Michel Houellebecq: Twilight of an iconoclast

This week Michel Houellebecq finally won the Prix Goncourt. Even so, there are signs that France's most incendiary satirist has lost his spark.

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Le carte et le territorie
Michel Houellebecq

The French writer Michel Houellebecq has reached a strange point in his unlikely career. Weedy, weak-chinned, thinning hair scooped in an increasingly unconvincing combover, dull blue eyes conveying a mixture of boredom and what might be described as a resigned intelligence, he looks perpetually uncomfortable. Not just uncomfortable on screen - his television interviews are legendarily bizarre, often consisting of long silences, exasperated sighs, non sequitur answers and disarming honesty bordering on rudeness - but uncomfortable with life and its vicissitudes. In poetry, novels, essays on literature, films and musical collaborations with the likes of Iggy Pop, Houellebecq has developed a philosophy of life as a survival strategy, where the aim is to collect those few fleeting moments of happiness before disappearing into oblivion.

It doesn't sound like fun being Houellebecq. He suffers regularly from panic attacks, long bouts of depression and has survived at least one complete nervous breakdown. He avoids other people, but loves his dog, a Welsh Corgi called Clement, because it offers him unconditional love. His first published work was a sumptuous essay on HP Lovecraft, the American fantasy author best known for inventing Chthulu, a mythical primordial creature that drives men to madness. His first work of fiction was a collection of poems titled Rester Vivant (Staying Alive), a proposition he can barely muster the enthusiasm to fulfil.

This only partly explains the view of the universe now commonly called Houellebecquian: an almost comically bleak, lucid, and unforgiving attitude to life and its indignities. The recurrent themes of his oeuvre are the interplay between desire and love, ageing and the ravages it inflicts on the body, the disintegration of human relationships in advanced Western civilisation, and the fundamental sadness of existence.

He can be extremely funny, but is also frequently pornographic, racist, misogynist or downright nihilist. His early books, Extension du Domaine de la Lutte (published in English, rather bizarrely, as Whatever) and Les Particules Elementaires (The Elementary Particles) were explosions on the French literary scene, as much for their content and sparse style as for the personality of their author.

Houellebecq was tried in 2002 for inciting religious hatred in an interview - he had casually remarked that "Islam is the stupidest religion". For all his fierce intelligence, he can be remarkably narrow-minded: asked if he had reconsidered his opinion on Islam, he stated that he had looked into it once and thought the matter closed once and for all. (It may be that he represents a not inconsiderable part of French public opinion.)

For over 15 years, debate has raged over whether Houellebecq is the greatest French author of his generation, one who has captured the Zeitgeist of contemporary France, or a great impostor whose facile provocations and pop sociology are testimony to the terminal decline of French intellectual life. Some say it's both, although this is unfair to Houellebecq, whose limpid prose and insight into modern life genuinely injected something fresh into France's literary scene.

Since 1998, when his novel Plateforme (Platform) - set in part in a Club Med for sex tourists in Thailand - came out, Houellebecq has been a favorite to win the Prix Goncourt, France's most prestigious literary prize. At that point he might still have needed the publicity and sales boost (Goncourt winners typically sell some 400,000 copies), but he was passed over in favour of what even his enemies regard as a mediocre novel. In 2005, Houellebecq's superb La Possibilité d'une Ile (The Possibility of an Island) was shortlisted again. That novel, set in the near-future, devises a future for mankind where the sexless clones of a chosen few spend their lives studying the biographies of their predecessors to understand no-longer relevant concepts such as desire or jealousy, as well as the social breakdown of 21st-century Europe. These works have caused something akin to a civil war in literary circles, with members the Goncourt jury denouncing Houellebecq as a reactionary and vowing to block the award.

In 2010, the drama was repeated. La carte et le territoire (The Map and the Territory) was a Goncourt favourite even before its release in September, with the Paris literati saying that Houellebecq's time had come. The Moroccan novelist Tahar Benjelloun, a member of the Goncourt's jury, may have inadvertently given him a boost by publishing a long diatribe against the book, which he described as "self-satisfied". A journalist discovered that a description of the mating habits of fruit flies had been lifted from Wikipedia, opening a debate on plagiarism. Some wondered whether the author has toned down the novel to make it more palatable for the jury: it is a gentler, less overtly nihilistic novel than usual, eschewing the long, at times sadistic, sex scenes that are the author's trademark. On November 8, Michel Houellebecq was awarded the prize that eluded him for a decade. "It's a more human Houellebecq," the jury said in its statement. "I don't think it's me that's changed," Houellebecq mumbled at the press conference. Has he or hasn't he?

La carte et le territoire tells the story of Jed Martin, an artist who makes elaborate conceptual statements on contemporary life through photography, painting, and film. Reclusive and unknown on the Paris arts scene, he makes a first breakthrough in the arts by photographing Michelin road maps and holding an exhibition called "the map is more more interesting than the territory". At the peak of his career he captures the spirit of the times with portraits such as "Bill Gates and Steve Jobs discuss the future of computing" or "Damien Hirst and Jeff Koons split the arts market". Like Houellebecq, Martin is a chronicler of his age. If this isn't meta enough, though, Martin's greatest work is to be a portrait of "the great writer Michel Houellebecq". Martin strikes up an almost-friendship with his subject, whom he visits in Ireland and finds sleeping most of the time, eating sausages in his bed, rarely changing his filthy pyjamas and generally living a lonely and cloistered life. Later on, Houellebecq is brutally murdered and Martin's painting of him is stolen. Houellebecq the writer is merciless with Houellebecq the character, from his first description to the gruesome depiction of his corpse.

Yet the heart of the novel remains Martin, whose love affair with Olga, a Russian marketing executive at Michelin, ends prematurely. Martin concludes that he has missed his chance to love and be loved and will never find it again. His relationship with his father, likewise, is tinged with disappointment: by the time they can relate to each other his father is old, his body failing, and he ends up checking into a euthanasia clinic in Switzerland. Later in his life, Martin retires to the countryside, using his considerable income to enlarge his property so that he can be as far away as possible from other human beings.

One of the more original themes of the book is the idea of a deindustrialising France whose rustic countryside, fine foods, and charming hotels are becoming a chief source of income, attracting tourists from the newly industrialised and truly productive parts of the world - Chinese, Indians, Russians or Arabs in search of French chic.

Houellebecq writes of a France that has lost its vigour but continues to thrive by selling a simulacrum of itself, a bitter thought for the kind of disappointed Romantic he can't disguise being. A France that is ageing but continues to worship youth, even as it no longer offers the young much hope (if the recent protests led by high school students are anything to go by) and no longer affords the elderly a dignified death. It is a fascinating idea to contemplate, leavened by moments of humour that could very well be lost in translation, such as the coming-out of a daytime news presenter known for his celebration of French terroir.

All the same, there are disappointing hints that the author may have mellowed. Once he exalted Lovecraft for writing "like a radiant suicide", and for a time, Houellebecq seemed to do the same. Now he seems merely grouchy, announcing his dissent from mainstream opinion by the retired blogger's expedient of sarcastically italicised cant phrases:

"They lived through several weeks of happiness (it was not, could not be, the intense, febrile happiness of the young, it was no longer a question of spending a weekend getting wasted or having it large; it was already - even if they were still at an age at which they could still make fun of it - a preparation for that epicurean, tranquil, refined-without-snobbery type of happiness that Western society offered to the members of its upper middle class halfway through life."

The freedom to grouse with impunity at the fatuousness of the young is, of course, part of that idyllic package. However much he might still writhe and freeze up on television, it is too early to dismiss the possibility that Michel Houellebecq will yet find his way to a comfortable old age.

Issandr el Amrani is a writer and analyst based in Cairo. He blogs at www.arabist.net.