Novelist's Mother Fires Back

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Pierre Verdy/ Francois Durand / AFP / Getty

Lucie Ceccaldi, (left) mother of French writer Michel Houellebecq (right)

Novelist Michel Houellebecq became one of France's best literary exports with his bad-boy attitude, and writing so raw and explicit that it could make even the saltiest readers blush. Now, to Houellebecq's presumed chagrin, the world is finding out where he got his in-your-face attitude: from his mother. In what has to be the consummate nightmare of any male with a fearless reputation, Houellebecq is getting a very public spanking from his own mother — and, man, is she one hacked-off lady. Even worse for the 50-year-old Houellebecq: she is showing the same talent for raunchy phrases and razor-sharp asides that made her son France's reigning literary sensation.

The long cold war between mother and son suddenly turned white-hot in the run-up to the May 7 publication of The Innocent, an autobiographical book by Houellebecq's maman, Lucie Ceccaldi, 83. In it, Ceccaldi calls her boy a liar, impostor, and parasite "ready to do whatever it takes to attain fortune and fame." Excerpts and previews of the tell-all tome have generated major interest in France, as critics and readers alike gaze upon the spectacle of the nation's most famously jaded and cynical Bohemian being ridiculed in public by a mother who admits in disgust: "I don't want to hear about him any more".

But she clearly wanted to write about him. Ceccaldi's book does not focus exclusively on Houellebecq, but her assessment of his personal and artistic flaws are the meat of a work apparently conceived and executed as an act of revenge. In one section, for example, Ceccaldi caps off a point by urging her son to go have something extremely intimate done to himself that no mother should ever order her child to do.

So how did Ceccaldi get sufficiently cheesed off to launch her assault on Houellebecq's contemptuous and impudently unflappable mystique? In large part because Houellebecq's books generally cast mother figures as dysfunctional, negligent, or psychologically twisted, and he has described his own in just such terms. In his 1998 success The Elementary Particles (published under the title of Atomized in the U.K.), for example, Houellebecq portrays his mother as so self-centered and infatuated with her own rootless, irresponsible hippie credo that she abandoned him in order to be able to travel and explore new experiences at will. Similarly, in his 2005 essay To Die, Houellebecq blames his "fundamental psychological fissure" on having been left by Ceccaldi at the age of five on to be raised by his grandmother.

It didn't end there. After his final heated dispute with Ceccaldi in 1991, Houellebecq wrote "I knew I would never see my mother again, and I thrilled with joy." Houellebecq later gave an interview in which he described his mother as factually, literally, irrevocably "dead." Now Ceccaldi is back to prove that the filial report of her death was not only exaggerated, but also a really big mistake.

"If, by misfortune, he puts my name in another thing, he's going to get a blow of my cane in the mug!", Ceccaldi warns in The Innocent. "Michel and I can begin speaking again the day he goes public, with The Elementary Particles in his hand, and says 'I am a liar, an impostor; I have been a parasite; I never did anything in my life except hurt all those around me. And I apologize.'"

Despite the many verbal blows Ceccaldi lands in the book — some below the belt, many studded with expletives — it's probably unwise to expect Houellebecq to accept her terms to a truce. Her account of her earlier life as a wandering, post-war version of a New Age-ist doesn't really differ from Houellebecq's variant of how and why Ceccaldi left him with his grandmother. Where they differ most is in analyzing the consequences of her decision.

Ceccaldi contends that her son subjected her to such harsh literary treatment because such abuse is "a good money earner" in a world that flocks to Houellebecq's writing "because the spirit of the day is such garbage that he is in step with the time." For now, Houellebecq is not commenting on his mother's book. Here, apparently, is a rare controversy he seems content to sidestep.