I first met Michel Houellebecq at a party held in Paris, in early September last year, to celebrate the French launch of his third novel, Plateforme. A wan, stooped figure wearing a large yellow anorak, baggy jeans and a pair of fluorescent Nike trainers, he wandered in the midst of the black-clad literati of Paris like a stranger to his own fame. Cigarette in hand, he retired to a corner of the room, attended to by a duo of skimpily dressed press agents, with helmet-like haircuts, who collected his empty glasses as he drained them of champagne and who hung on his every word. "I'm not in the right place," he confessed to me, in his soft, faintly lisping voice. "I really should be working. In fact, I'm going right now."
And so he fled the room.
But he was already in trouble. An interview with Lire, the literary monthly, had recently appeared, in which, among other things, he described a negative revelation he had experienced on Mount Sinai. "There, where Moses received the Ten Commandments . . . I said to myself that the act of believing in a single God was the act of a cretin, I could find no other word. And the most stupid religion has to be Islam. When you read the Koran, it's appalling, appalling." This was not the first time that Houellebecq had expressed his contempt for Islam; indeed, his novel, which Heinemann publishes in English as Platform in early September, offers a portrait of a group of Muslim militants who are unhinged by hatred of the west.
A Moroccan daily picked up the interview and published an incendiary story about Houellebecq. "This man hates you", said the front-page headline, above a photograph of the author. A few days later, the events of 11 September took place. Shortly afterwards, French Islamic organisations pressed charges of incitement to racial hatred and religious violence against Houellebecq. Concerned by the opprobrium that had descended on his best author, Houellebecq's French editor, Raphael Sorin, felt it necessary to mollify the Grand Imam of Paris in person. The author himself, jostled and spat at in the streets, cancelled all public engagements and fled to an undisclosed location. To this day, most of his European editors can contact him only by land mail. His lawyers will tackle the charges this autumn.
But it's high summer now, and Houellebecq has resurfaced, briefly, in the bar of the Shelbourne Hotel, Dublin. Head in hands, a glass of red wine in front of him, he talks to me a little about his second novel, Les particules elementaires (Atomised), which recently won the Impac prize for a work of fiction, worth 100,000 euros. Narrated by the first human clone, it tells the tale of two sexually dysfunctional half-brothers, Michel and Bruno, whose family life is destroyed by the excesses of the late 1960s. He wrote most of the novel in Connemara. "It's a very sensitive place," Houellebecq says, "a mixture of sunsets and fields stretching off as far as the eye can see. It was the big reason, I think, why I settled here in Ireland. But maybe Brittany is like that, too. . ." His voice trails off into awkward silence.
Since 1999, Houellebecq has been living in a small island community off the coast of County Cork. It is odd that a writer whose novels and stories are often wilfully obscene, crammed with scenes set in sex clubs, brothels and nudist colonies, should have settled in a country that less than two decades ago continued to hide its single mothers in convents. "But I really feel Ireland is a romantic place," he says. "In terms of light and landscape, for example, it's hardly different from its cinematic image. In the end, I think you make comparisons according to your point of departure. Mine is France. I could have settled in the French countryside, but it's quite crushing there, like all countryside. Visually, to live by the sea, as I do, is a very different sensation. That I don't speak much English is not an impediment."
His relations with his home country are complex. Since Atomised, which plausibly argues that late Sixties individualism killed off all hope of love in western society, Houellebecq has set himself on a collision course with left-liberal orthodoxy. A former communist, he now seems to relish confrontation, particularly with liberals who preach tolerance and harmony. Having previously declared that "I love to take the piss out of journalists", he has expressed his admiration for the Pope, his hatred of hippies, and nostalgia for Philippe Petain, the disgraced leader of the Vichy regime. An incorrigible provocateur, he has yet to enjoy the official consecration of a Goncourt or Medicis prize. "When I finished Atomised," he says, "I just hoped that the critics who had been good to my first book, Whatever, would react favourably. Then the interviews started, and the whole thing went a lot further. The book began to be read all over Europe; people were talking about it, they wanted to come to see me, find out my views on all sorts of things. But talking to journalists, quite frankly, is really laborious."
He does not believe, however, that constant media scrutiny has affected his work. That said, he also thinks that writing another novel might be more trouble than it's worth. One cannot help thinking that since Atomised, Houellebecq has spread himself too thin. As well as writing Platform, he has directed soft-porn films, made a pop album with the Belgian musician Bertrand Burgalat and completed an as yet untranslated travelogue, Lanzarote, which includes his own photos of the island's rock formations.
Much of Platform was written in Phuket, Thailand, where Houellebecq was surrounded by strip clubs and hostess bars. It tells of the romance between Michel, a melancholic, indolent civil servant at the French ministry of culture, and Valerie, a child-woman executive in the tourist industry. Touring soulless sex clubs, and imprisoned in air-conditioned office blocks, they are looking for a way out. "Frustration is probably the greatest evil," says Houellebecq, "much worse than ennui, which is maybe the same. Maybe."
But a way out is found. Houellebecq, having observed that "Thai prostitutes are the best in the world", proposes a chain of sex resorts in the Gulf of Siam where love-hungry Europeans can seek relief. The project succeeds. Valerie's stock options climb high. They retire to one of the resorts they have helped create, but neither has reckoned with the local Muslim fanatics, who supply the novel's devastating climax. "I really think people like Valerie and Michel exist," says Houellebecq. "They are actually very ordinary. All they want is a certain level of comfort, a certain level of pleasure. I like writing about typical people."
Typical or not, Michel, the narrator of Platform, has a lucky bag of opinions - on Islam, prostitution and Germans - which sound, after nearly 400 pages, much like Houellebecq's own. Listening to Houellebecq publicly defend his narrator's discovery that "Thai prostitutes are good girls . . . they send money back home to their parents", you get the sense that he can't see much beyond the liberal platitudes of the journalists he despises and longs to offend. His stylised disaffection explains, to a certain extent, his great popularity, particularly among the young. In a sense, he offers the highest expression of a punk attitude of perpetual rebellion, in all its best and worst aspects. He is a captivating writer but often also a foolish one. A novelist with a greater instinct for truth would, for instance, have conceded what Platform dutifully overlooks: that a quarter of all Thai prostitutes will die from Aids in the next decade.
But my cassette player has clicked to a stop, and Houellebecq's wine glass is empty. Most of our two hours together has passed in silence. Talking to Houellebecq can be, to paraphrase Nietzsche, a bit like staring into a well: very soon the well starts staring back at you.
"I have to go and see where my wife is," he says. Pulling on a battered leather jacket, he looks into the ashtray, where the mangled fragments of the cigarettes he chews are heaped up. "You know, I often wonder whether we are living in a hologram." Before I ask him whether it's a hologram of his own making, he raises his hands. "Something to think about."
On the way out to the lobby, as he leads me towards the revolving doors, I remember the words of one of his French press agents on that September night in Paris. "Michel lives on his own planet," she said. "He couldn't exist otherwise." As I follow him into the street, a dark-haired woman in a cocktail dress meets us. She raises her glass of wine. "Congratulations, Michel," she says. "You wrote a great book, and you deserve the Impac prize, every penny of it."
Houellebecq takes her hand. A head shorter than she, he looks her up and down and, in faltering English, expresses his thanks. "But you know, I sometimes ask myself, must you deserve something in order to enjoy it?"
With that, he is gone.
Gerry Feehily is a critic living in Paris