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French Ecocriticism

From the Early Modern Period to the Twenty-First Century


Edited By Daniel A. Finch-Race and Stephanie Posthumus

This book expounds fruitful ways of analysing matters of ecology, environments, nature, and the non-human world in a broad spectrum of material in French. Scholars from Canada, France, Great Britain, Spain, and the United States examine the work of writers and thinkers including Michel de Montaigne, Victor Hugo, Émile Zola, Arthur Rimbaud, Marguerite Yourcenar, Gilbert Simondon, Michel Serres, Michel Houellebecq, and Éric Chevillard. The diverse approaches in the volume signal a common desire to bring together form and content, politics and aesthetics, theory and practice, under the aegis of the environmental humanities.

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Writing (on) Environmental Catastrophes: The End of the World in Éric Chevillard’s Sans l’orang-outan and Michel Houellebecq’s La Possibilité d’une île (Anaïs Boulard)

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Anaïs Boulard

Writing (on) Environmental Catastrophes: The End of the World in Éric Chevillard’s Sans l’orang-outan and Michel Houellebecq’s La Possibilité d’une île

Abstract: As a result of industrialisation and modern ways of living, today’s world has seen many changes. According to geologists, such changes are so significant that our current geological epoch, the Holocene, has given way to another one, the Anthropocene. This scientific hypothesis gives rise to the sense that the world has entered the last stage of a global disease, with human activity threatening the very survival of the planet. As the world faces overwhelming environmental issues, western literature addresses the possibility of the end of the world through the description of catastrophes. The idea that our planet has reached its limits is a trait of apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic genres that have become mainstream in North American literature. Arising from an eschatological anxiety related to an era of ecological phenomena, this literature, which is read by the general public as much as academics, invokes images of natural and urban destruction, human misery and loneliness. This chapter focusses on the writing of environmental catastrophes and the end of the world in two French novels: Michel Houellebecq’s La Possibilité d’une île [The Possibility of an Island] (2005) and Éric Chevillard’s Sans l’orang-outan [Without the Orangutan] (2007). These contemporary texts imagine the world before and after one or several catastrophes, making the narrative oscillate between pre-apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic times. The description of a world threatened or destroyed by an environmental catastrophe uses common images, such as the destruction of cities and nature, or the extinction of animals and humans, but this chapter demonstrates that a particularity emerges from the narratives themselves in the form of elaborate diegesis and aesthetics. The originality of these two texts lies in the writing itself, which is notably enriched by the distance between the plot and the narrators, between seriousness and irony, between reality and dreams.

Literature of, and in, the Anthropocene: representing the ‘sense of an ending’ in contemporary fiction

Many scientists agree that human activities have so significantly marked the Earth that we have entered a whole new geological period – the Anthropocene. Environmental issues have become all-important in today’s world; no-one can ignore the urgency and the seriousness of our ecological crisis. As a species, we are polluting the natural and urban spaces in which we live. Our industrial activities ← 215 | 216 → and consumption of fossil fuels have resulted in contaminated water supplies, less breathable air, increasing atmospheric temperatures, and rising sea-levels that, in the long term, threaten to flood our cities. Such issues have found vibrant expression in cultural texts that explore the theme of the Anthropocene in light of contemporary climatic challenges.

Ecocriticism actively studies environmental issues as they are represented in cultural production. Having emerged in the United States towards the end of the twentieth century, ecocriticism continues to grow, and is constantly redefining itself. A network of influential researchers, writers and intellectuals – connected through the Association for the Study of Literature and Environment (ASLE) – has helped to promote the analysis of literary texts through an environmental lens. Lawrence Buell, a key figure in the founding of the ecocritical movement, states that ‘climate change anxiety’ has recently become a very important object of study.1 Ecocriticism often focusses on literary works that are described by Buell as ‘environmental literature’, and by Christian Chelebourg as écofictions2 – texts in which a view of an ecological crisis is presented, or in which environmental issues are explored from a variety of perspectives. Although studies of environmental issues in literature have their roots in North America, the movement has recently become more global.

In France, ecocritical approaches are a recent phenomenon, as Stephanie Posthumus has noted.3 Scholars such as Chelebourg, Nathalie Blanc, Pierre Schoentjes and Alain Suberchicot have emerged as pioneers in reading literary texts from an ecological perspective.4 French philosophers such as Catherine Larrère, Bruno Latour and Michel Serres have developed models for thinking ecologically about ← 216 | 217 → humans’ relationships to the environment.5 At the University of Angers, the nascent ÉcoLitt programme (2014-) is investigating the close ties between ecological issues and non-anglophone literature in a large corpus of literary works, including children’s fiction.6

Over the last thirty years, concern about the environment has been addressed in fictional works that draw from an eschatological imaginary.7 In The Sense of an Ending, Frank Kermode explains the deep fascination with an apocalyptic imaginary at the end of the twentieth century, and the beginning of the twenty-first.8 According to Kermode, our fascination with images of destruction reflects the resurgence of a collective trauma related to the horrific historical moments of the last century in the West (especially two World Wars, numerous natural disasters, and increasing ecological concerns). It thus seems important to address anxieties caused by our alarming situation, and narratives describing the end of the world are among the most common works of environmental fiction. Such works usually describe the world after a catastrophe, which is often directly related to human actions. The narrative of catastrophe, whether natural or artificial, serves to epitomise concerns about what could happen to our planet in the near future.

This theme frequently appears in North American depictions of apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic worlds. Films such as Franklin J. Schaffner’s Planet of the Apes (1968) and Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar (2014) illustrate our systematic exploitation of the world and its irreversible consequences. Speculative fiction has emerged as an evolving genre that deals with scenarios of what could happen to the world, and a very rich imaginary of the environmental crisis has emerged in North America. In novels such as American writer Cormac McCarthy’s The Road (2006) and Canadian writer Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy (2003–13), the narrative centres on environmental disasters and their aftermath. According ← 217 | 218 → to sociologist John Wiley Nelson, ‘apocalyptic [discourse] is as American as the hot-dog’.9

Some French novels explore the idea of an environmental catastrophe entailing the destruction of the world. Since René Barjavel’s masterpiece Ravage [Ashes, Ashes] (1943),10 which describes a futuristic world in which the catastrophic event is the disappearance of electricity, several French novels have appeared that revolve around a catastrophe.11 This raises the question of whether (post)apocalyptic12 writing and fiction in France has its own set of specific traits, or whether it is an imitation of the North American tradition. For clarification of the matter, let us turn to two contemporary French novels that imagine a catastrophe followed by a number of other disasters: Michel Houellebecq’s La Possibilité d’une île [The Possibility of an Island] (2005) and Éric Chevillard’s Sans l’orang-outan [Without the Orangutan] (2007). The depiction of catastrophe and post-apocalyptic chaos in these books provides an important commentary on climate change and the radical modification of humankind, and the two narratives shed light on the specificity of French fictional representations of future environmental catastrophes.

Unfathomable catastrophes

It is important to ponder why authors such as Houellebecq and Chevillard, who are French writers of general fiction (as opposed to fantasy or science fiction), decide to dedicate a novel to the question of environmental change in an eschatological context. A focus on the worst possible outcome can be seen as a way of emphasising ‘the sense of an ending’ that is so present in our contemporary social imaginary. Insisting on chaotic, frightening possibilities for our world can be a way of dealing with the many traumas described by Kermode, and writing about ← 218 | 219 → life on Earth being threatened can be reassuring for a writer and a reader. In Das Prinzip Verantwortung [The Principle of Responsibility] (1979), philosopher Hans Jonas recommends: ‘in dubio pro malo [when in doubt, expect the worst]’.13 Jonas suggests that we should focus on the possibility of the worst outcome, rather than the best, and this is precisely what the fictions of Houellebecq and Chevillard do: they invent a fictional world that represents one of the worst possible scenarios for our future.

In Houellebecq’s and Chevillard’s novels, the narrative alternates between two settings: before the catastrophe, and the aftermath of the event. In La Possibilité d’une île, three characters narrate the plot: Daniel1, from the current era, and two clones of him from 3000 years in the future, Daniel24 and Daniel25 – who are ‘neohumans’. Such a setup splits the fictional temporality into two very distinct segments. The first temporality is one of imminence, as a major disaster appears to be impending. Daniel1 is the perfect illustration of this declining world: a sexist, racist and misanthropic character, he symbolises the social and political deviances of Western society. Such a depiction can be interpreted as a message about the more general degradation of the world. The second temporality, which is narrated by Daniel24 and Daniel25, shows the consequences of the catastrophe following the death of Daniel1.

Chevillard’s narrative in Sans l’orang-outan begins with Albert Moindre’s dismay after the death of the last two orangutans on Earth – Bagus and Mina. Albert – an employee at the zoo where Bagus and Mina died after contracting a cold – has a feeling of foreboding that this tragic extinction will trigger further cataclysmic changes. He is right: in the second segment of the novel, the narrative voice (which might not pertain to Albert, since it uses ‘nous [we]’ instead of the first part’s use of ‘je [I]’) describes an unbalanced post-apocalyptic world directly resulting from the primates’ death. Houellebecq’s and Chevillard’s narratives thus describe the start and the aftermath of the catastrophes.

The catastrophe initiates the disruption of the world and the transformation of humankind, yet it is difficult to grasp. Unlike Laurent Gaudé’s Ouragan (2010),14 which describes the catastrophe of hurricane Katrina, Houellebecq’s and Chevillard’s novels do not insist on the catastrophe as a concrete and unique event. For Albert Moindre, the death of Bagus and Mina signals the end of the world: ‘on va réagir avant d’en arriver là, je me disais, à ce désastre, à cette apocalypse, ← 219 | 220 → il existe certainement un moyen [we are going to react before such a thing happens, I was thinking, before this disaster, this apocalypse; there has to be a way]’.15 The character defines the death of the primates as the ultimate disaster. For him, such a tragedy is not just a catastrophe, but ‘la catastrophe [the catastrophe]’ (C 196 [my emphasis]) that will lead to the end of the world. The use of the definite article suggests a hierarchy in catastrophes: the death of Bagus and Mina is the most tragic and serious of all. The seriousness of this disaster is measured in the second part of the novel, in which the narrator describes a world of misery and destruction, but factual details of the events that led to total chaos are missing from the narrative, and we never know why and how the death of two primates precipitated the end of the world. The catastrophe remains unfathomable, impossible to grasp. In La Possibilité d’une île, several serious catastrophes happen shortly after human cloning techniques are developed by the Elohimite cult, in which Daniel1 passively participates, but we lack clarification about the reasons for the catastrophes, their nature, and – most importantly – how they happened. Although we understand that a general devastation of the planet by humans is responsible for the catastrophes, the exact context of their occurrence is never specified. The disastrous events are not included in the narratives: they are inexplicably absent, and their temporality alternates only between before and after. The objective of the two novels is to focus on the ubiquity of fear and a sense of apocalypse, rather than the catastrophe in itself.

Describing post-apocalyptic worlds: traditional images of catastrophe

Chevillard’s and Houellebecq’s catastrophe narratives – more precisely, about everything apart from the catastrophes – include themes often used in post-apocalyptic novels. A harsh post-apocalyptic environment is an important theme in such narratives. The world of the aftermath is generally hostile to humans: the new environment is so disturbed and unbalanced that it is not a safe habitat. In addition, humans are constantly threatened by further devastating environmental disasters.

In La Possibilité d’une île, the neohumans recount the many environmental disasters that have re-shaped the face of the Earth since the death of Daniel1, and the beginning of the apocalypse. Daniel25 states that ‘le début de l’effondrement des civilisations humaines fut marqué par des variations thermiques aussi soudaines ← 220 | 221 → qu’imprévisibles [the collapse of human civilisation was marked by temperature variations that were as sudden as they were unpredictable]’,16 and Daniel24 mentions events such as the ‘Grand Assèchement [Great Drying-Up]’ (H 114; B 95) – the capitalised adjective and noun evoke a geological period.17 In Sans l’orang-outan, Albert Moindre and the other survivors have to live in near arctic conditions after the primates’ death: ‘comment ne pas déraper sur cette banquise? […] La glace brûle. Nous cuisons à petit feu en tremblant de froid [how not to slip on this floe? […] The ice burns. We are slowly cooking while shivering of cold]’ (C 86). The ice on which they have to walk is so cold that it produces a burning sensation. Such extreme weather is life-threatening – the narrator states that it can petrify human bodies, turning them into statues: ‘si nous ne réagissons pas aussitôt, nous mourons pétrifiés en quelques secondes, nous augmentons le nombre de statues qui forment la population majoritaire sur les terres abandonnées [if we do not react quickly enough, we die from petrifaction in a few seconds; we add to the number of statues that form the biggest population on the abandoned lands]’ (C 86). In both novels, the world is too cold and too warm, too dry and too wet for the human species. This raises the issue of the effects of drastic atmospheric changes, one of the main themes of post-apocalyptic literature.

The catastrophes lead to a post-human world, in which the human species has nearly disappeared, and a different kind of humanity has emerged. In Chevillard’s novel, humans have not been fully decimated, and the survivors are condemned to live ‘sur les terres abandonnées [on the abandoned lands]’ (C 84). In Houellebecq’s novel, the neohumans live in sealed individual cells, beyond which roam les sauvages [the savages] – humans who have not benefitted from genetic manipulations, and who are consequently portrayed as a repellent, barely surviving residue of humanity. The neohumans, by contrast, embody the ideal posthuman creature, a better version of humanity. Though humans have not completely disappeared from the planet, it is obvious that the tenets of humanity have.

Surviving in a destroyed and hostile world is difficult for the characters in both stories. Sometimes, the fear of dying is superseded by a deep feeling of nostalgia, triggered by the survivors’ dismay in the face of a world in which they no longer belong. Even Daniel25 experiences it: ‘je me surpris une fois de plus à être saisi par un accès de nostalgie en songeant aux fêtes, aux banquets, aux réunions de famille ← 221 | 222 → qui devaient se dérouler là bien des siècles auparavant [I found myself once again seized by a fit of nostalgia as I thought of the parties, the dinners and the family reunions that must have taken place there many centuries beforehand]’ (H 445; B 389). The experience of nostalgia on the part of the neohuman – programmed to be emotionless – suggests that such a deep feeling is somehow encoded in human (thus posthuman) DNA. In Sans l’orang-outan, Albert is nostalgic about the time when orangutans lived on the planet: ‘cette perte […] nous a laissés à jamais inconsolables [this loss […] has left us forever inconsolable]’ (C 71). The yearning is for the world before the apocalypse, even though it was already ruined:

Ainsi nous l’aimions, ce monde anéanti qui nous semblait pourtant inhabitable, dont nous ne cessions de déplacer les pierres: au moins n’était-il pas frappé d’un deuil irrémédiable. (C 64)

[Thus we loved it, that devastated world, even if it seemed uninhabitable to us, that world whose rocks we wound not stop moving: at least it was not affected by a sense of irreversible loss.]

The survivors do not pine for an idealised world, but for the very damaged one in which we live today.

Along with this deep feeling of nostalgia, the characters feel a profound ennui, resulting from the lack of purpose in their survival amid a devastated world. The neohumans’ only occupation is reading and commenting on Daniel1’s autobiography, and on previous clones’ commentaries. The lack of excitement explains Daniel25’s decision to leave his cell. In Chevillard’s work, the survivors are consumed by boredom: ‘l’ennui s’abat sur les villes et les campagnes indépendamment des contingences et des circonstances du jour [ennui is assailing the cities and the lands without regard for the contingencies and the circumstances of the day]’ (C 64).

The worlds described by Houellebecq and Chevillard are dystopian. In both novels, the environmental catastrophes coincide with the establishment of oppressive governments or forms of authority: in Sans l’orang-outan, Albert briefly mentions an oppressive army; in the post-apocalyptic world of Houellebecq’s novel, the neohumans are obliged to stay in their cells, taking orders from the mysterious and repressive ‘Sœur Suprême [Supreme Sister]’ (H 424; B 370) and ‘Sept Fondateurs [Seven Founders]’ (H 424; B 370), about whom the reader learns practically nothing.

These themes often appear in environmental catastrophe narratives in North America, and the translation of an American imaginary into French fiction is not surprising on a thematic level. Such imitation does not mean, however, that uniqueness is not found in French apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic novels. Let us consider the formal and structural elements of the novels by Chevillard and Houellebecq in order to identify their specificities. ← 222 | 223 →

Challenging narratives: the originality of French writing

When analysing French novels about environmental catastrophe, attention should be drawn to the diegesis18 and the aesthetics of the writing. In the novels by Houellebecq and Chevillard, these formal elements reveal the richness of French writing about possible catastrophes.

The diegesis in both novels challenges expectations in terms of narrative structure because the narrating voice is frequently unidentifiable. In the opening pages of La Possibilité d’une île, the very notion of ‘I’ is questioned, when the mysterious narrator states: ‘quand je dis “je”, je mens [when I say “I”, I am lying]’ (H 14). This warning encourages us to question the narrative and its authenticity, and illustrates the fact that the novel distances itself from typical (post)apocalyptic narratives. In Houellebecq’s text, the post-catastrophe period is narrated by the neohumans, who do not experience the world directly (unlike Daniel1). Their life is one of testifying and commenting from a sealed cell. The description of the world after the environmental catastrophe is thus undertaken by beings whose only purpose is to comment on their human ancestor’s autobiography, rather than creating their own story – their perspective represents a second degree of storytelling, a commentary on the story told by Daniel1. The neohumans are narrators and commentators, rather than true characters, and this distinction implies that the reader should interpret their narrative with caution. The same prudence is necessary when reading the post-apocalyptic part of Sans l’orang-outan. If we accept Albert Moindre as the narrator of the first and last parts of the novel, the second part is thrown into relief because it is narrated by a mysterious voice using ‘nous’ in reference to all of the survivors of the catastrophe. The systematic use of the plural, which shifts the focus away from Albert Moindre, is somewhat confusing because it is unclear who is recounting the humans’ survival in the post-apocalyptic world.19 The unidentified voice of narration, which sometimes switches back to ‘I’ without explicitly referring to Albert Moindre’s identity, promises to describe the new world with ‘ce scrupule de greffier [a court clerk’s scruples]’ (C 122). Like the neohumans, the voice takes responsibility for narrating the story. ← 223 | 224 → This kind of metanarrative is a way for Houellebecq and Chevillard to distance their novels from typical (post)apocalyptic narratives. Such a structure reminds us that the narratives of Albert Moindre and the neohumans are purely speculative.

The novels challenge (post)apocalyptic narratives by using a parodic tone. The appearance of post-apocalyptical stereotypes, such as images of New York’s devastation after environmental disaster, becomes untrustworthy. In Houellebecq’s La Possibilité d’une île, Marie23 – another neohuman – lives in the ruins of New York ‘en plein milieu de ce que les hommes appelaient Manhattan [in the very heart of what men used to call Manhattan]’ (H 202). But her part in the narrative is hard to justify, as there is no Marie in Daniel1’s temporality, and she lives on a continent that has little to do with the plot. Her presence in the novel can be construed as an attempt to include a particularly common stereotype of post-apocalyptic fiction; given the dark humour of Houellebecq’s writing, such an element cannot be taken as genuine. In Sans l’orang-outan, the insistence on the fatality of the orangutans’ death seems too great to be sincere. The cause-and-effect relationship between Bagus and Mina’s demise and the end of the world is something of a stretch,20 and Chevillard’s exaggerated narrative has the air of mocking the gravity of (post)apocalyptic narratives. According to Guilhem Menanteau, the tragic tone of Sans l’orang-outan is so overstated that it can be read as a ‘pastiche d’apocalypse [pastiche of apocalypse]’.21 The sudden shift from the first part – Albert Moindre’s long lament over the death of Bagus and Mina – to the second part – the suffering of degraded humans in a post-apocalyptic landscape – is almost too radical to be taken seriously. Chevillard – who has called the post-exotic (post-apocalyptic) writing of Antoine Volodine (1950-)22 a ‘magistrale plaisanterie [a magisterial joke]’23 – could be using this type of writing as a playful exercise. ← 224 | 225 →

These narrative layers suggest that Houellebecq and Chevillard do not intend to focus primarily on environmental issues. Their speculations about a potential environmental disaster have more to do with the process of writing than with raising awareness about the ecological crisis. Such writing represents an opportunity to experiment with the aesthetics of fiction.

Both novels initiate a game with the reader by insisting on the oneiric aspect of the narrated reality. In Sans l’orang-outan, Albert Moindre’s portrait of the post-apocalyptic world seems to arise from a post-traumatic delirium or a dream. At the end of the novel, Albert’s hope to revive the extinct orangutan species by inseminating his friend Aloïse with Bagus’s sperm does not appear realistic or rational. Such an ending makes us doubt the truthfulness of Albert Moindre’s words. Beyond this strange reality, the novel gives rise to a sense of uncanniness akin to magical realism. Albert Moindre confuses us by saying that survivors are lost in a city that they used to know perfectly: ‘on se perd dans la ville trop connue. D’aucuns ont essayé d’en dresser le plan [we get lost in the overly well known city. Some have tried to draw a map of it]’ (C 77). The paradox is stated so casually that we sense tensions in the apparent realism of the narrative because such a subtle, yet tangible, distortion of reality calls into doubt the verisimilitude of the account. Sometimes, the limit between reality and dreams is blurred, as Albert Moindre mixes both: ‘si l’obscurité nous soulage un moment de l’éternelle vision du désastre, la réalité nous rattrape dans nos rêves, le sommeil nous réveille en sursaut [if darkness relieves us for a moment from the constant view of disaster, reality catches up to us in our dreams, slumber wakes us with a start]’ (C 69). The idea of being awakened by slumber is absurd, and the mix of reality and dreams is confusing. Is what the character describes a nightmare, rather than reality?

La Possibilité d’une île initiates doubt as to the reality of the narrative in the opening pages, which are not assigned to a character, as we encounter the possibility that reality is a dream, and vice-versa: ‘la séquence suivante aurait pu être un rêve [the following sequence could have been a dream]’ (H 13). The use of the conditional perfect – functioning akin to the pluperfect subjunctive – suggests that the sequence is a dream. Although the works of Houellebecq and Chevillard are largely realistic, the credibility of each narrative is challenged by the idea of dreams and delirium corrupting the account. The two novels are not mere imitations of North American environmental post-apocalyptic novels because they are less straightforward, and more open to the imagination.

Such creativity represents a way of overcoming the overwhelming anxiety of environmental catastrophe narratives. The novels of Chevillard and Houellebecq draw on stereotypical images of post-apocalyptic environments in order to inspire ← 225 | 226 → hope that the world will not end in utter collapse. In Sans l’orang-outan, the survivors dedicate a whole week to art, aptly called ‘la semaine des tentures [the week of tapestries]’ (C 150). Their efforts to revive one of the most hopeful, vivid aspects of humankind help to overcome adversity, and the post-apocalyptic world is not completely hopeless. In La Possibilité d’une île, the neohumans show a surprising sensitivity that inspires them to write poetry. The novel includes a dozen poems in verse that express the neohumans’ keen awareness of their surroundings. Marie23’s poem reveals a heightened ecosensitivity:

Et la mer qui m’étouffe, et le sable,

La procession des instants qui se succèdent

Comme des oiseaux qui planent doucement sur New York,

Comme de grands oiseaux au vol inexorable. (H 384)

[And the sea that suffocates me, and the sand,

The procession of moments that follow each other

Like birds soaring gently over New York,

Like great birds in inexorable flight.]

Marie23’s lyricism in relation to natural elements (the sea; the sand) and living beings (the birds) epitomises the neohumans’ creativity and a somewhat startling closeness to the environment. The presence of poetry serves two purposes: first, it shows that the post-apocalyptic world can be re-enchanted because the neohumans feel a connection to the environment which the humans of the Anthropocene thought had been lost forever; second, it affirms our capacity for reinvention because the mix of verse and prose loosens the generic constraints of the novel. Houellebecq has expressed satisfaction about the integration of poetry into the novel: ‘pour la première fois, j’ai réussi ici à intégrer de la poésie au milieu de la prose. Ça fait sens. Je suis satisfait de ce livre, comment dire, physiquement [for the first time, I managed to incorporate poetry in the middle of prose. It makes sense. I am satisfied with this book – how to put it – physically]’.24 He recounts his interest in working on the form of the novel as much as its content: ‘ce qui m’intéresse, au fond, ça n’est pas d’envisager l’avenir, c’est l’écriture. J’accorde plus de prix à la qualité de mes textes qu’à la validité de mes intuitions [what ultimately interests me is not to imagine the future, but to focus on writing. I value the quality of my texts more than the validity of my intuitions]’.25 Houellebecq suggests that the worth of writing about environmental catastrophes derives from ← 226 | 227 → reinventing literature and challenging form, rather than focussing exclusively on the ecological situation.

Expressions of hope for literature’s survival in (post)apocalyptic narratives

Chevillard’s Sans l’orang-outan and Houellebecq’s La Possibilité d’une île reveal a careful attention to narrative form and structure that is evident in other French contemporary novels about environmental catastrophes.

The fact that these two authors – seen as writers of ‘general fiction’ – decided to adapt a narrative so often associated with science fiction is surprising, but their work amounts to more than a mere imitation of a North American tradition. The novels by Chevillard and Houellebecq go beyond their apocalyptic content to experiment with new forms of narrative that are tricky, playful and profound.

The novels challenge the purpose of environmental writing because they are not written to spread an environmental message. Houellebecq has publicly stated his disdain for ecologists,26 and Chevillard is apathetic about taking on such a responsibility.27 Both authors question contemporary culture by testing the limits of literature, building on reflections about the contemporary environmental crisis to elaborate speculative narratives about what it could mean for our world.

The ‘sense of an ending’ in our physical surroundings finds apt expression in contemporary cultural production. It is logical that the endangerment of humanity goes hand-in-hand with the endangerment of literature, since literature cannot survive without human language – spoken and written. The novels of Chevillard and Houellebecq offset such dark ideas by way of the depth and richness of their diegetic complexity, their play on plausibility, and their inclusion of a hopeful message in the post-apocalyptic narrative. Both authors’ flair for vividness and creative mischief is shared by authors such as Volodine who address environmental concerns from the viewpoint of formal experimentation. An appreciation of the shifting aesthetics of the text is thus fundamental to understanding the uniqueness of French fiction about environmental catastrophes. ← 227 | 228 →


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Nelson, John W., ‘The Apocalyptic Vision in American Popular Culture’, in The Apocalyptic Vision in America: Interdisciplinary Essays on Myth and Culture, ed. by L. P. Zamora (Bowling Green, OH: Bowling Green University Popular Press, 1982), 154–82

Posthumus, Stephanie, ‘État des lieux de la pensée écocritique française’, Ecozon@ 1.1 (2010), 148–54

—, ‘Penser l’imagination environnementale française sous le signe de la différence’, Raison publique 17 (2012), 15–31

Schoentjes, Pierre, Ce qui a lieu: essai d’écopoétique (Marseille: Wildproject, 2015)

Serres, Michel, Le Contrat naturel (Paris: Flammarion, 1992)

Suberchicot, Alain, Littérature et environnement: pour une écocritique comparée (Paris: Champion, 2012)

Volodine, Antoine, Des anges mineurs: narrats (Paris: Seuil, 1999)

—, Dondog: roman (Paris: Seuil, 2002) ← 229 | 230 →

1 Lawrence Buell, ‘Ecocriticism: Some Emerging Trends’, Qui Parle 19.2 (2011), 87–115 (111).

2 Christian Chelebourg, Les Écofictions: mythologies de la fin du monde (Brussels: Les Impressions Nouvelles, 2012). It should be noted that Chelebourg includes many forms of fiction in his definition of ‘écofiction’, such as documentaries and Hollywood films – his terminology is not exclusive to literary narratives.

3 Stephanie Posthumus, ‘État des lieux de la pensée écocritique française’, Ecozon@ 1.1 (2010), 148–54; ‘Penser l’imagination environnementale française sous le signe de la différence’, Raison publique 17 (2012), 15–31.

4 Nathalie Blanc, Les Formes de l’environnement: manifeste pour une esthétique politique (Geneva: Mētis, 2016); Pierre Schoentjes, Ce qui a lieu: essai d’écopoétique (Marseille: Wildproject, 2015); Alain Suberchicot, Littérature et environnement: pour une écocritique comparée (Paris: Champion, 2012).

5 Catherine Larrère, Les Philosophies de l’environnement (Paris: Presses universitaires de France, 1997); Bruno Latour, Politiques de la nature: comment faire entrer les sciences en démocratie (Paris: La Découverte, 1999); Michel Serres, Le Contrat naturel (Paris: Flammarion, 1992).

6 ÉcoLitt, ‘ÉcoLitt ou l’empreinte de l’écologie dans la littérature’, Université d’Angers (19 February 2015), <> [accessed 26 May 2016].

7 I use ‘imaginary’ to translate the French imaginaire, which refers to a collection of images epitomising one historical and social group’s concerns or interests, as well as the mental and verbal representations at the heart of these images.

8 Frank Kermode, The Sense of an Ending: Studies in the Theory of Fiction (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1967).

9 John W. Nelson, ‘The Apocalyptic Vision in American Popular Culture’, in The Apocalyptic Vision in America: Interdisciplinary Essays on Myth and Culture, ed. by L. P. Zamora (Bowling Green, OH: Bowling Green University Popular Press, 1982), 154–82 (179). See also Ian McEwan, ‘The Day of Judgment’, The Guardian (31 May 2008), <> [accessed 25 May 2016]

10 René Barjavel, Ravage (Paris: Denoël, 1943).

11 Literary works such as those by Pierre Boulle (1912–94), Pierre Bordage (1955-) and Jean-Marc Ligny (1956-) are classified as science fiction. This chapter will not discuss the complex question of genres; instead, it will focus on two novels that are not normally associated with science fiction.

12 The term ‘(post)apocalyptic’ is used in this chapter as a way of defining catastrophic narratives that include contemporaneous time (apocalyptic) and subsequent time (post-apocalyptic).

13 Hans Jonas, Das Prinzip Verantwortung: Versuch einer Ethik für die technologische Zivilisation (Frankfurt am Main: Insel, 1979), 74 [unreferenced translations are mine].

14 Laurent Gaudé, Ouragan (Arles: Actes Sud, 2010).

15 Éric Chevillard, Sans l’orang-outan (Paris: Minuit, 2007), 9 [hereafter C].

16 Michel Houellebecq, La Possibilité d’une île (Paris: Fayard, 2005), 447 [hereafter H]; The Possibility of an Island, trans. by G. Bowd (London: Phoenix, 2006), 389 [hereafter B].

17 The disruption of human life on Earth by climatic malfunctions is a leitmotif in eschatological contemporary novels, one so important that it has its own sub-genre – ‘climate-fiction’, or ‘cli-fi’.

18 I use the term ‘diegesis’ to refer to the way in which the story is told.

19 This narrative shift in both novels can be interpreted as a symptom of one of the most important consequences of the catastrophe, which is to insist on humans as a species, and to make individuals less relevant within a group of beings with no distinct individual identities. The use of ‘nous [we/us]’ in the works of Houellebecq and Chevillard expresses the loss of individuality and subjectivity that is characterises a post-human world. The neohumans epitomise this depersonalisation because they are clones.

20 Carole Allamand argues that the setup, which might appear to be a ‘loufoquerie [folly]’, is a means of revealing the seriousness of the orangutan’s death because – given that the animal’s identity is so close to our own – such a tragedy announces humans’ disappearance from the planet. Carole Allamand, ‘Du sommaire au moindre: l’humanité en fuite’, Contemporary French and Francophone Studies 16.4 (2012), 517–24 (519–20).

21 Guilhem Menanteau, ‘Éric Chevillard, Sans l’orang-outan’, (2 October 2012), <> [accessed 26 May 2016].

22 All of Volodine’s works depict a strange, oppressive post-apocalyptic world. Antoine Volodine, Des anges mineurs: narrats (Paris: Seuil, 1999); Dondog: roman (Paris: Seuil, 2002).

23 Éric Chevillard, ‘L’Humour du désastre’, Le Monde des livres (5 January 2012), <> [accessed 26 May 2016].

24 Jérôme Garcin and Michel Houellebecq, ‘Un entretien avec Michel Houellebecq: “Je suis un prophète amateur”’, Le Nouvel Observateur 2129 (25 August 2005), 8–10 (9).

25 Garcin and Houellebecq, ‘Un entretien avec Michel Houellebecq’, 9.

26 Grégoire Leménager, ‘Houellebecq: les écolos sont les collabos de l’islamisme’, BibliObs (5 April 2011) <> [accessed 26 May 2016].

27 Blanche Cerquiglini and Éric Chevillard, ‘Éric Chevillard: “la littérature commence avec le refus de se plier aux faits”’, Critique 767 (2011), 305–14 (311).