PARIS (AP) — The latest novel by Michel Houellebecq, the bad boy of French letters, has been called everything from an Islamophobic rant to a "French literary suicide." Imagining the election of a Muslim president in France, "Submission" struck a raw nerve when it came out this year on the same day as the Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris.
But its English translator Lorin Stein — editor of the celebrated Paris Review literary journal — relishes something in the novel he says many critics miss: humor.
"It struck me as a much funnier book than the one they were describing," Stein, a noted literary critic, told The Associated Press.
"Submission," published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux, is released in the U.S. on Tuesday. A French best-seller with 650,000 copies sold, Houellebecq's sixth novel has divided opinions in France more than any of his previous books. That's no small accomplishment given the oeuvre's mixture of explicit sex and politically incorrect opinions, and the author's own past erratic behavior — antics that include passing out drunk during an interview and holding a press conference in a grocery store.
Houellebecq's humor wasn't easy to translate, Stein said, because "it is so deadpan and depends on a flatness of diction," coming across more effectively in French than in English. One passage involving an aside by the narrator about the improbable sex appeal of a well-known French politician "was impossible to translate," Stein said in a phone interview. "I forget what I came up with," he said, "but that made me laugh so hard."
The 256-page novel took Stein a month-and-a-half to translate, and the one time he needed to confer with Houellebecq involved another comic passage comparing French and American pornography.
"You can say the one time I consulted with him was to make sure that the food he connected to American porn is roast, not fried, chicken," Stein chuckled. "And he was very firm on that point."
The new novel, Stein said, "is a distillation of themes he's worked on over the years ... It's essence of Houellebecq."
Whether the book catches on in the U.S. with anything like the success it enjoyed in France remains to be seen, but Stein notes that the 59-year-old Houellebecq is already "the most read and talked about living French writer in America."
And he said there is a good reason for the new work to attract U.S. readers' attention: "It's the self-portrait of a French man, and a picture of what European right-wing paranoia looks like," said Stein, "so I think it might hold more news for American readers than it did for its first French readers."
In a tragically ironic twist, "Submission" went on sale in January the very day that Islamic extremist gunmen attacked the offices of the satirical newspaper "Charlie Hebdo" — the start of a killing spree that left 20 people dead. One of Houellebecq's friends was among those killed at the newspaper, and the author immediately scrapped a promotional tour and went under police protection.
Perhaps inevitably, given the tragic circumstances surrounding the book's French publication, some critics there "really missed the mark" in their reviews, Stein said.
No less than France's prime minister Manuel Valls took to the airwaves to denounce Houellebecq, saying "France is not Submission, it's not Michel Houellebecq, it's not intolerance, hate or fear." Critics pointed out that the book had only been on sale a few hours at that point, making it unlikely Valls had even read it.
Even a once-close friend of the author's, journalist Sylvain Bourmeau, condemned the book in a long review, calling it "a French literary suicide." The book was more warmly received by some U.S. reviewers. Although deeming it "a minor work," the New York Review of Books nonetheless called it "a classic novel of European cultural pessimism that belongs in whatever category we put books like Thomas Mann's 'The Magic Mountain' and Robert Musil's 'The Man Without Qualities.'"
Stein said that the 2014 film "The Kidnapping of Michel Houellebecq" — in which the author plays himself — was a key to unlocking Houellebecq's humor.
"To see him speaking as his own person with his comic timing," Stein said, "helped me understand the humor that at times would have seemed like gloomy melodrama."
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