‘La vita è rara’. Michel Houellebecq’s poetry collection: suffering, solitude and advices for poets
It was too beautiful a night, in mid-June: cicadas singing love songs in the dark, frogs chanting at unison, trees standing silent and motionless in the dark patch of the nearby forest, and the first summer heat that didn’t relent, not even at 11:00 pm. I sat alone in the living room, with the only company of Tigre, my cat, and Ella Fitzgerald’s ‘I got a kick out of you’. Yes, summer had arrived, and it was no time for sad or depressing readings.
I had just emerged from ‘Runaway’, a collection of short stories by Alice Munro, and despite the author’s amazing skills as a writer of ‘stories within the stories’ and her capability of depicting characters in all their idiosyncrasies, strange connections and reconnections, after I closed the book I felt some kind of anxiety, probably exactly because the stories were compelling and powerful, although their sadness left me with anguish and a sense of hopelessness.
What I felt for Munro’s book made me reflect on the process of writing, in particular short stories. Was it necessary to add tragedy to the plot to have something interesting to tell? Was it only in pain and loss that we could find the inspiration for some truly great stories? Was great poetry especially inspired by human despair too?
With this in mind, in search for confirmation and despite the warm and promising summer night, I reluctantly took out the first book of the new poetry collection by Michel Houellebecq, in Italian and French, ‘La vita è rara’ (‘Life is rare’, as I would translate it – there is no English version of this work yet). It was a gift from a good friend, who highly admired this author and knew well that I did not, at all. It was a provocation, I would say, and I was ready to accept it. Therefore, I was biased – I admit it – and didn’t expect much more from this collection than depressing and sad poems, and hopeless ranting from the author (something his main characters can do so well in his novels). I must admit that I was wrong. Or better, partly wrong.
It is true that this work is a concentration of desperation and hopelessness for the human condition, because ‘the world is a prolonged suffering’ (as the author says in the opening of the first book), and the tone doesn’t get any better even in the four sections of ‘La Rinascita’ (‘Rebirth’) in Part Three, despite the promising title. Nonetheless, we recognize something familiar, something we all know in what Houellebecq writes here in the form of free verse, octosyllable, alexandrine and prose. Even if we’d like to take a more optimistic approach to life – abandonment, loneliness and ineptitude are common feelings and part of the human condition. Therefore, the author’s experience and personal fight acquire a universal tone. His message, albeit blunt, is for everyone: we should stay alive, in this world, without expecting to feel ‘whole’ thanks to the connection with other human beings, because –fundamentally – we are and we will always be alone. And by the way, life is rare and happiness doesn’t exist.
Il lungo filo dell’oblio si svolge e si tesse
Ineluttabilmente. Grida, pianti e lamenti,
Rifiutando di dormire, sento la vita che scivola via
Come un grande battello bianco, tranquillo e irraggiungibile.
The long thread of oblivion unwinds and weaves
Unavoidably. Screams, cries and laments,
Refusing to sleep, I feel life sliding away
Like a big white boat, quiet and unreachable.
The author is, as always, honest and direct. I must admit that, in this work, Houellebecq has the ability to turn into poetry even the most insignificant details. He’s a keen observer of whatever passes under his tired eyes, of every man or woman whom he has the chance to encounter or simply observe from a distance, and of the entire reality that surrounds him. Despite the negative tone, we cannot help but acknowledge that he is able to surprise us with a poetic depiction of what humans go through every day in their often repetitive routine. Rarely, but strikingly, there are glimmers of hope (and love):
Come una pianta di mais sradicata dalla sua terra,
Una vecchia conchiglia dimenticata dal mare,
Accanto alla vita
Mi volto verso di te che hai osato amarmi
Vieni con me, partiamo, vorrei ritrovare
Le tracce della notte.
Like a corn plant eradicated from its soil,
An old shell forgotten by the sea,
Next to life
I turn towards you who dared to love me
Come with me, let’s leave, I would like to find again
The traces of the night.
Soon, disappointment for himself and for his life comes back. Once again, the night seems to be the only safe haven, a place where dreams are allowed to break into his lonely existence, compared with everyone else’s existence:
Sono come un bambino che non ha più diritto alle lacrime,
Conducimi nel paese dove vivono le brave persone
Conducimi nella notte, circondami di un incantesimo,
Vorrei incontrare esseri diversi.
Porto nel mio intimo un’antica speranza
Come quei vecchi neri, principi nei loro paesi,
Che spazzano il metró con indifferenza;
Come me sono soli, come me sorridono.
I am like a child who has no right to cry anymore,
Lead me to the country where good people live
Lead me through the night, surround me with a spell,
I would like to meet different beings.
Deep down I carry an ancient hope
Like those old black men, princes in their countries,
Who are sweeping the underground with indifference;
Like me they are alone, like me they smile.
Very often, during interviews, Houellebecq has talked about his solitary nature, something that for him is a necessity. This is surely also due to the fact that his parents abandoned him at the age of six and he grew up with his grandmother (whose surname the poet made his own), and always kept a distance with the others. Solitude has been permeating his life and it should be a necessary condition for any poet, who should see poetry as a way to go on with life, but not to fight the unavoidability of decay and death.
The key to all this human suffering is clearly explained in the opening of the poetry collection, named ‘Restare vivi’ (‘Remaining alive’), which I found as the highlight of this work. It is like an essay where Houellebecq gives us some enlightening, albeit sometimes queer, advices on how to write poetry and on the work of a poet. Here below, in brief, are some of the thoughts – at times not devoid of irony – that the author expresses in ‘Restare vivi’:
Each kind of suffering is good and useful and bears its fruits. But suffering cannot become an ‘aim’, because ‘la sofferenza è, e perciò non può diventare uno scopo’ (‘Suffering is, and therefore it cannot become an aim’). Learning to become a poet is to unlearn to live. The poet should develop a sense of grudge towards life. This is necessary for each true artistic creation: it should ultimately go back to suffering as the origin of life. The poet should be able to channel his suffering into a structure though, to prevent to be consumed by it and, as a consequence, stop writing.
The poet should believe in verses, even if these are the expression of unarticulated screams, which are the natural steps to poetry. Writing is not a job, and it should not be considered as such. Writing poems is a duty, not work, and it allows the poet to escape apathy.
Disillusionment will soon come, due to lack of recognition, and it may lead the poet to alcohol abuse. This is fine, as long as there is a remission period, necessary to write. It’s important to avoid the psychiatric hospital, but visits to the psychiatrists could be helpful for taking a break from writing.
The poet is a ‘sacred parasite’, and therefore he should make full use of any social aid or help from richer friends, without feeling guilty. He should still aim at getting published though, even if in some minor publication, so that he can be posthumously recognized.
Emotion is the only thing that makes us perceive things as they are, and transmitting this perception is the objective of poetry. Even if the result is anguish or apathy, there is no other way out. Every passion culminates with the infinite.
The poet has to tell the truth, whatever it means. The closer the poet gets to truth, the lonelier he will be. This can be a cruel process and it might lead to the desire to get back to ignorance. However, it is too late. The poet should continue writing, without feeling scared. Life will still be hard, but the poet has nothing to do with it anymore.
‘Ricordatevene: fondamentalmente, siete già morti. Adesso siete faccia a faccia con l’eternità.’
(‘Remember: fundamentally, you are already dead. Now you are face to face with eternity.’)
Well, this collection was not exactly a joyous start of summer readings, but food for thought – for sure. So, I should be grateful to my friend for the gift. I still hope to be able to write poems (and prose) without resorting to alcohol, seeing the psychiatrist or reaching epic levels of desperation, but should I ever experience these conditions, I might know for sure that they are part of the process.