To the Editor:
Thank you for publishing Christopher Caldwell’s essay about Michel Houellebecq (“A Bellow from France,” March). I read Serotonin in French when it first came out and, although formerly repelled by the anonymous sex in his other works, became a Houellebecq convert at last.
I appreciate all the points Caldwell makes about Houellebecq’s critique of liberal society, although I think that once the dismantling of liberal institutions becomes undeniable, we turn back to the values on which those institutions were built: the Judeo-Christian world, humanist ethics, and faith. Houellebecq’s critique points his characters toward this cul-de-sac and limns the negative transformations underway there. He implicitly criticizes the consequences of radical individualism by making his characters reject a return to traditional values. Houellebecq’s protagonist is a convert to Islam, but before that he is an expert on Huysmans, an aesthete who fervently returned to his Catholic faith. The choice of Huysmans as the protagonist’s earlier intellectual anchor is a deliberate reference to a return to traditional values.
Caldwell did not mention some things worth pointing out. First, Serotonin reads like a comic novel, specifically with regard to the predilections of the protagonist’s Japanese girlfriend. Also, the book is painfully touching, particularly the character of Aymeric d’Harcourt-Olonde, who tries to eke out a living as a dairy farmer amid falling dairy prices and failing marriages. Here, the novel strikes an especially French note that may escape American readers. In a country as large as the United States, mass production means items that would be otherwise unavailable to a large segment of the population are cheaply and efficiently distributed to almost everyone. In France, a country the size of Texas built around centuries-old villages, Houellebecq argues that the use of mass-distribution methods in line with European Union directives means only the destruction of the unique and irreplaceable by the commodified and mediocre.
To the Editor:
I heartily agree with Christopher Caldwell’s analysis of Houellebecq’s work. He is one of the most lucid French novelists of our time. While his humor is cynical, he is something of a visionary and understands our society not only as sharply as Bellow, but as deeply as Balzac, who inspires him and whom he often quotes.