“I’ve become a cause,” declares Michel Houellebecq when asked how he really feels, a few hours after winning the Prix Goncourt. And it’s true: If he hadn’t won France’s biggest literary prize, it would have been more than a disappointment; it would have been a defeat. (And I don’t even want to think about the bloggers, his fiercest supporters. The bloggers would have exploded.)
Now it’s midnight: We’re at the Montana drinking vodka with some kind of blue mint thing in it—“we” being a small gang rounded up by Frédéric Beigbeder after dinner. No way is the novelist and former talk-show host (one of our more energetic littérateurs) going to let his friend Michel crawl into bed with his Goncourt. “Between Michel getting the Goncourt and Virginie Despentes winning le Renaudot,”
Beigbeder exclaims, “a whole generation—our generation—has finally won!” There’s a brief silence, and we must all think the same thing without saying it: If we’ve won and there’s nothing to fight for, it’s probably downhill from here.
Of course, we can always wait for Houellebecq to get the Nobel. “After France, the world!” jokes Beigbeder, and everybody’s quick to raise a glass. A colleague from Les Inrocks joins us and immediately falls into a passionate discussion with Michel. When I ask Sylvain Bourmeau (an editor at France’s most important news site, Mediapart) what’s got them so worked up, he tells me “charcuterie.” And in fact, when we were all crammed into a car on the way to the Montana, Michel held forth with great precision on the subject of his car (sorry, don’t ask me the make); it occurred to me that this is what makes him so deeply charming and also, perhaps, part of what makes him such a powerful novelist: his capacity to be completely present, without any irony, whether the subject is literature, feelings, or cars. Later, a blond angel of Russian origin absconds with him, once he’s already half-asleep. This would be Maria, the young woman who served as a model for the character of Olga in La Carte et le térritoire. “All my characters are here,” Houellebecq joked during the dinner thrown in his honor at La Mediterranée. He then asked them to rise: Beigbeder, Maria, and his editor, Teresa Crimisi, who shares with Houellebecq a very sportsmanlike air of victory—all calm joy, no bragadoccio.
“Watch out,” Houellebecq tells his guests, “the rest of you are next.”
It’s true, the room holds plenty of characters you could easily see in a Houellebecq novel. There’s the ultra-chic Bernard-Henri Lévy (who collaborated with Houellebecq on the book Public Enemies); his wife, the actress Arielle Dombasle (who had the foresight to bring an e-cigarette); Yasmina Reza (in jeans and a little leopard-skin coat); the founder of Elle, longtime Vogue editor, and president of the Goncourt prize committee, Edmonde Charles-Roux (perfect in Chanel and Saint-Laurent); François Samuelson (the agent who represents all the prize winners nowadays); and the philosopher Alain Finkielkraut (who has found himself attacked by Bourmeau for his increasingly right-wing positions on Muslims in French society). Houellebecq tries to make peace between Finkielkraut and Bourmeau, but each turns awkwardly away; and when Michel insists, “Really, it means a lot to me,” they are saved by the smiling intervention of Crimisi: “Oh, Michel, you really ought to leave these two alone … ”
That’s the sort of night it was, full of people from different sides, all of whom shared the same exhilaration at seeing Houellebecq finally receive his due. A night of warmth, happiness, and emotion. As for the cocktail party at the Odéon theater beforehand—I couldn’t see a thing, except for a horde of starving old women throwing themselves on a tray of petit fours. We suspected they might be retired critics, and we hoped that when our time comes, Michel Houellebecq might send us a box of ravioli, every now and then, as a souvenir of better times.
Nelly Kaprielian is a critic and editor in Paris, France. To see more of Vincent Ferrané’s photographs of Houellebecq, click here.