L'Auteur turns his poison pen on himself

Michel Houellebecq's latest novel is set to propel the writer to even greater notoriety

Michel Houellebecq, one of the few contemporary French writers to be acclaimed abroad, has found a new target for his vicious pen – himself. In a much-awaited new novel, his first for five years, Mr Houellebecq satirises a handful of French media celebs, including a foul-smelling, alcoholic, badly-dressed writer called Michel Houellebecq.

The fictionalised Houellebecq – who bears some resemblance to the real one – lives in a tumble-down house near the river Shannon which has the "worst-kept lawn in Ireland". The real Houellebecq lived until recently in a former guest-house in County Cork, which still had plastic numbers on the bedroom doors.

The mocking self-portrait may or may not be the writer's response to his mother, who took exception to a devastating portrait of her in a previous best-selling Houellebecq novel Plateforme. Two years ago, Lucie Ceccaldi, wrote a revenge book in which she described her son as a "liar, an imposter... a parasite" and "someone who has done nothing with his life except cause pain to those around him".

Like some of her son's publicity-seeking comments, her remarks went a little over the top. Houellebecq (pronounced "wellbeck"), 54, has been attacked variously as a pornographer, a fascist, a racist, a trouble-maker, a drunk; a self-publicist and a nihilist. He has also been lionised, in France and abroad, as one of the most eloquent living writers; a spokesman for the inchoate fury and frustrations of a rootless, globalised, sex-drenched but sexless generation.

His new book, to be published on 8 September, was supposed to be kept under wraps until the so-called "rentrée literaire" (literary return to work) at the end of this month. Over 600 new novels, two thirds of all those published in France each year, are traditionally tipped onto the bookshop shelves in early September.

The newspaper Le Parisien jumped the gun yesterday by publishing a synopsis of the most awaited of this year's "rentree" novels. The newspaper described La Carte et le Territoire as "fascinating and unnerving", but less deliberately provocative than Houellebecq's four previous novels (including Atomised and The Possibilities of an Island). The new book – part-thriller, part-satirical comedy – centres on the triumphs and demise of a young, contemporary artist who has a worldwide success by photographing old Michelin maps. Several French minor celebrities, including two news anchors and a game-show presenter, appear under their own names.

Unlike Houellebecq's previous books, the new one contains, according to Le Parisien, no attacks on Islam and no overt misogyny.

One of the reasons why so many French novels are published in September is that it puts them into the running for the three or four big, French literary prizes which are awarded by the end of the year. The other explanation for the avalanche is that there are almost no literary agents in France to filter, or impede, would-be writers. Publishing houses toss half-way promising new novelists onto the market all at once to see which will sink or swim. Most sink.

Mr Houellebecq's new novel – as yet unseen by most of literary France – is already the runaway favourite to win the biggest of all French book prizes, the Prix Goncourt, this autumn. This is nothing to do with its merits. It has become embarrassing, even in the perverse world of literary France, that one of the French writers most admired and read abroad has never won the Goncourt. His last novel The Possibilities of an Island was overlooked in 2005 in favour of another which everyone conceded later was a dud. The other – and probably more important – reason why La Carte et le Territoire may win the 2010 Goncourt is that Mr Houellebecq has changed publishers. He left Flammarion last time for Fayard for a fat transfer fee. He has returned to Flammarion this time.

Winning the Goncourt is partly, some say largely, a question of which of the large French publishers can persuade the jury that it is their "turn" to win. It is generally reckoned to be Flammarion's turn in 2010.

Houellebecq, now living in Spain, has not been inactive since 2005. Two years ago he published a book of conversations with the celebrity philosopher, Bernard-Henri Lévy. He also directed a film version of Possibilities of an Island which was greeted with derision by movie critics and hardly troubled the box-office. It was his second novel, Les Particules élémentaires, later translated into English as Atomised, which rocketed him to stardom in France and beyond in 1998. It tells the story of two 40-something half-brothers, who live in a world of masturbation, peep-shows, sex-clubs and fluffed opportunities for fulfillment.

After late childhood, the book suggests, modern western men and women (but especially men) are incapable of achieving spiritual or physical happiness. They are trapped in an illusory world of ersatz pleasure, obsessed with sex but incapable of love. His third novel, Plateforme, published in 2001, was about sexual tourism and Islamic terrorism. Houellebecq was taken to court – and acquitted – for describing Islam in an interview as "dangerous" and "the most stupid of all religions".

His "hatred" (his own word) for Islam has always hovered, disturbingly, on the frontier between Houellebecq the writer and Houellebecq the psychologically fragile man (his official biographical notes cheerfully admit to several nervous breakdowns). His mother left him when he was a toddler, to start a new life and then converted to Islam. He was brought up by his devoutly Stalinist grandmother, loving her but detesting her ideology.

Critics favourable to Houellebecq have suggested that his greatest work may come when he has exorcised these personal demons. By placing himself, in satirised form, in his new book, Mr Houellebecq may be attempting to do just that.

In his own words...

Houellebecq on... Religion

"I had a kind of revelation in the Sinai, where Moses received the Ten Commandments. Suddenly, I experienced a total rejection of monotheism. In this very rocky, inspiring land, I said to myself that the idea of believing in only one God was cretinous... And the stupidest religion of all is Islam."

... Society

"I don't like this world. I definitely do not like it. The society in which I live disgusts me; advertising sickens me; computers make me puke."

... Life

"Life is painful and disappointing. It is useless, therefore, to write new realistic novels. We generally know where we stand in relation to reality and don't care to know any more."

... Single men on holiday

"People are suspicious of single men on vacation, after they get to a certain age: they assume that they're selfish, and probably a bit pervy. I can't say they're wrong."

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Life and Style
love + sex A new study has revealed the average size - but does that leave men outside the 'normal' range being thought of as 'abnormal'?
Arts and Entertainment
TV
Voices
The Palace of Westminster is falling down, according to John Bercow
voices..says Matthew Norman
Sport
Steve Bruce and Gus Poyet clash
football
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Arts and Entertainment
Jake and Dinos Chapman were motivated by revenge to make 'Bring me the Head of Franco Toselli! '
arts + ents Shapero Modern Gallery to show explicit Chapman Brothers film
Arts and Entertainment
Kurt Cobain performing for 'MTV Unplugged' in New York, shortly before his death
music Brett Morgen's 'Cobain: Montage of Heck' debunks many of the myths surrounding the enigmatic singer
Life and Style
life
Sport
Brendan Rodgers
football The Liverpool manager will be the first option after Pep Guardiola
Arts and Entertainment
Myanna Buring, Julian Rhind-Tutt and Russell Tovey in 'Banished'
TV Jimmy McGovern tackles 18th-century crime and punishment
Arts and Entertainment
Paul Whitehouse as Herbert
arts + ents
Sport
Christian Benteke of Aston Villa celebrates scoring the winner for Aston Villa
football
News
Bill O'Reilly attends The Hollywood Reporter 35 Most Powerful People In Media Celebration at The Four Seasons Restaurant on April 16, 2014 in New York City
media It is the second time he and the channel have clarified statements
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Lettings and Sales Negotiator - OTE £46,000

£16000 - £46000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join ...

Recruitment Genius: Home Care Worker - Reading and Surrounding Areas

£9 - £13 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This is a great opportunity to join a s...

Recruitment Genius: Key Sales Account Manager - OTE £35,000

£25000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Have you got a proven track rec...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executive - OTE £40,000

£15000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a great opportunity for...

Day In a Page

Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

Climate change key in Syrian conflict

And it will trigger more war in future
How I outwitted the Gestapo

How I outwitted the Gestapo

My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
The nation's favourite animal revealed

The nation's favourite animal revealed

Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
Is this the way to get young people to vote?

Getting young people to vote

From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot
Poldark star Heida Reed: 'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'

Poldark star Heida Reed

'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'
The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
Families clubbing together to build their own affordable accommodation

Do It Yourself approach to securing a new house

Community land trusts marking a new trend for taking the initiative away from developers
Head of WWF UK: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

David Nussbaum: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

The head of WWF UK remains sanguine despite the Government’s failure to live up to its pledges on the environment
Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Set in a mythologised 5th-century Britain, ‘The Buried Giant’ is a strange beast
With money, corruption and drugs, this monk fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’

Money, corruption and drugs

The monk who fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’
America's first slavery museum established at Django Unchained plantation - 150 years after slavery outlawed

150 years after it was outlawed...

... America's first slavery museum is established in Louisiana
Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

The first 'American Idol' winner on how she manages to remain her own woman – Jane Austen fascination and all
Tony Oursler on exploring our uneasy relationship with technology with his new show

You won't believe your eyes

Tony Oursler's new show explores our uneasy relationship with technology. He's one of a growing number of artists with that preoccupation
Ian Herbert: Peter Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

The England coach leaves players to find solutions - which makes you wonder where he adds value, says Ian Herbert
War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn