Michel Houellebecq is best known as a novelist, especially since he was awarded the Prix Goncourt in 2010 for La Carte et le territoire, but the current enfant terrible of French literature actually began his career as a poet. His manifesto, Rester vivant (Staying Alive), appeared as long ago as 1991, the same year as his study of H. P. Lovecraft, whose sombre vision has influenced him. A year later came La Poursuite du bonheur (The Pursuit of Happiness), followed by Le Sens du combat, translated here as The Art of Struggle, the first book of his poetry to appear in English. Already an ambiguity arises, as his translators acknowledge: “In French, ‘sens’ can mean either ‘way’ or ‘sense’, and ‘combat’ can mean ‘struggle’ or ‘fight’”. But Combat was the newspaper for which Albert Camus, whom Houellebecq seems to admire, worked during the Second World War, and there is a hand-to-hand sense about it. So why not “The Way of Combat”, especially since the translators do not even raise the possibility of “art” for “sens” in their foreword? Furthermore, this collection had a companion volume in fiction, with an equally combative title, Extension du domaine de la lutte (1994). Perhaps this should have been called something like “Widening the Battlefield” in English, but instead was given the puzzling title Whatever. This ignores Houellebecq’s theme, the destructive quality of economic coupled with sexual liberalism, which, he maintains, combine to extend our contemporary battleground.
more from John Montague at the TLS here.