French writer, filmmaker, and poet Michel Houellebecq was born Michel Thomas on February 26, 1958, or 1956 according to his birth certificate from the little island of Réunion off the coast of Africa. His contradictory date of birth and dual names are symptomatic of his entire career. Those who love him, see him as the spiritual heir of Baudelaire; those who loathe him, see him as a pornographer. Since the publication of Platforme in 2001, Houellebecq has lived abroad after having been taken to court for inciting hatred, although he was acquitted.
His 2010 novel, La Carte et le territoire (The Map and the Territory) won the prestigious Prix Goncourt. He was accused of plagiarizing entire passages from French Wikipedia. I hear some creative plagiarism excuses from students, but Houellebecq’s was a beauty – it’s not plagiarism if you are “recycling for artistic purposes.” Now THAT’s a creative writing!
Today’s expression, prendre le contre-pied (prawndruh luh kontre-pee-ay) means “to take the opposite foot.” Taking controversial positions is a Houellebecq specialty. To hear him speak, however, you’d never believe he was such a trouble-maker – he seems quiet and self-effacing. He always seems to be wearing a ratty parka and be smoking a cigarette. You really can’t judge a book, or its writer, by the cover.