Rinaldi, literary editor ofLe Figaro, dropped his bombshell on Thursday. While sauntering through Paris, he says, he came upon a dog-eared paperback lying on a bench, covered in greasy fingerprints. Some nameless youth had scribbled "What on earth is this? I didn't get it" on the flyleaf. A quick flick through revealed the book to be La possibilité d'une île, the next book by the infamous Michel Houellebecq, France's most inflammatory novelist and the foremost contender for the establishment's top prize, the Prix Goncourt. Nettled at not having received an advance copy, Rinaldi slated the book in his column, and the well-oiled Houellebecq publicity machine was forced to grind into action a month early.
Houellebecq, probably the bestselling contemporary French author outside France, may very well be stung by having his book described as "science fiction in the hands of a pissed-up chemist" and his prose style denounced as "a leaky kitchen tap, dripping away tasteless liquid with no plumber in sight". But his publishers certainly will have been prepared; indeed, French literary gossip implies that they engineered the leak. Certainly no one believes Rinaldi's story that he is the lucky victim of the bookcrossing.com craze, in which participants pass on copies of favourite books by setting them free in public places. Every Houellebecq book until now has sold on the controversy it generated, and the new one - a futuristic saga of cloning, anomie and oral sex - will be no exception.
A 47-year-old, nondescript boozehound who once programmed computers for the French government, Houellebecq is an unlikely choice as either a literary lion or sacrificial lamb. To his admirers, he is the torchbearer for a tradition of literary provocation that reaches back to the Marquis de Sade and Baudelaire; to his detractors, he is a pedlar of sleaze and shock, who relies on the political incorrectness of his pronouncements for his place in the pantheon. What none of them would contest is that, for whatever reason, he has hit a nerve. His thesis, first promulgated in Extension du domaine de la lutte in 1994, published in English as Whatever, that the sexual revolution of the Sixties created not communism but capitalism in the sexual market, that the unattractive underclass is exiled while the privileged initiates are drained by corruption, accidie and excess - has since found both antagonists and devotees not only in France, but worldwide.
Houellebecq was born in 1958 in La Réunion, a French colony off East Africa. His father was a mountain guide, his mother an anaesthetist: as his website gloomily states, "they lost interest in his existence pretty quickly". His childhood would have psychologists whooping: at six, Houellebecq was packed off to a dismal suburb of Paris and brought up by his paternal grandmother, while his mother headed off to lead the hippy lifestyle.
He was a good student, and in 1980 he graduated in agricultural engineering, got married and had a son; then he got divorced, got depressed and got on with writing poetry. His first poems appeared in 1985 in the magazine La Nouvelle Revue. Six years later, in 1991, he published a potted biography of the horror writer H P Lovecraft, a teenage passion, with the prophetic subtitle "Against the World, Against Life". Rester vivant: méthode (To Stay Alive) appeared the same year, and was followed by his first proper collection of poetry. Meanwhile, Houellebecq signed up as a computer programmer at the Assemblée Nationale in Paris. In 1994 he brought out his first novel, Extension du domaine de la lutte, which chronicled the accidie of a sexually frustrated, terminally jaundiced computer programmer in the civil service.
Les particules élémentaires (Atomised), 1998, his second book, divides some of these autobiographical elements equally between two brothers. Plateforme (Platform), the third, mounts a vigorous attack on Islam, the religion his mother adopted. Les particules élémentaires came just in time to break a drought in French literature that had lasted for decades. Houellebecq's book, which was, as one critic wrote, not so much published as detonated, went straight for the jugular of the liberal establishment with its thesis that the sexual and social liberation of the 1968 revolutions had directly caused the death of love in contemporary society. The fury this caused among the ageing revolutionaries ensured that the book sold 300,000 copies in France within months.
When it was translated, English readers found themselves just as divided. Houellebecq's jaundiced anthropologist's eye, allied with the rigour of his construction and his ruthless judgements on human motivation, had him pronounced the Camus of a new generation. Quietly enough, since then, Houellebecq has become something of a multimedia phenomenon in France. In 1999 he worked on the adaptation of Extension du domaine de la lutte for the screen; the next year he issued a CD of himself reading his poems. Lanzarote (2000) was interleaved with photographs he had taken while on holiday in the Canary Islands. His public might be forgiven for thinking this odd, since he is famously reticent in person. Though friendly with writing contemporaries such as Frédéric Beigbeder and Florian Zeller, he declines most interviews and can barely be tempted out of his house.
In the autumn of 2001 he had a disastrous publicity tour for Plateforme, cancelled seven days before 9/11, when he denounced Islam as "la religion la plus con" in an interview with the magazine Lire. Drunk and belligerent, he justified his characters' condemnation of radical Islam with the judgement that it was "the stupidest religion in the world", declaring, to boot, that "when you read the Koran, it's appalling, appalling". He was taken to court for inciting racial hatred. Half the writers (even some he had lampooned) in France turned out to speak in defence of a man who said he had never confused Arabs and Muslims - that he was speaking of a religion rather than of a people. The case was thrown out but he retreated to Ireland to write.
What the palaver over Plateforme served largely to obscure was that it was not as good as its predecessor. Lanzarote, a novella hastily translated into English after the success of Platform, proved little more than a dry run for the conceits of that novel. If Houellebecq was not actually blocked and coasting on his reputation, it looked like it.
In person he is serious, mournful, almost naive, which sits ill with the force and flash of the prose he writes. When last seen, Houellebecq was living on the remote Beara Peninsula on the west coast of Ireland, with his second wife and an ancient collie that came with the house. Although his imperfect English is apparently not a problem locally, he asks that all interviews be conducted in French: since not many journalists can manage this, he usually concedes to talk in English, which delivers the pregnant pauses, abstract comments and long silences that play directly to our conception of the French intello. He almost never sees his son, who is now in his twenties, and he drinks heavily. Occasionally, if some enterprising editor sends out a pretty reporter, he makes a gloomy pass. This is no more than his acolytes expect, since at least a third of a Houellebecq book consists of graphic descriptions of sexual conquest. And yet both a documentary in 2001 and a collection of essays and jottings that appeared in 2003 portray him as happily married, indifferent to praise and unambitious of fame. He is, tout court, a bit of a mystery.Reuse content