Since our French is not remotely up to the challenge, we are deeply grateful to the wonderfully talented Dorna Khazeni for offering us her translation of the following hilarious piece by Edouard Launet from Thursday's issue of Liberation.
The diary of a three-day conference dedicated to the work of Michel Houellebecq, held in Amsterdam and attended by the who’s who of international academic literary criticism.
Special correspondent for Liberation in Amsterdam Edouard Launet
Liberation Nov. 1, 2007, © Liberation
Around the end of October, the University of Amsterdam hosted an International Conference entitled The World of Houellebecq presenting a range of readings of the French writer’s work.
Wednesday October 24. 10:30 a.m.
The day’s first lecture sounds very promising: Cunnilungus and fellatio: the sexually correct in Houellebecq’s work. Murielle Lucie Clément, an independent academic, has inventoried the sexual practices in Houellebecq’s work. Today, we are beneficiaries not only of her meticulous study but also of the aphorisms she has gathered, such as this one by Romain Gary: “Fellatio may be used as caress in the usual progression of the embrace, but certainly not as a first-aid method.”
A little earlier, Professor Ieme Van der Poel, the Head of the Department of French Literature and Culture at the University of Amsterdam, gave a short welcome speech to the 50 or so academics who have flocked here from Europe and North America for the second edition of the World of Houellebecq conference. Speaking to the gathered lit crit academics—average age about 35 years old—Ieme called attention to the perfect meeting of place and topic. “Liberty and libertinism are both important aspects of this city.” A warmer welcome, we could not have received.
Next, Sabine Van Wesemael, a Dutch woman from the University of Amsterdam gave an introductory talk singularly titled, “Faire un gros calin,” which was revealed to be a judicious exercise in inter-textuality comparing Gros Câlin [loosely, “Big Hug”], the first novel by Emile Ajar aka Romain Gary—previously quoted—to Houellebecq’s first novel Extension du domaine de la lutte. Are the heroes in both these works not “Idealists possessed simply of an unutterable need for love?” Sabine notes that in the case of the latter, the flood of sperm is never madly inclined toward the uterus. In Extension Houellebecq writes, “The quivering of their cocks seems to be the translation of a certain ontological state of doubt.”
Lunch with the Norwegian, Rita Sandnes, from the University of Oslo who wraps up the morning’s sessions with a talk on “The Body, Desire and Vitality in The Elementary Particles.” Must bear this one sentence from her speech in mind, “In a world in dissolution that is elusive, only the body is not elusive.”
The sexual gangplanks that Houellebecq’s managed to hoist over collapsed ideologies allow a generation, if not to identify their issues, at least to look onto the less than promising prospects of their post-postmodern future with a less dumbfounded gaze. Rita reports that in Norway too M.H. is read by thirty-something’s who generally don’t read much else at all.
The party picks up again in the assembly room on the ground floor of a pretty building across from the Spuistraat, in the hyper-center of Amsterdam. Douglas Morrey of Warwick University (Great Britain) discourses on “Hegemonic Feminism and Masculinity in the work of M.H.” In fact, he describes above all, “a world inhabited by the frustrated and by virgins.” Douglas does provide the following key, “You will remain forever the orphan of those adolescent loves you never experienced.” (from Extension) Lovely, but sad.
The first edition of the conference, held in 2005 in Edinburgh, Scotland, took place in the presence of the master himself, seated in the front row, scribbling away incessant notes in a black notebook, discussing the presenters’ theses. It was very unnerving. Houellebecq is not here, this time. Which is better. The exchanges will be more candid. It’s said he may come on Friday. He’s finishing editing his film, the adaptation of The Possibility of an Island.
Cocktails and a Thai dancer. The conference’s two organizers, Sabine Van Wesemael and Murielle Lucie Clement, evidently know what they’re doing.
Smokes and coffee with Marie Gil from Paris IV, who worries that her lecture tomorrow on the “Impossibility of Metaphors in the Work of M.H.” may be ill-fated due to, on the one hand, the impossibility of uttering a single word (laryngitis) and the impossibility of finding an open store anywhere at this late hour to buy shampoo. There’s still a slightly Calvinist side to Amsterdam.
Thursday, 9 a.m. An early start with a Canadian offensive. Sébastien Sacré from the University of Toronto is here to speak on the relationship between ethics and morals in M.H.’s novels. Whereas Pascal Riendeau from the same establishment is tossing around Kant in much the same vein. “According to Houellebecq, the world dissolves in a vacuity of individualism,” is the sentence of the day. To be kept in mind next year during the inevitable post-mortems that will accompany the 40th anniversary of May 1968.
Abroad, people are often surprised that French academic criticism is so disinterested in Houellebecq. Outside our borders, some believe the writer to be the most important thing that’s happened to French fiction since, they assert confidently, the Nouveau Roman. Besides, the body of work reveals something so singular about the state of France—and hence about the state of the world—according to these foreign academics, smitten as they are with French culture. In October, no less than three Houellebecquian academic conferences were planned in Canada (in Toronto, Edmonton and Montreal), all three on the initiative of students. Finally, the one in Montreal, on the topic of “The Observer in the work of M.H.” did take place. The author himself decided not to grace the event with his presence for which, he had asked no remuneration, only … a first-class air ticket.
The morning ends with a lively debate where two arguments merge: one on the “supposed platitude” of Houellebecq’s style and the other on love as the only possible path to happiness. Literary criticism’s neat!
Lunch with Bruno Viard of Provence University who last night underscored the fact that the fellatio-cunnilingus duo is all that remains when human relationships are reduced to their zero degree. This appeared to be a general sentiment. Dutch sandwiches are excellent.
After Tomasz Swoboda from Gdansk University reveals the “Houellebecquian wanderer” to be a distant progeny of the “Baudelairian wanderer,” Marie Gil and what little voice she has left, heroically go up to the podium, ready to take on “Metaphor in the poetry of M.H.” Edmund Hillary conquering Everest comes to mind, with the exception that, one can safely say, barring any information to the contrary surfacing, Sir Edmund did not quote Paul Ricoeur to the sherpas.
The two conference organizers hold a signing of their latest book at the Athenaeum bookstore. Michel Houellebecq, under a magnifying glass (Rodopi Publishers) is a collection of quasi-entomological articles of diverse provenance. David Evans of Edinburgh University in St. Andrews has contributed a piece entitled, “Structure and Suicide in the poems of M.H.” where he managed to highlight the following lovely alexandrine: “Il faudrait que je meure, ou que j’aille a la plage.” [I should die or go to the beach.]
Dinner with Christina Horvath from Oxford Brookes University, whose talk this morning was entitled, “Provocation in the work of M.H.” Christina brings her sharp, Hungarian intelligence and an invigoratingly ironic gaze to bear on her examination of literature, France and the world. We look forward as much to a future encounter with her as to the upcoming publication of her book, A kind of Super-modernity, the urban novel in France 1999-2001, by the Presses de la Sorbonne nouvelles.
Friday 12:30 a.m.
Sipping at mint teas, Marie and Christina confess to having experienced a troubling sort of pleasure as they watched the collapse of the Twin Towers in New York. Should twelve years of graduate study not immunize one against such pleasures? On Wednesday, the Pole, Olga Wronska, whose doctoral thesis is all about the relationship of French literature to psychoanalysis, rolled her r’s alarmingly as she pronounced “erection,” and “castration.” When not teaching at Gdasnk University, Olga is a windsurfing instructor.
God is here. No, not Houellebecq. The other God. In The Possibility of an Island, Fanny Van Ceunebroek, from Montpellier III University sees glimpses of an attempt at re-writing the Bible. No less heterodox, Walter Wagner of Vienna University, has discerned a “pastoral inspiration,” in M.H.’s work. Because, yes, in Extension, looking out the Paris-Rouen train window, “the beauty of the setting sometimes makes the book’s narrator forget his glumness.” Wagner gives us two alexandrines.
Along with coffee there’s the Gavin Bowd cordial. The organizer of the first Houellebecq conference two years ago shares a few anecdotes straight from the set of The Possiblity of an Island, where he was an extra. The film wrapped in Spain last Spring. Gavin, who was the British edition’s translator, also contributed a piece of dialogue to the film. Apparently Houellebecq is convincing as a director, but it would seem a sure bet that he and Benoit Magimel, his lead actor, will not be spending their next vacation together. Tensions on the set were somewhat high.
A conversation over another coffee with the young Liza Steiner of Marc-Bloch University in Strasbourg who spoke on Wednesday on the subject of “From the boudoir to the sex-shop, writing in the democratic crisis in the Sade-Houellebecq confrontation.” Notwithstanding enriching aspects of the experience was, Liza tells us, it was a trial to read the complete works of Sade. The fundamental split, between Sade and M.H. in the end comes down to 1968, it would seem. How can anyone have an orgasm after May 1968?
We leave Amsterdam just as posters start popping up all over coffee shop windows for a demonstration against the Dutch authorities proposed ban on the sale of hallucinogenic mushrooms. How could they? Unbelievable!