The long good sigh
He has a reputation - previous interviews are littered with references to heavy drinking, propositioning and panic attacks. But when Eileen Battersby, Literary Correspondent, visits Michel Houellebecq, who picks up the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award tonight, she finds a weary Mr Normal at home on Bere Island.
Within hours of France embracing national mourning as its scoreless football team exited the World Cup, possibly the only Frenchman unmoved by the disaster slumps on his sofa, gazing out the window. Writer Michel Houellebecq observes the world, or at least the Bera Peninsula, from his house on Bere Island, off the Co Cork coast. A young Corgi with an eager puppy face wanders in, intent on play.
This year's International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award winner, Houellebecq, smoking the first of many cigarettes, appears tired, slightly wary and not so much detached as at a remove from everything. His house is ordered, uncluttered and gradually developing a personality; work is yet to be done on it. There are no children. At 44, the writer who has revitalised French literature through a subversive, often funny, despairing novel that could be about anywhere, is as switched off as a teenager being forced to make polite small talk.
He says he thought the Danes looked good, but he is not interested in football. He hates sport. The television is not working. "I forgot to pay the satellite." As for the plight of the French team, he shrugs: "I don't like France at all."
By this, he is not referring to the vanquished holders of the World Cup, he means France in general. Clearly, he is not a patriot. "I am French," he says as a statement of fact not nationalism. "I speak French. I like the language very much." He doesn't like English - "I prefer German to English, but German is not useful." Pause. "I am not a French writer."
Still, he must harbour some secret affection for his country? After all, his cigarette lighter has a picture of the French football team, albeit photographed in happier days. He laughs his manic boy's giggle. "No, I bought the lighter in France, that's all."
Most of the above - aside from the laughter - is delivered in the neutral tone he sustains throughout the interview. Short and worried looking, Houellebecq is obviously intense if subdued, completely unlike the eccentric character who has featured in publicity. He may be complex, or simply as changeable as the weather.
In an article in the Guardian last April, he said he would never give another interview, and while he would continue writing, he would never publish another book. But today, sitting in his house, he looks surprised when asked if he is eccentric.
Having reckoned, on the basis of his previous press interviews, some of which read as hotel room farces complete with references to heavy drinking, propositioning and panic attacks, I would interview a weirdo as crazy as Salvador Dali, it is a relief, if a slight anti-climax, to meet Mr Normal, an unassuming individual who could not be described as petulant or even languid.
Marie-Pierre, his wife, is friendly, busy about the house, and good at organising Michel, who gives the impression of being able to stay still for hours, without speaking, indeed barely breathing, aside from his habit of long, deep sighs and, of course, the regulation Gallic shrug.
Still, didn't he have a very public dispute with Islamic fundamentalists over remarks he had made about their religion? Wasn't he in hiding? "No, not really. Yes, I did criticise Islam but my criticism was really exaggerated. I did not say anything. It was my characters, some Arab secondary characters in Platform [due to be published in English in September] refer to their religion as mad and dangerous - it probably is. [One of the characters in the novel, following the death of his girlfriend, says: "Islam could only have been born in a stupid desert among filthy Bedouins who had nothing better to do than - excuse my language - shag their camels".] I said nothing."
So there was no Fatwa? He shrugs, which he does at least once before answering each question. And the sighs, complete with a little popping sound as he purses his lips. "No." Has he been frightened? "Not really. Rushdie is a Muslim. I'm not." Houellebecq sighs; so do I.
If his quasi-philosophical, quasi-pornographic novel, Atomised, is all things to all readers, Houellebecq the man seems to divide opinion as well.
Just as he says the book "changes", so too does he. The Irish fans celebrate and the French lament, but he is weary, limp, unforthcoming, speaking only when spoken to. "This is how I am today."
The most consistent element in Atomised is a tone of exasperation; an authorial exasperation with the way we live. It is a novel that asks many questions without presuming to give too many answers.
Does he consider Atomised pornographic? "Sometimes. Yes. I think sex is pornographic. Atomised is not erotic. Sex is pathetic and vulnerable." Houellebecq may well be exasperated, but he is not defiant, nor is he given to railing against society. Anything he has to say has apparently been said in the book.
Atomised is about society, and most particularly the desperate pursuit of youth. But it is also about the role of science in our lives. "Science is central to life. It is the story of man and genetics will change the story of mankind," he says. When recalling the "mixed reaction" his subversive, truthful and angry novel received in France, he says it had nothing to do with the explicit sexual content. "The French are never shocked by sex. It was the cloning, that is what upset people so much. It was only a few pages but it was important." It was on this cloning point the French media debated. Other aspects, such as the vulnerability of sexuality, sex as recreation and refuge, the cult of youth, parent-child relationships and gender issues, were overlooked.
How does he feel about Atomised now? "Good. It changes. It was a while ago now." It is now three years since the French publication. It also made him, a poet with three collections and a novel, Whatever, famous. It won the Prix Novembre and now IMPAC. "I was not surprised to be short-listed for the IMPAC. I have been short-listed for six prizes, but I was surprised to win." How seriously does he view prizes? Does he hope to win the Prix Goncourt? Another long sigh. "To win the Prix Goncourt means you will sell many books." He looks at the paperback cover. "The woman is too young, in the novel the women are old, aging, decreased desirability, that's what it is about." He fetches the US edition, published two years ago, the title translated directly as The Elementary Particles. It is a better jacket.
IS he pleased with the translation? "I haven't read it." Another mad giggle. "I never read myself." He met the translator, Frank Wynne, briefly. "I think he is Irish, I'm not sure." He looks thoughtful, and yields up another sigh.
In France, there are those who see Houellebecq as gifted, others who denounce him. Platform, published last year in France, and considered an endorsement of the sex tourism industry, did cause trouble. As for Atomised, its best reviews came from the English critics. "They enjoyed the science and liked the book very much, the Americans not so much. They think I am not subtle. This is true." He pauses. "I don't want to be subtle." Again, there is no defiance, merely a statement.
Good old Clement the Corgi is becoming hopeful and fetches a cloth ball, before running off to reappear with a toy duck. Houellebecq smiles proudly at his engaging pet. "He is 18 months old." Earlier, the open-faced dog had helped briefly introduce a more personal note to the proceedings.
What of Houellebecq's parents? Is it true that his father was a mountain tour guide and his mother a doctor? "Yes." Have they read Atomised? "I don't know. I don't want to know." His parents did not raise him. It was his maternal grandmother who looked after him. He says his name, Houellebecq, which is Norman, is hers. So, so far, so true -at least about the family biography. But references to his grandmother as a communist have been distorted. "It is not so important, not as political. Everyone of that class was a communist. Workers were communists." He has a half-sister. No, he hardly knows her.
Family recollections end here, but he does add: "I had a childhood in the countryside. I like the country. I like Paris." His idea of Paris is to stay in a hotel. He previously lived there in an apartment, but much prefers his present home on Bere Island. "It was the house that made me decide to live here, not the place. I liked the house and we bought it." He seems unsure as to when the house was built, "perhaps 100 years ago, I don't know". We go outside to examine the exterior for architectural clues. It is late Victorian with some additions. There are three gardens, lawns and a charming forested area all on one acre.
Illuminated by bright afternoon sunshine, the Bera Pensinsula has a soft beauty. The landscape is very different from the dramatic power of Connemara, another of his favourite places. The area around Clifden and Claddaghduff features in Atomised and he says with yet another sigh: "I like that landscape very much but it is harsh in winter. Here , the climate is kinder. But I like here, Connemara and also Kerry."
On first hearing he had won the IMPAC prize, Houellebecq was asked what he would do with the money, he said he would spend it on the bathroom. It looks grim, but €75,000 (the other €25,000 goes to the translator) should go a very long way to transforming it.
Having arrived off the ferry a couple of hours before the interview, I had wandered about the island, some seven miles by three, and watched most of the Ireland-Saudi Arabia game in the bar of the sole hotel. The small gathering of islanders was friendly, muted, eyes on the screen. French writers and literary prizes seem a million miles away, not a five-minute walk. Houellebecq is not part of the local scene, nor would he be anywhere.
"I don't think my life is so interesting, the difficult thing is making characters interesting. It is frightening to make characters. Characters are more important than stories. I am not a storyteller."
What was he like when he was a boy? "I don't remember." Well, was he more drawn to ideas or facts? "I don't know, is there a difference? I was interested in everything." His fascination with science began early. "I read science fiction, I liked it." Echoes of Huxley's classic Brave New World run through Houellebecq's novel. "I read it in French when I was young. I was very impressed, even more impressed when I realised it had been published in 1932. It was prophetic." He pauses. "Orwell is the better writer but 1984 is not as good as Brave New World." Asked about modern French writers, he says little but agrees about the achievement of the late Georges Perec. "I never met him but I was at a reading. He was, how do you say, an original. Despite his intelligence, he was human."
HOUELLEBECQ, who always liked reading - "I read those pocket classics, Dostoyevsky and others" - had a science background, studied biology and physics and took a degree in a branch of engineering he can not quite explain but seems to relate to genetic engineering. "I was good at science, but suddenly at 23 when I had completed my course, I decided 'I don't want to do this'." Another sigh, a shrug. "It took me a very long time to decide what I wanted to do in life." He had, however, always written poetry. "It is difficult to identify the themes, but I think language, landscape, airports and trains are recurring . . ." He sighs. We both sigh and look to the dog. Clement and his quacking toy duck is our mutual point of reference.
Given Houellebecq's childhood and the hardship of having parents who didn't care, it is not too difficult to see echoes of this in Atomised, although it is far from being a typical autobiographical novel. Michel and Bruno are half brothers, complete opposites sharing a mother who abandons them. Both are unhappy "but also different". While the true heroes of the novel are women, Michel, the enigmatic scientist, is also something of a heroic figure.
Each time Houellebecq seems prepared to discuss the book at length, he holds back, prefacing comments with: "it's difficult"; "it changes"; "this is only my view"; "I am not sure, it changes" . . . Yet, he agrees it is a profoundly moral book.
Which of the brothers does Houellebecq, who certainly resembles both, feel the greater sympathy for? "Bruno. He is more sympathetic, more human, more real. It is difficult to feel sympathy for Michel, who has from the beginning been described as a genius. Michel is unhappy. He wants nothing and he has nothing. But Bruno is unhappy because he wants everything and has nothing." But he says with a smile: "Happy characters are not interesting." More sighs.
It is time for the last ferry. But Marie-Pierre needs to measure her husband's inside leg for the tuxedo he will wear tonight. We stand in the hall looking at the measuring tape. She seems worried. I assure her it looks as if it is 32 inches and - true to the casual attitude that brought Roy Keane home from the World Cup - add: "it's sure to fit. It's only a tuxedo". Clement pushes his duck down the stairs a few times, it begins to quack.
Houellebecq, not a habitual tuxedo wearer, looks worried. "I want it to be right. There will be pictures. I might never win another prize."
Atomised is published by Vintage (£6.99 sterling). Houellebecq will be presented with the IMPAC award tonight at a ceremony in Dublin. Tomorrow at 8 p.m. he reads at the Gate Theatre in the Dublin Writers Festival gala reading, which also features John Banville, Christopher Hope and Sarah Maguire. Festival box office: 01-8741415. See also www.dublinwritersfestival.com