports and critical frenzy. Read the interview we did back when his last novel – Serotonin – was released with literature professor Wolfgang Asholt on why Germans love the French novelist so much.

A new Houellebecq book is a big affair in Germany. Not only do the Germans make for the author’s largest readership outside France (Submission sold half a million copies in 2015), but their fascination extends to the man behind the author – his third wedding made headlines even in the no-nonsense FAZ. When Serotonin came out, it was reported all over – from broadsheet Feuilleton to the ARD evening news, and the book sold out within days. In fact, one week after its initial release, publisher DuMont was already issuing a sixth reprint – 135,000 copies in total at the time of writing.

So what’s the big attraction for German readers? We asked the country’s first and foremost Houellebecq expert, Wolfgang Asholt, why the author strikes such a chord with the German public.

The German translation of Serotonin came out almost at the same time as the French original, meanwhile English readers will have to wait until September for the British release; next year for the US one. Does this speak to how popular Houellebecq is in Germany?

Yes. It took five years for his first novel to come out in Germany in 1999. For Atomised, it was only one year, and that was pretty much the rule until Submission (2015): for the first time the German edition came out at more or less the same time as the French original. The shrinking translation delays show how Houellebecq has by now become part of the German literary landscape. It’s become an imperative that his books be published within days of the French release – putting real stress on the translators, who can hardly keep up. Uli Wittmann, his main translator, threw in the towel and they had to put two translators on Submission to meet the deadline!

Houellebecq landed on the German market exactly 20 years ago this month with the release of Whatever by Berlin-based Wagenbach – only 5000 copies, but immediately popular enough to be reprinted seven times and sell 30,000 within the next few months. But his big breakthrough was in October 1999, with the release of Atomised by bigger publisher DuMont. What happened then?

Yes, Elementarteilchen was an immediate sensation and a huge bestseller. Der Spiegel ran an interview with Houellebecq right after the release that October, which for any author, even a German one, is quite huge. The novel was also immediately picked up by household theatre and film names – Frank Castorf brought it to the Volksbühne stage in 2000 with Martin Wuttke. Then came another staging at Schauspielhaus Zürich in 2004, and the Oskar Roehler film with Moritz Bleibtreu in 2006. This is quite unique and contributed hugely to root Houellebecq in Germany’s broader cultural landscape. Not to mention that German academics embraced his work and started teaching it at university around 2000, much earlier than the French.

In France he’s always hugely polarised critics. This has changed in recent years: The Map and the Territory earned him a top literary prize, and now Serotonin received quasi-unanimous praise. Have you observed a similar evolution in Germany?

From the outset, his reception here has been much more positive. I’d say that Houellebecq enjoyed the kind of acclaim that he now has in France already 10 years ago. And his popularity has been growing ever since, culminating with Submission selling half a million copies in 2015. Interestingly, after the Charlie attacks and the backlash that followed, Houellebecq cancelled all interviews and public appearances in France. Yet he came to Cologne to speak about the novel. This shows how much he values his German audience, be it because it’s his biggest market outside France or because of his love for Schopenhauer! Over the years, he’s toured the country many times, even with his poetry and also with his band, always very successfully.

What about the Oswald Spengler Prize he received last year? The German philosopher is a big hero among right-wing identitarians and other nationalist nostalgics who worship his The Decline of the West. What does the award say about his readership?

Not much. It’s no huge surprise that Houellebecq finds parallels between Spengler’s and his own pessimistic worldview, namely that the West is in a “state of very advanced decline” as he said at the ceremony. But I wouldn’t say he’s associated with identitarian movements here or that you’d find more AfD voters among Houellebecq’s readers than the German average. Rather the contrary.

Actually, the German Left also has a soft spot for him. He made the front page of Taz for his 60th birthday!

The enthusiasm of the German left for Houellebecq is a little complicated. Papers like Süddeutsche Zeitung and Taz are mesmerised by him. For them, he has the appeal of the outsider – despite being a high-earning global literary star. All the same, he’s held up as that rebel who challenges the literary and political system. It’s surprising how eagerly they embraced him, given some of his opinions – from his staunch Eurosceptic stance to his recent praise of Trump (in Harper’s Magazine), or the way he portrays women for example. I personally think they wouldn’t let a German author get away with these kinds of provocations.

Do you think it is a case of wanting to hear from someone else – even better a foreigner – what many wouldn’t dare say out loud?

When you ask left-wing, progressive people about his inflammatory statements, they’ll usually brush it off – “You know, he likes to provoke.” I’d say that the writer Houellebecq doesn’t just have a great acuity for observing the reality of his surroundings and feeling the pulse of the society he lives in, but he also has strong beliefs; opinions which he dares to express in his books. Most writers don’t, especially not in Germany.

What about the accusations of Islamophobia that followed Submission? Even if undeserved, Houellebecq did once call Islam the “most stupid religion”. He revised his judgement later – candidly confessing to a new-found appreciation of the Koran after finally reading it – but such provocations stuck and explain why he’s still so controversial in the UK and the US. Is Germany less politically correct?

True, you don’t see the same reservation here, which is surprising, because the German media can be pretty politically correct when it comes to sensitive issues such as Islam. But for some reason, when it concerns Houellebecq, they are more forgiving. But to be fair, Submission wasn’t an Islamophobic book. Its critique was more aimed at the French political elite than at Islam. Of course the enormity of the Charlie tragedy that occurred just as the book came out made it very difficult for many people to maintain a neutral judgement.

At the same time, it consolidated his reputation as a prophetic novelist…

Yes, even now, a review of Serotonin in the Süddeutsche Zeitung went on about Houellebecq as the “prophet of downfall”, and how, this time, he anticipated the yellow vests. It all started back in 2001 with Platform, in which people saw the premonition of Islamist terrorism and even 9/11, and it stuck with him. It contributes to his ‘special aura’.

Speaking of aura, the Germans seem to buy into the French jaded dandy persona he created for himself – from jeans-and- parka slob to tailcoat-and-bowler-hat- clad ladies’ man – his third marriage last September captivated the German press!

The photos of him in his tailcoat! It was clearly all staged and displayed as some self-ironic commentary… But for Germany this blend of inflammatory aura and French-lover dandyism is totally unique… and that’s totally exciting! We don’t have another fellow like him and we’re not kidding ourselves about producing one any time soon. So we adopted him alright! That’s what I meant when I said that he belongs to German literature.

He cited Novalis and later German romantics as an inspiration… Do you see a connection?

I’d say the French surrealists, Bataille or Blanchot, have more obvious connections to German romanticism. Interestingly, he has rather been compared to Emile Zola by colleagues like Rita Shober, a foremost GDR academic and one of the first Houellebecq specialists in the country – for his naturalism, but also for his stature as a novelist who takes a stance in the ideological debates of his time. We tend to forget how provocative Zola was back then. He, too, was accused of writing popular literature!

That’s without even considering Houellebecq’s humour. There’s plenty of extremely funny, at times laugh-out-loud passages!

Yes, that’s often underestimated – his prose is very dark and often cynical, but there’s a lot of humour. There are a lot of lawyers out there, and you can be more or less literal in your reading. Each of his big novels can be taken or more less seriously.

What are your own personal favourite novels?

I still consider his first [Whatever] one of his best – a great social roman noir. My other favourite is The Map and the Territory with its cynical parody of the author’s death and the detective story following the murder of a character called Michel Houellebecq, with a backdrop of a fundamental pessimism à la Schopenhauer. For me, the exceptional status of Houellebecq resides in his unique talent not only to come to grips with at least one major societal issue in each of his books, but also to do it in the realm of fiction with a style that is accessible to most readers, including non-readers or people who’ve abandoned books of fiction in favour of electronic media. I can’t think of another author who’s managed it so well.

Are your students just as enthusiastic?

The other day I joked with a colleague at the HU that if I put Houellebecq in the title of my seminar, there wouldn’t be enough students left for our other colleagues. That’s how popular he is!

Wolfgang Asholt (74) is an honorary professor at Humboldt University, with a specialisation in contemporary French literature. He has been teaching and analysing the novels of Michel Houellebecq since the early 2000s.