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France's most talked-about novelist: Michel Houllebecq plays himself in "The Kidnapping Of Michel Houllebecq" (Arte France/Les Films Du Worso/Chic Films)

Byron might have earned the epithet "mad, bad and dangerous to know", but it is the French much more than us who have venerated the sulphurous, bourgeois-baiting writer. A hugger of outrage from the start, Michel Houellebecq has spent as much energy winding up the public in his interviews as in his writing. The cover of Charlie Hebdo that was on the newsstands when its editorial staff were massacred featured a cartoon guying Houellebecq (if that's possible).

Houellebecq has become a national and an international figure in a way that no French writer has since Sartre or Camus. Modiano and Le Clézio have got the Nobel, but they just don't rate the attention. Because Houellebecq is a type of sociologist manqué, he has a status as a soothsayer, a grungy prophet, sucking cigarettes in the true Gallic style.

He has also spread himself very wide. It's not just the novels. He does poetry. Not great poetry, but better than many. He has recorded "songs". Not great songs, but better than much of the work produced by many music professionals. He's an actor. He has played himself in a film, The Kidnapping of Michel Houellebecq, and he wasn't the weakest thespian therein. The scene where he learns to cage-fight will stay with me till the day I die.

He has amassed wealth and renown, all the while dressed and coiffured like a distressed tramp. It's the revenge of the nerd to the power of ten. But for all his prickliness and outsider history he is, at heart, as we shall see, Rive Gauche through and through, a Pléiade-loving Deux Magots intello.

Soumission
(Submission), his latest novel, has generated chatter and clatter because of its central gimmick of an Islamic regime running France in 2022. But this is a Houellebecq novel, so the explosive blurb aside, the narrator, a literature lecturer, is a familiar figure for readers of his earlier work: a man with a keen eye for human suffering and disappointment, emotional disfigurement and the stillbirth of aspiration. The narrator is also a man who inevitably encounters women in stockings and suspenders who give extraordinary blowjobs, for free or for recompense.

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