Satirical Houellebecq wins France's top book prize
France's best-known living writer Michel Houellebecq won its top literary award, the Goncourt Prize, on Monday for his best-selling satire "The Map and the Territory", the prize committee announced.
The honour was overdue for fans of Houellebecq, who came close to winning in 1998 and 2005 but has divided readers and critics with edgy, sex-fuelled tales that have drawn accusations of obscenity and racial provocation.
Houellebecq, 52, is the best-known French writer abroad, chronicler of modern male angst with novels such as "Atomised" and "Platform" -- a sex-tourism romp with an Islamist terrorism theme which landed him in court.
The 2010 prize winner was announced at the chic Drouant restaurant in Paris by the Goncourt panel of literary bigwigs who voted seven to two in his favour.
"It's a weird feeling but I am deeply happy," Houellebecq told reporters afterwards.
"Some people only follow contemporary literature thanks to the Goncourt, and literature is not French people's main concern, so this is very useful."
"La carte et le territoire" (The Map and the Territory) satirises the Paris art world in the tale of Jed Martin, an artist who gains global fame by photographing old Michelin maps.
It softens the misanthropic tone of his four previous novels, but skewers with dry humour a number of real-life personalities, even featuring a drunken, stinking, badly-dressed writer named Michel Houellebecq.
It has garnered enthusiastic reviews -- Liberation newspaper called it a "masterpiece" -- and sales have stayed buoyant despite a row last month over accusations of plagiarism, which the author has dismissed as "ridiculous".
"It's perhaps the easiest-to-read of my books," Houellebecq said. "Certainly the most complex in structure."
In the English-speaking world Houellebecq has been compared to Britain's Martin Amis, whose novels likewise feature highly-sexed anti-heroes. His 1984 novel "Money" similarly featured a character named Martin Amis.
Houellebecq receives a symbolic cheque for 10 euros from the Goncourt Academy, but the prize is said to guarantee average sales of 400,000 copies and has become a seal of approval for France's top authors.
"Atomised" narrowly missed out on a Goncourt in 1998 and Houellebecq's previous work, "The Possibility of an Island", came within one vote of a Goncourt win in 2005.
"I am someone who forgets bad things," Houellebecq said on Monday when asked how he felt now about these near-misses.
The sometimes dark past works by the writer, who now divides his time between Spain and Ireland, have drawn charges ranging from obscenity to provoking racial hatred.
In 2001, "Platform" landed him in court on charges over his depiction of Islam, but he was cleared of all charges.
The plagiarism claim over his latest book centred on three factual passages that were apparently lifted almost word-for-word from Wikipedia, the user-generated online encyclopedia.
The author dismissed the accusation, arguing that mixing "real" texts into fiction was a technique countless writers have used.
To survive the Goncourt Academy's 13-round voting process he beat off competition from Virginie Despentes, whose punk novel "Apocalypse Baby" won two votes from the jury.
While most French critics have taken warmly to "The Map and the Territory", one writer on the Goncourt jury -- the French-Moroccan novelist Tahar Ben Jelloun -- said he wasted three days reading it.
© 2010 AFP