France's leading literary prize finally comes to Houellebecq

 

AFTER TWICE narrowly missing out on the country’s highest literary accolade, Michel Houellebecq, the polarising enfant terrible of French letters, has finally won the Prix Goncourt.

“Michel Houellebecq, at last!” declared Le Mondeafter the chairman of the Goncourt committee stood before a crush of journalists outside the Restaurant Drouant in Paris to confirm Houellebecq’s triumph for his latest novel.

The publication of a new Houellebecq title is a box-office event in France, and La Carte et Le Territoire, his quietest, least provocative novel, has been glowingly reviewed since it appeared in September.

Houellebecq has the highest global sales of France’s contemporary novelists — his work has been translated into 40 languages and his previous awards include the Dublin Impac — but though he came close with La Possibilité d’une Île(The Possibility of an Island) and Les Particules Élémentaires(Atomised), the Goncourt had eluded him until now.

For weeks the press was abuzz with speculation that Houellebecq’s time had come. How were the votes stacking up? Would it go to a second round of voting? Was it to be his year? It was, and by a comfortable margin of 7-1 in the first round.

Greeted like a rock star at the Restaurant Drouant just after the announcement, Houellebecq, a soft-spoken former civil servant in his mid-50s who lived in Co Cork for a number of years, said he was “profoundly happy” to have won. “There are people who only hear about contemporary literature thanks to the Goncourt, and literature does not stand at the centre of French preoccupations, so it’s significant,” he told journalists.

A satire on the Paris art world, La Carte et Le Territoire, his fifth novel, centres on an artist, Jed Martin, who gains fame by photographing old Michelin maps. The protagonist travels to Ireland to meet a drunken, badly-dressed writer who goes by the name of “Michel Houellebecq”, for whom tragedy lies in wait.

With his dark and occasionally incendiary critiques of western liberal society, Houellebecq is a polarising figure in France, his work delighting some but criticised as degrading and obscene by others.

In 2002, a French court ruled that Houellebecq was not guilty of inciting racism after Muslim groups sued him for calling Islam “the stupidest religion”. The writer, who had just just published Les Particules Élémentaires, a novel about sex tourism and Islamist terrorism, argued in his defence that criticising a religion did not mean he was insulting its followers.

His latest has stirred relatively little controversy, and a row over accusations that he lifted passages from Wikipedia has failed to hold back sales, already approaching 200,000 copies. The author dismissed the cut-and-paste accusation, arguing that recycling “real” texts in fiction was a common technique used notably by Jorge Luis Borges and Georges Perec.

The Goncourt comes with a symbolic cash prize of €10, but previous winners have doubled or even trebled their sales thanks to the fabled accolade.

With word of Houellebecq’s triumph dominating the news and public figures lining up to pay tribute to a man who famously shuns the Paris literary scene, socialist leader Martine Aubry — a well-known bibliophile – described him as “one of the major writers of contemporary French literature”.

“I am profoundly happy,” Houellebecq repeated yesterday, wearing the awkward, solemn expression that often has him caricatured as a misanthropic recluse.

“You can’t be used to the feeling,” a journalist joked. And Houellebecq could not help but smile.