Houellebecq: France's deadpan provocateur

7th January 2015, Comments 0 comments

If you were to sum up Michel Houellebecq, France's most famous writer, in just two words, they would be "provocative" and "cynical".

But the 56-year-old author owes more to his success than a dark and pessimistic world view. He's also funny -- personally and in prose -- in a deadpan ironic way that would be familiar to any fan of Woody Allen.

His own fans hail him as something of a prophet, a tag likely to grow bigger with his latest book, "Soumission" ("Submission"), which imagines a France in seven years' time ruled by an Islamic government.

His detractors dismiss him as a cold-hearted polemicist, keen to stir the literary pot with acid takes on society and salty salaciousness.

For many outside France he represents an insouciant Gallic stereotype: resolutely non-politically correct, dishevelled, a cigarette often in his mouth, sex-obsessed.

Houellebecq, though, dodges the labels thrown at him and has described himself as a "sick old turtle".

His literary trademark is that of nihilism, describing a society in decay -- but where misery is leavened by lightning flashes of dry humour and graphically sexual interludes.

"The human being is a small, cruel and miserable animal," he wrote in 1996.

"Atomised", his second novel about two-half brothers adrift in a society breaking apart, won him international renown, building on the mostly French success of his debut work about a loser computer programmer, "Whatever".

"Platform", his third book suffused with an anti-Muslim current, established him as a brand, one who indifferently courts controversy with a sly eye on the absurdities of life.

"If I commit suicide one day, it will be over a plumbing problem," he told the men's lifestyle magazine GQ in 2008.

In another interview, with the French news magazine L'Obs, the self-described conservative writer said "it's probably my talent which made it impossible" for the political left "to see me as a possible enemy".

A French academic, Bruno Viard, observed that part of the appeal of Houellebecq's writing is "you can't determine how much is authentic and how much is calculated".

"He can get away with anything," added Pierre Assouline, a member of the jury that in 2010 awarded Houellebecq France's highest literary honour, the Goncourt prize.

- Causticity, crudity and cynicism -

If Houellebecq's career is marked by causticity, crudity and cynicism, his childhood perhaps contains the origins.

Houellebecq was born Michel Thomas on February 26, 1958 on France's Indian Ocean island of Reunion (though not all sources agree on the year; some put it in 1956). After his parents -- his father was a guide, his mother a doctor -- gave him to his grandmother at age six to be raised by her, he adopted her family name.

In 1980, he picked up a degree as an agronomist and married, becoming a father to his son Etienne the following year. Then there was divorce, depression, joblessness.

Houellebecq wrote poems, and in 1985 published a biography of the American horror writer HP Lovecraft. It was nearly a decade later that his own writing career took off, with 1994's publication of "Whatever".

"Atomised" followed in 1998 and brought such success that Houellebecq moved to Ireland, where income from writing is tax exempt. "Platform", about sex tourism, came out in 2001, then "The Possibility of an Island", a sci-fi story of cloning, comedy and dystopia, followed in 2005.

He won France's Goncourt prize in 2010 for "The Map and the Territory", a riff on art, love and money into which he writes himself as a character.

- Characters as 'projections' -

Between that book and his latest, Houellebecq kept busy, bringing out a collection of poetry and appearing in French movies as a creditable actor. He has also moved back to Paris from Ireland and now lives -- like the main character of "Soumission" -- in the French capital's Chinatown district.

If his public persona and protagonists share many traits, it's no accident.

"They are never self-portraits, but they are always projections," he told a French journalist, Sylvain Bourmeau. "I use moments that made an impact on my in life. But I tend to transpose more and more."

According to Denis Demonpion, author of a non-authorised biography of Houellebecq: "He wanted to make a novel out of his life, and it's a masterfully executed construction."


© 2015 AFP

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