The passion killerThe mark of a true controversialist may be the ability to lean back, fag in mouth, and shrug that there’s nothing that controversial about controversy. Novelist and poet Michel Houellebecq has been hailed as France’s biggest literary discovery – and source of scandal – since Camus. Not only has he sold some 300,000 copies of his second novel, Les Particulaires Elémentaires (now translated as Atomised); he has been attacked for it by both right and left, Catholics and communists, natural enemies and erstwhile allies. It’s no big deal, he says. “Polemical debates happen all the time in France. This was quite a big one, but any attentive reader of the French press gets bored if there isn’t one every three months – it’s part of the national character. I get bored with it.” It is precisely because of Houellebecq’s assault on the national character that his readers hold him in such reverence – or such contempt. Atomised is an ambitious dissection of the modern French social psyche that traces its malaises to the supposed annus mirabilis , 1968. Countless French fictions complain about that year’s radical dreams going awry, but Houellebecq goes so far as to identify soixante-huitisme as the beginning of the end for French society. In Atomised, cherished ideals of left and right alike go to the wall – sexual self-fulfilment, New Age spiritualism, even such unimpeachable liberal concepts as “human dignity” and “progress”. Houellebecq’s compelling and often vengeful saga of modern France, enacted in the grievously disappointing lives of two half-brothers, is flavoured with a misanthropy not seen in French literature since Céline. The Flaubertian lucidity of Houellebecq’s writing persuades you that he’s something more than a venomous wind-up artist, or worse, a sort of literary Bernard Manning. Slight, shabby and 41, he hardly looks a typical French-lit cult hero. The only thing he has in common with Albert Camus is his chain-smoking. He distractedly tweaks his stringy, combed-over hair and ums and ahs barely audibly. Presumably young French readers have tired of flashy nouveaux philosophes in open-neck shirts, and decided to try a diffident poète maudit of the old school. Quite apart from what Houellebecq’s novels say is the way they say it: a strange, fluid blend of thinly disguised autobiography, sweeping sociological tableau and hard scientific treatise. There’s nothing new about this approach, he insists. “Balzac never hesitated to launch into his theories halfway through a book. The great advantage of a novel is you can put in whatever comes into your head – it has the same shape as the human brain.” Houellebecq’s approach is justified by the fact that he deals not so much with characters as with “symptomatic individuals” who represent their age. If human relations are breaking down, as he suggests in his first novel, Extension du Domaine de la Lutte (translated as Whatever), then the old tales of stormy passion are no longer possible: “We’re a long way from Wuthering Heights.” In fact, Houellebecq insists, he’s a long way from most novels’ concerns. “I describe what happens to normal people – people whom nothing special happens to.” His characters either drift robotically through mind-numbing day jobs, obsessively pursue sexual thrills, or live lives of depressive monotony, such as Michel, the scientist in Atomised, who nevertheless makes a discovery that changes the world. “Active people don’t change the world profoundly; ideas do,” Houellebecq says. “Napoleon is less important in world history than Jean-Jacques Rousseau.” There’s a certain bitter facility in Houellebecq’s satirising of bureaucracy and New Ageism alike, but where his books really hurt for many French readers is in the way they present sex as a constant source of sorrow, disappointment, even madness. But, he points out, “Not looking for sexual satisfaction doesn’t lead to a much better situation, either. People don’t like the basic statement that not everyone succeeds in finding sexual satisfaction. It seems a very banal proposition to me, but that’s what shocks people – the picture of losers in the sexual competition.” That is not all that shocks, however. The opinions that Houellebecq airs, either through his characters or his narrative voice, often suggest, at the very least, borderline-paranoid right-wing contempt for feminism, sexual freedom and youth culture. One character even tries writing virulent racist literature, although he eventually decides it’s just a silly phase he’s going through. Houellebecq has been attacked as a reactionary, and Atomised got him thrown off the editorial board of the left-wing revue Perpendiculaires. He’s no reactionary, he insists, although there’s a touch of sophistry to his defence. “A reactionary is someone who wants to return to a previous state – that’s never a possibility in my books. For me, everything’s irreversible in the life of a society, as well as an individual’s.” Reputedly a former Marxist, Houellebecq claims he never really was one, and that these days he has no political position at all. “I don’t think politics is that important. Belief systems and technological revolutions are important, but I don’t think political decisions have the slightest effect on events.” Both on and off the page, Houellebecq likes to offer such dry provocations, as if daring you to guess whether he really has any hard opinions at all. “Any groups with a strong ideology – communists or Catholics – will be split for and against me. That’s only normal. You couldn’t agree ideologically with the whole of Atomised.” So is he just a compulsive position-shifter, out to baffle and antagonise every possible camp? “No, I’d much rather everyone agreed with me. But it’s not up to me to make a step towards others – it’s up to everyone else to come closer to me.” If Houellebecq is often confused with his characters, it is partly because their biographies overlap. Born on the isle of Réunion, Houellebecq, like the brothers in Atomised, was the son of parents who pursued the hippy dream in the 60s and left him with his grandparents. The prodigal mother in Atomised appears to be based on his own; when I ask if there’s an element of revenge in the novel, he mutters a terse “Yes. Definitely”. Like the hero of Whatever, he worked in computer admin, and suffered the stultifying effects of French office life. “It’s not just deep boredom. Along with the boredom, you’re obliged to feign enthusiasm. That’s what’s really painful.” Like more than one of his characters, he had several depressive spells in mental hospital, although, he claims, “I mainly went to the psychiatrist to get time off work. The problem is, the people in the hospitals are so much more interesting that sometimes you don’t want to come out again. Those places suit me rather well – they’re not stressful, and you can smoke as much as you like.” Houellebecq’s pose of cantankerous intolerance has made him an unlikely pop-culture star. He recently released a CD, Présence Humaine, on which he intones his poems Gainsbourg-style over Lou Reed-esque backing tracks. A film of Extension du Domaine de la Lutte was also released last year. Although it bombed in France (too close to the book, some complained), it is more than respectable, and features the unnerving sight of director Philippe Harel in the lead, doing a spot-on imitation of Houellebecq, nicotine fingers and all. Houellebecq packed in his computer job two years ago. He now lives in Dublin, and travels to Lanzarote (the setting of his next book) and Thailand (the one after that). He has also remarried, which suggests he is not entirely despondent about the possibility of love. He shrugs. “Given a person’s past, it’s usually bound to end badly, but sometimes it can go right.” For a seemingly retiring misanthrope, this born-again rock-star ranter seems to have taken to fame with remarkable aplomb. “I don’t suffer attacks of excessive modesty,” he says. He admits that he has been affected by the stress of his new life. “I’m more impatient. Before, I was calm to the point of apathy.” So can his fans be reassured that his outlook hasn’t been exactly sweetened by success? “I don’t really feel pessimistic,” he says. “Just realistic.”Atomised is published by Heinemann, price ?12.99. The CD Pr?sence Humaine is on the Tricatel label. The film Whatever is released in the UK on September 1.