He is French literature’s ageing enfant terrible, a nihilistic provocateur who has never been afraid of a blazing row — whether it is appearing in court for inciting racial hatred, irking feminists, or raging against the publishing world.
But Michel Houellebecq could be about to face his most bruising public spat: with his mother.
The award-winning writer has never hidden his disgust for his “old slut of a mother”. Born Michel Thomas on the French island of La Reunion in the Indian Ocean, at five he was packed off to his grandparents while his mother, a doctor, and his father, a mountain guide, indulged their hippy, hedonistic priorities of driving round Africa in a Citroen 2CV.
Houellebecq was later raised in a grey French suburb by his paternal grandmother, whose surname he took in her honour. In his bestselling novel Les Particules Elementaires, translated as Atomised and made into a film in 2006, he created a loathsome, selfish, sexually voracious mother character who pointedly has the same surname as his mother, Ceccaldi.
The fictional mother finds “the burden of caring for a small child” incompatible with “personal freedom”. She leaves her young son in an attic room, eventually abandoning her children in favour of sex with young men and life in a dubious commune.
Now Lucie Ceccaldi, 83, who lives in a beach hut in La Reunion, has hit back with her own book, L’Innocente — the Innocent — in which she gives her version of her life and her son.
In a vicious postscript she writes: “Michel and I could begin to talk to each other again the day he goes to a public square with Les Particles Elementaires in his hand and says: ‘I am a liar, I am an impostor, I’ve done nothing in my life except do bad to the people around me, and I ask for forgiveness.’ Killing your mother was in fashion at the time.”
The French literary world is intrigued by the latest round in Houellebecq’s personal drama — his parents, absent for 30 years, wrote to him after Atomised was published, but he said he didn’t read the letters and stuffed them in a box.
The first extracts from Ceccaldi’s book are due to be published in the literary magazine Lire this week. The news weekly L’Express called it “reckoning at the Houellebecq Corral”. It was reported that several other publishers declined to take on the book for fear of offending him.
Whether the novelist, who lives in Ireland, will be drawn into a public response remains to be seen.
On his blog in 2006, he railed at the people he felt were “killing” him and took umbrage at his unofficial biography for which his mother was interviewed and which he never read.
He said he doubted that “my old slut of a mother” could have yielded any important insights, because “she is too egocentric to produce a significant account of anything other than herself”.
He warned: “Basically my mother has never understood anything about what I am; she never understood my father either.