The Books Interview: Michel Houellebecq - Having some fun with dysfunction

Michel Houellebecq, the mischief-making enfant terrible of new- wave French fiction, talks to Helen Stevenson

Before a Francophone audience at the French Institute, prior to the British publication of his first novel, Michel Houellebecq is happy to speak in English. Partly, one suspects, this is because he is bored by the sound of the same old answers in French; partly, because he knows that it is mildly irritating.

Ruminative pauses punctuate his speech like clouds. Vision du monde? he asks, casting around for a prompt. Vision of the world! raps the translator, clashing with a chorus of "world view" from the English to his left. "Ah, world view," he agrees, smiling slightly. "I am simply expressing my world view."

Houellebecq's first novel, Whatever (translated by Paul Hammond, Serpent's Tail, pounds 8.99), is a short book narrated by a Parisian computer programmer. Its vision of the world is not a pretty one. The narrator and his colleague, Tisserand, tour France teaching people to use their software. Tisserand is 26 and a virgin. His frustration contrasts with the narrator's apparent indifference to sex, acquisition or success. Eventually, the narrator offers Tisserand a knife and suggests he go and kill a couple making out on the beach. "Launch yourself on a career of murder. Get the hang of it on a young nigger!"

In some ways, it's nothing new. People are alienated. The world is filthy and sour, there is no love any more, we are all scared, isolated, lonely and bitter. We may be economically comfortable - those with jobs in computers, at least - but we are ill-educated, intellectualised in the wrong way, unfit and unlikely to score. The novel's end-of-the-Eighties France is visibly Americanised. "The Americans are completely stupid," Houellebecq says, sounding like the Roi Soleil. "The intellectual level in any single European country is higher than in America."

The French title was Extension du domaine de la lutte, expressing Houellebecq's view that the sexual revolution of the Sixties had nothing to do with the creation of communism in the sexual realm. Rather, it had everything to do with a free sexual market, in which you had to be fit to score and survive.

I ask him later if it was called Whatever in English as the result of a clerical error - whether someone said "what shall we call it in English?" and "Oh, whatever!" got slung down in the minutes. His publisher says that "with this jacket and this title, it could almost be an American novel". Houellebecq laughs acidly.

It's not ironic that someone who so despises the consumerism of the late 20th century should have sold over 500,000 copies of his first two novels. It is part of the critique, and Houellebecq is delighted by his success. At the same time, he is currently one of the most reviled men in France, as well as the most feted: the leader of a "new generation" of young, politically disengaged writers who are depressed, humorous, watch television, and wander in cyber- and porno-space.

They are the first generation of French writers to represent the physical world as we have known it here for a long time, complete with answerphones, computers, supermarkets and discotheques. No one sits round in cafes discussing the meaning of life. Life has moved on and has left its meaning, and those who sought it, far behind. But in a recent issue of Granta, Houellebecq refutes the claim that what these writers have in common is a concern for action rather than thought. "It's not true," he says. "That's not me at all. My novels are all ideas."

Whatever isn't really a novel of ideas, though. It is a funny, terrifying and nauseating novel about what's wrong. The strapline on the English cover says, as if desperately trying to find old bottles for new wine, "L'Etranger for the info age".

"Yes," Houellebecq says, "but L'Etranger was different. Meursault had no reason to kill the Arab on the beach." And here there is an uncomfortable pause. He is a strange-looking man - a cross between Arthur Scargill and Jasper Carrott. Much has been made in France of his nerdy looks. "Here there is, after all, a justification."

The hostility of the audience at the French Institute seems slightly pre-fabricated. Many people came here prepared to be hostile to a man who has stuck literary knuckle-dusters into the face of political correctness. In the French newspapers, L'Affaire Houellebecq has claimed almost as many column inches as L'Affaire Lewinsky. Already people felt uncomfortable with aspects of the first novel - its gross anti- feminism, a taint of racist language that did not seem to be entirely the narrator's own, the feeling of unease about this so-called "justification". But it was his second novel that created uproar; hence this audience is half sycophantic, half hostile.

"It is very dangerous," he says of Les Particules Elementaires (Flammarion, 105FF), slowly spinning a glass of house white as we sit in the French Institute cafe. (He is unfussy about wine and says that, after a few years of work, people get less interested in sex and substitute for it clarets and gastronomie.) Dangerous for whom? Is he about to discourse on the narrow ledge a writer must walk between provocation and responsibility? "For me," he says forlornly. "People were extremely hostile."

Les Particules Elementaires will be published in England next year. It is a brilliant, horrifying, pornographic, very funny, sociological survey of the last 30 years, and a total condemnation of the 1968 generation. Houellebecq claims to have been surprised by the outrage it caused among the 68ers themselves. "I honestly thought they were all dead," he says. He was 10 in 1968.

As a blueprint for happiness in the 21st century, it proposes the creation by cloning of an auto-reproducing species very similar to humans. They would be immortal, not therefore in sexual competition for survival, and free of suffering, envy, cruelty and vanity. It has been read particularly closely for its descriptions of Swedish-style orgies. (The graphic detail lends a certain piquancy to Houellebecq's presence in the flesh.)

There has been far less debate in France over the substance of his views on eugenics than over whether they justified his being banned from a group of intellectuals called Perpendiculaire. Perhaps on its publication in England, the novel will provoke a serious discussion of the issues. Houllebecq's claim that it is simply science fiction is so disingenuous as to be arch.

And yet Les Particules Elementaires - justifiably, one might argue - is now being described as the most important novel of the end of the millennium. "I know the classic objections - but it seems to me that the advantages to be gained from acting to modify the genetic code far outweigh any objections." Pinned down, he can always say it's only fiction; and science fiction at that. Nevertheless, it is a fiction based on his own vision du monde.

Houellebecq is off to Cuba with his new wife. He will rest a bit; maybe do some reading. "I prefer reading to writing," he says, grinning over the front page of a newspaper I show him, announcing the bombing of Iraq. "Reading changes your world view. Writing changes absolutely nothing. Except, of course, when it makes you rich."

Michel Houellebecq, a biography

Michel Houellebecq was born in 1958 in La Reunion. His mother was a "sexually liberated" anaesthetist; his father a mountain guide. He was brought up in the Yonne region of France by his grandfather. He studied agronomy and became a programmer at the Assemblee Nationale. After a divorce and severe depression, he spent time in a psychiatric hospital. In the early Nineties, he published an essay on HP Lovecraft and two collections of poems. His first novel Extension du domaine de la lutte (Whatever) appeared in 1995, and Les Particules Elementaires in 1998.

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