French, Through and Through.

Not too long ago, I took a weekday night to attend a Believer Books event in the Mission District of San Francisco, which looked quite tantalizing and not just a bit subversive. It seemed, from all reputable accounts, that the anti-liberal French author, Michael Houellebecq, had journeyed across the Drink to allow himself to be interviewed by the multi-talented American author, Daniel Handler – otherwise known in some circles as Lemony Snicket. Handler might argue this allegation with us, but it makes no difference. He is what we want him to be, as are all celebrities of art and media.

The event was in recognition of Believer’s new re-release of Houellebecq’s essay from 1991 on H.P. Lovecraft, entitled ‘Against the World, Against Life’. While the promise of such an evening seemed delightful and curiosity-inspiring, the function itself (and Handler/Snicket might just agree with us) turned out to be one VERY Unfortunate Event.

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A brave companion and I weaved through burrito stands and terribly interlocked traffic to come to rest at the cavernous and chic Foreign Cinema in the heart of the Mission. We were then funneled down long, industrial hallways into a gallery room packed with San Francisco luminaries, pseudo-intellectuals, and kool kids, all imbibing copious amounts of red wine at the furnished bar. Perhaps the establishment knew something that we did not before the mad Frenchman Houellebecq (whose name has FAR too many letters in it) made his way to the front of the room and sat down to be queried by our favorite protagonist, Handler.

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Handler had prepared a fine manifest of sincere, enticing questions that Houellebecq did not seem able to – or did not have the interest to – answer sincerely. This is a man who studied Lovecraft for years, reading scads of personal letters, journal entries, and surely the groundbreaking horror writer’s entire catalog. He probably knows Howard Phillips more intimately than any man alive. But all that work was undertaken nearly fifteen years ago, and here we were, a far cry removed from that good and painstaking scholarship, in a place that Houellebecq clearly did not wish to be. He was evasive, pedantic, elitist, and wholly uninterested in answering any questions about either Lovecraft or his own insight into the man. And yet we sat there and baked under the hot lights with no fans or cool drinks.

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Perhaps the most interesting moment of the evening came when Handler asked Houellebecq why he thought that Lovecraft’s work was so accessible to young, single men – and why that seemed to be his main audience. The Frenchman only replied by asking Handler for his own opinion. This counter-response was gratifying and astute. In summary, Daniel pointed out that during the time of Lovecraft’s publishing, it was frowned upon for young men to be avid and voracious readers. The ones that did pick up the work of Lovecraft were fascinated by the stories of horrific secrets only revealed to a select few, ignored by the rest of society, the constituents of which blindly went on their unassuming lives. Note that most of Lovecraft’s protagonists fit this bill: young, unwed men who come upon arcane knowledge that they knew nobody would believe. Handler believed that there was a great allegory between the readership of Lovecraft’s tales in the 1920s and 30s and the lives about which they read – held apart from those warmly accepted into society…loners, freaks, and those who know too much.

But for every thesis there is an anti-, and the lowest point of the discourse exemplified Houellebecq’s attitude. In the midst of long lulls in conversation, Houellebecq was asked for any insight into the life of H.P. Lovecraft. He replied that he no longer had any interest and really forgot quite a bit about him since the time that his book was written. From this he went on to explain, though, that the works of Lovecraft are especially poignant to the French people, and that they understand it in a way that others do not. When asked to further explain, after thirty-seconds of silence, Michael Houellebecq, the great wordsmith and modern literary maverick, simply stammered, “Because…because that is just what I think.”

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Lovecraft once wrote: “I am so beastly tired of mankind and the world that nothing can interest me unless it contains a couple of murders on each page or deals with the horrors unnameable and unaccountable that leer down from the external universes.” Perhaps Houellebecq let the soul of Howard Philips leak just a little too deeply into his own, like a writhing proboscis of apathy poised to strike out at humanity thorough its beastly nonchalance.

It was a pleasure to exit the stuffy theater, none the richer for our experience. We didn’t even stay for drinks or to get our books signed, but instead made our way into the rapidly-approaching fog banks of San Francisco, rolling over Mount Sutro like waves of cumulus tide. As it eclipsed the archaic, elephantine structure of the Freak Magnet, we knew that we needed no moony, stolid Frenchman to bring the stories of the past back to life.

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X-posted to cthulhu_nunnery

12 Responses to “French, Through and Through.”

  1. agntprovocateur Says:
    June 14th, 2005 at 6:24 pm

    so, was Houellebecq just there to sit and look pretty? cause paris hilton he is NOT!

  2. FunkyPlaid Says:
    June 19th, 2005 at 3:08 am

    I hear they have a video tape together, though.
    *shudder*

  3. avalokita Says:
    June 15th, 2005 at 11:27 am

    “I am so beastly tired of mankind and the world that nothing can interest me unless it contains a couple of murders on each page or deals with the horrors unnameable and unaccountable that leer down from the external universes.”
    Wow, I honestly feel that way too often. Maybe that means I'm destined to be a good writer. *crosses fingers*

  4. FunkyPlaid Says:
    June 19th, 2005 at 3:09 am

    Maybe that means you're destined to have your soul eaten by a tentacled Elder God.

  5. dellaluna Says:
    June 15th, 2005 at 12:41 pm

    It sounds like a very unpleasant experience, which is too bad. I hate having my expectations shattered when I go to see an author or artist I like speak.
    Perhaps the most interesting moment of the evening came when Handler asked Houellebecq why he thought that Lovecraft’s work was so accessible to young, single men – and why that seemed to be his main audience.
    It is fascinating how so any females seem adverse to supernatural or horror lit in general. I'm not sure that it's just single men who find it accessible or that women in general have a long history of social conditioning that made them avoid things like Lovecraft's books.
    My father loved horror films and various horror authors, so I was brought up with a healthy respect for "things that go bump in the night", but I was a minority for a long time. I can remember going to one of the early Fangoria conventions in the late 80s and being one of maybe 5 other females in attendance. There were hundreds of males there of course.^^;

  6. FunkyPlaid Says:
    June 19th, 2005 at 3:12 am

    To be clear, I'm not speaking on the horror genre as a whole being inaccessible to women. I'm noting, as Handler also did, and as self-evident, that the works of Lovecraft were surely written with a small demographic of readership in mind – one that mimics the protagonists within, and not coincidentally.

  7. dellaluna Says:
    June 19th, 2005 at 12:00 pm

    To be clear, I was just expanding the conversation and adding my own perspective on Handler's opinions and views of Lovecraft, which seemed rather limited. I will add that I have noticed over the years that when people talk about Lovecraft thay often see him through a much smaller keyhole than I do.
    I'm not sure why Handler thinks only single men were frowned upon for being avid and voracious readers during Lovecraft's day. Maybe avid and voracious readers of Pulp mags? But if that's the case you can imagine what society thought of single women – who wouldn't dare – read the same.
    I think it's easy to characterize most of the writers from the 30s and 40s who wrote for Pulp mags like H. P. Lovecraft or Robert E. Howard as appealing mainly to a readership of single males (often "outsiders") and offering views of the world seen through their eyes, but I also think that perspective could be applied to a large body of horror literature (as well as fantasy and sci-fi lit.). Pulp writing in general (even previous to Lovecraft) was mainly written by men and read by them. It also often featured protagonists who could be categorized as "outsiders" since it really was in many ways "outsider" fiction. Women writers who dared to write in a similar style and with similar protagonists would often have to change their name and/or pretend to be males to get published.
    I mentioned horror lit above (and could have added fantasy lit. or sci-fi lit.) because in my experience those genres are still not very appealing to women as a whole even in modern times. Thankfully things are changing, but slowly in my own experience. At least women are finally able to walk into comic shops and buy modern "Pulp" mags with their heads held high, but even that's a very new development that didn't really happen until the late 1990s.
    Hope that clears up the point of my previous post! ^_~

  8. FunkyPlaid Says:
    June 19th, 2005 at 12:08 pm

    It does, and thanks.

  9. partime_killer Says:
    June 17th, 2005 at 10:34 am

    this guy is a genious and so very complicated…
    Had I known Michael Houellebecq will be in interviewd SF I would have flown for this. I have read all his books and I think that Elementary Particles (a.k.a. Atomized in Europe) is the best book I have read by any contemporary writer.

  10. FunkyPlaid Says:
    June 19th, 2005 at 3:16 am

    Re: this guy is a genious and so very complicated…
    Hi there.
    I have yet to read a sterling review of Elementary Particles, but I'm glad that he moves you and that you enjoy his work. I figure he owes me an evening of my life back, so hopefully I'll find something of his that makes me feel similarly as you. Perhaps he can loan me a few of the extra fucking consonants in his name or something.

  11. partime_killer Says:
    June 20th, 2005 at 12:54 pm

    Re: this guy is a genious and so very complicated…
    Well by the time Elementary Particles got published in US I had already read and loved his first novel and loved that this guy's writing and humor. He is hyper intellectual and his humor is often misunderstood as not everyone has the mental capacity get to the bottom of what he is trying to convey. Plus his books are not easy to read, so his fans in America are very few. I bet that all the negative reviews for this book or the Platform are stemming from the fact that the reviewer seems to think that Michel is too tough on the Muslims. which clouds his/her head to see any further.

  12. FunkyPlaid Says:
    June 21st, 2005 at 12:13 am

    Re: this guy is a genious and so very complicated…
    …not everyone has the mental capacity get to the bottom of what he is trying to convey.
    Are you a fan of Michael Foucault, as well? I have a natural aversion to writers who masturbate in the pages of their own books – this is not to say that Houellebecq does this, as I have yet to delve into his catalogue. As for mental capacity, I appreciate writers who choose to write accessibly *and* intelligently, instead of snickering into their own syntax while 98% of the population misses the point. I will take your good recommendation and see for myself, however.

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