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Saturday, November 04, 2017

Whatever (1994) by Michel Houellebecq


Book Review
Whatever (1994)
by Michel Houellebecq

  A major difference between literary culture in the United Kingdom vs. the United States: the two biggest English language audiences, is the relationship with French literature.  In the United States, French literature is essentially only known in translation, because the audience for French originals is limited to native French speakers and academics.  In the United Kingdom, the roots of English/French bilingualism go back a thousand years.  Many of the aristocratic families of England had roots and branches inside France, and England had a more direct relationship with French culture in the 17th and 18th centuries, when it was preferred to English in the halls of power throughout Europe.

  Thus in England there is a small but important audience for French originals.  Translations are just as important for reaching a wider audience, but it is the difference between a small and no audience for French originals.  So in a project like 1001 Books- squarely based in London, there is a higher awareness of French authors, and this leads to a bigger audience for French fiction than in the United States, even though the US market is much larger.

  Michel Houellebecq who is barely known in the United States, but a quasi-celebrity in the United Kingdom.  He's known for courting controversy with his fiction- his most recent book, Submission, is a work of speculative fiction where France has become a Muslim majority and falls under Islamic "Shariah" law.

  Whatever was Houellebecq's first novel- one can read it as an updating of The Stranger, or a French version of The Catcher in the Rye.  The protagonist and narrator is a young software engineer, dispatched to the provinces in a multi-week training assignment.  He is filled with ennui.  Given the time period, you can see Whatever as a French version of Douglas Coupland/Generation X era young adult angst.

  To his credit, Whatever is the first book inside the 1001 Books project to really convincingly portray the nascent "computer" culture of the 1990's (and forever after.)  

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