Michel Houellebecq wins the Prix Goncourt

The enfant terrible of French literature is awarded his country's most prestigious literary prize.

Michel Houellebecq, the enfant terrible of contemporary French letters, was awarded the Prix Goncourt on Monday evening for his latest novel La Carte et Le Territoire. At the awards ceremony, held at the Drouant restaurant in Paris as it has been since 1914, Houellebecq, when asked whether he thought that the award of the Goncourt meant that La Carte et Le Territoire should now be considered as his best novel, replied: "I don't know. It might be the easiest to read, it's certainly the most complicated in its construction". Houellebecq now joins an illustrious list of other previous winners of the Prix Goncourt, amongst whose number are Marcel Proust, Simone de Beauvoir and Marguerite Duras.

La Carte et Le Territoire is typically Houellebecq-esque in its plot: a biography of a French artist called Jed Martin, who goes to seek out a semi-fictionalised Houellebecq at his home in Ireland to persuade him to write an exhibition catalogue. Houellebecq has split critics since his debut novel, Whatever (1994), which traced the terrifyingly quotidian lives of two computer programmers, filled only by sexual frustration, junk food and a latent appetite for violence, and provoked huge controversy on publication, with some reviewers demanding that it be awarded the Prix Goncourt immediately and others decrying it as demonstrative of a new literary style that was as prosaic as the fictional events it described.

Curiously though, and despite Houellebecq's reputation for divisiveness amongst critics, the French press were almost uniform in their praise for his victory this week. Raphaëlle Rérolle, writing in Le Monde, commented that "they (the jury) ended by accepting the inevitable result ... they were forced to admit that it was no longer possible to avoid the obstacle of Houellebecq. That it was no longer feasible ... to ignore one of the most exciting writers on the contemporary French literary landscape".

Claire Devarrieux in a profile of Houellebecq in Libération lauded "the simple and supple style of the author of Atomised, his ability to bring to life the most trivial aspects of daily life in a phrase, to celebrate the banal whilst remaining original", whilst Le Point suggested that the fact that Houellebecq had finally been awarded the Goncourt, after more than a decade as an eternal also-ran, was due to a development in his prose style: "the tone of the new book is less obviously depressing and sordid than in those which preceded it, and the structure more classical."

La Carte et Le Territoire's publication was, however, not devoid of controversy. Houellebecq was criticised for using whole passages of factual content lifted directly from Wikipedia in La Carte et Le Territoire, though this didn't damage sales, which had reached 200,000 before the Goncourt was even announced.

In Susannah Hunnewell's excellent recent interview with Houellebecq in The Paris Review, when asked what he thought about the literary critics who had damned him previously, Houellebecq responded by saying, "they hate me more than I hate them". This time, it looks as if he might have just been proved wrong.

BBC/Chris Christodoulou
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Proms 2016: Violinist Ray Chen was the star of a varied show

The orchestra soaked up his energy in Bruch's first violin concerto to end on a triumphal note. 

Music matters, but so does its execution. This was the lesson of a BBC Symphony Orchestra and BBC Symphony Chorus programme which combined both a premiere of a composition and a young violinist’s first performance at the Proms. 

The concert, conducted by Sir Andrew Davis, opened with Tchaikovsky’s symphonic fantasy The Tempest, a lesser-known sibling to his Romeo and Juliet overture. The orchestra got off to a fidgety start, with some delayed entries, but fell into line in time for the frenetic chromatic runs that drive the piece. The end, a muted pizzicato, was suitably dramatic. 

Another nature-inspired piece followed – Anthony Payne’s composition for chorus and orchestra, Of Land, Sea and Sky. Payne drew on his memory of watching of white horses appearing to run across water, as well as other visual illusions. At the world premiere, the piece began promisingly. The chorus rolled back and forth slowly over scurrying strings with an eerie singing of “horses”. But the piece seemed to sink in the middle, and not even the curiosity of spoken word verse was enough to get the sinister mood back. 

No doubt much of the audience were drawn to this programme by the promise of Bruch violin concerto no. 1, but it was Ray Chen’s playing that proved to be most magnetic. The young Taiwanese-Australian soloist steered clear of melodrama in favour of a clean and animated sound. More subtle was his attention to the orchestra. The performance moved from furious cadenza to swelling sound, as if all players shared the same chain of thought. Between movements, someone coughed. I hated them. 

Ray Chen in performance. Photo: BBC/Chris Christodoulou

Chen’s playing had many audience members on their feet, and only an encore appeased them. It was his first time at the Proms, but he'll be back. 

The orchestra seemed to retain some of his energy for Vaughan Williams’ Toward the Unknown Region. Composed between 1904 and 1906, this is a setting of lines by the US poet Walt Whitman on death, and the idea of rebirth.

The orchestra and chorus blended beautifully in the delicate, dark opening. By the end, this had transformed into a triumphal arc of sound, in keeping with the joyful optimism of Whitman’s final verse: “We float/In Time and Space.” 

This movement from hesitancy to confident march seemed in many ways to capture the spirit of the concert. The programme had something for everyone. But it was Chen’s commanding performance that defined it.