French actor and writer Michel Houellebecq (L) and French film director Guillaume Nicloux (R) (Photo by Ander Gillenea / AFP)

Houellebecq, joy and Jesus

A morbid pessimist reminds us of the purity of faith

Artillery Row Books

Good Friday and Easter Sunday are amongst the holiest days of the year for Christians. They represent two opposite poles of suffering and hope, of death and new life. Besides contemplating the Paschal mysteries, I spent these days contemplating the works of Michel Houellebecq, the French troubled literary genius. After finishing his novel Submission last year toward the end of Lent, I anxiously awaited the release of the English translation of his latest novel Aneantir (Annihilate), which was initially set for the summer of 2022 but has been pushed back indefinitely.

What business does a devoted believer like myself have reading novels written by an agnostic Frenchman — which consist of irreverent humour and flagrantly pornographic sex scenes — during the most sacred moments of the year? Well, Christ’s “submission” to God the Father’s will and his readiness to be “annihilated” by his detractors forged a paradoxical unity between these seemingly irreconcilable, markedly Houellebecqian poles.

Surely, I say this in jest. Such an excuse for reading Houellebecq may sound like an unconvincing exercise in Jesuitical casuistry. In all seriousness, though Houellebecq is not afraid to enter into the “abyss” of the human condition. His willingness to confront the deep-seated nihilism that pervades the West in his works has brought him to the brink of faith. He often writes — both in his novels and essays — of his esteem for the moral and social values linked to Christianity. For this reason, reading his books provides believers with challenging insights.

Anéantir, Michel Houellebecq (Flammarion, €26)

On Good Friday of 2023, my understanding of the relationship between Houellbecq’s works and the Easter Triduum was made more profound, more personal. After walking in a Way of the Cross procession from Brooklyn into lower Manhattan, I made my way uptown to a Tridentine Passion service in Midtown. I got distracted en route by a “subversive” bookstore filled with young people decked with nose rings, purple hair and gender-nondescript clothing. I quickly put out my Lucky Strike, rubbing it into a fire hydrant until I had annihilated the last orange spark (tobacco is the one indulgence I allow myself whilst fasting). As I walked in, I hesitantly asked the sales clerk, who was aimlessly scrolling through Instagram whilst manning the register, to help me find a book.

“Sorry, we don’t have a computer database” — how countercultural, shocker — “but you can look in the fiction section.” I should have known better than to presume to interrupt his scrolling session. As I began searching, I happened upon a thick, square-shaped book with Houellebeq’s name written along the top in all lowercase characters. It was lying on the “Featured Books” table, with annihilate traced in a blood-red tone across the middle.

“Damn, this is out already?” I exclaimed to the clerk, baffled by the fact that I was not aware that the long awaited novel had already been released. “I didn’t hear anything about it online yet.”

“Yeah,” he muttered without looking up from his screen. “We just got that one copy in yesterday.”

On my way home from the church service, I started searching the web ravenously for information about the book’s official release date. The English translation was unavailable on all major book vendors’ websites, and no news about it was to be found anywhere. Weird …

As I spent Holy Saturday devouring the novel, it quickly became clear to me that there was no way that this copy could be an official translation. Littered with literal translations, it read like it was put through Google Translate. Could it be, I wondered, that the apathetic clerk accidentally put a galley copy of the book out for sale? I never thought I would say this, but thank God for millennial laziness.

On Easter Sunday, I gave praise to God — becoming the first person in the anglophone world to read Aneantir was evidently his reward to me for “submitting” to his will on Good Friday by following the cross, the instrument of his “annihilation”, over the Bridge. I carried the book with me throughout Easter week, ostentatiously displaying it on the table where I was sitting at a coffee shop and posting pictures of myself reading the book on Instagram … much to the envy of my followers — some of whom offered to buy it off me. But no. This was my reward from the Almighty, who had smiled widely upon me and showered me with this gift.

Much like Houellebecq, I’m going a little too far — I have a taste, like him, for the decadent, the hyperbolic. The true gift in reading Annihilate is not so much that I am the only special snowflake reading it in English right now, but rather the content of the book itself.

The book includes standard Houellebecquian tropes about terrorism, the sexual frustration of cisgender heterosexual white males and Western secularisation. The way this novel approaches said tropes throws readers for a loop, however. This time, the terrorists are not radical Islamists, but rather environmentalists whose political commitments don’t neatly fit into the conventional left-right paradigm. Their ultimate agenda is to boost dropping population rates. The main character Paul Raison has a surprisingly hopeful experience of rekindling sexual and romantic passion with his wife of over a decade, after having endured a several year-long dry spell.

Perhaps the novel’s greatest surprise is its implicit esteem for Christianity. This time, his treatment of Christianity is not merely ideological — which is to say, reduced to its secondary, political or moral implications — as it usually is in his others. In Annihilate, Christianity is presented in a much more personal and simple manner: the Christian characters’ faith in the God who “so loved the world that he sent his only son” are the only ones who appear to be genuinely happy and free in the midst of suffering. For the first time, Houellebecq seems to be getting at what is essential, what is most primary to the Christian faith: the person of Christ himself.

Raison finds himself struggling (as his surname alludes to) but desiring to believe in the god his sister, Cecile, worships. What attracts him to her faith is not its ties to moral order or “Western Civilization”. On the contrary, his sister has little interest in the “traditional Catholic fundamentalists” who are involved in political conflicts that arise throughout the novel. Those Catholics seem to have lost sight of the fact that the Incarnation, Passion and Resurrection of Jesus are impetuses not to engage in ideological battles, but to “rejoice and be glad”.

Too many allow ideological agendas to cloud their familiarity with the person of Jesus

Whilst visiting their ailing father in the hospital, Paul feels a sudden urge to “grill a cigarette” (good job, Google Translate). “If there is a place that produces stressing situations, if there is a place where the need for tobacco quickly becomes intolerable, it is a hospital.” When facing the possible death of a loved one, what could satisfy one more than a cigarette, he asks. “Jesus Christ, Cecile would probably have answered. Yes, Jesus Christ, probably,” he admits (and I couldn’t agree more, especially when lighting up a bogey after having walked three miles in the cold to pay public witness to Jesus’ death on Good Friday).

Cecile’s joy, her sense of peace and hope in the face of suffering, and her willingness to be a loving presence in the midst of their family crises, all captivate her brother. Paul is inspired to start frequenting a nearby church — not exactly to pray in a formal sense — but to offer his desire to have a special “connection” with God, to be on a first name basis with God, as does Cecile.

It’s no secret that a slew of “trad Catholics” — from Dimes Square scenesters to integralists — are fans of Houellebecq. His derisive, satirical attitude toward Western secular neoliberalism overlaps with their ideological commitments. I won’t be surprised if said trads find themselves bored or disappointed with Aneantir, however, for taking its cues more from Pope Francis’ “joy of the gospel”-type rhetoric than from Cardinal Sarah’s “funeral march of the West” rhetoric (though I’ll be the first to point out the convergences between the two).

As much as my trad sympathies are no secret to those who know me, I must admit feeling refreshed and even inspired by Houellbecq’s shift in tone. Faith in Christ does indeed invite us to a measured engagement in social and political affairs, but I find that too many of my contemporaries allow their ideological agendas to cloud their familiarity with the person of Jesus and the joy born from that encounter with him. By itself, a Christian “moral revolution” will likely prove incapable of making people happy in the midst of their humdrum daily affairs and the pangs of suffering. At the end of the day, isn’t that what matters most — what has the capacity to attract people in the way that Christ himself did 2,000 years ago?

Houellebecq has announced that Aneantir is his last novel, marking the annihilation of his literary career. As much as that fills me with sorrow, I can’t deny feeling grateful for the fact that his final work of fiction, which delves so deeply into the phenomenon of death and human finitude, emerges as one of his most hopeful novels yet.

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