French novelist rejects claims of plagiarism

Thu, Sep 9, 2010, 01:00

WITH PREVIOUS novels having attracted accusations of racism, misogyny and obscenity, Michel Houellebecq might have wondered whether there were any charges left to level at his latest work.

But in the week that La Carte et le Territoirewas shortlisted for France’s most prestigious literary prize, the Goncourt, its author finds himself rejecting claims of plagiarism.

Houellebecq’s eagerly awaited novel, set in the Parisian art scene and described as a quieter, less provocative work than titles such as Atomised and Platform, is being published this month to generally positive early reviews.

What brought France’s most controversial novelist back on to the news pages, however, was the publication by the website of a piece under the headline “The Possibility of Plagiarism” (playing on the title of a previous Houellebecq novel, The Possibility of an Island).

The journalist knew that Houellebecq was fond of sprinkling his novels with long, encyclopedia-style descriptions of people, places and scientific concepts, but reading La Carte et le Territoire, he said he found some passages so reminiscent of Wikipedia that he checked them out.

At least three of them, according to – on the town of Beauvais, the housefly and a hunting activist – borrowed from the site.

The site also noted that Houellebecq appeared to have copied some text from the French interior ministry’s website, while the description of a hotel in the south of France closely resembled the summary given on the website of a real hotel.

The debate that has ensued is over whether this is plagiarism or style. A spokesman for publisher Flammarion told The Irish Timesyesterday that Houellebecq – who lived in Ireland for a number of years before moving to Spain – was not available for comment. But in comments published by Le Nouvel Observateur, the novelist dismissed the accusation of plagiarism as “ridiculous”.

Blending “real” texts and fiction was a stylistic technique adopted by many writers, among them Georges Perec and Jorge Luis Borges – both cited as influences by Houellebecq.

“When you use a big word like ‘plagiarism’, even if the accusation is ridiculous, something will always remain . . . It’s like racism,” he said.

“And if people really think that, then they haven’t the first notion of what literature is. That is part of my method.”

Indeed, Perec “managed it much better than me” because he didn’t rework the passages at all and so created a “strong linguistic disconnect”.

Flammarion also came to Houellebecq’s defence, saying it was the the novelist’s style on occasion “to use official documents and sites as literary raw material” and include some of them in reworked form in his novels.

“If some appear to have been taken ‘word for word’, these are only brief quotations, which can in no way be considered as plagiarism, which would constitute a very serious accusation,” the publisher added.

Houellebecq is a polarising figure in France. His bleak and occasionally incendiary critiques of western liberal society have brought him huge success and won some major literary prizes – including the Dublin Impac award – but are deemed degrading and offensive by his critics. 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 argued in his defence that criticising a religion did not mean he was insulting its followers.

The current debate is unlikely to dampen the clamour over his new novel, which Houellebecq has said could be his last.

The book is regarded as one of the favourites for this year’s Goncourt, a prize Houellebecq has yet to win.