Having missed out on the 1930s, Michel Houellebecq is perfectly suited to the age of Trump. The war of ideologies, religious fundamentalism and sexual dystopia are well-worn Houellebecq themes, but under them like an ostinato runs the death of western liberalism: the full Spenglerian decline. As he explains in “A Last Stand Against the Free Market”, “We reject liberal ideology for failing to show the way, or a route to reconciliation between the individual and his fellow beings.” As snappy aperçus go (and bear in mind, that’s a line of poetry), it’s not quite “We must love one another or die”. Long-windedness, however, is the least of Houellebecq’s problems.
The poems collected in Unreconciled tack between rhythmical grumbles about the state of the world and more straightforwardly sensory epiphanies, Baudelairean ennui permitting. Most are untitled, and few cross the page. As a rule, modernity is an enemy. Houellebecq is one of those who suspect the invention of the fridge has been bad for the soul: “A well-cleaned kitchen; / Ah! This obsession with kitchens!” The ascendancy of the domestic has repercussions for masculine high-mindedness too: “Hollow, decayed discourse; / The opinions of the woman next door.”
No better, by way of spiritual improvement, is the “porn cinema” of “Love, Love”, with its audience of “wheezing pensioners” toiling their way to erotic gratification. Worse still, “There was no story line”. The supreme pleasure of love, Baudelaire thought, “lies in the certainty of doing evil”, but Houellebecq’s cosmic vision will take some fine tuning before his crew of banal old onanists achieve much moral grandeur. Window shopping in a red light district, Houellebecq is an amateur sociologist turned sweaty-palmed punter:
A few chavs threw menacing looks
In his essay on Baudelaire, TS Eliot describes the poet’s feelings of spiritual superiority over the Parisian bourgeoisie: unlike the hollow souls of the crowd, at least the poet was “man enough to be damned”. Houellebecq settles for a more worldly superiority: “In the almost empty metro / Filled with semi-gaseous people / I entertain myself with stupid, / But potentially dangerous games.” Over the course of these poems he indulges daydreams of killing himself, becoming a Muslim or joining a sect; perhaps one of his blacker moods is responsible for the “blood of disembowelled neighbours” we encounter in “Distribution – Consumption”.
The various female figures who come and go are cyphers – not even semi-gaseous – and the Houellebecq clan doesn’t sound too promising (“My dad was a solitary and barbarous cunt”). Even with this raw material, Houellebecq’s agonies and ecstasies pass off like bubbles in a martini, transient and lacking in intoxicating aftereffect. Small victories are always possible, however, as when a poem braves the tyranny of political correctness to call a girl with Down’s syndrome a “mongoloid” (mongolienne: it’s offensive in French too.)
Something in very short supply here for a satirical writer is laughter. As the callow exaggerations of Houellebecq’s political gestures suggest, times of crisis are both a boon and a bane for satire. Shelley insisted poets were the unacknowledged legislators of the world, but satire allows for a more pessimistic slant on the artist’s calling, as when Peter Cook described the inspiration for his comedy club, the Establishment, as “those wonderful Berlin cabarets which did so much to stop the rise of Hitler and prevent the outbreak of the second world war”. Perhaps, deep down, satire – even satire as dyspeptic and unillusioned as Houellebecq’s – is parasitic on what it attacks. In American poetry, the Houellebecq-resembling Frederick Seidel has ploughed his own contrarian furrow (as in the poem “Trump for President!”), but the suspicion remains that he is a Manhattan liberal in deep camouflage. Occasionally, the combination of bibulousness and fatalism in Houellebecq is reminiscent of Peter Reading, but for all his attempts to conceal it Reading was a warmer and more generous soul than the Frenchman.
Houellebecq’s poetry has been translated before, as The Art of Struggle (2010), and while Gavin Bowd’s versions eliminate annoying small errors, the French text’s prosy rhythms slip into English without much fuss. By and large, the poems of Unreconciled serve up a flatly recognisable world, untroubled by the vertiginous abstractions of postwar poets such as Jacques Dupin or Michel Deguy. Houellebecq’s very availability is a dubious virtue, however. Coming on top of his erotic abjection, his melancholy railway station platforms and retail outlets suggest a Larkinesque dimension, but Houellebecq’s closing cadences have little use for wistful regret (no “Hautes Fenêtres” here.) Cliched anomie reigns. Poems peter out rather than conclude.
The great Yves Bonnefoy died last year, and Houellebecq doesn’t exactly shine in a straight comparison with that modern master. Then again, he doesn’t do much better when read alongside Alain Mabanckou, Valérie Rouzeau, Oscarine Bosquet, or any of the many excellent poets extending the French-language tradition today. “My God, how insipid is man!” he grumbles to himself at one point. Where the author of Unreconciled is concerned, these ineffectual poems offer no strong incentive to disagree.
• Unreconciled: Poems 1991-2013 is published by William Heinemann. To order a copy for £14.14 (RRP £16.99) go to bookshop.theguardian.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99.
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