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He's back: bad boy of French literature

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With its customary hype and hope, the annual French literary season known as la rentree litteraire opened this week, with no fewer than 663 novelists elbowing for attention. Mostly in vain, it seems. To judge by the French press, Michel Houellebecq is the only writer who counts. And that was before the public had even read his latest novel, "The Possibility of an Island."

The odd thing is that this has happened before.

Houellebecq's last two novels, "The Elementary Particles" and "Platform," also dominated their autumn season, in 1998 and 2001. And they became French best sellers, at least in part by stirring intense debate and controversy, including an unsuccessful lawsuit charging the author with "incitement to discrimination, hatred and violence."

This time, however, having paid Houellebecq a reported $1.2 million advance, his publisher, Editions Fayard, has taken no chances. It wants succes without scandale. It also wants "The Possibility of an Island" to win the renowned Goncourt prize. So it devised a plan.

It sent galleys to a handful of friendly critics, who signed a pledge not to reveal the novel's plot an acerbic portrait of today's world in the guise of science fiction until shortly before its Aug. 31 publication date. Those favored rewarded Houellebecq with splashy features and interviews designed to raise expectations and inflate sales. Then, as Fayard may have hoped, the voluble anger of excluded critics and editors drew yet more attention to the book. "The Possibility of an Island" was promoted "like detergent," complained Francois Busnel, editor of Lire, a literary monthly, which was not sent the galleys. And he added: "The reader is treated like a consumer and the journalist is the docile relay of a publicity campaign."

Still, none of this would have worked if France's chattering classes were not already obsessed by Houellebecq. To his fans, he is the fresh air that French literature has long awaited, the first author in years to address the existentialist crisis of modern society. To his foes, he is a misogynist, racist and blasphemer who views the world through his depressive personality.

Yet his success is almost as intriguing as his writings. What does it say about France that its best known novelist today is a kind of anti-celebrity, an oft-gloomy, badly dressed, chain-smoking provocateur, who collects despair and filters it through a black sense of humor? Houellebecq is certainly not the cure to France's current mood of pessimism.

What he describes as his "gift for provocation," however, continues to bear fruit: five books about him have been published here this autumn, one hagiography by one of his friends, the Spanish writer Fernando Arrabal, but the others less friendly, among them Jean-Francois Patricola's aptly titled "Houellebecq, or The Permanent Provocation" and Eric Naulleau's "Help! Houellebecq is Back," itself already a nonfiction best seller.

Denis Demonpion's "Houellebecq Unauthorized" argues that the novelist, once a computer programmer, has reprogrammed his life, not only by changing his name from Michel Thomas (Houellebecq was his maternal grandfather's name) and altering his birth date from 1956 to 1958, but also by claiming his mother is dead (although they are estranged, she lives in La Reunion).

Eager to find the key to Houellebecq's writing, Demonpion probes the writer's biography his upbringing by his paternal grandparents, his training as an agronomist, his dream of becoming a filmmaker, his early poetry and his first novel, "Whatever." Then come the scandals surrounding Houellebecq's second and third novels, including the lawsuit that followed his published remark that "Islam is the most stupid religion." The central question, though, is less whether his novels are autobiographical than whether their narrators' opinions are Houellebecq's. And here there are frequent coincidences, notably their common view that Western society is rotten to the core. In "The Elementary Particles," where one of two main characters is named Michel, Houellebecq blames this on the 1968 baby boomer generation and bombards its political correctness with nihilism.

In "Platform," where again the main character is named Michel, his fixation is sex tourism and Islam. He believes sex tourism serves wealthy Westerners who no longer enjoy sex and poor Asian women who can sell pleasure. Things go wrong, however, when the sex tourism resort he sets up in Thailand is attacked by Islamic fundamentalists. It did not harm sales that "Platform" was published three weeks before 9/11.

In "The Possibility of an Island," which will be published in English by Knopf next spring, there is no Michel, but many French critics see its narrators a multiply cloned character called Daniel 1, Daniel 24 and Daniel 25 as yet another version of Houellebecq. As before, the book is rife with explicit sex and a morbid view of Western civilization, if not also of humanity. Its story, though, is certainly original.

The premise is that, thanks to cloning, a form of immortality is achieved in which people are born at 18 and commit suicide at 50, only to be replaced by themselves. Before dying, they leave a text describing their lives. Here, then, some 2,000 years hence, Daniel 24 and Daniel 25 review the memoirs of Daniel 1, a man living perhaps a decade later than now. And it is through Daniel 1 that Houellebecq paints his portrait of today.

Daniel 1, it should be noted, is not exactly likable, having made a fortune as a comedian satirizing Jews, Arabs and women and given to expressing his distaste for children, old people and God. But he does love his dog, Fox (happily also to be cloned), and he is fascinated by a sect devoted to cloning (modeled after the Rael sect, which in 2002 claimed to have cloned the first human and which Houellebecq has visited).

The loveless and largely sexless world of Daniel 24 and Daniel 25 is still less appealing. It is the end of civilization as we know it except that a few "savage" real humans have somehow survived.

The next chapter in the Houellebecq story will not be another book. As part of his deal with Fayard, he will direct his own movie adaptation of "The Possibility of an Island," with the backing of GMT Productions, which, like Fayard, is owned by the Lagardere Group. In that sense, Houellebecq has returned to his original dream. In fact, perhaps his last joke is that he only wrote books so that he could make movies.

(C) 2005 International Herald Tribune. via ProQuest Information and Learning Company; All Rights Reserved

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