THEO VAN GOGH NEWS: The books that made me

Only reading can prepare us for life’s tragedies – BY MICHEL HOUELLEBECQ April 18, 2022

The first experience is hardly a memory, I can’t quite find the words. There was a veranda, in the shade, by the sunny courtyard (in my childhood memories it’s always sunny).

There’s an armchair in the middle of the veranda, and the sensation of an endlessly repeated, delightful dive. The sensation also of something that would accompany me all my life. An impression of plenitude, because “all my life” (perhaps eventually I’ll manage to smile about it, but I say it today with a certain bitterness), “all my life”, at the time, seemed to me as if it would be very long.

I thought my life was going to be happy, and I didn’t even exactly imagine unhappiness. Life seemed to me to be a delight and a gift, and reading was one of the joys of this endlessly delightful life.

I was a child. I was happy, and happiness leaves few traces.

Little by little I learned what the life of men was really like; I learned it, too, through their books. Probably my grandparents never paid attention to the age difference that existed in principle between the works of the Bibliothèque rose (Pink Library) and those of the Bibliothèque verte (Green Library); what other explanation can there be for the fact that I was able to find myself reading Graziella at the age of ten?

This book contains the whole of nascent romanticism, in its budding youth and strength, and ‘Le Premier Regret’ (‘The First Regret’), with which the book concludes, is a poem of incredible purity. Never before Lamartine and never after him (not even in Racine, or Victor Hugo) had a poet written, or will ever write, alexandrines with this naturalness, this spontaneity, this impulse straight from the heart.

How could Lamartine, who knew Graziella when he was 18 and she was 16, ever have forgotten her? How could he still continue to live? And how could the reader of Lamartine devote his life to anything other than meeting a 16-year-old Graziella? What fascinating crap literature is, you have to admit it… So pernicious, so powerful, incredibly more powerful than cinema, and even more pernicious than music.

There were other things, too. There was the nauseating Jack London, whom Lenin loved so much (and it’s undoubtedly Lenin’s overt admiration for Jack London, his cynical acceptance of the struggle for life, poles apart from the supposed generosity that attaches to the word ‘Communism’, which opened my eyes and stopped me in advance, once and for all, from getting close to Marxism). There was the marvellous Dickens (never again will I laugh so loudly, so heartily, never again will I laugh until I cry, great gales of laughter, as I did when I was nine years old and discovered The Pickwick Papers.) There was Jules Verne, there were Andersen’s tales — The Little Match Girl broke my heart, and continues, with ruthless regularity, to break it again every time I re-read it.

I also remember the Rouge et Or collection, with its naive illustrations (a bit more expensive probably, most likely a birthday or Christmas present). I have only good memories of that period. Still, they shouldn’t have let me read Graziella when I was ten. Little girls were seeking my company at the time, and some, I realise today, already had ulterior motives. Anyway, on the whole, things were off to a good start, but soon after that came puberty, just as the fashion for mini-skirts began, I struggled to reconcile that with reading Graziella, I started to reject what was reaching out to me — even though it inspired me with terrible longings — and to look for things in life that weren’t there; in short things started to get pretty screwed up for me, and I still think a bit it’s partly Lamartine’s fault. It was around the same time that I gave up children’s collections for paperbacks.

For me, there were two worthwhile collections: Le Livre de Poche and J’ai lu. I hated Folio and Présence du Futur: too expensive, with off-putting covers and above all horribly poorly made; you only had to open these books a dozen times and the poorly glued pages would fall out and the book would go to shreds — while the books published by Livre de Poche and especially J’ai lu were indestructible, and this was essential because these were the books I opened more than a dozen times. I took them everywhere, to the cafe, to the high-school canteen, on the train — and soon I wasn’t just taking commuter trains, but trains that crossed Europe. It was the time of the inter-rail card. I slept in dusty campsites, in the cellars of damp buildings, and my J’ai lu books are still around. I have them near me as I write. Now I’m rich, I travel in business class. They have nothing to worry about, it’s all okay.


How France lost her dignity


Later, after my marriage and my professional life broke down, I took up writing. I started, more precisely, to write novels, which were published, which brought me fame and fortune, relatively speaking. Suddenly I started to read my contemporaries, I discovered normal editions. However, I have never stopped reading, or rereading, paperbacks, and it was a great joy for me to be published in J’ai lu — of course, I wouldn’t have refused Folio or Presses-Pocket if my editor had wished it, but, all the same, the moment when I saw myself for the first time coming out as a J’ai lu remains one of the most beautiful moments of my life.

Today I read my contemporaries a little less. I reread more — that’s normal, I’m getting old. I now know that I’ll read until the end of my days — maybe I’ll stop smoking, obviously I’ll stop making love, and the conversation of men will gradually lose its interest for me; but I can’t imagine myself without a book.

I have never felt any particular fetishism for original editions, for the book as object — I’m mainly interested in the content. And I’m gradually replacing my books in regular paperback editions with some of those wonderful objects, so practical when travelling — the Pléiades, the Bouquins or the Omnibus. There are still a few exceptions, for sentimental reasons, and it seems unlikely to me — even if things go wrong again, even if I end up in a furnished room with one or two big suitcases, and that’s still possible, of course — that I will ever part with certain of my books; especially certain of my J’ai lu books.

Michel Houellebecq’s Interventions 2020, where this essay originally appeared, is published by Polity books.