Magazine article Newsweek International

The Cynical Celebrity : Michel Houellebecq's Popular Art of Bitterness

Magazine article Newsweek International

The Cynical Celebrity : Michel Houellebecq's Popular Art of Bitterness

Article excerpt

As musical debuts go, it was fairly tame. Standing before a crowd of 50 in the basement of the hip St-Germain club Le Montana, a middle-aged writer named Michel Houellebecq gave his first Parisian performance, warbling his own poems set to music. Accompanied by a four-piece orchestra, Houellebecq sang for nearly an hour, and gave the critics plenty to talk about. But it was nothing compared to the storm that followed the publication of his second novel, "Les Particules Elementaires," (Elementary Particles) last fall. A furiously cynical rant against modern France, the book attacked Greens, hippies, Muslims and feminists with equal fury. Critics labeled Houellebecq a fascist, a nihilist and a pornographer. The Perpendicularists--an intellectual salon he had helped to found--kicked him out. But the book sold 300,000 copies and polarized the French literary world into two camps: those who thought he was a disgrace, and those who thought he was a genius. "Houellebecq writes about real life in a way that makes people think," says critic Catherine Argaud. "He's been at the root of more conversations this last year than anyone else I can think of."

It looks as though he'll be the topic of debate at cafe tables for some time to come. Last week a film of Houellebecq's first novel, "Extension du Domaine de la Lutte," ("Whatever") opened in France. Audiences are flocking to see the story of two computer programmers who set out to give software seminars but end up on a beach contemplating murder and suicide. He's got plans to record a rock album, using his poems as lyrics. …

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