The Map and the Territory by Michel Houellebacq, translated from the original French by Gavin Bowd

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This is the cover from the British edition, published by William Heinemann. I bought the book after hearing about the cover. It’s not wrapped in real bubble-wrap (like I believed) but the image of the bubble wrap is embossed and the end papers are bright red. Altogether a beautiful book.

It’s easy to see why Michel Houellebecq inspires strong emotions.  It takes a special kind of arrogance to write yourself into your own novel as a central character.  And then there’s the annoying idiosyncracies – the politically incorrect rants he seems to revel in, his love of obscure bits of information or penchant for italics (which implies an insulting lack of faith in his readers sophistication).  But perhaps most damning is the way the man writes. As if he’d met with the devil under the Arc de Triomphe and signed over his soul at the stroke of midnight.  Houellebecq is that good.  Worse yet, he knows it.

The Map and the Territory won that famous French literary prize, the Prix Goncourt and popular opinion seems to rank it as among the least offensive of Houellebacq’s novels.  It is the story of the life and career of  Jed Martin, a successful French artist who is unusual in that he works in a variety of mediums – photography, painting and video.  Jed is an artist in the vein of Howard Roark, – so intensely engaged by the process of creating that he is unable to form or maintain meaningful human relationships.  Their problem is not that they are unable to feel emotions or attachments, but that they lack any real interest in doing so.  Such is Jed’s existence until he reaches out to the French author Michel Houellebecq.  His gallery wants Houellebecq to write the program for Jed’s upcoming show, and Jed offers to paint Houellebecq’s portrait in return.  A strange intimacy (or what passes for intimacy for these two) develops between the two men.  An intimacy Jed hopes will develop into friendship.  That hope is disappointed in Part Three of the novel when Houellebecq is unexpectedly and gruesomely murdered.

A moment, please, to savor the irony of Michel Houellebecq writing a book about two men who do not play well with others.

Despite the jacket copy, The Map and the Territory is not a thriller.  Nor would I call the book “playful” (also found in the jacket copy. This is a thoughtful, intelligent novel in which a lot happens without anything seeming to .  Jed’s quiet existence and intense laser-focus on his work is completely incongruous to our current age of increasingly frenetic distractions.  He exists in an existential vacuum and over the course of his life producing only three bodies of work.  First a series of black & white still-life photographs of tools; second a series of paintings of tradesmen, which morph into portraits of celebrity businessmen and artists (including the portrait of Houellebecq and one of Jed’s father);  and finally time-lapse videos recording the disintegration of photographs exposed to the elements.  They are pictures of his friends and family.  The works of art are perhaps the most interesting things about Jed.

She looked at him again, more intently, for at least five seconds, before saying: ‘I find it very beautiful.’

She had said that simply, calmly, but with real conviction.  Incapable of finding an appropriate reply, Jed turned back towards the image.  He had to agree that he was, in fact, quite happy with it himself.  For the exhibition he had chosen a part of the Michelin map of the Creuse, which contained his grandmother’s village.  He had used a very low camera angle, at thirty degrees from the horizontal, while setting the tilt to the maximum in order to obtain a very high depth of field.  It was then, by using Photoshop layers that he had introduced the background blurring and the bluish effect on the horizon.  In the foreground were the pond at Breuil and the village of Châtelus-le-Marcheix.  Further away, the roads winding through the forest between the villages of Saint-Goussaud, Laurière and Jabreilles-les Bordes appeared like a dream territory, fairy like and inviolable.  In the back-left corner of the image, as if merging from a bank of mist, the white-and-red ribbon of the A20 motorway could still be made out clearly.

‘Do you often take photos of road maps?’

“Yes… Yes, quite often.’

‘Always Michelin?’

‘Yes.’

She pondered this before asking him: “Have you made many photos like this?’

‘Just over eight hundred.’

All of this is in direct contrast to the character Michel Houellebecq – a man who delights in random bits of information and makes desperate lunges at happiness.  On first meeting him, Jed discovers a dirty, drunken little leprechaun of a man.  Towards the end of the book, prior to his murder, Houellebecq seems to be pulling himself together.  He starts bathing, supplements his liquid diet with real food and buys a dog.  He retires to his family home in the country.  While he isn’t what I’d call a role-model, he certainly is the more entertaining character.

The first two parts of The Map and the Territory (over half the book) deal with the rise of Jed’s artistic career and his relationships.  The third part deals almost exclusively with Houellebecq’s murder and the detective assigned to the case.  The entire novel is written in the third person.  It is my favorite narrative perspective.  The first person focuses on character, second person targets the reader, but it is the third person that allows the reader to approach the author and observe him at works. It is the voice of god, a.k.a. the author. For that reason it has always seemed to me the way of telling a story that relies the least on artifice and gimmicks in order to engage readers.  And because it is less caught up with an individual character’s development, it creates the space to deal in big themes – something Houellebecq seems to delight in.  Along with a gallows humor, the author appears to be something of a nihilist.  Everything that occurs in The Map and the Territory trends towards the mercenary (regardless of characters’ intentions).  Art, love, filial relationships, murder – nothing is pure.  While this is a fascinating, beautiful and cerebral novel, it is not a particularly comforting one.

It bears mentioning that French Slate published an article about The Map and the Territory on its release, accusing Houellebecq of plagiarism.  The article showed that some of the factoids –  the mating habits of a species of ants is the example cited – are lifted almost verbatim from French Wikipedia.  Houellebecq claims that his “approach, muddling real documents and fiction” is all a part of his process and that there never an attempt to mislead readers.  I believe him.  Houellebecq is too talented a writer and the examples too prominently placed for plagiarism (if we define plagiarism as an attempt by an author to represent another’s work as his own) to be plausible.  Plus, the inference is that an author steals because he believes the plagiarized work is somehow superior to his own.  From all reports Houllebecq’s arrogance shatters that possibility.  In the English edition of the book he goes so far as to thank Wikipedia in the acknowledgements.

This, along with a long list of other controversies and accusations (pornography, racism, anti-Islamic comments, misogyny, etc.) is what makes Houllebecq a difficult person to like or admire.  Many critics seem to despise him.  Which begs the question:  Do we need to like, admire or even agree with an author in order to acknowledge his ability as a writer or to enjoy his book?  And if we enjoy the book does that somehow make us complicit in the opinions and actions, or must we be automatically sympathetic to the characters, we are reading about?  I bring these questions up in relation to Houellebecq because they are very relevant to his work – at least critics have tried to make them so.  Controversies are easy to write about at length, whereas what is there really to say about his writing?  If The Map and the Territory is representative of his other work – then it is, simply put, flawless.

Publisher: William Heinemann, London (2011)

ISBN:  978 0 434 02140 6

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An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter by César Aira (translated from the Spanish by Chris Andrews)

More than once I’ve seen a blogger recommend An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter to readers newly discovering César Aira. I wonder if that’s because the plot appears more straightforward in comparison to his other books? Of the three I’ve read it definitely has the most linear trajectory, moving in a (fairly) straight line from start to finish. It’s easy to track the rise, peak and decline in the action  – not something you can take for granted with this author.

Of course, no story is completely straightforward. A no frills summary of An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter would tell you that it’s a fictionalized account of Johann Moritz Rugendas’, the19th century German landscape painter, visit to Argentina.  A fellow countryman, the naturalist Alexander von Humboldt, suggested he go to paint the Latin American terrain.  And so Rugendas traveled there with a companion, a minor artist  who ultimately proves himself the best of friends. At the story’s climax Rugendas and his horse are struck by lightning. The plot veers, turns in a completely unexpected direction. An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter becomes wondrous. Extraordinary. Grotesque.

The variations revolved around a curious impossibility: how could he communicate the proposition “I am a monster”? It was easy enough to set it down on paper. But transmitting its significance was far more difficult. In the case of his Chilean friends the problem was pressing, and he took particular care over his letters to them, especially the Guttikers, who had already written inviting him to stay at their home in Santiago, as he had before setting out on his journey a few months before. Since they would be seeing him shortly, he felt he had to warn them. The obvious thing to do in this case would have been to exaggerate, in order to diminish the surprise. But it was not easy to exaggerate… He ran the risk of falling short, especially if they were allowing for obvious exaggeration.

I could quote the passage where Rugendas is struck by lightning, which is – quite frankly – beautiful. Or describe what happens afterward. But who am I to deprive readers of those surprises?  Honestly, if I’ve done my job I shouldn’t need to discuss plot points to pique your interest.   Even if it had no narrative substance  – and oh it does! – Aira’s prose is enough of an enticement for any reader.

While the signature writing style is always the same, (introspective, flowing, lyrical) every Aira book still manages to be unique. Ghosts is an avant-garde ghost story set in the present day; Varamo reads like a rambling, paranoid delusion; and An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter is a 19th century painting – all ochre and burnt sienna layered over a rapidly drawn charcoal sketch.

It was not really rain so much as a benign drizzle, enveloping the landscape in gentle tides of humidity all afternoon. The clouds came down so low they almost landed, but the slightest breeze would whisk them away… and produce others from bewildering corridors which seemed to give the sky access to the center of the earth. In the midst of these magical alterations, the artists were briefly granted dreamlike visions, each more sweeping than the last. Although their journey traced a zigzag on the map, they were heading straight as an arrow towards openness. Each day was larger and more distant. As the mountains took on weight, the air became lighter and more changeable in its meteoric content, a sheer optics of superposed heights and depths.

By this time it must be obvious that I can’t get enough of César Aira. Don’t worry.  I’m not alone. The popularity of, and respect for, his work increases in the United States with each new English translation. Currently there are seven books available in English (six through the publisher New Directions & one from Serpent’s Tail), and a short story appeared in the New Yorker just this past December. A new book, The Miracle Cures of Dr. Aira, comes out in the Fall of 2012. Needless to say – this man is a ridiculously prolific writer. His extensive bibliography consists of dozens of untranslated works and extends all the way back to 1975. And he is still young – only sixty-three!  Isn’t it  lovely to know that there’s so much material in existence, patiently waiting to be enjoyed by all?

Note:  the New Directions edition comes with a preface by Roberto Bolaño, who calls Aira “one of the three or four best writers working in Spanish today.” I believe, for Bolaño, that qualifies as a glowing endorsement.

Publisher:  A New Directions Paperback Original, New York (2006)
ISBN:  978 0 8112 1630 2

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