Strange Bedfellows: Paule Constant, Michel Houellebecq, and Political Correctness

By Willging, Jennifer | Australian Journal of French Studies, January 1, 2019 | Go to article overview

Strange Bedfellows: Paule Constant, Michel Houellebecq, and Political Correctness


Willging, Jennifer, Australian Journal of French Studies


During the 1998 rentrée littéraire in France, novelist Paule Constant won the Prix Goncourt. Or rather, as many saw things, Michel Houellebecq lost it. Houellebecq's second novel, Les Particules élémentaires, had been shortlisted for the prize, but then suddenly, without explanation from the jury, removed from it a week before the final selection.1 The context of this removal, as those familiar with the contemporary French literary scene are well aware, was a series of highly mediatized controversies provoked by the book and some of its author's comments about it in interviews, which quickly became known as "l'affaire Houellebecq".2 To some readers the novel was a work of genius that would lead contemporary French letters out of the pit of bourgeois mediocrity in which it had wallowed over the previous twenty years. To others, it was a racist, misogynist, reactionary attack on liberal democracy, with frequent forays into the genre of pornography to boot.

On the surface, at least, the only thing Constant's winning novel, Confidence pour confidence, and Les Particules élémentaires have in common is the year of their publication.3 Yet their being thrown together in a very public way because of their mutual appearance on the Goncourt shortlist and the outcry over the final choice presents an intriguing opportunity to compare their work, as well as their trajectories in the French literary landscape and media. Such a comparison reveals a number of surprising similarities between the authors and their writing, an examination of which can shed new light on their work. It also suggests that one characteristic in particular that these writers and their work share-political incorrectness-can both excite and cool critical reception of that work, depending on a number of factors that lie beyond it.

While Michel Houellebecq, who went on to win the Goncourt in 2010 for La Carte et le territoire, needs no introduction among scholars and readers of contemporary French literature, Paule Constant very well may.4 She is a professor emerita of French literature at the University of Aix-Marseille and has been publishing fiction since 1980. She has produced eleven novels to date with Gallimard, arguably the most prestigious publishing house in France and objectively the one that has generated the most Goncourt-winning novels thus far (thirty-seven). She has won eleven literary prizes, including the Prix Valéry Larbaud in 1980 for her first novel, Ouregano, and the Grand Prix de l'Académie française in 1990 for White Spirit.5 These last two novels, along with La Fille du Gobernator (1994), had all been chosen as finalists for the Prix Goncourt before the author finally won it in 1998.6 Constant has also served on numerous literary prize juries and was elected to the Académie Goncourt in 2013. With this election and with such resounding approval from prestigious literary juries throughout her nearly forty-year career, it is surprising how relatively little critical attention her work has thus far garnered among literary scholars. To use just one tool of measurement, a search on the Modern Language Association's International Bibliography at the time of this writing calls up just fifteen articles, two book chapters, and one book on Constant's work. The corresponding numbers for Houellebecq, whose first novel was published in 1994, fourteen years after Constant's, are 166, one hundred, and ten. While the reasons for this relative dearth cannot be definitively determined, some possible explanations will be considered below.

Divergences in themes and style

The many differences between the subject matter and style of the two writers' work are quite evident and can be sketched relatively briefly. Constant's novels explore, among other themes, such diverse yet often interrelated issues as colonialism and postcolonialism (present in the majority of her books), childhood trauma (as in, for example, Ouregano and La Bete a chagrin [2007]), feminism and the education of women (Le Grand Ghâpal [1991], Confidence pour confidence), and incarceration and capital punishment (La Fille, Sucre et secret [2003]). …

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