French author Houellebecq wins coveted Goncourt prize

PARIS Mon Nov 8, 2010 10:37am EST

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PARIS (Reuters Life!) - Michel Houellebecq, France's leading fiction provocateur, took home the prestigious Goncourt prize on Monday after years of dominating the French literary scene without a nod from the award committee.

Houellebecq, who published his first novel in 1994 and sealed his reputation a few years later with "Platform" -- a work that addresses sex tourism and Islamic fundamentalism in the same breath -- had been repeatedly overlooked for the Goncourt, France's equivalent of a Pulitzer.

This time the jury voted seven in favor and one against to recognize Houellebecq's latest work, a biting satire of the French art world titled "The Map and the Territory," having snubbed him on two previous occasions.

Houellebecq, a soft-spoken former civil servant in his mid-fifties, who was once condemned by Muslim groups for equating their religion with violence, said he was "profoundly happy" to have won.

"There are people who only hear about contemporary literature thanks to the Goncourt, and literature does not stand at the center of French preoccupations, so it's significant," he told journalists at the restaurant where the prize was awarded.

With his dark and bitterly humorous style, Houellebecq has earned a considerable following abroad where other French authors have struggled to make a durable impression.

His latest book, his fifth, offers a satirical tour of modern French society that skewers self-delusion in the world of art and celebrity culture. Full of references from the "real world," the book even stages the death by assassination of a character called "Michel Houellebecq."

Less grating than his previous works, "The Map and the Territory," drew accolades from literary critics in spite of accusations that Houellebecq had lifted some descriptive sections of the book from Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia.

The accusations of plagiarism elicited only moderate media attention in France and Houellebecq charged his accusers with missing the point: the dry Wikipedia excerpts, he said, were part of the satire.

(Reporting by Elizabeth Pineau; Writing by Nick Vinocur; editing by Paul Casciato)

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