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CULTURE

French prophet of doom Houellebecq launches political thriller

Michel Houellebecq is a giant of the French literary world and one of the country's best-selling authors overseas. His new novel 'Anéantir' is a political thriller set in the not-so-distant future.

French writer Michel Houellebecq has released a new novel
French writer Michel Houellebecq has released a new novel, "Anéantir", set in a politically chaotic not-so-distant future. (Photo by Thomas COEX / AFP)

France’s biggest literary star, Michel Houellebecq, was back in bookshops Friday, with many eager to know what the famously prescient author has to say in the midst of a bruising election campaign.

Houellebecq sells in big numbers: 300,000 copies have been ordered for the French release of his eighth novel “Aneantir” (“Annihilate”), with an English edition due later this year.

And he has an uncanny knack for capturing the moment.

His 2015 novel “Submission” about a Muslim winning the presidency, which taps into right-wing fears about the rise of Islam, was released on the day of the Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris.

His next novel, “Serotonin”, about the plight of rural farmers, appeared just as the French countryside was exploding with “yellow vest” protests.

The new book looks similarly topical. It is set during an election in 2027 with characters that clearly resemble current politicians, including President Emmanuel Macron, who faces a tough re-election battle in real life this April.

But the novel’s focus ultimately proves more personal, as the narrator tackles his relationships with a dying father and estranged wife.

Houellebecq himself, who cultivates the image of a depressed reactionary, dismisses any grand intentions in his work.

“Fundamentally, I’m just a whore. I write for the applause. Not for the money, but to be loved, admired,” he told Le Monde newspaper last week, between multiple glasses of white wine.

“Cantankerous old uncle”

The uncharacteristic traces of love and even hope in the new book suggest the 60-something chain-smoker, who married for the third time in secret in 2018, may be mellowing slightly with age.

“There’s no need to celebrate evil to be a good writer,” he told Le Monde.

But there is still plenty of the familiar misogynistic and xenophobic vitriol from his characters, alongside diatribes about France’s spiritual and cultural decline.

For many critics, it’s too much.

“From a young, highly lucid writer on society, Houellebecq has become a sort of cantankerous old uncle completely overwhelmed by his time,” wrote left-wing magazine Les Inrockuptibles.

But many other critics, across the political spectrum, have been full of praise.

Le Monde gushed over “fleeting moments, in the midst of the loneliness and dereliction, that make you cry”.

Houellebecq was a darling of the left in the 1990s, when his uncompromising accounts of those left behind by globalisation and sexual liberation in novels such as “Atomised” and “Platform” struck a chord around the world.

But in recent years, that same pessimism (he has summed it up as “the suicide of modernity”) has mapped more neatly onto right-wing fears about the decline of nation, church and family — as well as the misogyny of “incel” men, who blame gender equality for leaving them sexless.

In 2020, he released a book of essays that praised writer Eric Zemmour, now a far-right candidate for the presidency who holds divisive views against migrants.

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CULTURE

How to make the most of France’s ‘night of museums’ this weekend

More than 3,000 French museums will stay open long past their bedtimes on Saturday May 14th for the 18th Long Night of Museums.

How to make the most of France's 'night of museums' this weekend

The annual event takes place on the third Saturday in May each year in towns and cities across the whole of Europe. There are temporary exhibitions, themed guided visits, musical entertainment, lectures, concerts, food tasting, historical reconstructions and re-enactments, and film projections. Best news of all, almost everything is free. 

Here’s The Local’s guide to getting the most out of the night:

Plan, plan, then throwaway the plan

Consult the online programme and map out your route. A little preparation will make the night much easier – 3,000 museums will be open long into the night in France, and you don’t want to waste hours standing on a bridge arguing about where to go next. 

The site has suggestions for major cities, including Lyon, Dijon, Bourges, Strasbourg, Lille, Rouen, Bordeaux, Toulouse, and Marseilles. And four museums that have been closed to the public for years – Musée de Cluny in Paris, the Musée de Valenciennes, the Forum antique de Bavay in Nord and the Musée départemental Albert-Khan in Boulogne-Billancourt – are reopening on the night.

So, decide where you’re going beforehand – then feel free to dump your carefully plotted plan in a bin when you overhear someone else talking about this extraordinary thing they have discovered and go with the flow.

Be patient

When you are consulting the official website, try not to scream. You have to navigate a map rather than a traditional programme format – though, at least, this year it’s broken down in to French regions, which is marginally less frustrating.

It is actually much easier if you know the specific museums you are interested in visiting, as they have individual programmes of events. But half the fun of a night like this is visiting somewhere you’ve never been before.

Wear comfortable shoes and travel light

Wear shoes for the long haul rather than the first impression. There will be distances to cover and you might even find yourself dancing in the middle of a museum. 

And blisters are never a good partner with great art. Leave your skateboard and shopping trolley at home, they will just prove a nuisance when you are going through security checks.

Come early – or late – to avoid endless queues

Arriving at the Louvre at 8pm is always going to mean a giant queue. And nothing ruins a night quicker than spending most of it standing in an unmoving line. Try to escape peak times at the major museums – but check they’re not doing something interesting that you don’t want to miss – hip hop dance classes in the Department of Oriental Antiquities, in the Louvre’s Richelieu wing, for example…

Go somewhere you’ve never been to before

Do a lucky dip. Pick somewhere you’ve never heard of and know nothing about. What about the Musée de Valenciennes, which reopens after years of being closed to the public, for example. Its giving visitors the chance to see its fine art under ultraviolet light – which will reveal things you wouldn’t normally see.

Or you could delve deep into the Aude Departmental Archives, in Carcassonne, and discover the amazing life stories of some of the region’s historical figures

Make it social

Gather the troops, this is a night for multi-generations of family and friends. Art, history and culture, is very much a shared experience and you can usually find something that everyone loves – or hates.

Plan a pitstop

You will always need refreshing and wouldn’t a night of culture be wonderfully enhanced by a delicious picnic on the banks of the Seine, if you’re in Paris. 

Your mind will need a little pause from all the intellectual overload. Find a spot, listen to the music (there’s always music from somewhere) and watch the Bateaux Mouches go by as you eat a baguette with some good local cheese and some saucisson.

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