Houellebecq Wins France's Top Book Prize


France's best-known writer Michel Houellebecq has won its top literary prize Monday for a best-selling satire of art and celebrity, fans hailing it as an overdue honor for his edgy, sex-charged writing.

Houellebecq came close to winning in 1998 and 2005 but has divided readers and critics with dark tales that have drawn accusations of obscenity and racial provocation.

He won the Goncourt Prize for his best-selling satire "The Map and the Territory", the jury announced at the chic Drouant restaurant in Paris after voting seven to two in his favor.

"It's a weird feeling but I am deeply happy," Houellebecq told reporters afterwards.

"Some people only follow contemporary literature thanks to the Goncourt, and literature is not French people's main concern, so this is very useful."

"La carte et le territoire" (The Map and the Territory) satirizes the Paris art and celebrity world in the tale of Jed Martin, an artist who gains global fame by photographing old Michelin maps.

It softens the misanthropic tone of his four previous novels, but skewers with dry humor a number of real-life personalities, even featuring a drunken, stinking, badly-dressed writer named Michel Houellebecq.

Liberation newspaper called it a "masterpiece", though the critic Pierre Asouline in Le Monde complained that it lacked depth despite a good style.

It has sold well in spite of a row over accusations of plagiarism, which the author has dismissed as "ridiculous".

"It's perhaps the easiest-to-read of my books," Houellebecq said. "Certainly the most complex in structure."

In the English-speaking world Houellebecq has been compared to the American Bret Easton-Ellis and Britain's Martin Amis, whose novels likewise feature highly-sexed anti-heroes. The latter's 1984 novel "Money" similarly introduced a character named Martin Amis.

Houellebecq receives a symbolic check for 10 euros from the Goncourt Academy, but the prize is said to guarantee average sales of 400,000 copies and has become a seal of approval for France's top authors.

"Atomized" narrowly missed out on a Goncourt in 1998, prompting Houellebecq to accuse the judges of taking bribes, boosting his reputation for grumpiness.

"Why not me?" he complained in an interview with Liberation at the time.

Another work, "The Possibility of an Island", came within one vote of a Goncourt win in 2005.

In 2001, "Platform" landed him in court on charges over his depiction of Islam, but he was cleared of all charges. He now divides his time between Spain and Ireland.(AFP)

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