With the recent award of the Prix Goncourt for his latest novel La Carte et le territoire, Michel Houellebecq suddenly seems to have earned the right to be taken seriously. It’s been a long time coming. Houellebecq first came to international prominence in the late 1990s and early 2000s with a series of novels that expounded a gloomy worldview he calls ‘depressionism’, which sees futility and boredom in every human endeavour (except perhaps group sex, and even then the excitement is only fleeting). Meanwhile, over the past decade Houellebecq has become an established presence in the French media, known for his deliberate provocations, which have ranged from denouncing Islam to an apparent espousal of casual racism and misogyny. Now, after fifteen years as the arch-rebel of contemporary French letters, Houellebecq has become the mainstream. As a perennial outsider he is no doubt deeply disappointed by this turn of events, but it does force the reader to look a bit harder at his back catalogue.
This is especially true of Public Enemies, a public correspondence between Houellebecq and the ‘philosopher’ Bernard-Henri Lévy, which was an immediate bestseller on its publication in France in 2008. Lévy, or ‘BHL’ as he is known to the French public, cuts a clownish figure on the French media