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The Domain of the Game, The Domain of the Struggle

By Max Dunbar.


The Art of Struggle, Michel Houellebecq, translated by Delphine Grass and Timothy Mathews, Alma Books 2010

Poetry has always been key to the Houellebecq style. Most of his protagonists write verse, and their efforts run from the deliberately banal (Platform‘s narrator, returning from holiday, fills in the customer satisfaction form with this couplet: ‘I know about this life, its details are all sorted/It’s very like a questionnaire, with boxes to be ticked’) to the almost unbearably moving: Michel Djerzinski, the reclusive biologist in Atomised writes this elegy to his lover Annabelle: ‘We will have loved little/In our human form/Perhaps the sun, the rain on our graves, the wind and the frost/Will end all our pain’. In the post-human future of which Djerzinski lays the foundations, the cloned creatures greet each other in poetry. One clone introduces herself with the words ‘The enumerated lump/Of the eye that closes/In the squashed space/Contains the last term’.

Similarly – as its translators, Delphine Grass and Timothy Mathews, say in their introduction – The Art of Struggle, while there is ‘no explicit narrative or plot’ carries ‘a path, a progression in the way the poems enrich and support each other’s craft.’ The volume of poetry has a similar structure to the set pieces in Houellebecq’s novels, in which a misathropic narrator encounters a situation – a holiday or business trip – where he’s obliged to make social interaction. So the casual routine lust of summer routine in ‘The Unbearable Comeback of Miniskirts’ (‘The seeds of panic/in the flick of a skirt’) leads to Houellebecq seeking out the observations of ‘Holiday Club’ and, later, the analysis of ‘The Mating Rituals of Martinique’. This situation of a man who hates people pretending to be a people person is where so much of Houellebecq’s comedy and insight springs. But the narrator isn’t forced into these situations: he seeks them out, for love or gratification or both. Houellebecq and his narrators don’t hold off the world in rooms. They go out and do things.

There is a version of the Annabelle poem from Atomised, preceded by a chunk of prose in which we go back to Annabelle as a younger woman, just off to university, moved on from her first love. ‘Faced with a choice between dawn and dusk, Annabelle watched her youth slipping faintly through the curtains.’ Here we’re transcending the symbol of feminine beauty and goodness, and into something universal. The corridor in the halls of residence. The metallic taste in the throat and tongue. The starless dusk. The corridor between disillusionment and hope. Between one life and the next.

Houellebecq, in his Art of Fiction interview, named his antecedents as the great French romantics: Baudelaire, Verlaine, Mallarmé – ‘both for the beauty of their work and for its terrifying emotional intensity.’ In translation at least, you can see echoes of the Flowers of Evil cadence. ‘Showing their hanging breasts through open gowns,/Sad women writhed beneath that blackened sky/Like victims chosen for the killing ground/They trailed behind him, lowing mournfully.’ This is from ‘Don Juan in Hell’ – a title that could illustrate Bruno’s pulling mission at the Lieu de Changement, or Daniel’s disastrous experiences at an orgy thrown by a girlfriend half his age whom he won’t admit has already tired of him. ‘Farewell to limbs entwined in a clearing under the full moon!’ – indeed. And yet Baudelaire was fascinated with the cityscapes he wrote about, and says in ‘To the Reader’ that the worst of all sins is disillusionment, ennui, an incuriosity about the world – this for Baudelaire is the failure from which all human evil generates. I doubt that Houellebecq shares this attitude. 

Houellebecq is more like the reactionary modernists. T S Eliot looked upon the England of the 1930s and saw a society ‘confused and dark and disturbed by portents of fear’; where people ‘dash to and fro in motor cars… and daughters ride away on casual pillions’. From ‘The Rock’:

The Word of the LORD came unto me, saying:

O miserable cities of designing men

O wretched generation of enlightened men

Betrayed in the mazes of your ingenuities

Sold by the proceeds of your proper inventions

Were Eliot to be resurrected in the England of 2010, he’d probably be sectioned (as I think Houellebecq was at one stage of his colourful career). Houellebecq sees all liberalism as market liberalism. Economic neoliberalism defined a man by his finances and ground the workers into dust; sexual liberation turned the individual into a commodity and condemned the average unalluring masses to a lifetime of erotic frustration. Liberalism of any kind releases humanity to doom itself to what is natural: hierarchical exploitation and mindless competition. Le domaine de la lutte. The domain of the game. The domain of the struggle.

From his poetry-polemic ‘A Last Stand Against the Market’:  ‘We reject liberal ideology in the voice of the Old Testament prophets/calling rain and destruction down upon Jerusalem./And Jerusalem fell, and did not rise again for four thousand years.’ Why? Because ‘the individual, I mean the human individual, is quite/honestly a small, cruel and pathetic animal./And it would be pointless to believe in it at all, unless it/were shoved back, fenced in and restrained in the/categorical principles of an unassailable morality.’

No one does this sort of thing better than Houellebecq, and The Art of Struggle is recommended to anyone provoked by the novels. Still, I couldn’t help but think of the poets of the Roman and Greek empires and the caliphates, poets who wrote of wine and drama and entanglements with women and enemies – the great poets of materialism. Where are the contemporary materialists? Who is happy to celebrate life itself while analysing its loneliness and deprivations?


Max Dunbar was born in London in 1981. He recently finished a full-length novel and his short fiction has appeared in various print and web journals. He is reviews editor of 3:AM.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Thursday, December 9th, 2010.