Houellebecq and the Karamazov family

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September 14, 2017 by AK

In a review of Michel Houellebecq’s H. P. Lovecraft: Against the World, Against LifeLee Rourke quoted the opening lines of the French author’s 2001 novel Platform:

Father died last year. I don’t subscribe to the theory by which we only become truly adult when our parents die; we never become truly adult… As I stood before the old man’s coffin, unpleasant thoughts came to me. He had made the most of life, the old bastard; he was a clever cunt. ‘You had kids, you fucker…’ I said spiritedly, ‘you shoved your fat cock in…’

I’m cutting him off in mid-sentence. The beginning is a reference to L’Étranger, and there’s probably a drop of Céline in Houellebecq. One might also think of the poem by John Betjeman where he imagines, with disbelief and disgust, his parents conceiving him (I can’t find it now). But the narrator in Platform envies his father and appreciates his hedonism in addition, perhaps, to despising him. Larkin and Betjeman, the laureates, didn’t envy their old fools or see them as role models.

Now consider this extract:

…if I were struck by every horror of man’s disillusionment—still I should want to live and, having once tasted of the cup, I would not turn away from it till I had drained it!

Father doesn’t want to turn aside from his cup till he is seventy, he dreams of hanging on to eighty in fact, so he says. He means it only too seriously, though he is a buffoon. He stands on a firm rock, too, he stands on his sensuality—though after we are thirty, indeed, there may be nothing else to stand on…. But to hang on to seventy is nasty, better only to thirty; one might retain ‘a shadow of nobility’ by deceiving oneself.

This is Ivan Karamazov (via Constance Garnett) speaking of Karamazov père, Fyodor Pavlovich. When the father has died at the hand of a son, Ivan (reportedly) tells his big half-brother:

Fyodor Pavlovitch, our papa, was a pig, but his ideas were right enough.

One of his memorable ideas was that no woman is not worth seducing, no matter how repulsive to the average male of Fyodor Pavlovich’s peer group. In the old lecher’s words:

You children, little sucking-pigs, to my thinking… I never thought a woman ugly in my life – that’s been my rule! Can you understand that? How could you understand it? You’ve milk in your veins, not blood. You’re not out of your shells yet. My rule has been that you can always find something devilishly interesting in every woman that you wouldn’t find in any other. Only, one must know how to find it, that’s the point! That’s a talent! To my mind there are no ugly women. The very fact that she is a woman is half the battle…

Ivan is only 23, indeed a suckling by his father’s standards, but hardly a pig or a milk-blooded sissy. A gifted, hard-working, well-educated, independent young man, he is not a Houellebecqian loser either. He’s capable of filling his own cup all right – he’s just not interested at the moment.


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