A hug for the enfant terrible

France's most famous living author, Michel Houellebecq, has won the Prix Goncourt

1 December 2010
By

Islam is the world's stupidest religion, the Germans have no culture, the 1960s sexual revolution killed off love – and you should hear the things he says about his mother, or worse, what she says about him.

Michel Houellebecq was awarded the Prix Goncourt last month for La carte et le Territoire, his latest novel.

The academy's choice was often reported with the words “en fin” or “finally”. Given that the author is so well-known in the English-speaking world, foreign media found it strange that France had not thought to honour him earlier.

Houellebecq expressed himself grateful for the award, recognition of his literary talent from a respected body.

Although fans have placed his books in a line of writers stretching back to the Marquis de Sade via Camus, critics have described his novels as vulgar, pornographic, racist, sexist and idiotic.

It is presumably because of both the description by fans and critics that Houellebecq has found popularity beyond the borders of France, despite his own limited English.

Houellebecq was born Michel Thomas, on the island of Reunion in 1958. He took his grandmother's name after his own mother left him when he was six years old, to go and travel the world.

He has never forgiven her, turning her into the character Ceccaldi (a thin disguise given that her real name is Lucie Ceccaldi) a selfish, sex-obsessed hippie who abandons her son in an attic full of excrement.

She, in turn, called him an “evil, stupid little bastard” – and worse – when she released her own book in 2008. The 83-year-old toured France threatening to “knock his teeth out”, slating him as egotistical liar and going so far as to criticise the consistency of his stools as a baby – perhaps adding to his status as an enfant terrible.

Houellebecq left France almost 10 years ago, after he was put on trial for incitement to racial hatred. During a publicity interview for his book Platform, he described Islam as the stupidest religion and said the Koran was appalling. (The main character in the book says he feels a “quiver of glee” every time a “Palestinian terrorist” is killed.)

Even enemies in the literary world were quick to rally to his aid, pointing out that Muslims and Islam are not the same, and that everyone should be allowed to criticise a religion.

Houellebecq was acquitted and went to live in Ireland, then Andorra.

Platform, in which the main character, Michel, proposes that the rich West and the poor, desperate Third World could help each other out through open and honest prostitution, was slated in several English-language reviews. French reviewers gave him the benefit of the doubt, saying the author had not given a nod of approval to the morality of the suggestion.

In his latest novel, La carte et le Territoire, a French writer called Michel Houellebecq, who lives in Ireland, is murdered and cut up into pieces. It is not the first time he has made an appearance in his own work.

His first novel, Extension du Domaine de la Lutte (1994) involves a sexually frustrated, tired and cynical government IT expert. Houellebecq was working at the time as a computer programmer for the National Assembly.

His second novel, Les Particules élémentaires (translated as Atomised), splits his personal traits between two brothers, abandoned by their hippy mother. Among its ideas is that the free love of the 1960s has led to the destruction of real love a generation or so later. The accusations that the hippies of the Sixties had killed love led to outcry among France's left-wing and liberal establishments, and the book rapidly became a best seller.

Feeding off the weirdness of the arrival of the new millennium and the Raelian saga (in which a French cult claimed to have grown the world's first human clone) he went on to include such themes in his later work.

His book Lanzarote at one point places its protagonist with the Rocky-Horroresque choice of joining a German lesbian couple or signing up with the Azraelian sect that says it will regenerate humanity using aliens.

The theme of cloning was taken up again in La Possibilité d'une île (2005),which sees two clone descendants of a 21st-century comedian reading his autobiography and adding their own commentaries on his life as seen from their standpoint several centuries after he died.

Houellebecq made the book into a film, but its success did not match that of the book. In 2009 Iggy Pop used it as the basis of his album Préliminaires.

Houellebecq lists on his website ginger rum, cigarettes, Monoprix, Jimi Hendrix, Neil Young, Franz Schubert, Françoise Hardy, Leonard Cohen, Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys and David Crosby as forming “his world”. Given that the imaginary Houellebecq in La Carte et le Territoire lists a Camel Legend parka coat (frequently worn by Houellebecq himself) among his favourite consumer products, this can probably be added to the list. He lives with his corgi, Clément. (Dogs, he says, have a pure love and a trust that must not be broken.)

He was accused of plagiarism in his latest book, having lifted a passage on the life cycle of a fly from Wikipedia. Houellebecq dismissed this as being part of his style; his books can include diversions, including his own reviews of other novels, lists and advertisements.

The author's reputation as a recluse had to be rethought when he joined the flamboyant left-wing philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy in an unlikely alliance in which the two exchanged consoling letters to each other on how much France hated them. Public Enemies seemed like a vanity exercise (its main premise being undermined by the interest in it) and provided few revelations into the authors' lives.

Houellebecq is a father, having married in 1980. His son, Etienne, was born in 1981, but is hardly ever mentioned as the couple split soon after and Houellebecq had a nervous breakdown, leading to several spells in institutions.

He is rarely seen without cigarettes or drink, and interviewers have commented on the huge pauses he takes before answering questions, a fine example of the French philosophical
stereotype.

On accepting the award, Houellebecq said at least now people would be free of wondering when he would get it (it can be won only once). The announcement of his victory was quickly followed by a congratulatory phonecall from President Sarkozy. While his mother played an important part in his writing, he probably didn't call to thank her.

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