Review: Serotonin – Michel Houellebecq (2019)

Serotonin may well come close to Houellebecq pastiche, but contained within its disdain for current European values is a powerfully useful heresy.

Serotonin, as Boyd Tonkin suggests in the Financial Times, veers close to Houellebecq pastiche.  The protagonist, the style and its bolts from erudition to crudity and pornography are all familiar, and deployed with diminishing returns.  There is also a hanging pointlessness to some episodes – pointless beyond the ennui and anomie that gives the central character his nihilistic seeming drive.

I agree with Tonkin too that the notable topicality of the violent French farmers revolt of the novel, published at the outbreak of the Gilets Jaunes protests, is significant; that ‘Houellebecq’s disdain for the emptiness of modern western life often leaves him spookily ahead of the game’ and with his finger on the real pulse of society.  This underlying pulse has been steady for some time, and beats similarly through Submission and its immediate topicality when published on the day of the Charlie Hebdo shooting (it’s theme the weakness of European values, leaving a deracinated identitarian liberalism unable to resist, and indeed abetting, the Islamification of France).

Houellebecq’s vision is one of a middle aged European social conservative, still ambivalent on the legacy of the 1960s, but sure beneath all else of the value of a European way of life (as perhaps defined by a comfortable late middle-aged white man).    This European social conservatism has not been embraced by the EU, until now – though we wait to see how von der Layen’s focus on a ‘European way of life’ plays out – but, if not embraced, then it should have been more seriously acknowledged. The angry impotence seen here is politically as well as sexually driven, with a ‘neoliberal’ EU and French state as its target.  The sadness running through the book is not just a stirring argument for love as the only purpose in life, and the protagonist’s foolish destruction of his own entry into this state, but also that the ways of life that allowed such happy coupledom in Europe are being progressively destroyed – emphasis here on progressives.

As the story of the protagonist’s career progresses, we can understand the unstable rage/passivity amalgam is bonded by an internalised defeat.  As a result of his powerlessness in the face of the crushing weight of free trade on French farming, he, Florent-Claude Labrouste, has been in retreat from the world for some time.  Early on he reflects on his having had a ’social trajectory without any great verve, but which one the less had allowed me to escape – I hoped once and for all – the physical and even visual contact of the dangerous classes; I was now in my own hell, which I had built to my own taste’.  Having subsequently disappeared from his own life he becomes ‘a middle-aged Western man, sheltered from need for several years, with no relatives or friends, stripped of personal plans and of genuine interests, deeply disappointed by his previous professional life, whose emotional experiences had been variable but had the common feature of coming to an end, essentially deprived of reasons to live and of reasons to die.’ 

From experience too, Labrouste rejects trite and pious assumptions of the goodness of humanity.  A (younger) girlfriend, Camille, training in veterinary science is confronted by the horrors of chicken farming: ‘they lived among the decomposing corpses of their fellows, and spent every second of their brief existence – a year at most – squawking with terror. That was true even in the best- kept poultry farms, and it was the first thing that struck you, that incessant squawking, and the permanent look of panic that the chickens gave you, that look of panic and incomprehension; they didn’t ask for pity, they wouldn’t have been capable of it, but they didn’t understand, they didn’t understand the conditions in which they had been called upon to live.’  

He had inspected such farms before, he ‘knew all of that, but the low moral standards which, like everyone else I was capable of displaying, had allowed me to forget it.’ When Camille asks ‘How could men do that? How could they allow that to happen?  I had nothing to say on the subject, only uninteresting generalisations about human nature’, and pushes further: ‘After all, I’m sure there were doctors with medical degrees in the Nazi camps.  There too it was ultimately a source of banal and far from encouraging contemplation on humanity; I preferred to say nothing.’

On a shallow reading I suppose one can summarise Serotonin, as Johanna Thomas-Corr does in the Observer, as the ‘existential Alan Partridge’-esque rants of a ’catatonically depressed, racist, misogynistic, homophobic narrator’ but it is clearly wrong to suggest that Houellebecq’s ‘is a world without pity, without love, without affection’, as the protagonist is, as she notes, ‘dying of sorrow’ and spends a considerable amount of the novel reflecting on past love and the central role of love in life.  His view may be unpalpable to the constitutively progressive, but it is one in which love is the central value, and the ‘truth’ he is seeking to convey is that, for the characters here, the (European) world is being stripped of love and possibilities for love.

Dismiss them as Partridge-esque if you like, but misunderstanding (and misunderestimating) the ‘deplorables’, and side-lining their grievance through simplistic labelling (everything we are not! – racist, misogynistic, homophobic) has shown the dangerous ignorance at the heart of a complacent Western late liberalism.  The shock tactics may have less impact, but his challenge to the self-defeating, or at least happiness destroying, nature of contemporary European liberalism is potent and only spookily topical for those who daren’t look closely at the assumptions and implications of their own political morality.

Review: Conan – Robert E. Howard (Ed. L. Sprague De Camp)(1976)

Robert E Howard wrote gripping, suspenseful short stories, bringing the character of Conan and the primitive, physical and eerie world he inhabits to life. This collection of short stories suffers somewhat from the contributions of L. Sprague De Camp and Lin Carter, but remains an enjoyable introduction to Conan and the Hyborian Age.

Frazetta’s cover art.

I read the 1976 Sphere edition of Conan, a reprint of the Lancer/Ace collection of short stories, that first introduced the UK to the character of Conan.

I picked it up on a whim during a visit to UBU Books in Brighton – a wonderful second-hand bookshop in the Open Market here. Having read and enjoyed the first three of John Norman’s Gor series recently I’m receptive to some sword and sorcery fantasy – especially if it comes without the sense of an imminent degeneration into rather nasty pornography that I got from Norman.

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Review: Why We Get the Wrong Politicians – Isabel Hardman (2018)

Isabel Hardman’s Why We Get the Wrong Politicians offers a clear and lively explanation of the parliamentary system’s working in both theory, and in practice. I recommend it for all those with an interest in why our system seems to be mired in crisis, regardless of existing levels of knowledge: she offers clear explanation of the systems workings for those unfamiliar with the detail of our parliament, along with insider knowledge and accounts of how it actually works, and why.

The Peterborough by-election depressed me.  The top two candidates were so patently unfit for public office that it really made inescapable the growing feeling I’ve had that our political system is in crisis. 

I turned to Isabel Hardman’s well received 2018 account of Why We Get the Wrong Politicians.   This had been sitting on my shelf for a few months, seemingly awaiting just such a moment of total loss of confidence in the system from me, so I note here I have the first edition hardback.  It has since been updated and issued as a paperback, with an updated Brexit section and preface on ‘how it’s just got worse’, and I would like to read these further thoughts from Hardman.

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Book Review: Pnin, Vladimir Nabokov (1957)

Pnin is a complicated, but mild and melancholy character. It is perhaps a sad reflection that he seems inherently less interesting as protagonist than another, roughly contemporaneously written, middle-aged academic, Lolita’s sexually predatory Humbert Humbert.

Pnin is a rather sad quiet account of a Russian émigré academic, scraping his insecure living as an untenured assistant professor.  The tone is often lightly comic thanks to Pnin’s idiosyncratic English, and various set pieces and anecdotes showcasing Pnin’s ineptitude.  The core of the novel though is the effect of Europe’s tragic twentieth century history on those who fled from it to the US. 

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Book Review: Always Unreliable, Clive James (2001)

From these memoirs Clive James comes across as a dynamic and interesting guy, always in danger of becoming insufferable. Having only ever known of him previously from his TV work, the memoirs make clear that his is a serious mind, worth engaging with, even through the thick shell of often funny, but equally often wearyingly distracting and unnecessary, wit.

Always Unreliable is the omnibus edition of the first three volumes of Clive James’ memoirs (he has since written two more):

  • Unreliable Memoirs (1981)
  • Falling Towards England (1986)
  • May Week Was In June (1990)

This is a lot of James’ company to keep, and while largely fun and interesting, the faults magnify through repetition.  It makes it harder than it should be to say I really liked this book, or James as revealed within it.  He is though almost always interesting, generous to others in his assessments, and fundamentally honest, and for that I can forgive a lot.  James is amusing, even laugh out loud funny at times, but from the experience of reading this, I would say his style suits shorter forms, where his wit runs less danger of becoming monotonous.

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Review: Re-reading Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse

My strongest memory of reading this book a as teenager was of the power Siddhartha’s ability to fast gave him in his negotiation with the businessman Kamaswami.  His asceticism freed him from being disciplined by the desire for material things, even food, removing much of Kamaswami’s leverage over him.

I was prompted to re-read this book by my own Ash Wednesday fast, which brought this interaction back to me. Having now re-read the book, the scene remains effective.  Kamaswami assumes that as Siddhartha is without possessions he is destitute and comes to him seeking to serve him to survive. Instead Siddhartha points to the value of his experience fasting, saying that if he hadn’t learned to fast ‘I would have to accept any kind of service before the day is up, […] because hunger would force me to do so’. As it is he can ‘wait calmly, knowing no impatience’.  The demonstration puts him on an equal footing with Kamaswami and he prospers as his business partner from there. Continue reading “Review: Re-reading Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse”

Forms of Existential Angst (November 2018 Reading Review)

These are belated reviews of books I read across last year.  The delay is due to having read them to answer a feeling in myself.  I no longer feel the way I did last autumn, and as the feeling has passed the coherence of reviewing them together has loosened also.  I have given up trying to tie them together in any meaningful way, but perhaps putting them together here does make some sense.

  • Desert, Anonymous (2011)
  • The Call of Cthulhu and Other Weird Stories, H.P. Lovecraft (1999 [1917 – 1935])
  • Out of Time, Miranda Sawyer (2016)

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Review: Foundation Trilogy, Isaac Asimov (1951, 1952, 1953)

img_0712I liked the first book of the Foundation trilogy enough to push on through the remaining two, and I’m glad I did (Foundation review).  Although they retain some of the faults of the initial novel both Foundation and Empire (1952) and Second Foundation (1953) retain the intellectually stimulating plot, broad scope, and good pace of the first, with the bonus of directly addressing, and developing the plot around one of my main complaints about the first book – the predictive sociology of the Seldon Plan. Continue reading “Review: Foundation Trilogy, Isaac Asimov (1951, 1952, 1953)”

Review: 45, Bill Drummond (2001)

4img_07375 is a collection of essays written during Bill Drummond’s 45th year. It’s a mix of autobiographical sketches and anecdotes, and autobiographically inspired musings on a theme.  These range broadly from his early years of managing Echo and the Bunnymen, through to pre-publication of this paperback edition – the last three essays are a foreword to the book, and two on getting the foreword written and accepted for this edition.
At the beginning Drummond thinks of the title as linking his age to a 45rpm record, with the end of his music career and the beginning of his writing career having come at 33 1/3 years old (in fact, he kept making music. Pictured).  However, midway through he recollects asking his dad when the best period of life is, and his dad answering ‘45, son’. Who knows if this is true, but the answer and Drummond’s thinking around it – about the benefits of less hormones, less desperation – clearly informs this work. Drummond seems to battle throughout with what he knows is a childish need for attention and applause, for public approbation.  The lessening of this desperation allows him more space here.   Continue reading “Review: 45, Bill Drummond (2001)”

Review: Foundation, Isaac Asimov (1951)

img_0711 Foundation is the first of a now famous trilogy of sci-fi novels. It’s a compilation of five short stories, four of which had already been published separately, developing the initial story of the ‘Foundation’; a scientific institute founded on the edge of the inhabited galactic empire to preserve scientific knowledge and capability in the predicted event of imperial decline and collapse.
Let me first say that I really enjoyed this novel and intend to read at least the other two in the trilogy. (Asimov later expanded to a series including another four books).  The series has aged, and I enjoyed the classic feel of the novel, with a Galactic Empire and renegade planets, a focus on atomic power, and so on.   One of the early plot elements is the development of an Encyclopedia Galactica by a small team of specialists, which immediately brings one back in time to pre-Hitchhiker’s Guide sci-fi (let alone a pre-Wikipedia world). Continue reading “Review: Foundation, Isaac Asimov (1951)”