The Red Notebook In a Rose-Colored World

Title:  The Red Notebook

Author:  Antoine Laurain

Translator:  Emily Boyce & Jane Aitken

Publisher:  Gallic Books, London (2015)

ISBN:  978 19083 1 3867

TheRedNotebookAntoine Laurain writes perfectly pleasant novels. And his latest, The Red Notebook, sticks to that amiable formula which seems to have brought him some success in the past. The President’s Hat was the story of a man who mistakenly switches hats with French President François Mitterrand. It changes his life. And then he, too, loses the hat. The books is structured around his frantic search to find it again.  The hat passes through a string of characters – changing all their lives for the better during the period they posses it – before eventually, serendipitously, finding its way back to Mitterand.  None of the characters are in any way disagreeable, though one is interestingly curmudgeonly.  Even Mitterand is portrayed as genial and sympathetic, appearing like a benevolent fairy godfather in the final chapters.

The Red Notebook takes its name from another lost object.  A woman is mugged and her purse left behind by the assailant on top of a trash bin. Laurent Letellier, a divorced middle-aged bookseller, finds the bag and goes through the contents looking for information that will help him to return it to the proper owner. Instead he discovers a red notebook and very little else. He becomes intrigued by the women who recorded her thoughts on the pages (obsession would be too powerful an emotion for a Laurain character).  He sets out to find her.  In the place of Mitterand, the French poet Modiano steps in to provide a cameo appearance.  Modiano is remarkably accommodating when Laurent approaches him in the park, having discovered a link between the poet and the notebook’s owner.

Antoine Laurain writes characters well. The protagonist, Lettelier, is attractively disheveled.  His teen daughter spoiled, but wonderfully vibrant. The heroine a brooding version of Juliette Binoche.  Even the employees at Lettelier’s bookshop are convincingly realized. And I desperately would like to believe that Modiano is exactly as Laurain portrays him – engaging, wise and utterly, delightfully pleasant.

At their best Laurain’s books and characters remind me of a sitcom. Because everyone likes sitcoms. I could also compare The Red Notebook to a Rom-Com starring Meg Ryan & Tom Hanks.  Or a less successful version of Laurence Cossé ‘s A Novel Bookstore.  Or even one of Alexander McCall Smith’s many, many books – without the mystery and tongue-in-cheek sense of humor.

Therein lies the rub.

The Red Notebook (and The President’s Hat, for that matter) relies heavily on character and formula, without injecting any real conflict or originality into the narrative.  It reminds me of too many other things: other books, films, television shows.  But I can’t imagine three months from now saying  – this (story or thing) reminds me of an Antoine Laurain novel. They, the books, lack the qualities which make a story memorable. Which is the problem that comes with pleasant.

 

What Do Margaret Wise Brown & Georges Perec Have In Common?

At what age do we as readers start requiring linear narratives? And demand that all books tell us stories?

Title:  An Attempt At Exhausting A Place In Paris

Author:  Georges Perec

Translator:  Marc Lowenthal

Publisher:  Wakefield Press, Cambridge (2010)

ISBN:  978 0 9841155 2 5

 

WakefieldExhausting4At what age do we as readers start requiring linear narratives? And demand that all books tell us stories?

Margaret Wise Brown’s iconic Goodnight Moon has been a bedtime staple for decades.  If you didn’t have it read to you as a child then you have almost certainly read it as an adult to a child in your life.  I’ve yet to attend a baby shower where there wasn’t at least one copy – if not multiples – unwrapped.  Adults discovering or rediscovering Goodnight Moon often express surprise at the sophistication of this little book.  The rhythm of the prose, the way the room in the illustrations grows darker as the pages are turned, and the insertion of “Goodnight nobody, goodnight mush” (a surreal moment if there ever was one) – these things speak of an author who was interested in non-linear narrative and experimental literature.

For this all to make sense it’s important to understand that there’s more to Margaret Wise Brown and her books than meets the eye.  She was a product of the modernist period in art and literature.*  In the early 1930’s she worked as a teacher at the Bank Street Experimental School in New York City.  At that time this cutting edge school’s focus was on early childhood education & development. She studied how children used rhymes to develop language. Sometimes, as in the case of her “Noisy Book” series, she would use the children as a kind of focus group and adjust some of the words based on their reactions & suggestions.  Toddlers would be shown picture book illustrations and teachers would time how long the pictures held their attention.  The Bank Street School was the epicenter of what became known as the golden age of children’s literature. And most of the ideas in Margaret Wise Brown’s books can be traced back to what she learned there.

 Goodnight Moon tells no story, per se.  There are no character arcs.  No morals explained. No dialogue. At the most basic level Goodnight Moon is a catalog of the items in a single room. And, yet, lovers of the book are as  familiar with the contents of that room as they are of any room in their own home.

What no one ever really discusses (and why should they? This is a children’s book we’re talking about) is the quiet, haunting quality of Brown’s writing.  There is none of the joyful silliness or made up rhymes you find in Dr. Seuss.  Or the reassuring sentimentalism found in many stories written for the very young. Goodnight Moon is poetry – childish, simplistic, naive – but poetry nonetheless.

…goodnight to the old lady

whispering “hush”

Goodnight stars

Goodnight air

Goodnight noises everywhere

 

In words a small child can understand Brown describes the line between consciousness and sleep.  The gradual loss of consciousness.  Eyes open in the dark, even after the moon disappears behind the clouds, you can still see the stars. Close your eyes and listen to the sound of your breathing. Then sleep and then silence. This sixty-one page children’s book has been many a child’s first experience with a concrete representation of the forward passage of time, even if the passage spans only 15 minutes.

The charms of Georges Perec’s An Attempt At Exhausting A Place In Paris are not so far removed from Goodnight Moon as one would think. It is a catalog of the things that the author sees and hears while sitting in place Saint-Sulpice. People and dogs passing, flocks of pigeons, the sound of church bells, changing of streetlights and the endless waves of city buses. It should be boring. There’s no story to speak of. No sense of narrative progression. No dialogue or ideas.  None of the things we are told make literature. And yet, somehow, Perec’s writing moves beyond a catalog of people, animals and things to capture the rhythms of life and time.  When he recognizes the writer Jean-Paul Aron (translated to John-Paul, which seems a bit over-zealous) walking by and then, later, walking by again, you perk up.  Because a name has been assigned to one of the many pedestrians passing by your window.  The buses begin to lose their anonymity – they become the 96, the 87 and the 63 – their appearance jumping out from the text.  And as the day draws to an end the sun sets and the lights in the buildings grow brighter.

The light is beginning to fade, even if this is still barely noticeable; the red of the stoplights is increasingly visible.

Lights come on in the cafe.

Two buses, Cityrama and Paris-VIsion, are unable to get by each other. The Cityrama eventually takes rue Bonaparte, the Paris-Vision would like to take rue du Vieux-Colombier. Policeman no. 5976 (“Michel Lonsdale”), at first confused, eventually grabs his whistle and intervenes – effectively, in fact.

A man walks by with his nose in the air, followed by another man who is looking at the ground.

A man with a can of Ribolin goes by.

people people cars

An old lady with a very beautiful Sherlock Holmes-style waterproof fitted coat

The crowd is dense, almost no more lulls

A woman with two baguettes under her arm

It is four thirty

 

As I said: there is no story in An Attempt At Exhausting A Place In Paris. In place of narrative Perec offers experience. Evokes a sense of place. We inhabit his senses – a brief possession. A windy, rainy day. Fading light. The world waking up on Sunday morning. As I write these things down I can’t help wondering how accurately he described what he saw. How much editing and revising happened afterwards.  Or whether accuracy even matters. Perec accomplished a far more difficult task than simply cataloging a place in Paris. On these pages he captured the relentless, forward progression of time and transformed it into poetry.

 

*In 1936 Méret Oppenheim’s Fur Covered Tea Cup was a part of the “Fantastic Art, Dada, Surrealism” exhibition at New York’s Museum of Modern Art.  Brown’s book, Little Fur Family was published ten years later.  The first edition was covered in real rabbit fur.

Women Writing About Horrible Things – Two French Novellas (a #WITMonth post)

Le Necrophile (The Necrophiliac in English) by Gabrielle Wittkop, translated by Don Bapst and Beside the Sea by Véronique Olmi, translated by Adriana Hunter, are unflinching character studies – depicting mankind in its darkest moments and (as is the case of Le Necrophile) at its most depraved.

TITLE:  Le Necrophile
AUTHOR: Gabrielle Wittkop
TRANSLATOR:  Don Bapst
PUBLISHER: ECW Press, Ontario  (2011)
ISBN:  978 15502 2943 1

 

TITLE:  Beside the Sea
AUTHOR: Véronique Olmi
TRANSLATOR:  Adriana Hunter
PUBLISHER: Tin House, New York (2010)
ISBN:  978 1 935639 42 8

One criticism I wanted to address during Women In Translation Month was that women authors write exclusively about “women’s issues”. Or, worse, the categorizing of their work as “chick-lit” or “relationship” novels.  As somehow homogenously feminine and, as such, more easily lumped together and dismissed from the company of books written by men.  With that in mind I have deliberately chosen two books that are challenging and complicated – novels not easily identified as or typical of literature associated with women.  Le Necrophile (The Necrophiliac in English) by Gabrielle Wittkop, translated by Don Bapst and Beside the Sea by Véronique Olmi, translated by Adriana Hunter, are unflinching character studies – depicting mankind in its darkest moments and (as is the case of Le Necrophile) at its most depraved.

The Necrophiliac is not a metaphor (as I initially believed when I bought it). Instead it is the very literal title of a disturbing and disturbingly beautiful book about –  there’s no way to put this delicately – a man has sex with corpses. Lucien, the protagonist and narrator, is an antiques dealer.  He has no friends; no family. He is a loner;  for reasons that very quickly become apparent. He reads the obituaries the way normal people read the personals. Sometimes he attends the funeral. Then at night, while everyone is sleeping, Lucien drives his Chevrolet to the cemetery to dig up his date. The relationship can last for weeks at a time.

He has no set type.  Men, women, the very young and the very old all have their specific attractions. The Necrophiliac is written in the style of a personal journal and the graphic descriptions of the sexual encounters will make your skin crawl.  There is no easing readers in.  From page one Lucien is revolting, breaking multiple taboos. By having him narrate his own story Wittkop manages to humanize him – but barely so.  Only the beauty of the prose keeps you reading.

I went this morning for a stroll around the Ivy Cemetery, charming under the snow like an ornate centerpiece made of sugar, strangely lost in a plebeian district. Watching a widow decorate the tomb of the deceased with a little Christmas tree, I noticed suddenly how rare they’ve become, those women in full mourning in their floating veils – though often blond – who for the most part – usually, not always – professionals who practised their art behind the family monuments with an absolutely depressing absence of brilliance and sincerity.  Widows’ meat.

The passage above is one of the few in The Necrophiliac that won’t cause you to flinch. And, fortunately, is still indicative of the author’s style – which is lovely and devoid of the cloying prose style inherent to most Gothic novels. In fact, if you can move past the subject matter The Necrophiliac is surprisingly engrossing. The writing is truly gorgeous. Don Bapst translation manages to capture the contemporary Gothic flavor and the voluptuous imagery which, combined, creates a truly unique reading experience.  The size is perfect; ninety-one pages that can easily be consumed in one sitting.

And – fortunately – the book is not without some humor.  As you can imagine Lucien has a difficult time keeping cleaning ladies.

This appears to be the only book by the author, Gabrielle Wittkop, that is currently available to English readers. Before her suicide in 2002, at age 82, the author had written several novels, short stories and poems.  She saw herself as “the heir to de Sade” and is widely read in both France and Germany.  Her popularity in those countries allows me to hope that more of her work will eventually find its way into the hands of English translators.

________________________

Véronique Olmi’s novella Beside the Sea, translated by Adriana Hunter, is another book that describes the world through the eyes of a troubled protagonist.  The initial premise seems innocent: the narrator takes her two young sons on an impromptu seaside holiday. But from the first sentence – “We took the bus, the last bus of the evening, so no one would see us.” – it is apparent that all is not right. What unfolds is heartbreaking.  Both boys will be dead by the end of the book.

Beside the Sea explores difficult subject matter of an entirely different nature than The Necrophiliac. Matricide takes the place of perversion – and suddenly perversion seems the more palatable of the two.  This is not an easy book by any definition. Beside the Sea is another (mercifully) short novella  – only 119 pages.  But every one of those pages feels like a punch in the chest.  From the mother’s rough, uneducated voice (the grammar is ever so slightly off); to the anxiety of her two small boys ; to the ineptness of the social workers meant to help them.  There is nothing pretty about the story or the prose.  Nor is there anything comforting.  Olmi writes fiercely – refusing to shy away from all the horrible little details that make her story painfully believable. She has created a main protagonist who invokes readers’ frustration as much as she does their pity. The book’s two small children aren’t angelic – they behave & misbehave as little boys do. And their perfectly drawn imperfection makes you want to protect them from what is coming all the more.

Omni excels at character development, relying on her readers to pick up on all the little clues her oblivious narrator let’s drop.  Social workers, concerned teachers, poverty and absent fathers are all mentioned in passing.  The eldest boy, 11-year old Stan, has taken on the role of adult that she is incapable of filling.  Kevin is still too young to understand what is going on and still retains some innocence.  “Mom! Kevin cried when he saw I was awake, and that’s a wonderful thing! The way a little’un says hello to you in the morning, as if you were the surprise of the day, the piece of good news he’d given up on.”  Both boys love their mother, but Stan has learned not to trust her.  She, in turn, loves them.  That is never in question.  But she is psychologically unable to care for them properly.

We’ll go to a cafe, I said, but neither of them looked convinced by that and I added We’ll order and we’ll be served! They looked at me suspiciously like I was telling a fib, so I got up an then I couldn’t help smiling – never mind my gappy gums, I was too proud of myself, I rummaged through the blue sports bag, took out my tea tin and tipped it out onto the bed, regretting it didn’t make more noise: I spilled out all my money! All of it! Everything I’d put by to have fun someday, all my little savings scrimped from the change at the baker and sometimes at the supermarket.

The kids didn’t touch the money, they looked at it, cautiously, like they were meeting someone new. Can we have ice cream? Kevin asked to make sure, and I was convinced he was no longer missing school. Stupid! Stan said quietly, in a cafe you drink coffee! And, anyway, there’s practically only twenty-centime coins left! Really? I said. Only twenty-centime coins? And I looked a bit closer. The boys sat down next to me on the bed, peering at my treasure like some strange creature. It’s true there weren’t many ten-franc coins, but hey! It was my scrimpings, not an investment, a bit extra, okay! I didn’t want them to see my disappointment, but at the same time I resented them for showing so little enthusiasm. Stan started counting the coins with such a serious expression you’d have though he was picking up something I’d broken, sorting out some stupid accident, that’s what they teach them at school: to be distrustful…

I don’t believe Omni expects readers to sympathize with the mother, yet she manages to humanize her.  That, in itself, is an achievement.  It’s also the key to the success of Beside the Sea.  The characters and situations are hyper-realistically drawn, as if the author recognized the weight of the subject matter – the horrible, chilling, heartbreaking act that drives the plot – and realized it alone would have  to carry the reader through.  Anything else would be disrespectful – a Lifetime movie no one wants to watch.  So Véronique Omni makes the intelligent decision of telling the story without resorting to emotional manipulation or literary devices/embellishments. Without tears.  The only false note is the final sentence, which shuts the door too neatly on a situation that is anything but. Otherwise Beside the Sea is an amazing novella, one that deserves more accolades and attention than it will probably ever receive.  Therein lies the peril of taking on societal taboos in a complicated and meaningful way.*

 

*versus the exploitative 

The Conductor & Other Tales by Jean Ferry (translated from the French by Edward Gauvin)

Conductor4

Some interests spring fully formed from within, sending us off on a mission to gather information.  I find that my obsessions more often evolve. I find myself returning to the same subject at completely random intervals, unintentionally or even unknowingly, until a gradual immersion occurs over time.  In this way I began reading Sartre in high school because I was (and remain) obsessed with pandemic literature – of which The Plague is a brilliant example. My introduction to Borges came later via a sous chef in North Carolina who, after coming out to ask how I’d like my ostrich prepared, joined a friend and I for drinks. The discussion turned to books and the next morning I found his card on my windshield. “Ficciones” Borges written on the back.  A year or two later Italo Calvino’s The Nonexistant Knight & The Cloven Viscount was passed around my circle of friends – though, thinking back, it seems impossible that I hadn’t already read If On A Winter’s Knight A Traveler.  As for Oulipo, I can’t remember where I first heard that name. Perhaps Electrico W?  Or the Three Percent Podcast?  But Surrealism as a literary movement, separate from a visual one, came to my attention through a very specific (and completely unlikely) source – the Japanese author Kawamata Chiaki.

Only in the last month did I start connecting all those books to the French College of ‘Pataphysics; a shadowy  (and willfully nebulous) institution which came into being at the same time as Surrealism,  and would go on to  spawn Oulipo.

The Conductor and Other Tales is the one and only book of fiction written by Jean Ferry – a French filmmaker, script doctor and surrealist author whose most lasting literary achievement was his critical analysis of the French literary icon and personality Raymond Roussel.*  It is a collection of short stories – some only a few paragraphs in length – dealing with the fears and anxieties that are a basic ingredient in the human psyche. They are the stuff we deal with in nightmares (normal nightmares, not the horror shows of Wes Craven’s and George Romero’s slumber). Ferry was enmeshed with the Surrealists –  exhaustion, sleep and/or dreams are mentioned by almost all his narrators.  And the stories, themselves, resemble dreams  – or rather, the kinds of puzzles and wordplay which surrealists love and have long represented as dreams. Think of Magritte’s The Treachery of Images (aka -“This is not a pipe”). Surrealism, as does everything eventually, becomes a “type” – and these stories by Jean Ferry are of a type.  But, in my opinion, they represent the best of that type.

The Conductor, the story for which the collection is named and onto which André Breton lavished praise, deals with a common nightmare scenario.  The narrator is a conductor on a train that never stops.  Everyone – the passengers, engine crew, attendants – are trapped.  There is an unlimited supply of coal and tracks, and enough food so that no one goes hungry.  But no one can disembark.  Ever.  The conductor remembers a time when the train did stops in stations, but that seems to have been a long time ago.  He can’t recall why or when things changed.  He goes on to talk about how he and the passengers have come to accept the situation, the mental adjustments they have made in order to do so.  Always the conductor addresses the reader directly  – making you feel as if you are sitting beside him in the engine car.  As if you, too, are trapped on the train with him.  The Conductor bears all the hallmarks of classic Twilight Zone episodes.  So much so that I actually researched online whether Ferry had ever written one himself (he had not).

My Aquarium is a strange little story.  The aquarium it refers to is filled with little creatures which are the physical embodiment of the narrators’s suicidal thoughts.  He keeps them imprisoned in a box and feeds them like pets, hoping they will never escape.  Like most of the stories in The Conductor and Other Tales, it is short.  At under one page, it’s an unintentional precursor to flash fiction.

The Society Tiger – perhaps Ferry’s most famous short story and one of the earliest to be translated – is  the name of the vaudeville act featured in the story.  A woman appears in the theater between acts, escorted to her seat by a companion: a tiger dressed in evening clothes and standing erect like a man.  The two take their seats in a box visible to the entire audience and the tiger proceeds to perform the affectations of a gentleman.  The narrator hates The Society Tiger – for he alone realizes that the beast is always on the edge of breaking his mental restraints and attacking the audience.  It is a deeply disturbing story (particularly the ending) that seems to sympathize with the tiger.

You probably noticed a pattern emerging.  Many of these stories are structured like jokes:  the obvious set-up, a slight misdirection and then the punchline. Some are very funny.  Some disturbing.  Here, for example, is the entire text of The Chinese Astrologer:

The Chinese Astrologer wears out his years calculating the date of his death.  Until dawn each night he amasses signs, figures. He ages, becomes a stranger to his fellows; but his calculations advance. He reaches his goal. Astrology will reveal the date of his death. Then, one morning, the brush falls from his fingers. From loneliness, from fatigue, perhaps from regret, he dies. He had but one sum left to perform.

Allow me to liken the Chinese astrologer to the intellectual who died of exhaustion at a young age for, on top of a draining, harassing, and poorly paid day job, he put his every spare moment toward preparing a monumental and definitive critical edition of Lefargue’s The Right to Be Lazy.

Edward Gauvin’s translation is wonderful – written in a way which is chatty, informal and friendly.   He’s kept the  prose contemporary in tone, though some of the ideas and stereotypes Ferry puts forward are dated.  The narrators are all storytellers and Gauvin has achieve the effect of making us feel as if we are listening to, instead of reading, the stories.  He seems to be very familiar with Ferry and his fellows – not only contributing a translator’s note to the edition, but publishing numerous online articles here and here.  Oh, and remember this?

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that the physical book, itself, is charming.  Wakefield Press (based in Cambridge, Massachusetts and not affiliated, to my knowledge, with the Australian publisher of the same name) is a small, independent publishing house that understands the value of a well-made product.  Their books are relatively small (4-1/2″ x 7″) paperback editions with tastefully subdued covers and details such as french flaps, patterned endpapers, black & white illustrations (in the case of The Conductor and Other Tales drawn by Claude Ballaré) and beautiful formatting.  Objects to be coveted by any self-respecting bibliophiles.  And Wakefield seems to specialize in books by members/friends of the College of ‘Pataphysics.  I recently bought both Perec’s An Attempt At Exhausting a Place In Paris and A Handbook for the Perfect Adventurer by Pierre Mac Orlan.  I’ve been meaning to read something by Perec for ages – he was a character in Chiaki’s novel.  Mac Orlan I’ve never heard of, but I’m almost finished with his book.  Needless to say, it is wonderful.

The Treachery of Images (This is not a pipe.) by Rene Magritte

Publisher:  Wakefield Press, Cambridge (2014)
ISBN:  978 1 939663 01 6

*It speaks volumes that most of my readers are at this point in the post thinking – who is Raymond Roussel?  You will not find that answer here.  I recommend trying here.

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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