“Houellebecq graduated as an agronomist in 1980, married and had a son; then he divorced, became depressed and took up writing poetry. His first poems appeared in 1985 in the magazine La Nouvelle Revue. Six years later, in 1991, he published a biographical essay of the horror writer H. P. Lovecraft, a teenage passion, with the prophetic subtitle Against the World, Against Life. Rester vivant: méthode (To Stay Alive) appeared the same year, and was followed by his first collection of poetry. Meanwhile, he worked as a computer administrator in Paris, including at the French National Assembly, before he became the so-called “pop star of the single generation”, gaining fame with his debut novel Extension du domaine de la lutte in 1994 (translated by Paul Hammond and published as Whatever).
He won the 1998 Prix Novembre for his second novel Les Particules Élémentaires (translated by Frank Wynne), published in the English-speaking world as Atomised (Heinemann, UK) or The Elementary Particles (Knopf, US). The novel became an instant “nihilistic classic”, though Michiko Kakutani described it in The New York Times as “a deeply repugnant read”. The novel won Houellebecq (along with his translator, Frank Wynne) the International Dublin Literary Award in 2002.
In 2000, Houellebecq published the short fiction Lanzarote (published in France with a volume of his photographs), in which he develops a number of the themes he would explore in later novels, including fringe religions and cult leaders. His subsequent novel, Platform (2001), earned him a wider reputation. It is a romance told mostly in the first-person by a 40-year-old male arts administrator, with many sex scenes and an approving attitude towards prostitution and sex tourism. The novel’s depiction of life and its explicit criticism of Islam, together with an interview its author gave to the magazine Lire, led to accusations against Houellebecq by several organisations, including France’s Human Rights League, the Mecca-based World Islamic League and the mosques of Paris and Lyon. Charges were brought to trial, but a panel of three judges, delivering their verdict to a packed Paris courtroom, acquitted the author of having provoked ‘racial’ hatred, ascribing Houellebecq’s opinions to the legitimate right of criticizing religions.
His next novel; The Possibility of an Island (La Possibilité d’une île, 2005), cycles between three characters’ narratives; Daniel 1 (a contemporary comedian) and Daniels 24 and 25, neo-human clones of Daniel 1. He later adapted and directed the film based on his novel. In 2008, Flammarion published Ennemis publics (Public Enemies), a conversation via e-mail between Michel Houellebecq and Bernard-Henri Lévy.
Houellebecq has also released three music CDs on which he recites a selection of his poetry. Two of them, Présence de la mort and Établissement d’un ciel d’alternance (his “best”, as handwritten by Houellebecq in the 2007 libretto) were recorded with composer Jean-Jacques Birgé in 1996 for Radio France and Grrr Records labels. Présence humaine (2000), on Bertrand Burgalat’s Tricatel label, has a rock band backing him.
A recurrent theme in Houellebecq’s novels is the intrusion of free-market economics into human relationships and sexuality. Whatever (Original title, Extension du domaine de la lutte, which literally translates as “extension of the domain of the struggle”) alludes to economic competition extending into the search for relationships. As the book says, a free market has winners and losers, and the same applies to relationships in a society that does not enforce monogamy. Westerners of both sexes already seek exotic locations and climates by visiting developing countries in organized trips. In Platform, the logical conclusion is that they would respond positively to sex tourism organized and sold in a corporate and professional fashion.
Although Houellebecq’s work is often credited with building on conservative, if not reactionary, ideas, his critical depiction of the hippie movement, New Age ideology and the May 1968 generation, especially in Atomised, echoes the thesis of Marxist sociologist Michel Clouscard.
His novel The Map and the Territory (La Carte et le Territoire) was released in September 2010 by Flammarion and won the prestigious Prix Goncourt. This is the tale of an accidental art star and is full of insights on the contemporary art scene and the prices paid. Slate magazine accused him of plagiarising some passages of this book from French Wikipedia. Houellebecq denied that this was plagiarism, stating that “taking passages word for word was not stealing so long as the motives were to recycle them for artistic purposes”, evoking the influence of Georges Perec or Jorge Luis Borges, and advocated the use of all sorts of raw materials in literature, even advertising, recipes or math problems.
On 7 January 2015, the date of the Charlie Hebdo shooting, the novel Soumission was published. The book describes a future situation in France (2022) when a Muslim party is ruling the country according to Islamic law. On the same date, a cartoon of Houellebecq appeared on the cover page of Charlie Hebdo with the caption “The Predictions of Wizard Houellebecq.” In an interview with Antoine de Caunes after the shooting, Houellebecq stated he was unwell and had cancelled the promotional tour for Soumission.”