Byline: FIONA MADDOCKS
PALE as putty and dressed to match, Michel Houellebecq (pronounced Wellbeck) shocks immediately with his greeting. He is seconds too late offering a clammy handshake and bypasses all the usual social openings between strangers, sincere or not, which only merit attention when absent.
His corgi, on the contrary, pushes itself forward with licks and sniffs, friendly to the point of irritation.
While dog paws for attention and eye contact, owner backs into a chair as if at gunpoint, eyes fixed to the floor, limbs wrapped around his body like twine on a parcel. Against the light of the window, his face disappears in shadow, impossible to see or read. I realise this is probably intentional.
The interview is late on a sunny afternoon at the end of a week in which this exiled French novelist has been holed up in a Dublin hotel promoting his new novel, Platform, a deviant love story about sex tourism in Thailand.
Published in Britain this week, it has had predictably extreme reviews. His is not the kind of writing that leaves you indifferent.
The room reeks of alcohol and ash.
Houellebecq's addictions have been well charted, as has his interview style, in which boredom, drunkenness and the occasional pass at a female journalist mark him out as uncompromising in life as in his writing. His wife, who recently had a breakdown, is in bed in the next room (he has said theirs is an open marriage, and that he sleeps with an average of 25 women per year).
WHEREAS I am certain he is bored, I cannot say whether he is drunk, only that he swigs and refills his glass repeatedly, and that his speech, whether in French or English (both are hard to understand), is almost inaudible, seeming to make sense word by word but, to me, lacking any coherent connection. The most noise he makes is the rasp of salted nuts between his teeth, deafening in comparison with the softness of his voice and the long silences. (In this same batch of interviews, a radio reporter has had to record an hour in order to be sure of a threeminute news clip.) Comprehensibility is further challenged by the constant presence of a cigarette in the corner of his mouth.
Each mangled and half-smoked stub is laid with care in the ashtray like a row of severed fingers. I have witnessed this obsessive ritual only once before, performed by a prisoner just released from Broadmoor.
Houellebecq, too, has spent time in mental institutions (though not, as in the case of my Broadmoor friend, because of crime). He nearly laughs when describing how, bored with his
psychiatrist, he refused to speak. "I could have stayed mute for a week. I was not at all embarrassed," he says.
"I could have been a psychiatrist.
People tell me things. Only recently I found that my pain, my depression, can be related to my not writing.
Finally, I understood. When I have nothing else to do, I work. If you stop all the usual activities, the phone calls, the television, in the end you write. It's very simple." The realisation took time in coming.
Now in his mid-40s, he spent several years as a civil servant and sometime poet.
His first literary success came in 1994 with his novel L'Extension du Domaine de la Lutte (translated as Whatever), in which a physically repellent computer technician fails to lose his virginity and dies in a car crash. …