Michel Houellebecq: French satirical novelist in 'verbal brawl' with Le Monde newspaper

Author took exception to a series of 'unauthorised' biographical articles

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The Independent Online

France loves an intellectual scrap. The country has been treated this week to a spectacular verbal brawl between its most respected newspaper and its most internationally acclaimed writer.

Michel Houellebecq, satirical novelist and controversialist, has been infuriated by a series of six “unauthorised” biographical articles written by Le Monde’s star reporter, Ariane Chemin.

In a statement to the French news agency, he described journalists as “parasites” and “cockroaches” and Ms Chemin as a “specialist in malicious sneakiness”.

In response, Le Monde’s editor, Jérôme Fenoglio, accused Mr Houllebecq of systematically denigrating all journalists  who were not “chosen by him” to “sculpt the statue” of his own greatness.

Ms Chemin’s  six articles paint a brilliant – and far from  negative – portrait of Houllebecq’s pessimistic views and  miserabalist lifestyle. One article describes how the famously dishevelled author turned up for a “research” visit to a French monastery and was shown to the rooms kept for vagrants.

Ms Chemin’s articles paint a brilliant portrait of Houllebecq’s views (AFP)

In his statement to Agence France-Presse Mr Houllebecq, did not challenge  the substance of the articles but claimed that they had placed his life in danger.

The novelist has been under police protection since the appearance of his novel, “Submission”, last January. The book, published coincidentally on the same day as the jihadist attack on Charlie Hebdo magazine, describes an imaginary France ruled by a “moderate islamist” president.

In his statement to AFP, Mr Houellebecq said the articles were “dangerous for my safety” because they included details of his “way of life”.

“Knowing which Monoprix I shop in is not a subject of national importance,” he wrote.

The statement has  puzzled French commentators. The Le Monde article contained no mention of a Monoprix.

Houellebecq's latest novel, 'Submission' (AFP)

Mr Houllebecq had, in fact, given more details of his life in interviews with Le Figaro earlier this month, organised as a “spoiler” for the investigative articles in Le Monde.

Mr Houellebecq, 59, real name Michel Thomas, is by far the most read French contemporary author outside France. An English language version of “Submission” will be published in the United States in October – a fact which may partially explain the present controversy. The French-language version  has already sold 600,000 copies.

His previous works include the novels “Whatever”, “Atomised” and “Platform”. His books presents a modern world obsessed with possessions and sex but fundamentally sexless and too enfeebled by soft, liberal notions to defend true human values.

In her series of articles Ms Chemin describes Mr Houellebecq’s alleged excessive drinking, his affection for his Corgi dog and his series of aggressively unfashionable homes, including a house with no view on a modern estate in Limerick in Ireland. 

She says that that Mr Houllebecq refused to meet her and ordered all his friends and acquaintance to boycott her research. Over 100 people did agree to talk to Mr Chemin. They included his friend, the French celebrity philosopher, Bernard- Henry Lévy or “BHL””.

In 2007, BHL told Ms Chemin, he received a text from Houellebecq in which he said: “I am committing suicide tonight.” The philosopher persuaded him "at least" to dine at The Ritz first.