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Book Review November 13, 2002
Belated Praise: The Elementary Particles
By John Dolan Browse author Email
Page 3 of 4
Most reviewers have assumed that the hatred fueling Houllebecq's novel is autobiographical. This is naive. In fact, Houllebecq's enemies are the classic targets of the French rightwing intellectual. The problem is that "rightwing intellectual" is a meaningless term in the English-speaking world. We have lots of rightwing jerks prating nonstop, but none of them could be called intellectuals. The French actually do have such people. And Houllebecq is a classic of the breed. Houllebecq's obsessions are those which have animated the French right since the late nineteenth century: the horror of fecundity and the even stronger repulsion for birth; the sense of degeneracy from generation to generation, both moral and genetic; defense of the French intellectual method, in which one can simply be intuitively right, against Anglo-American empiricism; and fear of the contagious, demotic culture of America.

The most important characteristic of the French right wing is its purely defensive, even defeatist tone. This tone isn't unique to the French; if you want to hear a recent popular expression of it, listen carefully to the lyrics on Morrissey's best album, Your Arsenal, in which he sings lugubriously, "We are the will ever know." (He thinks this is a bad thing, you understand.)

But the French Right has always taken racial defeatism to its most grand and ridiculous moments, using everything from phrenology to pop genetics to prove its cherished conviction that whites in general, and French in particular, are a dying breed. As usual, Celine expressed it most memorably and amusingly, with his endlessly-repeated claim that whites are "make-up base," a sort of primer coat which is doomed to be painted over in various shades of brown and black as a result of interracial goin's-on.

Unlike their German contemporaries, the French right of the thirties never thought things were going well for the Aryans. For them, the falling French birthrate was simply an effect of a dying culture, and suicide was their proper end. In his last journal entry before killing himself, Drieu la Rochelle wrote, "I have rejected Asia and children." Procreation itself began to seem to them something alien, hijacked by the younger, more vulgar and virile cultures of Asia or America. This bitter futility had its own pride; if the vulgar and fecund shall inherit the earth, then defeat is a badge of honor. The classic stance of the French Right is the Last Stand, a hopeless rearguard action. It's frightening how far back this tradition can be traced -- all the way to Roland, if you like. And it's still a powerful, popular form, dramatized in novels like The Camp of the Saints, in which a last remnant of the French barricades itself in a last-ditch enclave before being overwhelmed by hordes of dark refugees.

Houllebecq has wisely soft-pedaled the pro-Imperial and anti-black elements of his story, but they're clear enough to readers attuned to the Rightist tradition. Bruno's life is ruined when he and his kindly grandmother are expelled from their beautiful flat in Algiers after the revolution. Little Bruno spends his days in a wretched Marseilles tenement whispering, "Algerie Francaise," and his grandmother shuffles sadly, muttering to herself that someone, somehow, has made a terrible mistake. Bruno grows up to fall into bitter sexual envy of the big black athlete who gets the most beautiful blonde girl of all, the one Bruno himself desires. Bruno reacts by writing rightwing pamphlets, but learns from his Royalist editor that one simply can't say such things as one did "in Celine's time."

Houllebecq is right to pay homage (in this typically backhanded French way) to Celine. Houlebecq's view of the world is very, very close to Celine's. But Houllebecq has done a damned good job of packaging these old resentments into a damned good novel.

Even the ending of the brothers' tale echoes Celine. In one of his racist pamphlets of the thirties, Celine muses, "I think I'll go live in Ireland, where they don't like the English or the Jews." Houllebecq has dropped the anti-Semitic aspect of Celine's ideology in favor of a pro-Jewish, anti-black and anti-Arab hatred, but Michel, his protagonist, does what Celine wanted to do: he emigrates to Ireland, the last outcrop on which a Christian European culture still exists. Typically for a French rightist intellectual, Michel has no interest in God or belief in anything but an evil Nature; but he wants the masses, the peasants, to keep going to church. So he is relatively happy in Ireland, where "they still go to mass," walking the "trembling" landscape, perfecting his plan for the elimination of sexual reproduction and the creation of a new, androgynous species.

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