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Realism, satire and myth in Michel Houellebecq

Michel Houellebecq is one of the most highly respected French authors of the 1990s and 2000s. Now a dissertation from the University of Gothenburg, Sweden, shows how Houellebecq's verbal art is based on three lines of the history of novels of the west: French 19th century realism, Menippean satire and German romanticism.

"One of my conclusions is that the novels are built up around central metaphors in a manner reminiscent of the structure of myths. And here, the motifs of light and the sun have an important part to play," says Jacob Carlson, author of the dissertation. Houellebecq uses the motifs of light and the sun in a playful manner in order to shape existential attitudes and metaphysical theories.

Among other things, Houellebecq is renowned for having dealt with controversial topics such as human cloning, sexual tourism and religious sects, as well as for his misanthropic criticism of a western world which is money-oriented and short on spiritualism, where even human relations have a market value.

He has received a number of awards for his writing, the latest being the very prestigious Prix Goncourt for his novel La Carte et le territoire, which was published in the autumn of 2010. But Michel Houellebecq has also come in for extraordinarily fierce criticism. When his novel La Possibilité d'une ile [The Possibility of an Island] was published in 2005, for example, three pamphlets were published at the same time, challenging his writing skill. One of the charges levelled against Houellebecq was that most of all, he is a media manipulator - an author of less interest in a literary regard, whose success is founded mainly on provocation and smart marketing by the author's own persona.

"This is why I chose instead to take as my starting point the literary masterpiece that forms the basis of these novels," says Jacob Carlson, who examines in his dissertation the first four Houellebecq novels: Extension du domaine de la lutte [Whatever] (1994), Les Particules élémentaires [Atomised] (1998), Plateforme (2001) and La Possibilité d'une ile [The Possibility of an Island] (2005).

There has been a massive increase in the number of books and articles on Houellebecq over the past few years. That said, however, the number of academic dissertations about his writing is still fairly limited, although there is a steady increase in their numbers.

"As far as I am aware, my dissertation is the first more extensive study to analyse the intricate interaction between the realism, Menippean satire (a blend of verse and prose, rooted in antiquity) and romanticism which I feel characterises the novels of Houellebecq. I also believe I am the first author to systematically examine the mythological elements which appear in the text and their links with the metaphysical and religious themes which are of such central importance to the novels," says Jacob Carlson. The thesis has been successfully defended.

Faculty opponent: Anne Cousseau, maitre de conférence, Nancy

For more information: Jacob Carlson, telephone: +46 (0) 31 786 1809, e-mail: jacob.carlson@rom.gu.se

idw :: 23.05.2011