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Monday, 13 May, 2002, 16:04 GMT 17:04 UK
The Impac's reclusive winner
Mr Houellebecq
Houellebecq now lives in Ireland
Michel Houellebecq's success with the Impac prize comes only eight years after he published his first novel.

And his success in one of the world's richest literary prizes will raise a few eyebrows.

His short literary career - just three novels to date - has already attracted controversy in his native France and partisan responses among UK reviewers.

His emotionally bleak and sexually explicit books speak directly to the problems of our age - or are misogynistic and emptily shocking, depending on who is discussing them.

He was born on 26 February 1958 in the French Indian Ocean island of La Reunion.

His father was a mountaineer, his mother an anaesthetist, but he has claimed that both neglected him as a child.

Agronomist

At six he was left with his paternal grandmother, a communist, and moved to Dicy in the Yonne region of rural France.

He wanted to be an agronomist, and graduated with a diploma in agricultural engineering in 1980.

He married in the same year and had a son a year later - but the following divorce led to a severe depression which required psychiatric treatment.

Atomised
Atomised has been translated into 25 languages
But his illness may have spurred his decision to start writing and attending poetry groups.

In 1985 he met Michel Bulteau, director of the New Review of Paris, who was the first to publish his poems, and became a firm friend.

His first published book was Against The World, Against Life, a biography of eccentric American writer HP Lovecraft, which he followed with a collection of poems, The Pursuit Of Happiness - which gave him his first literary prize, the Tristan Tzara.

Intimate relationships

Houellebecq began to write in earnest in literary reviews and produced his first novel, Extension Du Domaine De La Lutte (The Struggle Spreads, published in the UK as Whatever) in 1994.

The story of a bored computer salesman who trains provincial civil servants in IT, it was a major literary hit in France and promoted much discussion of its themes - the cheapening of intimate relationships and the coarsening of sex in a materialistic society.

In 1998, he received France's Grand Prix National Des Lettres Jeunes Talents and in the same year published his second novel, Les Particules Elémentaires (Atomised).

Exploring similar themes to Whatever - but at greater length and in more graphic detail - Atomised won the Prix Novembre and has now been translated into 25 languages.

Controversy

In 1998 Houellebcq also married for the second time, to Marie-Pierre Gauthier, whom he had originally met in 1992.

He has since collaborated on the screen adaptation of Whatever with director Philippe Harel and released his first album, Presence Humaine, on which he sings a number of his poems to the music of Bertrand Burgalat.

His last novel, Plateforme, is yet to appear in English but has already attracted its fair share of controversy - this time because of a perceived anti-Islamic bias.

Houellebecq lives quietly in Ireland, near Cork - a long way from the storms his writing provokes but, as it turns out, near the world's richest literary prize.

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