- Associated Press - Monday, November 8, 2010

PARIS (AP) - Michel Houellebecq, a best-selling French author who has fanned controversy with his writings and comments on women and Islam, won France’s most coveted literary prize Monday.

Houellebecq, one of France’s most acclaimed writers, won the Prix Goncourt that had eluded him for years for his latest work, “La Carte et Le Territoire” _ whose title translates as The Map and The Territory.

“I am very happy. … After all, I think it was necessary in my life. In any case, it’s a very good thing,” Houellebecq told France’s i-Tele TV. He spoke at the Drouant restaurant, where the jury decides on the prize each year, then sipped Champagne.

“Among all the people who are going to discover my books thanks to this prize, I hope I won’t disappoint them and they’ll be happy,” he said.

Set largely in Paris, the novel tells of a solitary, misanthropic artist who becomes a critical darling and commercial success almost in spite of himself, first for his photographs of maps of regions of France and then for realistic paintings of business moguls.

In the book, released in September, the character, Jed Martin, befriends a reclusive writer whom the author named after himself, Michel Houellebecq. The writer’s solitary nature and prickly personality echo the public persona of the author. The Houellebecq character is the victim of a grotesque murder, his body _ and that of his dog _ beheaded and cut into paper-thin strips of flesh.

The novel is part murder mystery, part meditation on the decline of postindustrial France _ depicted as a sort of Disneyland for Chinese and Russian tourists. It is among Houellebecq’s least overtly controversial books.

Many of his previous novels were peppered with explicit sex scenes and disparaging comments about women, minorities and Islam and won the author nearly as many detractors as fans.

Houellebecq shot to fame in 1998 with the critically acclaimed “The Elementary Particles,” a sexually explicit and existential story of two half brothers’ relationships, weaving in cultural and scientific history of the 20th century.

His 2001 follow-up, “Platform,” about third-world sex tourism and terrorism, drew him enemies for some of the book’s ideas about women and Muslims. “The Possibility of an Island,” 2005, told the story of a standup comic and his clones _ seen by some critics as a defense of cloning.

In 2002, a French court dismissed a lawsuit against Houellebecq that accused him of inciting racial hatred by calling Islam a “stupid” religion in a magazine interview. The court ruled that his comments, denounced by Muslim groups, displayed “ignorance” about Islam, but did not include an intent to affront or show contempt toward Muslims.

The 105-year-old prize comes with a euro10 ($14) purse, but it guarantees literary acclaim and high sales for the winner. Past recipients include Marcel Proust, Simone de Beauvoir and Marguerite Duras.

Houellebecq, himself a Goncourt finalist in the past, defeated three other authors contending for the prize.

Last year, Marie NDiaye won the Goncourt for “Three Strong Women,” her moving tale of the struggles of women in Europe and Africa.

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