French literary bad boy Houellebecq returns with ‘yellow vest’ novel
Revered for his nihilistic novels and right-wing views, Michel Houellebecq’s latest book, Sérotonine, is flying off the shelves
Paris — Provocative French author Michel Houellebecq’s highly anticipated new novel, in which he appears to foretell the “yellow vest” revolt, looked set to become an instant bestseller after going on sale on Friday.
Houellebecq, a fierce euro-sceptic, became a pin-up of the far right after his last book, Submission, which envisioned a France subject to sharia law after electing a Muslim president in 2022.
The deeply depressed hero of his latest book, Sérotonine, is an agricultural engineer who returns to his roots in a provincial France devastated by globalisation and European agricultural policies. He finds a resentful rural populace who are “virtually dead” yet ripe for rebellion and who rise up to block motorways, much as the yellow vest movement has done since late November.
Houellebecq’s seventh novel, written long before protesters in high-visibility vests began barricading roads to protest against President Emmanuel Macron’s policies, has been hailed by critics as eerily premonitory. Anticipating runaway demand, Flammarion publishing house has issued a first print run of 320,000 copies for the French language edition — 64 times that of the average novel.
Houellebecq shot to worldwide fame with nihilistic novels depicting misogynistic men trapped in loveless existences and hooked on casual sex
“It’s all I’ve been selling since this morning,” a sales assistant at Librairie Delamain bookshop in central Paris told AFP. At another bookshop in the capital’s 15th district, Chantal, a Houellebecq fan who did not wish to give her full name, said she bought a copy as soon as the store opened. Confessing to a liking for his “nihilistic, discerning” outlook, she said: “There are few authors that have this vision of society.”
The book, which will be published in German, Spanish and Italian next week, only comes out in English in September.
Houellebecq shot to worldwide fame with nihilistic novels depicting misogynistic men trapped in loveless existences and hooked on casual sex. Sérotonine is not the first to be seen as a cautionary tale.
His 2001 novel Platform, about sex tourism in Thailand, features a terror attack on a nightclub popular with Westerners. A year after its release, Islamist radicals attacked a bar and nightclub on the Indonesian tourist island of Bali, killing 202 people.
Houellebecq has, however, denied being a prophet, telling a French literary magazine in 2015 that he was merely making “projections” based on his observations.
The theme of Western decline runs throughout his work and his latest book is no exception.
Dying of sadness
Houellebecq, who was awarded the Legion of Honour by Macron on January 1 for his services to French literature, rails against politicians who “do not fight for the interests of their people but are ready to die to defend free trade”.
His hero — a typically Houellebecqian narrator called Florent-Claude Labrouste, who is a thinly veiled cipher for the author —a also blames feminism for what he sees as the West’s demise. “This is how a civilisation dies, without dangers or drama and very little carnage,” says Labrouste, a 46-year-old “dying of sadness” whose Japanese partner hates him and whose career is all but over.
In his native Normandy, where he goes in search of his ex-wife who left him when he slept with another woman, Labrouste finds factory workers being laid off and failing farmers committing suicide.
In a recent essay in Harper’s Magazine, he praised US President Donald Trump for his protectionist trade policies, calling him ‘one of the best American presidents’
France’s L’Obs magazine has called Sérotonine — a reference to the anti-depressant ingredient, serotonin, the narrator takes — Houellebecq’s best book, “a beautiful work of infinite sadness”.
Germany’s Die Zeit weekly said it had long seen the “anti-liberal convictions of France’s greatest living author as a literary device. Now, he must be taken seriously”.
Houellebecq revels in his role as literary arch-provocateur. In October, he raised eyebrows by presenting the Oswald Spengler prize, named after the German fascist philosopher who wrote The Decline of the West.
At the ceremony he said France should leave the euro, that “Muslims were a problem” in Europe, and it would be better if “the Catholic Church were back on top”.
In a recent essay in Harper’s Magazine, a New York-based monthly, he praised US President Donald Trump for his protectionist trade policies, calling him “one of the best American presidents”.
His last book, Submission. came out on the same day in January 2015 that jihadists attacked the Paris offices of Charlie Hebdo satirical magazine, killing 12 people, including a close friend of Houellebecq. It immediately shot to the top of the best-seller list, selling nearly 800,000 copies in French and more than 500,000 in German.
In September, the author, who has written that “love makes one weak”, married Qianyum Lysis Li, a woman of Chinese origin 20 years his junior.