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Michel Houellebecq
Houellebecq in 2016
Houellebecq in 2016
Born Michel Thomas
(1956-02-26) 26 February 1956 (age 68)
Saint-Pierre, Réunion, France
Occupation Novelist, filmmaker and poet
Nationality French
Notable works Atomised
The Map and the Territory
Notable awards
  • International Dublin Literary Award (2002)
  • Prix Goncourt (2016) Austrian State Prize for European Literature (2019)

Michel Houellebecq (French: [miˈʃɛl wɛlˈbɛk]; born Michel Thomas, 26 February 1956 or 1958) is a French author of novels, poems and essays, as well as an occasional actor, filmmaker and singer.

His first book was a biographical essay on the horror writer H. P. Lovecraft. Houellebecq published his first novel, Whatever, in 1994. His next novel, Atomised, published in 1998, brought him international fame. Platform followed in 2001. He has published several books of poetry, including The Art of Struggle in 1996.

An offhand remark about Islam during a publicity tour for his 2001 novel Platform led to Houellebecq being taken to court for inciting racial hatred (he was eventually cleared of all charges). He subsequently moved to Ireland for several years, before moving back to France, where he currently resides. He was described in 2015 as "France’s biggest literary export and, some say, greatest living writer." In a 2017 DW article he is dubbed the "undisputed star, and enfant terrible, of modern French literature".

In 2010, he published The Map and the Territory, which won the prestigious Prix Goncourt. In 2015, his next novel, Submission, sparked controversy for its depiction of Islam. He was also recently accused of plagiarism concerning Submission. Anéantir was published in 2022.

Personal life

Houellebecq was born in 1956 on the French island of Réunion, the son of Lucie Ceccaldi, a French physician born in Algeria of Corsican descent, and René Thomas, a ski instructor and mountain guide. He lived in Algeria from the age of five months until 1961, with his maternal grandmother. In a lengthy autobiographical article published on his website (now defunct), he states that his parents "lost interest in [his] existence pretty quickly", and at the age of six, he was sent to France to live with his paternal grandmother, a communist, while his mother left to live a hippie lifestyle in Brazil with her recent boyfriend. His grandmother's maiden name was Houellebecq, which he took as his pen name. Later, he went to Lycée Henri Moissan, a high school at Meaux north-east of Paris, as a boarder. He then went to Lycée Chaptal in Paris to follow preparation courses in order to qualify for grandes écoles (elite schools). He began attending the Institut National Agronomique Paris-Grignon in 1975. He started a literary review called Karamazov (named after Fyodor Dostoevsky's last novel) and wrote poetry. He graduated in 1980, married and had a son; then he divorced, and became depressed.

He married his second wife, Marie-Pierre Gauthier, in 1998. They divorced in 2010.

His third marriage was in September 2018 to Qianyun Lysis Li, a Chinese woman 34 years his junior, and a student of his works.

Works and rise to fame

2008.06.09. Michel Houellebecq Fot Mariusz Kubik 12
Michel Houellebecq, Warsaw, June 2008

Houellebecq's first poems appeared in 1985 in the magazine La Nouvelle Revue. Six years later, in 1991, he published a biographical essay on the horror writer H. P. Lovecraft, a teenage passion, with the programmatic subtitle Against the World, Against Life. A short poetical essay named Rester vivant : méthode (To Stay Alive) appeared the same year, dealing with the art of writing as a way of life – or rather, a way of not-dying and being able to write in spite of apathy and disgust for life (a film adaptation was made in 2016). It was followed by his first collection of poetry, La poursuite du bonheur (The pursuit of happiness). 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", starting to gain fame in 1994 with his debut novel Extension du domaine de la lutte, published by Maurice Nadeau (translated in English by Paul Hammond and published as Whatever). It reads as a first-person narrative, alternating between realistic accounts of the (unnamed) protagonist's bleak and solitary life as a computer programmer, and his idiosyncratic musings about society, some of which are presented in the form of "animal fictions"; he teams up with an even more desperate colleague who later gets killed in a car accident, which triggers the narrator's mental breakdown and eventual admission in a psychiatric hospital; even there, he theorizes about his condition being the direct result of the contemporary social configuration, rather than a personal failure or mental illness.

Throughout the 1990s, Houellebecq published several books of poetry, including Le sens du combat in 1996 (translated as The Art of Struggle, which, in a 2005 video interview for the magazine Les Inrockuptibles, he cited as his most accomplished book to date, the one he would usually choose if compelled to read whatever he wanted among his published works), and articles in magazines (such as Les Inrockuptibles) or more confidential literary publications (such as L'Infini edited by Philippe Sollers). Most of those texts were later collected in Interventions (1998, expanded in 2009 and 2020). At that time, he lived at the same address as fellow writer Marc-Édouard Nabe, at 103, rue de la Convention in Paris. Nabe wrote about this proximity in Le Vingt-Septième Livre (2006), comparing both neighbours' careers and the way their writings were met by critics and audiences.

His second novel, Les Particules Élémentaires (translated by Frank Wynne and published in the English-speaking world as Atomised in the UK, or The Elementary Particles in the US) was a breakthrough, bringing him national and soon international fame. It narrates the fate of two half brothers who grew up in the troubled 1960s: Michel Djerzinski, who became a prominent biologist, highly successful as a scientist but utterly withdrawn and depressed, and Bruno Clément, a French teacher. The book won the 1998 Prix Novembre (which was renamed Prix Décembre, following the resignation of its founder who disapproved of the prize being given to Houellebecq), missing the more prestigious Prix Goncourt for which it was the favourite. The novel became an instant "nihilistic classic" and was mostly praised for the boldness of its ideas and thought-provoking qualities. 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 explores a number of the themes he would develop in later novels. His subsequent novel, Plateforme (Platform, 2001), was another critical and commercial success.

His next novel, La Possibilité d'une île (The Possibility of an Island, 2005), cycles between three characters' narratives: Daniel 1, a contemporary stand-up comedian and movie maker renowned for his extreme causticity, alternating with Daniel 24 and then Daniel 25, neo-human clones of Daniel 1 in a far future; Daniel 1 witnesses dramatic events by which a sect named the Elohimites (based on Raëlism) changes the course of history, and his autobiography constitutes a canonical account that his clones are compelled to study, both in order to acquaint themselves with their model / ancestor's troubled character (since the Elohimites' chief scientist's purported project of mind uploading turned out to be a failure) and to distance themselves from the flaws of humans. Houellebecq later adapted and directed a movie based on this novel, which was a critical and commercial failure.

In 2008, Flammarion published Public Enemies: Dueling Writers Take on Each Other and the World (Ennemis publics), a conversation via e-mail between Houellebecq and Bernard-Henri Lévy, in which both reflected on their controversial reception by the mainstream media, and elaborated on their tastes and influences in literature, among other topics.

Houellebecq has also released three music albums on which he recites or sings selected excerpts from his poetry. Two of them were recorded with composer Jean-Jacques Birgé: Le sens du combat (1996, Radio France) and Établissement d'un ciel d'alternance (2007, Grrr Records, which Houellebecq considers the best of his recording endeavours, as handwritten in the libretto). Présence humaine (released in 2000 on Bertrand Burgalat's Tricatel label, and featuring musical arrangements by Burgalat himself), has a rock band backing him, and has been compared to the works of Serge Gainsbourg in the 1970s; it was re-released in 2016 with two additional tracks arranged by Jean-Claude Vannier (who famously worked on Histoire de Melody Nelson) and a booklet featuring notes by Mishka Assayas and texts by Fernando Arrabal.

A recurrent theme in Houellebecq's novels is the intrusion of free-market economics into human relationships. The original French title of Whatever, Extension du domaine de la lutte (literally "broadening of the field of struggle"), alludes to economic competition extending into the search for relationships.

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 La Carte et le Territoire (The Map and the Territory) was released in September 2010 by Flammarion and finally won its author the prestigious Prix Goncourt. This is the tale of an accidental art star and is full of insights into the contemporary art scene. Slate magazine accused him of plagiarising some passages of this book from French Wikipedia. Houellebecq denied the accusation of 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, Lautreamont or Jorge Luis Borges, and advocated the use of all sorts of raw materials in literature, including advertising, recipes or mathematics problems.

On 7 January 2015, the novel Submission was published. The book describes a future situation in France, set in 2022, when a Muslim party, following a victory against the National Front, is ruling the country according to Islamic law, which again generated heated controversy and accusations of Islamophobia.

In January 2019, Houellebecq was made a Chevalier of the Légion d'honneur. His novel Sérotonine was published (translated as Serotonin) in the same month. This time, one of the novel's main themes, a violent revolt from desperate farmers, appeared to echo the Yellow Vests movement.


Extension du domaine de la lutte has been adapted into a film with the same title by Philippe Harel, and later adapted as a play in Danish by Jens Albinus for the Royal Danish Theatre.

The English translation of his novel Platform was adapted as a play by the theatre company Carnal Acts for the Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA) in London in December 2004. A Spanish adaptation of the novel by Calixto Bieito, performed by Companyia Teatre Romea, premiered at the 2006 Edinburgh International Festival. Houellebecq and Bieito appeared together that same year in a TV program named Au cœur de la nuit / Durch die Nacht (Through the night) for the French-German channel Arte.

Along with Loo Hui Phang, Houellebecq wrote the screenplay for the film Monde extérieur (2002) by David Rault and David Warren.

Atomised has been made into a German film, Elementarteilchen, directed by Oskar Roehler, starring Moritz Bleibtreu and Franka Potente. The film premiered in 2006 at the 56th Berlin International Film Festival. It was poorly received and generally considered a watered-down take on the novel's bleakness and thought-provoking ideas.

The film La Possibilité d'une île, directed by Houellebecq himself and based on his novel, premiered in France on 10 September 2008. It was a critical and commercial failure, sometimes even considered one of the worst films ever made in France, alongside Bernard Henri Levy's Le Jour et la Nuit, although some authors found him intriguing and recognized redeeming qualities.

American rock singer and "godfather of punk" Iggy Pop released in 2009 the unusually quiet album Préliminaires, which he described as influenced by his reading of Michel Houellebecq's novel The Possibility of an Island (one track 'A Machine for Loving' even consists in the singer merely reading a passage from the book over a musical accompaniment.). The author considered it a great honour, as he was himself deeply affected as a teenager by Iggy Pop's music with The Stooges, even going so far as to say that he was, for once, "completely happy".

In 2016 he participated, together with Iggy Pop and several others, in Erik Lieshout's documentary To Stay Alive: A Method, based on his 1991 essay.

Selected publications

  • H. P. Lovecraft: Against the World, Against Life (1991, monograph, French: H. P. Lovecraft : Contre le monde, contre la vie)
  • Whatever (1994, novel, French: Extension du domaine de la lutte)
  • The Art of Struggle (1996, poems, French: Le Sens du combat)
  • Atomised (1998, novel, French: Les Particules élémentaires)
  • Interventions (1998, collection of various texts, expanded in 2009 and 2020)
  • Lanzarote (2000, novella)
  • Platform (2001, novel, French: Plateforme)
  • The Possibility of an Island (2005, novel, French: La Possibilité d'une île)
  • The Map and the Territory (2010, novel, French: La Carte et le Territoire)
  • Submission (2015, novel, French: Soumission)
  • In the Presence of Schopenhauer (2017, monograph, French: En présence de Schopenhauer)
  • Serotonin (2019, novel, French: Sérotonine)
  • Anéantir (2022, novel)


  • Cristal de souffrance (1978), short film (author)
  • Déséquilibre (1982), short film (author)
  • La Rivière (2001), short film for Canal + (author)
  • La Possibilité d'une île (2008) (author/director)
  • The Kidnapping of Michel Houellebecq (2014) (actor)
  • Near Death Experience (2014) (actor)
  • Saint-Amour (2016) (actor)
  • To Stay Alive: A Method (2016) (actor)
  • Thalasso (2019) (actor)
  • Rumba la vie (2022) (actor)

Audio albums

  • Le Sens du combat (1996) Paris: Les Poétiques de France Culture.
  • Présence humaine (2000) Paris: Tricatel.
  • Établissement d'un ciel d'alternance (2007) Paris: Grrr.

See also

Kids robot.svg In Spanish: Michel Houellebecq para niños

  • Contemporary French literature
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