Controversial French novelist Michel Houellebecq portrayed his mother, Lucie Ceccaldi, as a sex-obsessed hippy in one of his books. Now aged 83, she strikes her counter-attack in a new memoir. She tells her side of the story to Angelique Chrisafis.
IN THE CORNER of a Sri Lankan canteen in northern Paris, sits a wrinkled, 83-year-old hippy with her hair in scarlet plaits. Lucie Ceccaldi might look like a harmless, peace-loving old dear, but France is wondering if this foul-mouthed, poison-tongued pensioner is the nation's worst-ever celebrity mother.
Ceccaldi's son is Michel Houellebecq, France's most successful contemporary writer, an award-winning, ageing enfant terrible whose nihilistic, deliberately shocking novels have seen him hailed as a genius.
Philip Larkin spoke for most writers when he said: "They fuck you up, your mum and dad." But Houellebecq's disgust for his "old slut of a mother" goes far beyond that. When Ceccaldi abandoned him to his grandparents as a baby so she could go travelling across Africa with her husband, the rejection shaped his whole oeuvre. In his international bestseller Les particules elementaires- translated as Atomised- he created one of modern French literature's vilest mothers, a selfish, sex-obsessed hippy called "Ceccaldi" who leaves her young son in an attic in his own excrement then dumps him so she can enjoy free-love life in a bizarre cult. Elsewhere, he described the "fundamental psychic flaw" his mother caused in him. He hasn't spoken to her for 17 years. He once told an interviewer she was dead.
But now Ceccaldi has emerged from her beach-hut on the French Indian ocean island of La Reunion and published her own memoir, answering back. She calls her son an "evil, stupid little bastard" adding that "this individual, who alas came from my womb, is a liar, an imposter, a parasite and above all - above all - a petit arrivisteready to do absolutely anything for money and fame."
It is France's literary slanging-match of the decade. But as Ceccaldi tours Paris slagging off her famous son, what initially enthralled the literary world is becoming more and more painful to watch. Raging at Atomised, Ceccaldi writes: "If he is unfortunate enough to use my name in something again, I'll cane him round the face, that'll knock his teeth out, that's for sure. And [his publishers] won't stop me." She talks about how she flew to Paris in 1998 after reading the book and wanted to smash up his publishers and then smash his face in.
Houellebecq has vowed to stay silent. But even detractors of his own hard and bitter writing are starting to feel slightly sorry for him. Literary theorists welcome the precious psychological insight into the biggest voice of a generation, but Houellebecq warned two years ago that his mother was "too egocentric to produce a significant account of anything other than herself".
CECCALDI IS HAVINGlunch before addressing a rock'n'roll radio station and a prime-time TV show. At the first mention of Houellebecq's name, she rolls her charcoaled eyes, saying she's sick of him and only wants to talk about herself. She feels she's not getting enough attention focused solely on her and stamps her foot under the table. "I haven't written about him, I've written about myself! No! F**k! I say no!" she thunders.
She calls me a maniac obsessed with her son. "If I wasn't Houellebecq's mother, I would have written the same book. All you can reproach me for is not giving enough importance to my son, but that's how it is." Then she sits back and smiles sweetly at the polite restaurant staff.
The title of her memoir, L'Innocente - The Innocent- sums up her position.
Ceccaldi was born in Algeria to French parents in 1926. She trained as a doctor and became involved in communism and the anti-colonial struggle. She moved to La Reunion with her French mountain-guide husband and gave birth to Michel Thomas when she was 30. But before the pregnancy the couple had planned to go on a road-trip round Africa.
They sent the baby on a plane in his "padded Moses basket" to be raised first by his maternal grandparents. Then, aged five, he went to France, where his paternal grandmother brought him up. His parents divorced and his mother stayed in La Reunion. The writer later said he took his grandmother's maiden name, Houellebecq, in recognition that she was the only person who had showed him any love.
"After you left your son . . ." I begin asking. "F**k, don't you understand anything at all? I never left anybody. My son is my son. It was more him that left me. I had a relationship with him until he decided he had been abandoned. I saw him every year. He was with my mother in law . . . The problem with kids brought up by people other than their parents . . ." and she trails off.
For 12 years in the 1960s and 1970s, she says she worked 14 hours a day, six days a week "and not for the dough, but because I was a doctor . . . And you can't do that job in those conditions at the same time as take care of a child." She rolls her eyes. "Maybe I should have sent him to an English boarding school so he could have gone horse-riding and become a gentleman and everyone would have praised me."
After growing up in a boring French suburb, Houellebecq became a functionary and once programmed computers for the French parliament, before quitting.
His acclaimed first book, Whatever, on the banality of life for the dull, modern single man, was published in 1994, earning him a cult following.
Ceccaldi says she last saw her son in 1991, before he was famous, when they had tea in a bistro on Paris's Left Bank. She says they were talking about the Gulf war when he went off on a diatribe against Arabs just to piss her off. He stormed out and they never spoke again.
"He said it more to provoke me than to express his personal feelings," Ceccaldi says. "He said the war was the fault of Islam being a religion of stupid bastards. I said, 'No, you're the stupid bastard'."
Later, he described how he felt a great sense of peace, freedom and light when he knew he would never see her again. (Years later, he was cleared for incitement to religious hatred after making similar comments on Islam in a magazine.)
Ceccaldi says that in 1992 she got a letter from him out of the blue, which she quotes in the book: "Before you die, you've got a few years left to try to make up for your bad actions: telephone around insisting to everyone that they should support my film projects. Send me a sum of money that would pay for me to live for three years . . ."
"Ha!" she says, "He wanted money to allow him to create his oeuvre! That made me laugh. He was 34, and me, I'd made my own living from the age of 17." Did you reply? "No, because he had written that any letter I sent without a cheque attached would be thrown directly in the bin."
Then, in 1998, when Houellebecq was at the height of his fame, she says she saw an article about him winning a literary prize for Atomised. She went to a bookshop, picked up Atomisedand was furious. "I said, 'F**k, it's not true'. He described me as a kind of whore, kept by I don't know what American. That's slander. All my life I've toiled to earn money for other people. I want him to apologise. If I was law-suit minded, I would have sued him and won."
She writes in her memoir's postscript that she will only talk to him again "the day he goes to a public square with Atomisedin his hand and says: 'I am a liar, I am an imposter, I've done nothing in my life except do bad to the people around me, and I ask for forgiveness.'"
Does she think he will apologise? "Of course not, he's too proud. And also, he's famous because he's a terrible victim. If he apologised to me, his sales would disappear."
She doesn't rate her son's literary talents. "What's all this stuff about an old chemist who wonders if his secretary is having a wank?" she asks.
"If it hadn't been my son, I wouldn't read that kind of crap, I would put it down straight away, because if there's one thing I detest in the world it's pornography. That book is pure pornography, it's repugnant, it's crap. I don't understand its success at all, that just shows the decadence of France."
In her own book, she speculates that he writes about sex because he doesn't get enough. "What's this moronic literature?! Houellebecq is someone who's never done anything, who's never really desired anything, who never wanted to look at others. And that arrogance of taking yourself as superior . . . Stupid little bastard. Yes, Houellebecq's a stupid little bastard, whether he's my son or not."
Does she believe in mother love? "Western women get on my nerves with their mother love." She says she prefers the "mother love of African women who carry a child behind their back" and raise it among the wider tribe.
Do you love your son? "Yes, of course I love my son. If he dropped dead, I'd be profoundly hurt, definitively, but I wouldn't complain in newspapers and write a book about it."
On her son's relationships with women she says: "Above all he loves money, and women have always kept him - first, me, and then his good wives. The second one I never met, and I don't know the others who came after her."
I mention he lives in Ireland. "Does he? If he was less of a stupid bastard, I'd go and see him."
IN HER BOOK, she complains about the quality of her son's baby poo: "Instead of a little egg yolk that all attentive mothers tenderly wait for, he could only manage to emit, after screaming, a nanny goat's dropping."
She won't say why she wrote a memoir about her life - "I just felt like it". But it is painfully clear as she takes to more and more airwaves that the whole exhausting public enterprise is her way of trying to reach out to him, to nudge him into some kind of contact. Yet she insists she doesn't want a reaction from her son.
But then I share a taxi with her and her publicist. She asks hopefully, and slightly desperately: "Do you think he knows about my literary adventure?" The publicist says gently that he probably does know, but his publishers have said he has no intention of commenting.
I ask her if she has sent him the book. "How can I? I don't know his address," she harrumphs. Does she want him to get in touch? "Not at all. My primary interest at the moment is my painful hip," she says and stares out of the window.