Michel Houellebecq's new novel is a further dig at French literature, human aspiration and himself. And a biography of the writer tries to explain his self-hatredby Tim King / October 22, 2005 / Leave a comment
The Possibility of an Island by Michel Houellebecq (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £12.99)
Houellebecq non Autorisé by Denis Demonpion (Maren Sell Editeurs, €20)
Daniel is a successful stand-up comic, principal character and narrator of Michel Houellebecq’s fourth novel, The Possibility of an Island. He makes jokes like the following. Question: “What do you call the fat surrounding the vagina?” Answer: “Woman.” Offensive? Funny? Both? But before we can splutter about sexist filth, both writer and comedian cover themselves: “The strange thing is, I managed to say this sort of thing while still getting good reviews in Elle and Télérama [a middlebrow weekly].” So he admits that the joke is in bad taste—it’s reviewers he’s attacking.
Many in France, especially reviewers, claim that Houellebecq is a bad writer, while others, evoking Balzac and Schopenhauer, say he alone understands today’s under-30s (Houellebecq will be 50 next year). All agree that Houellebecq is a phenomenon: of the 663 novels which will be published in France between early September and the end of October, Houellebecq’s is the one that will be most read and reviewed, putting him in pole position for November’s Goncourt prize. It is this writer-as-star aspect which Denis Demonpion has captured in Houellebecq Non Autorisé: Enquête sur un Phénomène (“The Unauthorised Houellebecq: Enquiry into a Phenomenon”).
Demonpion is an investigative journalist on Le Point. Houellebecq offered to help with the book, but Demonpion declined—rightly, since he discovered that Houellebecq fictionalises his life with the same insouciance as he mixes real people into his fiction. This starts with his name—really Michel Thomas—and his date of birth, two years earlier than he has repeatedly stated, even in court. Houellebecq has claimed that his mother, abandoned him as a baby, feeding a myth of rejection. But Demonpion discovers that they saw each other regularly, if infrequently, until, at 37, he sent her an ultimatum: “As a mother you have been abject and beneath everything—before you die you’ve still got time to make amends—send me enough money to live on for three years. Without a cheque, your letter will be binned.” He broke with his father when the latter criticised him for insulting his paternal grandparents in his novel Atomised, by publishing lies about them using their real names. It was these grandparents who, with a great deal of love, had brought him up.
Demonpion reveals that having studied agriculture, Houellebecq spent two years in…