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Michel Houellebecq

Michel Houellebecq French writer

French writer
The basics
Quick Facts
Intro French writer
A.K.A. Houellebecq, Michel Thomas
Countries France
Occupations Writer Poet Film director Songwriter Essayist Novelist Screenwriter Actor Author
Type Film, Television, Stage, and Radio Literature Music
Gender male
Birth 26 February 1956 (Saint-Pierre)
Star sign PiscesPisces
Education Lycée Chaptal, Institut National Agronomique Paris-Grignon, École nationale supérieure Louis-Lumière
Notable Works The Map and the Territory, Whatever, Atomised, The Possibility of an Island, Platform, Soumission
The details
Biography

Michel Houellebecq (French: [miʃɛl wɛlbɛk]; born Michel Thomas; 26 February 1956) is a French author, filmmaker, and poet.

His first book was a biographical essay on the horror writer H. P. Lovecraft. Lovecraft scholar S. T. Joshi has criticised Houellebecq's stance on Lovecraft in this book. . An essay by Todd Spaulding makes the case for why Houellebecq portrayed Lovecraft as an 'obsolete reactionary' whose work was based largely on 'racial hatred.' .

Houellebecq published his first novel, Whatever, in 1994. His next novel, Atomised, published in 1998, brought him international fame as well as controversy. Platform followed in 2001. He published several books of poems, including The Art of Struggle (Le sens du combat) in 1996. After a publicity tour for Platform led to his being taken to court for inciting racial hatred, he moved to Ireland for several years. He currently resides in France, where he has been described as "France’s biggest literary export and, some say, greatest living writer." In 2010 he published La Carte et le Territoire (published the same year in English as The Map and the Territory) which won the prestigious Prix Goncourt; and, in 2015, Submission.

Early life

Houellebecq was born in 1956 on the French island of Réunion, the son of Lucie Ceccaldi, a French doctor born in Algeria of Corsican descent and René Thomas, a ski instructor and mountain guide. He lived in Algeria from the age of five months until 1961, with his maternal grandmother. His website states that his parents "lost interest in his existence pretty quickly" and at the age of six, he was sent to France to live with his paternal grandmother, a communist, while his mother left to live a hippie lifestyle in Brazil with her newly met boyfriend. His grandmother's maiden name was Houellebecq, which he took as his pen name. Later, he went to Lycée Henri Moissan, a high school at Meaux in the north-east of Paris, as a boarder. He then went to Lycée Chaptal in Paris to follow preparation courses in order to qualify for grandes écoles (elite schools). He began attending the Institut National Agronomique Paris-Grignon in 1975. He started a literary review called Karamazov and wrote poetry.

Works and rise to fame

Michel Houellebecq, Warsaw, June 2008

Houellebecq graduated as an agronomist in 1980, married and had a son; then he divorced, became depressed and took up writing poetry. His first poems appeared in 1985 in the magazine La Nouvelle Revue. Six years later, in 1991, he published a biographical essay on the horror writer H. P. Lovecraft, a teenage passion, with the prophetic subtitle Against the World, Against Life. A short poetical essay named Rester vivant : méthode (To Stay Alive) appeared the same year, dealing with the art of writing as a way of life (or rather, a way of not-dying and being able to write in spite of apathy and disgust for life); it was followed by his first collection of poetry. Meanwhile, he worked as a computer administrator in Paris, including at the French National Assembly, before he became the so-called "pop star of the single generation", starting to gain fame with his debut novel Extension du domaine de la lutte in 1994 (translated by Paul Hammond and published as Whatever).

Throughout the 1990s Houellebecq published several books of poetry and articles in magazines such as L'Infini edited by Philippe Sollers. He lived at this time at the same address as writer Marc-Edouard Nabe, at 103, rue de la Convention in Paris. Nabe wrote about this proximity in Le Vingt-Septieme Livre (2006), comparing both neighbours' careers and the way their writings were met by critics and audiences.

His second novel, Les Particules Élémentaires (translated by Frank Wynne and published in the English-speaking world as Atomised in the UK, or The Elementary Particles in the USA) proved to be his breakthrough, bringing him national, soon international fame and controversy for its intricate mix of brutally honest social commentary and pornographic depictions (two years earlier, in 1996, while working on that novel, being interviewed by Andrew Hussey, he had presciently said : "It will either destroy me or make me famous"). It won the 1998 Prix Novembre, missing the more prestigious Prix Goncourt for which it was the favorite. The novel became an instant "nihilistic classic", and was mostly praised for the boldness of its ideas and thought-provoking qualities, although it was also heavily criticized for its relentless bleakness as well as its vivid depictions of racism, paedophilia, torture, and also for being an apology of eugenism (for instance Michiko Kakutani described it in The New York Times as "a deeply repugnant read"). The novel won Houellebecq (along with his translator, Frank Wynne) the International Dublin Literary Award in 2002.

In 2000, Houellebecq published the short fiction Lanzarote (published in France with a volume of his photographs), in which he develops a number of the themes he would explore in later novels, including sex tourism, fringe religions and cult leaders. His subsequent novel, Platform (2001), confirmed him as a prominent writer. The book is basically a romance told in the first-person by a 40-year-old male arts administrator named Michel, who shares many real life characteristics with the author, including his apathy and low self-esteem ; it includes numerous sex scenes, depicted in crude yet tender terms, and generally presents an approving attitude towards prostitution and sex tourism. The novel's depiction of life and its explicit criticism of Islam (the novel's romance ends with the vivid depiction of a terrorist attack on a sex tourism venue, which was later seen as prophetic of the Bali bombings which happened just a year later), together with an interview its author gave to the magazine Lire, led to accusations against Houellebecq by several organisations, including France's Human Rights League, the Mecca-based World Islamic League as well as the mosques of Paris and Lyon. Charges were brought to trial, but a panel of three judges, delivering their verdict to a packed Paris courtroom, acquitted the author of having provoked 'racial' hatred, ascribing Houellebecq's opinions to the legitimate right of criticizing religions. The huge controversy in the media subsided following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.

His next novel, La Possibilité d'une île (The Possibility of an Island, 2005), cycles between three characters' narratives; Daniel 1 (a contemporary stand-up comedian and movie maker renowned for his extreme causticity) alternating with Daniel 24 and then Daniel 25, neo-human clones of Daniel 1. He later adapted and directed the film based on his novel, but the movie was a critical and commercial failure. In 2008, Flammarion published Ennemis publics (Public Enemies), a conversation via e-mail between Michel Houellebecq and Bernard-Henri Lévy.

Houellebecq has also released three music CDs on which he recites a selection of his poetry. Two of them, Présence de la mort and Établissement d'un ciel d'alternance (his "best", as handwritten by Houellebecq in the 2007 libretto) were recorded with composer Jean-Jacques Birgé in 1996 for Radio France and Grrr Records labels. Présence humaine (2000), on Bertrand Burgalat's Tricatel label, has a rock band backing him, and has been compared to the works of Serge Gainsbourg in the 1970s.

A recurrent theme in Houellebecq's novels is the intrusion of free-market economics into human relationships and sexuality. The original French title of Whatever (Extension du domaine de la lutte, literally "broadening of the field of struggle") alludes to economic competition extending into the search for relationships. As the book says, a free market has absolute winners and absolute losers, and the same applies to relationships in a society that does not value monogamy but rather exhorts people to seek the happiness that always eludes them through the path of sexual consumerism, in pursuit of narcissistic satisfaction. Similarly, Platform carries to its logical conclusion the touristic phenomenon, where Westerners of both sexes go on organized trips to developing countries in search of exotic locations and climates. In the novel, a similar popular demand arises for sex tourism, organized and sold in a corporate and professional fashion. Sex tourists are willing to sacrifice financially to experience the instinctual expression of sexuality, which has been better preserved in poor countries whose people are focused on the struggle for survival.

Although Houellebecq's work is often credited with building on conservative, if not reactionary, ideas, his critical depiction of the hippie movement, New Age ideology and the May 1968 generation, especially in Atomised, echoes the thesis of Marxist sociologist Michel Clouscard.

His novel The Map and the Territory (La Carte et le Territoire) was released in September 2010 by Flammarion and finally won its author the prestigious Prix Goncourt. This is the tale of an accidental art star and is full of insights on the contemporary art scene. Slate magazine accused him of plagiarising some passages of this book from French Wikipedia. Houellebecq denied that this was plagiarism, stating that "taking passages word for word was not stealing so long as the motives were to recycle them for artistic purposes", evoking the influence of Georges Perec, Lautreamont or Jorge Luis Borges, and advocated the use of all sorts of raw materials in literature, even advertising, recipes or math problems.

On 7 January 2015, the date of the Charlie Hebdo shooting, the novel Submission was published. The book describes a future situation in France (2022) when a Muslim party is ruling the country according to Islamic law, which again generated heated controversy and accusations of islamophobia. On the same date, a cartoon of Houellebecq appeared on the cover page of Charlie Hebdo with the caption "The Predictions of Wizard Houellebecq," eerily ironic in retrospect. For the second time, his fictional work appeared as prescient of real events involving islamic terrorism. A friend of his, Bernard Maris, was killed in that shooting. In an interview with Antoine de Caunes after the shooting, Houellebecq stated he was unwell and had cancelled the promotional tour for Submission.

Adaptations

Extension du domaine de la lutte has been adapted into a film by Philippe Harel with the same title and later adapted as a play in Danish by Jens Albinus for the Royal Danish Theatre.

The English translation of his novel Platform was adapted as a play by the theatre company Carnal Acts for the Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA) in London in December 2004. A Spanish adaptation of the novel by Calixto Bieito, performed by Companyia Teatre Romea, premiered at the 2006 Edinburgh International Festival. Houellebecq and Bieito appeared together that same year in a TV program named Au cœur de la nuit / Durch die Nacht (Through the night) for the french-german channel Arte.

Along with Loo Hui Phang, Houellebecq wrote the screenplay for the film Monde extérieur (2002) by David Rault and David Warren.

Atomised has been made into a German film, Elementarteilchen, directed by Oskar Roehler, starring Moritz Bleibtreu and Franka Potente. The film premiered in 2006 at the 56th Berlin International Film Festival. It was poorly received and generally considered as an edulcorated take on the novel's bleakness and thought-provoking ideas.

The film La Possibilité d'une île, directed by Houellebecq himself and based on the novel, premiered in France on 10 September 2008. It was a critical and commercial failure, sometimes even considered as one of the worst films ever made in France, alongside Bernard Henri Levy's Le Jour et la Nuit, although some authors found him intriguing and recognized redeeming qualities.

American rock singer and "godfather of punk" Iggy Pop released in 2009 the unusually quiet album Préliminaires, which he described as influenced by his reading of Michel Houellebecq's novel The Possibility of an Island (one track even consists in the singer merely reading a passage from the book). The author considered it a great honour, as he was himself deeply affected as a teenager by Iggy Pop's music with The Stooges, even going so far as to say that he was, for once, "completely happy".

In 2016 he participated, together with Iggy Pop and several others, in Erik Lieshout's documentary To Stay Alive: A Method.

Criticisms

Literary critics have labeled Michel Houellebecq's novels "vulgar", "pamphlet literature" and "pornography"; he has been accused of obscenity, racism, misogyny and islamophobia. His works, particularly Atomised, have received high praise from the French literary intelligentsia, with generally positive international critical response, though there have been notably poor reviews in The New York Times by Michiko Kakutani and Anthony Quinn, Perry Anderson, as well as mixed reviews from The Wall Street Journal. However, on the other end, without ignoring the book's grotesqueries, Lorin Stein from Salon, later editor of The Paris Review, made a spirited defense:

Houellebecq may despair of love in a free market, but he takes love more seriously, as an artistic problem and a fact about the world, than most polite novelists would dare to do; when he brings his sweeping indignation to bear on one memory, one moment when things seemed about to turn out all right for his characters, and didn’t, his compassion can blow you away.

Ten years later, Houllebecq responded to critical reviews:

First of all, they hate me more than I hate them. What I do reproach them for isn’t bad reviews. It is that they talk about things having nothing to do with my books—my mother or my tax exile—and that they caricature me so that I’ve become a symbol of so many unpleasant things—cynicism, nihilism, misogyny. People have stopped reading my books because they’ve already got their idea about me. To some degree of course, that’s true for everyone. After two or three novels, a writer can’t expect to be read. The critics have made up their minds.

Houellebecq has been accused of putting on polemical stunts for the media. The author's statements in interviews and from his novels have led to accusations of him being anti-islamic. In 2002, Houellebecq faced trial on charges of racial hatred after calling Islam "the dumbest religion" in an interview about his book Platform published in the literary magazine Lire. He told a court in Paris that his words had been twisted, saying: "I have never displayed the least contempt for Muslims [but] I have as much contempt as ever for Islam". The court acquitted him. He was sued by a civil-rights group for hate speech and won on the grounds of freedom of expression.

Works on Michel Houellebecq

  • Manuel Chemineau, "Michel Houellebecq. Vive le trash!", in Wiener Zeitung, Extra (2 April 1999)
  • Thomas Steinfeld, Das Phänomen Houellebecq (2001)
  • Dominique Noguez, Houellebecq, en fait (2003)
  • Murielle Lucie Clément, Houellebecq, Sperme et sang (2003)
  • Olivier Bardolle, La Littérature à vif (Le cas Houellebecq) (2004)
  • Sabine van Wesemael (ed.), Michel Houellebecq (2004)
  • Fernando Arrabal, Houellebecq (2005)
  • Éric Naulleau, Au secours, Houellebecq revient ! (2005)
  • Jean-François Patricola, Michel Houellebecq ou la provocation permanente (2005)
  • Denis Demonpion, Houellebecq non autorisé, enquête sur un phénomène (2005)
  • Sabine van Wesemael, Michel Houellebecq, le plaisir du texte (2005)
  • Gavin Bowd (ed.), Le Monde de Houellebecq (2006)
  • Murielle Lucie Clément, Michel Houellebecq revisité (2007)
  • Murielle Lucie Clément and Sabine van Wesemael (eds.), Michel Houellebecq sous la loupe (2007)
  • Lucie Ceccaldi, L'innocente (2008)
  • Marc-Edouard Nabe, Le Vingt-Septième Livre (2009)
  • Aurélien Bellanger, Houellebecq écrivain romantique (2010)
  • James Grieve, "A Mongrel in the Path: Prose and Poetry by Michel Houellebecq", in Art & Authenticity (2010)
  • Ben Jeffery, Anti-Matter: Michel Houellebecq and Depressive Realism (2011)
  • Bernard Maris, Houellebecq économiste (2014)
  • Samuel Estier, À propos du « style » de Houellebecq. Retour sur une controverse (1998-2010), Lausanne, Archipel (2015).
  • Nicolas Mavrakis, Houellebecq. Una experiencia sensible (2016)
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References
http://auteurs.contemporain.info/michel-houellebecq/
http://books.guardian.co.uk/departments/generalfiction/story/0,,2278227,00.html
http://books.guardian.co.uk/reviews/generalfiction/0,,1602811,00.html
http://catalogo.bne.es/uhtbin/authoritybrowse.cgi?action=display&authority_id=XX1369974
http://data.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/cb12249911x
http://isni.org/isni/000000012137320X
http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/europe/2260922.stm
http://next.liberation.fr/livres/1997/10/02/retour-en-enfance-l-infini-la-question-pedophile-n59-automne-1997-gallimard-143pp-86f_218418
http://prague.tv/articles/art-and-culture/books23
http://socialarchive.iath.virginia.edu/ark:/99166/w65f1dzr
http://stalker.hautetfort.com/archive/2008/12/09/la-possibilite-d-une-ile-de-michel-houellebecq.html
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