First a disclaimer to reassure my French friends: when I say ‘different’, I mean just that. Not better. Not worse. Just different.
Before violating the old ‘de gustibus’ injunction, I must outline my starting point for aesthetic judgement of a work of art in general and a novel in particular.
Music illustrates it perfectly by merging form and content so thoroughly that they’re not only inseparable but indeed indistinguishable. Form is content, content is form, and this is a useful model towards which all true art strives.
The form is a like a bottle: without wine it would be just a piece of glass. The content is the wine, but without a bottle it would be just a puddle.
When a work in any genre, be it a poem, a novel or a painting, achieves the musical unity of form and content, it achieves greatness or at least touches upon it.
However, the deepest and subtlest of contents will fall short if defeated by inadequate form. Conversely, the most virtuosic of forms won’t produce great art if the content clashes with it.
By content, I don’t mean a communication of ideas or, God forbid, ideology. Other genres exist that are more suitable for that than, say, a painting, a poem or even a novel.
The content of a novel is a lantern that elucidates the human condition, whatever facet of it catches the writer’s imagination at the moment. Typically, it does so by shining a light on the human character, both within, in itself, and without, as it interacts with other characters and the physical environment.
The form of a novel is its structure, the skeleton fleshed out by language. The language, like music, has its own cadences, its own rhythm and its own tempo that may remain steady throughout or vary in a sequence of rubatos.
To produce a great novel, all those elements of both form and content must be in perfect balance. Dissonances may be useful, but disharmony will always be deadly.
Two pairs of great novelists illustrate these points well.
When Flaubert read the first French translation of War and Peace, he exclaimed with horror: “Il se répète! Il philosophise!”
The difference between Tolstoy and Flaubert was that the latter, though the lesser artist, was happy to remain what he was, a great novelist. His Madame Bovary achieves that symbiosis of form and content that characterises sublime art.
Tolstoy’s own artistry was unmatched by any other great novelist, which is exactly what he was. But, unlike Flaubert, he also wanted to be something he wasn’t qualified to be: philosopher, social reformer, teacher of mankind.
So he put prolix and mostly silly asides into his novels, which so offended Flaubert’s (and my own) aesthetic sense. Any writer untouched by genius would have been destroyed by that, but Tolstoy managed to pull it off, just.
Another pair is made up of Dostoyevsky and Nabokov. In his Lectures on Russian Literature and elsewhere, Nabokov explains why he considers Dostoyevsky to be a mediocre writer.
Essentially, he thought, rightly, that Dostoyevsky wasn’t much of a literary craftsman. Hence, however deep his ideas and penetrating his insights, he didn’t qualify for literary greatness, although he just might have managed some other kinds.
Nabokov’s own form was of course nothing short of virtuosic, especially in English, but in some of his novels that was more or less all there was.
This takes me back to my French friends, specifically to the humbling experience I suffered at their hands a few years ago. Two experiences actually, both involving somewhat lesser literary figures than the four gentlemen I’ve mentioned.
They once sought my view on that American novelist of genius, James Salter. I had to admit mournfully that not only had I not read Salter, but to my eternal shame I hadn’t even heard the name.
Now I did start my working life by teaching English and American literature, so in my younger years I was reasonably, if not excessively, well-read.
Admittedly, since then I’ve read mostly non-fiction, with only the odd novel here and there thrown in for variety’s sake. Still, I expected at least to have heard of any Anglophone literary genius, if not necessarily to have read him.
Suitably humbled, I got a couple of Salter’s novels and was instantly seduced by his stylistic virtuosity. Beautifully shaped sentences became stunning paragraphs, which in turn added up to brilliant pages.
Yet that seduction didn’t lead to consummation. Once, a hundred pages or so later, I got my breath back, I realised that I was looking at a gorgeous crystal decanter with no wine it.
The form was all there was. There was no content, at least none harmonised with the sumptuous style, all precisely shifted tempi and unexpected metaphors. There were, however, plenty of sex scenes erasing the line separating the graphic from the pornographic.
One got the impression that all that technical virtuosity was merely the author’s payment for the privilege of venting his sexual fantasies, or perhaps sharing his sexual experience.
My problem wasn’t with the eroticism, but with the gratuitous eroticism. No matter how beautifully written pornography is, it’s still pornography, meaning it’s not art. Put it into otherwise beautiful prose, and you’re served a glass of Meursault with a turd floating on the surface.
Suddenly Salter’s masterly prose began to look pretentious, a parody of art rather than art itself. I wish I had his artistic talent, but if the price of acquiring it is writing the way he did, I’d rather stick to my own modest devices.
Art is produced not for but by artists, and that floater made the Meursault of Salter’s prose unpalatable. I made a mental remark that French tastes must have changed dramatically since the nineteenth century, for Salter to have become the cult figure there that he never was at home.
Then my friends began to talk persistently and glowingly about Welbeck, making me wonder why they were so obsessed with Danny Welbeck, the English footballer.
My consternation betrayed my lowbrow essence. For they were in fact extolling Welbeck’s virtual homophone, the bestselling ‘serious’ novelist Michel Houellebecq.
Once burnt, I was twice shy to order the author’s books, putting it off until it was no longer possible or polite to do so. Finally, I succumbed and read two novels, written some ten years apart.
Then I made a startling discovery: James Salter came back as Michel Houellebecq. The same formal brilliance, the same perfect cadences, the same intricate yet plausible structures – and the same vacuity of content, with pornography its main constituent.
This, in spite of Houellebecq’s sharp intelligence, scathing wit and his insightful aesthetic judgement – at least when applied to other writers’ work. That same judgement not so much betrayed him in his own writing as killed it stone dead.
To illustrate both points, here are two lengthy passages, taken at random, that make it hard to believe they came from the same man. The first is a deliciously ironic, well constructed demolition of most university degrees in the humanities.
“The academic study of literature leads basically nowhere, as we all know, unless you happen to be an especially gifted student, in which case it prepares you for a career teaching the academic study of literature – it is, in other words, a rather farcical system that exists solely to replicate itself and yet manages to fail more than 95 per cent of the time. Still, it’s harmless, and even has a certain marginal value. A young woman applying for a job at Céline or Hermès should naturally attend to her appearance above all; but a degree in literature can constitute a secondary asset, since it guarantees the employer, in the absence of any useful skills, a certain intellectual agility that could lead to professional development – besides which, literature has always carried positive connotations in the world of luxury goods.”
But then comes another randomly picked passage, the likes of which densely populate Houellebecq’s narrative:
“He laid his head on her thigh and began to stroke her clitoris. Her labia menora began to swell… He fingered her clitoris faster as his tongue lapped her labia eagerly. Her belly began to redden and her breath came in short gasps… Bruno paused for a moment and then slipped a finger into her anus and another into her vagina as the tip of his tongue fluttered quickly over her clitoris. Her body shuddered and jolted as she came.”
This isn’t eroticism in the manner of Stendhal or Maupassant. In fact this sort of thing isn’t even erotic at all. It’s disgusting hardcore porn in the style of Screw magazine.
Being French, Houellebecq, unlike Salter, has to put this sort of stuff in the setting of ideas, mostly conveyed in dialogue. Many of them sound good and even conservative – unless one realises that collectively they don’t add up to much other than cold-blooded nihilism, a massacre of ideas, rather than their nurturing.
It’s all gratuitous ugliness of thought offset by the cleverness of prose. It’s that glass of Meursault again, but the French gulp it down with alacrity.
To be fair, it’s not just the French. Houellebecq has been translated into every conceivable language, and his novels become instant bestsellers everywhere. Nihilism plus pornography, gift-wrapped in pretty paper, equals sales.
Still, I can’t imagine a serious English novelist (we aren’t talking about Jilly Cooper types here) rising to fame by producing prose replete with pages upon pages along the lines of the second passage quoted above.
So what is it about the French, a nation who after all produced Stendahl, Flaubert and Baudelaire not so long ago, in historical terms?
The bigger they are, the harder they fall, goes the folksy saying. Could it be that French culture led the world for so long and scaled such great heights that, when it tumbled, it cracked its skull?
Could it be that Houellebecq is a natural and inevitable product of France’s laïcité? Of her constitution that states that France is “une République indivisible, laïque, démocratique et sociale”? But then which Western country these days isn’t secular and social democratic?
Or perhaps decadence, when shown off for decades so persistently as to become associated with the country, will eventually resolve into degeneracy with the certainty of natural forces?
Then again, I may be missing something. Wouldn’t be the first time.