Michel Houellebecq: Thin-skinned provocateur
You might find a lot that’s familiar in Michel Houellebecq’s new novel, La carte et le territoire (The Map and the Territory) if you’ve read his previous work, but it’s unlikely that you’d guess how this new novel ends. Houellebecq is a talented writer, but his novels have a tendency to sag, particularly towards the end. Houellebecq seems to become bored with his characters or simply indulges his taste for walkabout, with diatribes or disquisitions on history or the world economy. There is always a would-be statistician or sociologist lurking in Houellebecq, waiting to pounce.
We get all sorts of reflections and rambling in La carte et le territoire (there are two pages on Jean-Louis Curtis, for example, Prix Goncourt 1947, a writer Houellebecq feels is underrated) but I’d contend that this is, technically, his best novel and the strongest since his first, breakthrough book, Whatever — let’s not forget its fantastically uncatchy title in French, Extension du domaine de la lutte (Extension of the Domain of Struggle).
Although La carte has the usual Houellebecqian traits, unhappiness and prostitutes, it is in many ways a typical, Balzacian 19th-century novel. A young man, an artist, Jed Martin, goes to Paris, falls under the spell of a powerful woman, in this case a superhot Russian publicist, works seriously and with her support conquers first Paris, and then the international art world. However, as it is a Houellebecq novel, the success doesn’t work in the way Balzac would have wanted.
La carte et le territoire is Houellebecq’s foray into the art world and it’s clear that he is jealous of the absurd amounts of money the big-name artists can generate. Yet it’s also clear that Houellebecq could have made it as an artist. Jed Martin gains widespread acclaim by photographing Michelin maps of France and displaying the results, hence the title of the book. The skill with which Houellebecq describes Jed’s ideas and work leaves you in no doubt that the author could have easily conned his way to prominence in art. Like his idol, Baudelaire, Houellebecq has considerable flair for writing about the visual.
The novel is also a fresh tranche de vie of Parisian high life or “les people” as celebrities and magnates are now known. But this is not a roman à clef. These aren’t “thinly-veiled” portraits of Parisian potentates; Houellebecq peoples his novel with…real people. The opening page has Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst and then we get a procession of French players: Julien Lepers, Frédéric Beigbeder and Michel Houellebecq himself.
Many writers have put themselves in their work of fiction (and it goes back some way, Molière did it in L’impromptu de Versailles) but I can’t think of an example where the author fictionalising or cloning himself has amounted to more than a walk-on part. In La carte et le territoire Houellebecq 2 (as I shall call the character to avoid confusion with the author) almost becomes the central figure of the book. It gives Houellebecq a nice running gag as various characters remark: “Houellebecq? The writer? He’s not bad, you know.”
While not shedding any of the predictable Houellebecqian blackness, La carte is, assuming you know something of the Houellebecq story, his funniest book. There is a “mockumentary” portrait of the isolated writer, Houellebecq 2, whom Jed Martin approaches to write some copy for his catalogue, going to bed early and whingeing about the hostility he encounters in France. This is especially hilarious when you bear in mind that La carte et le territoire is short-listed for the Prix Goncourt and that, with all respect to Houellebecq’s talent, he has almost made a separate career as a provocateur, firing off inflammatory remarks left and right. But then, the French have always liked their writers a little mephitic, from Villon onwards. Houellebecq’s sensitivity to brickbats is as incongruous as Katie Price complaining about press intrusion.
Novelists have often killed off their most successful character (or attempted to), but Houellebecq goes one further. Not only does he get to write his own reviews in La carte et le territoire but he also manages to write his own obituary and to hear what people will say at his funeral. Houellebecq 2 is murdered in a grisly fashion, leading to a whodunnit section of the novel where Houellebecq gives Thomas Harris a run for his money in the weird serial killer stakes.
But the best parts of the novel as ever, are the details of ordinary life. Houellebecq has the ability to make vivid the mundane. Jed Martin’s most stable long-term relationship turns out to be with the boiler in his flat, and his visit to his father in a care-home is heart-breaking.
The sense of isolation, alienation and despair that permeates the novels is also present in The Art of Struggle (Herla, £10.99), a collection of Houellebecq’s poetry. Houellebecq started as a poet and this beautiful paperback is a parallel text edition. I’d quibble about the translation occasionally (the original French is Le sens du combat and struggle is not necessarily combat) except for the fact I wouldn’t have the guts to attempt to translate poetry and that Houellebecq (who does speak English well) allegedly cast his eye over this rendering. When it comes to poetry, only a native speaker really has the right to judge, but it has to be said, as Verlaine once observed of Rimbaud, these are “honourable rhymes”.
It’s in the nature of the literary world that the winner tends to take all, and that in the British mind there tends to be one writer at a time from a country or a region. Houellebecq is quite firmly perched here as the French novelist, and if you can read French you’ll enjoy La carte et le territoire, but there are other good writers in France. Also longlisted for the Prix Goncourt this year is Fouad Laroui’s Une année chez les Français (Julliard, €19).
He’s very different from Houellebecq, a straightforwardly comic writer, but you’ll enjoy his account of life at a French lycée in Morocco.