Some years ago, when I had just finished reading The Elementary Particles, a friend of mine who hadn’t slept much for two weeks because of a flu, told me she had read about a dozen books and wondered how many books she could have read if she hadn’t smoked so much marihuana all her life. I have read many books and I often wonder how much I could have lived if I hadn’t read so much. In fact reading and work in general have often been an escape, or rather a substitute for what I wanted to do but couldn’t or didn’t dare to. I enjoyed almost all the books I’ve read, it has greatly enriched my life, but what life I often wonder? And in the end what does all the knowledge I have acquired through years of study buy me? Les Particules Élémentaires by Michel Houellebecq magnifies these and other ‘existential’ questions. Through its polarized characters it draws a radical portrait of the struggle with life at the turn of the 20st century. Its detached, almost sociological style adds to the book's desolateness.
"The Elementary Particles" (*) recounts the lives of two brothers, Michel and Bruno, who as little children were abandoned, each to a different grandmother, by their mother, who went to live in a commune in California. Bruno is sexually abused as a boy and grows up to become a sexually frustrated nihilistic school teacher. Michel becomes a reclusive molecular biologist whose research will eventually make it possible to clone human beings.
The book also tells the stories of Michel’s and Bruno’s respective girlfriends, Annabelle and Christiane. As children Michel and Annabelle are best friends and Annabelle thinks that they will one day marry. During a holiday at a hippie commune in the Provence, organized by Bruno, Annabelle is courted by the son of the commune’s founder, who some two decades later will become a satanist serial killer. The next day Michel leaves. Bruno leaves a week later. Some weeks after Annabelle discovers she is pregnant and has her first abortion. Annabelle is what every girl or woman wants to be: beautiful. But it only brings her misfortune. Other women envy her. Men take her, then dump her. She has dozens of boyfriends but is abandoned as many times. At forty she lives in a small apartment and earns a living as an assistant at the local library. After 20 years by accident she bumps into Michel. They end up seeing each other more frequently and when Michel tells her he has to leave for Ireland to continue his research, she tells him she wants to have a child with him. Two weeks later when she visits her gynaecologist Annabelle learns that there are some complications and that she has to have her third abortion. During the operation she is diagnosed with cancer. Some weeks later she commits suicide.
It is during a holiday at a 90’s version of a "love camp" that Bruno meets Christiane. For some weeks he is in heaven. She fulfills all his sexual wishes and takes him to the orgies he had always dreamt of. Until one night the necrosis of her spine, a disease she had hidden from him, does its devastating work and paralyzes her from her waist down. She tells Bruno she doesn’t want to be a burden on his life and some days after she has returned from the hospital she commits suicide. Shortly after Bruno returns to the psychiatric clinic he’d been to before. Some years later Michel will finish his life’s work and having lost what gave meaning to his life, throws himself off a cliff.
There doesn’t seem to be much hope in the universe depicted by Houellebecq. People commit suicide or end up in a psychiatric clinic. As the narrator comments at some point it is as if today man prefers death to life with a handicap, as if everything has to be perfect, always, and if it can’t be perfect than what’s the point in living? The characters appear unable to cherish the happiness they’ve known and give it a place in their lives. Instead of treasuring his time with Christiane, Bruno ends up returning to the psychiatric clinic he’d been to before meeting Christiane.
In "The Elementary Particles" every grain of hope is shattered by yet another unfortunate event (injury, disease). In The Hours by Michael Cunningham there is a glimmer of hope. Life isn’t perfect, but at least there is literature and flowers and friends and parties and dance. . . . . .
(*) I don't quite understand why the English translation is titled "Atomised" and not "The Elementary Particles".
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