Michel Houellebecq

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Michel Houellebecq

Post  eddie on Sat Oct 08, 2011 12:17 am

The Map and the Territory by Michel Houellebecq - review

Houellebecq may have 'relapsed into charcuterie', but he's still a great read

Alex Clark
guardian.co.uk, Wednesday 21 September 2011 09.00 BST


Michel Houellebecq: a terrific fictional character. Photograph: Fred Dufour/AFP/Getty Images

Ever the deadpan comedian, Michel Houellebecq includes in the acknowledgments of the British edition of his new novel, a brief but perfectly straight thank-you to Wikipedia. Following the publication of The Map and the Territory in France last year, he was somewhat half-heartedly accused of plagiarising the information website, co-opting material on houseflies, a French town and a hunting activist. At the time – which was before the novel had won the Prix Goncourt – Houellebecq was rather persuasively dismissive about the allegations, retorting that his detractors understood very little about either literature or his writing methods.


The Map and the Territory
by Michel Houellebecq, translated by Gavin Bowd

It's possible that his publishers entreated – or even commanded – him to mention his debt of gratitude. But Houellebecq, as both his writing and his infrequent forays into public life suggest, doesn't seem like someone who takes much notice of what people tell him to do. Thank goodness. His fifth novel is a wonderfully strange and subversive enterprise, in which a semi-satirical examination of the art world gives way to a gory police procedural, realistic fictional characters mingle with utterly improbable figures who are in fact taken from real life, the author himself makes a low-key entrance and a thoroughly dramatic exit, and subjects under discussion range from the changing nature of the French countryside to the possibility of accurate artistic representations of art and the probability of writing a compelling thriller about radiators.

Shortly after the novel opens, its protagonist, an artist called Jed Martin, explains to his elderly father that he plans to ask the celebrated Michel Houellebecq to write the catalogue for his forthcoming exhibition. Although he didn't expect him to have heard of Houellebecq, his father remarks that he has come across his work in the library of his nursing home and advances this opinion: "He's a good author, it seems to me. He's pleasant to read, and he has quite an accurate view of society."

Even allowing for the unavoidable vagaries of translation, "pleasant" is not a word that even his greatest admirers would apply to the reading experience Houellebecq offers; rather, one has the sensation of trying to follow a complex but intriguing game while in possession of about half of the rules. In this novel, for example, we are invited, in studiedly detached prose, to contemplate Jed's career, from its earliest beginnings – a youthful project to systematically photograph the world's manufactured objects, from suspension files to handguns to forks – through a period in which he manipulates Michelin maps to the painting phase in which he first encounters Houellebecq. Throughout these apparently discrete passages, Jed's overriding concern is "to give an objective description of the world"; discussions about the extent to which this is possible form the basis of his association with the writer.

Novelists who place themselves in their work rarely come out of the endeavour unscathed; the tricksiness of the device is usually either immediately deadening or insufficiently imagined. But in The Map and the Territory, Houellebecq – repeatedly introduced as "the author of Atomised" – is a terrific fictional character. An amalgam of the information and hearsay that we have about him ("It was public knowledge that Houellebecq was a loner with strong misanthropic tendencies") and a vehicle for fragmentary and provocative pronouncements about literature ("I think I've more or less finished with the world as narration – the world of novels and films, the world of music as well. I'm now only interested in the world as juxtaposition – that of poetry and painting"), his existence has the reader dancing around the blurry lines between facts and fiction. And he is also fantastically comic: drunken, irreverent, depressed and inconstant. When they first meet, he lectures Jed about the importance of renouncing pork products out of respect for the intelligence of pigs; some time later, surrounded by packets of chorizo and mortadella and pâté de campagne, he admits despairingly: "I've completely relapsed into charcuterie."

"Houellebecq" is destined to encounter problems rather greater than a weakness for salami, and it's best not to give them away here. Jed, meanwhile, is also experiencing difficulties: his series of paintings about professions – the most celebrated of which is entitled Bill Gates and Steve Jobs Discussing the Future of Information Technology: The Conversation at Palo Alto – have made him both wildly rich and enormously acclaimed, but he has a propensity for suddenly abandoning successful work. When a double portrait of artists Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst founders – "He was making a truly shit painting" – he knows he is done, despite the critics' confidence that he has achieved nothing less than an artistic history of the post-industrialised world.

The Map and the Territory is a meditation on the relationship between art and the world it seeks to depict, but it is much more besides. Peppered with references to, and appearances by, figures from French cultural life – egregious literary critics, showy television presenters and, most notably, the novelist Frédéric Beigbeder – it anatomises France's preoccupation with its past and its traditions. It deftly skewers the current obsession with the notion of "terroir" – the link between land and identity – by projecting forwards to an imagined future in which wealthy Chinese immigrants make the French countryside more "authentic" than it has ever been through their excessive respect for local customs.

It is also a more reflective, less ragged novel than some of its predecessors, including the extraordinary, exhaustingly furious Atomised. There is still, for sure, plenty of Houellebecq's determination to épater la bourgeoisie (Jed's runny-nosed publicist, for example, is described as "this poor little runt of a woman, with her unexplored vagina"). But there is also a quietness of tone that makes his writing if not exactly pleasant then marginally more hospitable. You wouldn't bet your life against that being a neat little trap, though. Houellebecq may be described as "a tired old decadent" in these pages, but I doubt he's quite through with us yet.

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Re: Michel Houellebecq

Post  Nah Ville Sky Chick on Sat Oct 08, 2011 1:02 am

Isn't Precinct a big fan of his?

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Re: Michel Houellebecq

Post  eddie on Sat Oct 08, 2011 2:58 am

Nah Ville Sky Chick wrote:Isn't Precinct a big fan of his?

Precinct and Andy both, I believe. That's why I posted the article. Pour moi, I've never read him.

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Re: Michel Houellebecq

Post  eddie on Fri Dec 09, 2011 8:31 pm

Public Enemies by Michel Houellebecq and Bernard-Henri Lévy – review

An exchange of letters between novelist Michel Houellebecq and philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy makes for an entertaining – and very French – exercise in mutual self-loathing

Tim Adams

guardian.co.uk, Thursday 8 December 2011 13.05 GMT


Michel Houellebecq, left, and Bernard-Henri Lévy on French TV in 2008. Photograph: Olivier Laban-Mattei/AFP/Getty Images

In 2008, after what you imagine was a tired and emotional dinner, the novelist Michel Houellebecq and the philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy determined to start writing to each other about the things that kept them awake at nights. For six months, they corresponded on subjects that ranged from eczema to Epicurus, from Sarkozy to Sartre. Mostly, though, in the course of this strangely compulsive, wildly self-absorbed exchange, which ultimately ran to these 300 pages, they dwelt on the trait that seemed to have most united them in the public mind: "We are," as Houellebecq acknowledges in his opening letter, "both rather contemptible individuals."


Public Enemies
by Michel Houellebecq, Bernard-Henri Levy

This fact leads to the fundamental question of their engagement. Why are they so hated? Houellebecq begins by counting the ways. Lévy, he attests, is a "philosopher without an original idea but with excellent contacts", a "specialist in farcical media stunts", the "obscenely wealthy epitome of champagne socialism", the creator of the "most preposterous film in history" (the fabulously bad Le jour et la nuit), a man who even gives his trademark white shirts, provocatively unbuttoned to near the waist, a bad name.

The novelist, most famous for the bleak sexual odyssey of his worldwide bestseller Atomised, published a decade ago, is no less blunt about his own failings: "Nihilist, reactionary, cynic, racist, shameless misogynist," he suggests, "an unremarkable author with no style"; a redneck depressionist who "achieved literary notoriety some years ago as the result of an uncharacteristic error in judgment by critics who had lost the plot".

What follows is a discursive and often scabrously comic (deliberately and not) meditation on what Lévy identifies as the secret desire of all writers – "the desire to displease, to be repudiated. The giddiness and pleasure of disgrace". There is no limit to the self-flagellation, the googled humiliations, the slights and slanders sharply remembered across decades that follow. Lévy at one point dwells, for example, on the Parisian trend for "idiot dinners", which apparently are fashionable among the city's intelligentsia each time his dire film is repeated on French TV, where "the idiots are the film and its author".

As the correspondence unfolds, each man begins to identify both the sources of the rancour he excites and the defence against it. For Lévy, sanity always lies in narcissism: "In the face of assaults my ego is fireproof, shatterproof." Houellebecq, meanwhile, claims at times to draw strength from the outrage he provokes, though generally he believes that "what I am going through is something similar to what medieval criminals did when they were pilloried… head imprisoned in a wooden frame… and any passer-by could slap him in the face, spit at him or worse".

There is, of course, a good deal that is self-serving about both of these perceived predicaments (as they both well know). Martyrdom is among the least honest and most seductive of human states. If they are united in their sense of being contemptible, they have, moreover, an implacable solidarity against the sources of all that contempt. As writers, they see their bodies of work as host to a small army of parasitical critics, evolved to irritate and destroy, and try as they might they cannot stop itching. The life of the mind is plagued by the indefatigable corporeal tormentors of the books pages. Individuals from Le Figaro and Le Monde are singled out for special retaliatory delousing.

In some senses, Houellebecq, the Nietzschean, expects nothing less of his public; he takes pride in his pariah status (he is a self-styled exile, having moved to Connemara to escape the savagery of his compatriots, in particular those who pushed for his prosecution after he noted that "Islam was the stupidest of all religions"). Lévy, for his part, takes pride pretty much anywhere he can find it. They compete for kinship with the great misunderstood outsiders of the past: Rimbaud and Baudelaire, Dostoevsky and Voltaire.

Though they begin by taking as read their political differences – Lévy a man of the "moral left", Houellebecq an amoral kind of libertarian – they find that their shared vocation, their commitment to writers and writing, the self-sacrifice that has resulted, is a far more powerful ideological force. In an effort to explain the masochism of their media identities, they swap confession and scraps of autobiography, dwell in detail on the public scrutiny of their parentage, Houellebecq on the infamous betrayals of the mother who abandoned him to the temptations of the 60s, Lévy on the implications of being the son of a plutocrat industrialist (his old man was a self-made timber millionaire). Though aware that their exchanges will be eavesdropped by a readership in many languages, they maintain the epistolary conventions of intimacy, the illusion of private conspiracy. Perhaps surprisingly, it is a tone that sustains the flimsy premise they concocted over dinner.

Though Houellebecq can't resist the odd inflammatory aside – "Personally, I don't believe in Jews," he says at one point, after Lévy has been dwelling on the semitic persecution complex he may or may not have been born with – he finds himself exploring some emotions that have not always come easily to him as a novelist: kindness, say, and generosity of spirit. He'd probably hate to admit it, but Lévy appears to bring out the best in him.

Dropping his cynicism completely at one point, for example, he claims that he fully understands the philosopher's penchant for day trips to Darfur, the whistle-stop compassion tourism for which he receives a great deal of mockery in France. As a philosopher, Houellebecq often seems to dance quite easily around Lévy's stated positions, his progressive optimism, and not only because it is generally so much more persuasive to believe in nothing than in something. Though both men are alive to their limitations, Houellebecq emerges as the more interesting self-analyst: "Very few adults realise that every child, naturally, instinctively, is a philosopher," he says, for example. "It sometimes seems to me that as a man, all I have done is to give aesthetic expression to the withdrawal that as a child I witnessed in my father…"

This is, as you may have already recognised, a very French book. It is hard to imagine a British equivalent – who would we end up with? Irvine Welsh and Alain de Botton? What keeps you reading, beyond the confessional drama, is the sheer one-upmanship in the range of reference and playfulness of expression. At one point, the sparring philosophers direct their attention to the future of the French economy: given its terminal decline as an industrial power, what are the nation's remaining world-class attributes? Duck confit, Houellebecq suggests, and romanesque churches and raw-milk cheese. To this list he might have added the original gift of the French enlightenment, the tradition of memorable after-dinner conversation, to which this volume is an exceptional, and enjoyable, addition.

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Re: Michel Houellebecq

Post  eddie on Fri Jan 13, 2012 4:49 am

Digested read: Public Enemies by Michel Houellebecq and Bernard Henri-Levy

Atlantic, £19.99

John Crace

guardian.co.uk, Monday 9 January 2012 21.00 GMT


Illustration: Neal Fox for the Guardian

Dear Bernard-Henri Levy, We have rien in common except that we are both rather contemptible individuals. A specialist in farcical stunts, you dishonour even the white shirts you always wear unbuttoned to the waist. You are an intimate of the powerful, you wallow in immense wealth and are a philosopher without an original idea. Moi? I'm just a redneck. A nihilist. An unremarkable author with no style. These, then, are the terms of the debate.

The debate, cher Michel Houellebecq? There are three approaches. 1. You've said it all. We are both morons. I agree that is the most likely, but then we have no livre and we generate little publicity. 2. You are a moron, but I am a genius. This, I must admit, I also quite aime. 3. We are both geniuses and we debate why we are so misunderstood and hated. This one is more tendentious, I think, but for the purposes of mutual masturbation and knocking out a livre, it has, as they say, plus de jambes.

Dear Bernard-Henri, it is time that I quote Baudelaire, Schopenhauer and Musset to establish my credentials as an intellectuel. I think you must enjoy the hatred: why else would you Google yourself vingt fois par jour? For moi-même, my desire to be hated masks a desire to be loved. I want people to desire me for my self-disgust. Perhaps.

Cher Michel, Yet again you misunderstand me. I do not Google myself out of self-hatred, but out of amour propre. I can assure you that nothing can dent my preening narcissism and self-regard. Those that do hate me do so purely because I am Jewish and drop mort gorgeous. Toujours les petits gens want to bring down the colossus who has it tout. Regardez mon bon ami Dominique Strauss-Kahn. Is it his fault that chaque femme who comes near lui gets all moist? It's a cross he and I have to bear. And while I'm about it, I can also quote philosophers and artistes. Cocteau, Sartre and Botul. So there!

Dear B-H, I must confess I have never read Botul and cannot access my library as I am now living in Ireland. I can't say the pays has much to recommend it as the inhabitants are trop dense to parler Français but at least the taxes are minimal and my hard-earned cash doesn't get spent on Muslim illegal immigrants. Shall we now be a little more daring in our exchange and enter the arena of the confessional? Let me commencer by saying how much I hate my père et mère. Along with everyone else.

Mon cher Michel, the confessional is not my style. Oui, I write a daily diary of 10,000 mots, but that is for moi seul and is the bare minimum required to record my breathtaking insights. I hate the fact that people jump to conclusions about me, based on what I write. They call me a disaster tourist. A fraud. How dare they? Even Jesus was treated better than me. But let me get one chose straight. My own père et mère were parfait. For only from perfection can come perfection, as Spinoza and Hegel might have said if they had been as clever as me.

Dear B-H, We have more in common than I thought. We are both horriblement misunderstood by a monde that refuses to accept our own estimation of our talent and I see now that I too have Christ-like qualities in the suffering I endure for portraying the world as it is and not how people would like it to be. Not that I believe in anything but my oeuvre. As for your onanism, I am not sure I quite understand your position.

Michel mon cher, it is monadism, pas onanism! Though I admit it's a facile mistake to make. Try to think of my faith as Judaism but with no god and moi at the centre of the univers. And quel univers! While ordinary gens were born to work in magasins and places comme ça, I was born to write and make love avec mon coq enorme. That est ma vie. As I said to mes amis Nicolas et Carla the autre jour, I write for 12 hours et puis I pleasure women for 12 hours.

Dear B-H, sex is immensely disappointing for me as on the few occasions I manage an erection I always suffer premature ejaculation. So that just leaves writing. I know that whatever I write will be canonical, but I am unsure what to write next. Perhaps poésie? My biggest fear is that the pack will win and I will die unloved and unregarded.

Mon cher Michel, the pack will never win and our names will live on with Kant, Nietzsche and Camus as the greatest penseurs of our generation. It does not matter what you or I write next. It is assez to know that whatever we do it will be brilliant and far too good for the little minds who will tear it to pieces. You et moi, we will live for jamais!

Digested read, digested: Pensant in the wind.

eddie
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