To be fair to Houellebecq there was plenty of cause for this feverish anticipation. When it came to shaking up the stultified French literary scene, and cocking a snook at Gallic sensibilities, he was without equal. Atomised had done for the libertarian pretensions of the '68 generation, Platform laid into multicultural yea-sayers with its glorification of sex tourism and minatory warnings about radical Islamism. Despite his strange Belgian name - Flemish? Walloon? Who could say? - Houellebecq represented a peculiarly Gallic phenomenon: literary auto-disembowelling, the text as a paper plate upon which entrails of meaning can be subjected to auspication.
Anyway, there we are, in the cavernous studio of the literary TV show. There's a presenter with thick pancake make-up and preposterous, Melvyn Bragg hair; there's a panel of venerable French academic critics; there's me, isolated in a little embayment all of my own; there's even a studio audience; and, of course, there's Houellebecq, a small, slight, slightly balding man, with gingerish hair, wearing an open-necked, blue check shirt, and a moue of faint disdain on his down-turned, pinkish mouth. Rather than risk complete incomprehension, I've opted for an earphone which is meant to provide me with a simultaneous translation.
The trouble is, the translator, far from being a skilled exponent of the art, speaks English marginally worse than I comprehend French. This sets up the oddest situation of semantic disorientation, as I hear the live French, closely followed by my own imperfect decoding - in my inner ear - followed by translator's even freer interpretation pattering on my eardrum. When I speak, the same echoing of shades of warped meaning occurs in reverse. I've never felt quite so psychically wrenched out of place, saving, perhaps, for the time I found myself in a suburb called Acton, in the southern hemisphere.
What I could divine, is that the venerable critics were intent on taking Houellebecq to task over his sexual obsessions. They banged on about this position and that invagination. When, eventually, I was called upon to comment, I said - perhaps a little testily - that it struck me that these men were preoccupied with jawing about sex in lieu of doing something more sexual with their mouths. I don't think this was altogether lost in translation, because later, as Houellebecq was escorted from the studios in a tight phalanx of publicists, the diminutive provocateur grimaced at me. I took this as a smile of complicity.
And that is that, except to say that Houellebecq's last novel was entitled The Possibility of an Island. I understand that it follows the activities of a bizarre, millenarian cult, not dissimilar to the Raelians, who all topped themselves in Switzerland a few years ago, in anticipation of being taken up into a cosmic spaceship. Houellebecq himself lives in Eire, I presume for tax purposes, so perhaps he should've called his book The Possibility of Being Zero-Rated in Ireland, but that might have given the game away.
Personally, I find the idea of being a tax exile quite as unsavoury as marching in chains over the Urals. The notion of being confined to a place purely in order to avoid giving over a proportion of your earnings to the common weal, seems about as selfishly irresponsible as you can get. And the places! My dear! Malta, Guernsey, the Isle of Man, the Dutch Antilles, the Caymans - impossible islands all. Tolstoy managed to write an extremely moving novel about exile in Siberia, Resurrection, but most tax exiles grind out Freddy Forsyth thrillers.
The best definition of the Russians I ever heard, was "Imagine the Irish with an empire", which, I suppose, anticipates the possibility of entire provinces full of contentious French scriveners. I confess, I like the notion of Houellebecq huddling somewhere in Hibernia, in a leaky bothy, waiting in trepidation, for a posse of sex-starved, valetudinarian French Academicians, to come and assassinate him for polluting the purity of their tongue. E