Home > 1990, 20th Century, French Literature, Houellebecq Michel, Novel > The Elementary Particles by Michel Houellebecq

The Elementary Particles by Michel Houellebecq

Les particules élémentaires by Michel Houellebecq. 1998. 316 pages.  British title: Atomised US title: The Elementary Particles.

Ce livre est avant tout l’histoire d’un homme qui vécut la plus grande partie de sa vie en Europe occidentale, durant la seconde moitié du XXème siècle. Généralement seul, il fut cependant, de loin en loin, en relation avec d’autres hommes. Il vécut dans des temps malheureux et troublés. Le pays qui lui avait donné naissance basculait lentement, mais inéluctablement, dans la zone économique des pays moyens-pauvres ; fréquemment guettés par la misère, les hommes de sa génération passèrent en outre leur vie dans la solitude et l’amertume. Les sentiments d’amour, de tendresse et de fraternité humaine avaient dans une large mesure disparu ; dans leurs rapports mutuels, ses contemporains faisaient le plus souvent preuve d’indifférence, voire de cruauté. This book is principally the story of a man who lived out the greater part of his life in Western Europe, in the latter half of the twentieth century. Though alone for much of his life, he was nonetheless occasionally in touch with other men. He lived through an age that was miserable and troubled. The country into which he was born was sliding slowly, ineluctably, into the ranks of the less developed countries; often haunted by misery the men of his generation lived out their lonely, bitter lives. Feelings such as love, tenderness and human fellowship had, for the most part, disappeared. The relationships between his contemporaries were at best indifferent and more often cruel.

Michel Houellebecq is often described as a genius. At least, that’s what international journalists claimed when his last novel, La Carte et le Territoire was published in 2010. (How they knew that when the book hasn’t been translated into English so far is a mystery to me. There are really a lot of fluent French speakers out there.) It won him the Prix Goncourt. I thought it was high time for me to try one of his books and I bought Les Particules élémentaires. Published in 1998, it is Houellebecq’s second novel. It relates the parallel lives of Michel (the ‘he’ of the previous quote) and Bruno, two half brothers who have the same mother, Janine.

Bruno was born in 1956 and Michel in 1958, like Houellebecq himself, btw. Janine was a dismissive mother who never took care of her children, not even seeing them. Bruno was raised by his motherly grand-mother, first inAlgeria and then in France near Paris. After her death, he was sent to a boarding school where he was relentlessly and violently harassed by older pupils. He used to spend his week-ends with his father who was totally at loss at how to create a healthy and solid relationship with his son.

Michel was raised by his fatherly grand-mother, first in the Yonne department and then near Paris, not far from Bruno. He was always a solitary and silent child, interested in scientific reviews and science TV programs. When they were teenagers, the adults decided they should meet.

At the beginning of the book, they are fortyish adults, both dysfunctional in their own way. Michel is an acclaimed researcher in biology, particularly interested in the human DNA. When the book opens, he’s leaving his research unit to think and then work on his own. Bruno was a French literature teacher but had to quit due to psychiatric problems.

Michel is all superego. He has no sex life, no sexual impulse even as a teenager and doesn’t know how to create bonds with other people. He was born an adult. He is all mind, his body tolerated only as the biological vector of his thoughts. He sublimates his personal needs into a higher goal, his research. He’s a failure as a person, but he’s useful to the society through his work. I should have felt admiration for him but I didn’t.

Bruno is the id. Horny is his normal state of mind. Sex is the only thing he’s interested in. He finds solace in food. He’s immature. At 42, he still reads Les six compagnons (1) and compares his lover Christiane to Claude, one of the characters of the Famous Five by Enid Blyton. Very mature indeed, something he admits to himself. Bruno never grew up and screwed up his life because he can’t grow up. He’s pathetic, a personal failure, useless to the society and even a parasite in a way. I should have felt compassion for him but I couldn’t. Pleasure is his aim but according to him, he’s not the only one:

Les individus que Bruno eut l’occasion de fréquenter au cours de sa vie étaient pour la plupart mus par la recherche du plaisir – si bien entendu on inclut dans la notion de plaisir les gratifications d’ordre narcissique, si liées à l’estime ou à l’admiration d’autrui. Ainsi se mettaient en place différentes stratégies, qualifiées de vies humaines. The people Bruno happened to meet during his life were mostly driven by the research of pleasure, that is, if one includes in the notion of pleasure the gratifications of a narcissist kind, linked to other people’s regard or admiration. Thus were put into place different strategies, called human lives.

This quote sums up the sour taste of the Elementary Particles. It is written in a detached tone. I thought about the even voice of a commentator to a documentary on a specific animal, the Western European man. It’s the tone of a scientist/god observing the humans from above, as if they were ants bustling around their anthill. The book is full of sociologic insight and philosophical analysis. Michel Houellebecq is a pessimist. He judges the Western civilization is doomed and seems to present Bruno as its typical decadent offspring. I agree with some of his observations, like the one on the indestructible core of one’s personality.

Cela faisait maintenant vingt-cinq ans que Bruno connaissait Michel. Durant cet intervalle de temps effrayant, il avait l’impression d’avoir à peine changé ; l’hypothèse d’un noyau d’identité personnelle, d’un noyau inamovible dans ses caractéristiques majeures, lui apparaissait comme une évidence. Bruno had known Michel for twenty-five years now. During this dreadful span, he was under the impression he had barely moved on. The hypothesis of a core of personal identity, of a permanent core in its main characteristics seemed obvious to him.

Conventions and social rules build layers around it, that all. However, I refuse to take Bruno as the template of our Western species. Most of us have had loving parents, weren’t harassed in school and became adults. It’s something Michel Houellebecq acknowledges but mocks:

Après quelques années de travail le désir sexuel disparaît, les gens se recentrent sur la gastronomie et les vins ; certains de ses collègues, beaucoup plus jeunes que lui, avaient déjà commencé à se constituer une cave. After a few years as a worker, sexual desire vanishes; people concentrate on gastronomy and wines. Some of his colleagues a lot younger than him, had already started their wine cellar.

Oh dear, I had never guessed that boring business lunches about food and wine stem from the end of sexual desire of the male participants. Please gentlemen, mend this so that we can talk about something else.

The Elementary Particles conveys a pessimistic vision of humanity. Men are more challenged than women in this work. Houellebecq grants them goodness and disinterested love and denies it to men. I disagree with him on that point. Just thinking about dictators’ wives is enough to reject that thought.

It’s a disturbing book and I was fascinated, bored, bothered, annoyed, entertained and never indifferent. I got lost in the scientific bits and in some of the metaphysic reasoning: I lack the academic background. Anyway, I understood what I could. It’s been a while since I last read such a disturbing French book. Parts reminded me of Sade, alternating sex descriptions and intellectual thinking, always provocative. It also reminded me of Martin Amis. On the one hand, there’s the criticism of our materialist society like in Money. Bruno is as pathetic as John Self and has the same flaws. On the other hand, Bruno’s unquenchable thirst for sex at any cost recalled sex in Dead Babies, i.e. pleasure without love and in collective settings. I was rather bored by descriptions of orgies and swinger night-clubs.

I wasn’t blown away by The Elementary Particles but I’m really glad I read it. I think Michel Houellebecq has a unique place in nowadays literature. The ending surprised me and was well brought up. I need to read another of his novels to figure out his style. Here, the style serves the story, nothing can tell me if it’s his real literary voice or if it’s a fabricated one for the occasion. I’m tempted by Extension du domaine de la lutte (Whatever in its English translation) or La possibilité d’une île. La Carte et le Territoire is said to be less provocative, toned down to win the Prix Goncourt. I’m more inclined to read thought provoking books written as the author wanted them than self-censored books designed to win a literary prize.  

This book was part of Not a Rat’s Chance in Hell’s challenge hosted by Sarah (A Rat in the Book Pile), category “Seek out a book by an author who has earned ostracism by being so good that any further novel could surely never measure up…?”

It’s also one of my contributions to July in Paris, hosted by Thyme for Tea and Bookbath.

PS: M. Houellebecq, Bruno can’t eat at McDonald’s in Paris in 1975. The first MacDonald’s was opened in 1979 in Strasbourg. I checked because 1975 sounded early.

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 (1) Les six companions is a French series for children. It takes place in Lyon in the popular neighbourhood of La Croix Rousse. The six friends solve mysteries, like the Famous Five.  

Translations: The first quote comes from the sample I downloaded on my kindle. I translated the others and I did my best but I can feel it remains clumsy.

  1. July 17, 2011 at 10:37 pm

    I have a feeling that I would feel the same way about this book as you. Reading the review, parts caught my interest, but then other sections of the book sounded a bit… well… boring.

    On another note, I see you are reading Alison Lurie next. Interested to read your thoughts.

    Like

    • July 17, 2011 at 10:44 pm

      It’s worth reading. I couldn’t mention everything but there’s a lot of material in this book. I guess you’ll be with me on Bruno’s sexual adventures. I don’t think it was necessary.

      I’m loving this Alison Lurie so far. Thanks for the recommendation. I suppose it’s even better for a British living in America.

      Like

  2. July 17, 2011 at 11:31 pm

    If you like this one, I really recommend Truth or Consequences. Can’t tell you how often I think about that book.

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    • July 18, 2011 at 6:41 am

      Thanks for the recommendation. I haven’t read this one. I’ve read Real People, The War between the Tates and Only Children.

      Like

  3. July 18, 2011 at 5:26 am

    This is one of those books I reviewed when I was working for an editor and refused it. (It didn’t fit the program anyway) I hated the book and found its charcaters off-putting. Then I read Extension du Domaine de la Lutte and loved that one so much that I swore I will read more of him, one day…
    Has anyone seen the movie of Elementary Particles… , Guy? It is a German movie and the discussion was very controversial.

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    • July 18, 2011 at 6:43 am

      I didn’t like the characters either but the book is worth reading (and publishing)
      I wonder how it is possible to make a film out of it without being utterly vulgar. How did the director manage to include the philosophica, political thoughts in the film? I’m curious. The discussion can only have been controversial, which is what the writer wanted, btw.

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    • July 18, 2011 at 7:10 pm

      Didn’t know there was a film, so I will have to see if I can find it. He has quite a few books translated into English, I see. Tempted to try one…

      Like

      • July 18, 2011 at 7:34 pm

        I just got his first novel Extension du domaine de la lutte. It sounds good.
        I’d be curious to watch the film too. It’s Elementarteilchen in German and it was released in 2006.

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      • July 19, 2011 at 5:16 pm

        I see this has also been translated as Atomised. The film is available, so I may try and find a copy. Many readers seem to think this book is one of the author’s best.

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        • July 19, 2011 at 7:08 pm

          Yes I know the reputation of this book and that’s why I chose it in the first place. It’s good but it’s not the masterpiece I’ve heard it called. Especially because his style isn’t fantastic.

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  4. leroyhunter
    July 18, 2011 at 9:22 am

    I read this maybe 10 years ago, so I only have vague impressions. I think I expected something Ballardian – challenging, full of ideas, but also well-written. I remember thinking it failed on the latter score anyway. I’m suspicious of writers where the agenda or the persona is integral to (or even bigger then) the writing. Houellebeq seems like one of those, but it’s possible he’s been hard done by the mdeia. I also think that repeatedly telling us “everything’s shit” or “the west has failed” is not such a radical message. Deliberately positioning yourself as a contrarian or iconoclast within the culture is a handy way of assuaging a supposedly radical conscience while continuing to reap the benefits of the culture you supposedly decry.

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    • July 18, 2011 at 6:03 pm

      I don’t know what should be expected with “Ballardian” but I agree with you on the style: not really impressive or creative. Efficient maybe. I got Extension du domaine de la lutte today, we’ll see if it’s “normal” style or one used to give back the documentary atmosphere.

      I’m as suspicious as you: that’s why it took me so long to read one of his books despite the praise and that’s also why it’s in this category in Sarah’s challenge.
      Cynicism is always easy and gives you an excuse not to do anything. I think he admires Sade, Baudelaire great deal: he wants to be controversial, as if it were a mandatory quality to be a good writer. And I share your views on the way his harsh criticism allows him to sell books and then take advantage of the materialist society he demolishes.
      But it’s also interesting to hear a less consensual voice.

      Like

  5. July 19, 2011 at 6:55 pm

    I recently read Le Carte et le Territoire (not in French, by the way… my French is mostly… nonexistent) and was sufficiently impressed that I went out and got The Elementary Particles. I haven’t read it yet, but I’ve been told that there’s a stylistic difference between the two, even though they’re both clearly Houellebecq. I wouldn’t call Le Carte et le Territoire toned down, but perhaps I’ll be surprised by Houellebecq’s other works…

    Like

    • July 19, 2011 at 7:05 pm

      I hope you’ll come back here when you have read the Elementary Particles. I’ll be interested to know what you think about it.

      Like

  6. August 10, 2011 at 8:16 pm

    Interesting. I think I prefer the title Elementary Particles.

    I know Houllebecq primarily as an enthusiast of my old pal HP Lovecraft, but haven’t read his own writing. This is probably his most famous work in English,but I’m not absolutely sure. It sounds interesting, but the premise of our being irretrievably in decline is arguably a bit uninteresting. Is anything ever so simple?

    The anthropological tone interests me, making women better than men (like making them worse) troubles me as suggesting a lack of insight.

    Nice review anyway. Thanks. I’ll think more about this one.

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    • August 10, 2011 at 8:41 pm

      I prefer the title The Elementary Particles. After all, it’s the French title and it suits the atmosphere as there are many references to physics. (And I got lost, I was always bad at understanding physics)
      Of course, as you imagine, I haven’t read HP Lovecraft. I know it’s SF but that’s all I know. It wonder if it played a role in the construction of The Elementary Particles.
      I absolutely loathe the theories that pretend that men and women are different in essence. It’s all about culture and education, for me. I just read Rilke and he also suggests that women love better than men, more profoundly, more honestly and more purely. And he was ahead of his time regarding relationships and the place of women if I think of Letters to a Young Poet. Of course you can say that if you analyse the past. But put through the same education and circumstances than men, they’d behave exactly the same.

      If you want to try Houellebecq, get Whatever (I reviewed it after The Elementary Particles) It’s shorter and it’s better.

      Like

  7. August 10, 2011 at 8:43 pm

    Lovecraft wrote something then called wierd fiction. It’s a mix of sf and horror, and occasionally fantasy. He predates our present genre definitions.

    That aside, I’ll look up the Whatever review. Thanks.

    I agree on men and women. If you put yourself in the other’s societal position the vast majority of behaviour is immediately comprehensible.

    Like

  8. Uma
    November 12, 2011 at 9:22 am

    Tell me please where ca I download this book?

    Like

    • November 12, 2011 at 9:32 am

      If you’re looking for a free version, none should be available since the novel isn’t in the public domain.
      For a paid version it depends on your language.

      Like

  1. December 10, 2011 at 5:59 am
  2. April 29, 2015 at 10:58 pm

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