The strange tale of Houellebecq and the book on a park bench

The book is a science fiction novel, with sex, violence and pessimistic philosophy, to be published on the last day of this month by Michel Houellebecq, the enfant terrible of modern French writing.

The novel, which earned a €1.5m (£1m) advance, is certain to be the runaway best-seller in the so-called "rentréelitéraire" in September when hundreds of new novels appear in French bookshops.

Houellebecq, 47, the author of Atomised and Platform, both international best-sellers, is adored by part of the literary establishment in France and detested by the rest. This is his first book for four years.

His last novel, Platform, published just before the 9/11 attacks in the United States, described an Islamist terrorist assault on the decadent West. Houellebecq caused indignation - and a court case, which he won - when he described Islam in an interview as the "stupidest of all religions". Only a handful of advance copies of his new novel have been issued to allegedly "friendly" critics by the publishers, Fayard.

Angelo Rinaldi, literary editor of Le Figaro, and a member of the Académie Française, which polices the French language, was not among the charmed circle.

Imagine his surprise, he told his readers yesterday, when he found a "much-thumbed, greasy" and annotated review copy on a park bench in Square du Temple in eastern Paris.

M. Rinaldi read the book and wrote a stinking review in his column in Le Figaro. He described La possibilité d'une Ile" (The Possibility of an Island) - a 488-page description of a planet populated by cloned neo-humans - as "ridiculous" and a "damp squib". Literary controversy is as much a part of a traditional August in France as sun-cream and chilled white wine.

More than half of all novels published in France each year are published in late August and September when the country returns to work from its long summer break. Each year, stories are released, or concocted, to draw attention to the novels which the leading publishers expect to sell well and to contend for the major literary prizes of the autumn.

Houellebecq, although a most original and best-selling French fiction writer, has never won a major French prize. This year, it is rumoured, he is favourite to win the biggest, the Goncourt.

M. Rinaldi's account of how he came by the book was, therefore, treated with some scepticism. The headline above his review read "A Houellebecq fallen from a lorry". M. Rinaldi, one of the best-known and most acerbic literary critics in France and an outspoken enemy of Houellebecq's writing, claimed he had found the review copy by pure accident.

Was this a humorous way of disguising a leak? If so, was the leak inspired by a Fayard rival? Or was it, craftily, inspired by Fayard? The story was bound to provoke controversy and controversy sells Houellebecq books. Neither M. Rinaldi nor the publishers would make any comment.

Although other, favour-able, reviews have already appeared of La possibilite d'une Ile, none have divulged much of the plot. Olivier Le Naire, in the magazine, L'Express wrote: "Who among you deserves eternal life? To explore this, which opens his novel, Michel Houellebecq has written 488 pages which are often provocative, sometimes sickening and always intelligent."

M. Rinaldi said the novel was "arid, impoverished and obscure", adding: "Luck often comes to the aid of a journalist. On this occasion, it may have given [me] a scoop but it did not give me much happiness." The latest Houellebecq, he said, displays the same obsession as his previous books with the complexities of science and the alleged decadence of Western civilisation.

The narrator, Daniel Number One, lives on a planet whose axis has been changed. Humans have the capacity to clone themselves. Unsuccessful models - neo-humans - have escaped from the laboratory and are hunted by the rest for pleasure. Like previous Houellebecq books, the novel has frequent descriptions of often joyless sex, especially oral sex. Daniel's girlfriend commits suicide because she fears growing old. He encounters a guru who rapes an actress and is murdered by her boyfriend. "When something is so ridiculous, one wonders whether it is all an in-joke for a few friends," M. Rinaldi wrote.

In future, he said, when he found a suspicious object on a park bench, he would call the bomb squad "even if it was only a damp squib".

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