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20 September 2010updated 12 Oct 2023 10:41am

Michel Houellebecq and the art of fiction

On sex, travel and being a secondary character in his own novel.

By Jonathan Derbyshire

The Paris Review has made its latest “Art of Fiction” interview, with the French novelist Michel Houellebecq, freely available online. As is usually the case with these interviews (which approach the Platonic ideal of the form), the conversation ranges widely – over topics as diverse as marriage (a reaction to living a “largely solitary life”), his first novel, Whatever (“it’s brutal, but it’s good”), sex (“I’m fifty years old and I still haven’t made up my mind whether sex is good or not”), his memories of childhood (“I have vague memories of playgrounds with leaves. I also remember the smell of tear gas, which I liked. I remember little things about the war, like machine-gun fire in the street”) and travel (“I find it an absolute pleasure to read travel guides, especially the Michelin guides, and their description of places I know I’ll probably never visit. I spend a large part of my life reading descriptions of restaurants”).

I blogged last month about Houellebecq’s new novel, La carte et le territoire, in which he himself is portrayed as as an alcoholic and depressive who “stinks a little less than a corpse” and resembles nothing so much as “a sickly old tortoise”. He is asked about that here: “The main character is an artist. Houellebecq remains a secondary character though his appearance does make the structure much more complicated.”

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