Michel Houellebecq’s much-anticipated eighth novel is titled Aneantir (Annihilate), which in French aptly means “to annihilate oneself,” but also “to disappear.”
The Paris-based literary provocateur has crafted an intellectual political thriller that tells of European societal decay amid a decade of rising right-wing populism.
Set during the fictional French presidential election campaign of 2027, the novel sees the French finance minister try to ascend to the presidency amid threats from terrorists. Paul Raison, the book’s protagonist, actively supports the effort while rekindling a faltering relationship with his wife until an illness upends his life.
Following up on themes in 2015’s Submission — which sees an Islamic Party take over the French presidency — the author again indulges in political provocation.
Released on January 7 in France, Annihilate is well-timed as a French presidential election looms and right-wing populists Marine Le Pen and Eric Zemmour are on the rise.
The new Michel Houellebecq novel — published in German this week as “Vernichten” — is 624 pages long
Tackling toxic masculinity
Annihilate also describes the end of an era during which male social and political authority has gone unchallenged.
One character spends well over a page contemplating his infertile white sister-in-law’s decision to have a Black child through artificial insemination. That he finds this impossible is hardly surprising. That he then goes on to fantasize that she may have have only wanted to humiliate her husband (his brother), who is also white, is an example of Houellebecq’s treatment of so-called toxic masculinity.
These are men who see women as the enemy, marriage as a prison, children as a burden, and Black people as inferior. In short, men who still bemoan the emancipation of women and people of a different skin color, and who are quick to reach for the bottle when a feeling stirs within them.
Their existence is correspondingly joyless. The white male characters around whom Houellebecq’s books ultimately revolve are always miserable. He spares them no humiliation and no weaknesses. He allows them neither illusions nor person.
French writer Michel Houellebecq at 60 — or 62 The provocateur Smoking is just one of his numerous obsessions, says Michel Houellebecq. His first collection of poems “La Poursuite du Bonheur” (“The Pursuit of Happiness”) was published in 1991. His 1994 debut novel, “Extension du domaine de la lutte,” published as “Whatever” in English, marked his breakthrough in the French literary scene.
French writer Michel Houellebecq at 60 — or 62 Looking into the abyss His poems and novels often have morbid undertones, highlighting social ruptures and voids. The same holds true for his photographic work, where beauty and truth is accompanied by dangers and abysses, such as in this photo, entitled “Espagne #005.”
French writer Michel Houellebecq at 60 — or 62 His view of France A 2016 exhibition in the Parisian Palais de Tokyo present a series of Houellebecq’s photos, all simply entitled “France.” Featured above is a path leading to a beach along the Atlantic coast. The tristesse of present-day France is a dominant theme not only in his books, but in his photos as well. They typically depict suburban ghettos, highways, gray tarmac streets and empty parking lots.
French writer Michel Houellebecq at 60 — or 62 Sand desert Wastelands devoid of human life, as depicted here on “Espagne #009,” appear to fascinate Houellebecq. With his camera, he finds pictorial perspectives of inhospitable concrete buildings in the outskirts of Paris or barren landscapes in northern Spain.
French writer Michel Houellebecq at 60 — or 62 Sober colors The somber colors of Houellebecq’s photos also express this sense of tristesse, while his literary works are more shrill. He is fascinated by “the poetry of disgust,” he once told Swiss daily Neue Zürcher Zeitung.
French writer Michel Houellebecq at 60 — or 62 …and shrill ones In June 2016, visitors of the Paris exhibition were able to explore Houellebecq’s entire photographic oeuvre in 21 halls spread out over 2,000 square meters. The artist is also obsessed by the shrill and bright colors of advertising panels. Exalted and excessive: these attributes have also contributed to the best-selling author’s image.
French writer Michel Houellebecq at 60 — or 62 Controversial books Many of his works have stirred controversy, and not only in France. In a highly provocative fashion, the author writes on sex tourism, homophobia or Islamophobia. One of his most controversial works, “Submission,” was released on the same day as the attacks onsatirical magazine Charlie Hebdo was attacked by Islamist terrorists in 2015.
French writer Michel Houellebecq at 60 — or 62 Poetic devotion The author has somewhat withdrawn from the public. Following the terrorist attacks on Charlie Hebdo and the publication of “Submission,” he has received death threats, and that has obviously affected him. His photo “Arrangement #011” shows a totally different side of Houellebecq, certainly not one that’s commonly associated with his persona.
French writer Michel Houellebecq at 60 — or 62 Last words Tired of the “indictment” that happens with each interview, Michel Houellebecq announced at the Frankfurt Book Fair last year that he would stop giving them. He talked a last time to Spiegel magazine, discussing France, Germany, literature and religion. He also said he was working on a novel, but didn’t know when it would be ready. Author: Heike Mund (ad)
Characters who disappear
This is what happens to Annihilate protagonist Paul: At the very moment he finally rediscovers love for his wife, he is diagnosed with tongue cancer. He will die if his tongue is not removed.
Unsurprisingly, Paul decides that he would rather lose his life than his tongue. He doesn’t tell his wife, of course, that he would have a better chance of survival if he had the surgery; her job is to take care of him while he slips away.
Incidentally, the gay French author Edouard Louis describes men similar to those Houellebecq does, as does the French-Moroccan writer Leïla Slimani.
In contrast to Houellebecq, Louis and Slimani recognize that it is societal structures such as poverty, racism, colonialism and inequality that are the source of men’s suffering.
Leila Slimani writes of the female experience and colonialism in Morocco
With Houellebecq, on the other hand, the unhappiness of his characters is rooted in the nature of the men who cavort in his books. Men are sex-driven and feel unfairly subjugated (even though they hold the greatest possible financial and political power); women, meanwhile, would prefer to be at home raising children and caring for sick family members.
Houellebecq’s novels are the escapism that France’s right-wing nationalist conservatives so desperately need.
The far-right presidential candidates Le Pen and Zemmour are, typically, promising to take France back to a prosperous, white postwar world. And it’s Houellebecq’s novels that warn of a new present in which women and People of Color also claim political power, and diverse sexual identities can meet as equals.
His stories allow the reader to slip into the mind of someone who is frightened by equality — someone who would rather be lonely than give another person an equal footing.
It’s perhaps why Houellebecq is so successful, despite his provocations — including when he called Donald Trump “one of the best American presidents I’ve ever seen.”
Annihilate will be Houellebecq’s last novel, the author announces in the book’s opening acknowledgments.
“I have fortunately just come to a positive realization,” he writes. “For me, it’s time to stop.” That may sadden many. As author and Houellebecq biographer Julia Encke asks in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung: “He wants to stop? Now? Why?”
Yet the answer is perhaps obvious. Michel Houellebecq knows when it’s time to leave the stage. In countless novels, he has fulfilled his intention: to immortalize the loneliness of male existence within patriarchy.
A selection of France’s best contemporary writers Michel Houellebecq The undisputed star, and enfant terrible, of modern French literature, Michel Houellebecq writes novels such as “Platform” and “Submission” that continually provoke public debate about capitalism, religion and sexual politics. Houellebecq will attend the Frankfurt fair with his new book, “In Schopenhauer’s Presence,” which describes how the German philosopher has long inspired the French author.
A selection of France’s best contemporary writers Virginie Despentes Sometimes referred to as the female Houellebecq, Virginie Despentes has also been writing provocative novels for over two decades. She is best-known for “Baise-moi,” her rape and revenge novel from 1993 that she also made into a cult film. Her autobiographical book, “King Kong Theory,” recounts her time in the sex industry. She comes to Frankfurt with her novel trilogy, “Vernon Subutex.”
A selection of France’s best contemporary writers Yasmina Reza Next to Despentes, Yasmina Reza is among France’s best-known female writers. She has penned several internationally lauded plays, including “God of Carnage,” which was also adapted into an award-winning film by Roman Polanski. More recently, Reza has found success as a novelist. Her new book, “Babylon,” plays again to Reza’s strengths with its satirical take on bourgeois societal manners.
A selection of France’s best contemporary writers Leïla Slimani French-Moroccan novelist Leïla Slimani was awarded France’s top literary prize, the Goncourt, in 2016 with “Chanson douce” (translated as “Sweet Song”), her novel about a nanny with a deadly agenda. Born in 1981, the novelist and journalist first gained attention with her debut, “Dans le Jardin de l’Ogre” (“In the Ogre’s Garden”), that portrays the demise of a sex addict.
A selection of France’s best contemporary writers Édouard Louis Still only 24, Édouard Louis has taken the French literary scene by storm with politically charged, autobiographical novels that explicitly reveal his own experience growing up queer among the underclasses of rural France. Following his breakout success, “The End of Eddy,” Louis comes to Frankfurt to promote “History of Violence,” an English translation of which will be released in 2018.
A selection of France’s best contemporary writers Didier Eribon Born in 1953, Didier Eribon was long one of France’s most famous sociologists until his 2009 book, “Return to Reims,” an exploration of his working class origins (and the homophobia he faced), also made him a literary heavyweight – and inspired upcoming novelist Édouard Louis. His new book is called “Society as a Judgment,” which also deals with class and identity.
A selection of France’s best contemporary writers Annie Ernaux Somewhat like Didier Eribon, the autobiographical works of the author Annie Ernaux also derive from a sociological view of the world – and her experiences growing up in small town France. Her highly personal accounts of family, affairs, abortions and breast cancer have also been distilled into “The Years,” a best-selling and highly acclaimed memoir that will be published in English next month.
A selection of France’s best contemporary writers Delphine de Vigan Following the success of her award-winning breakout novel, “No et moi” (No and Me), about a special friendship between two very different teenage girls, Delphine de Vigan has since confirmed her literary renown with the fictional memoir “Nothing Holds Back the Night,” which won over critics when published in English in 2014. Her latest novel is a psychological thriller, “Based on a True Story.” Author: Jochen Kürten, Stuart Braun
This article was originally written in German.