By Myriam Chaplain-Riou /AFP
PARIS: For over a decade the biting, sex-fuelled satire of France’s best-known living writer Michel Houellebecq has shocked and delighted readers in equal measure, but the country’s top book prize has stubbornly slipped through his fingers.
But this time the writer, who came within a hair’s breadth of a win on two occasions, in 1998 and 2005, is tipped as hands-down favorite for the coveted Goncourt prize, to be handed out on Monday in Paris.
“La carte et le territoire” (The Map and the Territory), one of four finalists, gleefully satirizes the Paris art world, and even takes a swipe at a drunken, stinking, badly-dressed writer who goes by the name of Michel Houellebecq.
Already a best-seller in France, the tale of an artist who gains global fame by photographing old Michelin maps, largely dispenses with the misanthropic provocation his four previous novels displayed.
It has garnered enthusiastic reviews — Liberation newspaper called it a “masterpiece” — and sales have stayed buoyant despite a row last month over accusations of plagiarism, which the author has dismissed as “ridiculous”.
The cut-and-paste claim centered on three passages, on a French hunting activist, the town of Beauvais and the housefly, that were apparently lifted from Wikipedia, the user-generated online encyclopedia.
The author has dismissed the accusation, arguing that mixing “real” texts into fiction was a technique countless writers have used, notably Argentina’s Jorge Luis Borges and France’s Georges Perec.
Houellebecq (pronounced “wellbeck”) rose to prominence in the 1990s with “Les Particules Elementaires”, which was translated into English as “Atomised” and won wide acclaim — only narrowly missing out on a Goncourt in 1998.
Past works by the writer, who now divides his time between Spain and Ireland, have courted controversy over and over again, drawing charges that ranged from obscenity to provoking racial hatred.
In 2001, “Platform”, a sex-tourism romp with an Islamist terrorism theme, landed him in court on charges over his depiction of Islam, although he was cleared of all charges.
While most French critics have taken warmly to “La carte et le territoire,” one writer who is on the Goncourt prize jury — the French-Moroccan novelist Tahar Ben Jelloun — said he wasted three days reading it.
The Goncourt reliably delivers a commercial shot in the arm, guaranteeing average sales of 400,000 copies, but it has also become a kind of seal of approval for France’s top authors.
Though critics decry him as a cold monster, even Houellebecq’s detractors seem to agree that he is long overdue the honor.
“Houellebecq is highly intelligent. There is little doubt he will scoop the Goncourt this year,” wrote the French critic and writer Pierre Assouline, who has publicly clashed with the writer in the past.
Houellebecq’s previous work, the 2005 “The Possibility of an Island”, came within one vote of a Goncourt win.
This time he is running against Virginie Despentes, with a punk novel called “Apocalypse Baby”, Mathias Enard for a tale about Michelangelo in Constantinople, and Maylis de Kerangal with a novel about the building of a new Golden Gate bridge in an imaginary California.