Mad About Paris, Much more than a guide
The Bad Boy of French literature is going descent and then dies
Even if you’ve never read a book of Michel Houellebecq, you certainly have heard his name. An unpronounceable name, I’ve to admit.
To ensure that everyone would be talking about it, he only had to go off the beaten track. I’ve got to say it worked. Houllebecq is l’enfant terrible, the Bad-Boy of French contemporary literature. With every new book there’s a new scandal.
Except this time. His latest, much awaited book, La carte et le territoire, what you might translate as The Map and the Territory, has just been released. But there’s no big scandal, just a brilliant book.
It revolves around Jed, a young artist who hits the big time after creating works of art out of Michelin maps. His alter Ego could be Michel Houellebecq himself: there are resemblances, but then the latter appears in person in the book. The young Jed and the older Michel meet. Strangly, the first time Houellebecq puts himself explicitly in one of his novels, it’s to make him disapear for good. The Houellebecq of his novel gets murdered and chopped into pieces. But on the day of his funeral, lots of people flocked onto the streets of Paris. He must have got a kick out of writing that scene.
What happened to Houellebecq? Is he sick of scandals? Well, I guess he wanted to show the public that the old author still had something left in him. And probably, this time, he is has the Prix Goncourt, France’s top literary prize, in his sights. He wants desperately, even if he pretends he doesn’t. Read my lips: this time it will happen. He’s already on the shortlist.
But you can feel a kind of disappointment in the air of Saint-Germain-des-Prées. No scandal? Nothing. No eulogy on genetic engineering, no islamophobic comments, no misogynistic allusions. No polemic to follow.
Almost none. Just a guy from south of France who claimed that the title was stolen from his own novel published in 1999. Michel Lévy actually published a book with the same title, which is now out of print. But Lévy told Le Parisien: “This can’t be down to chance.”
Plagiarism, as some people are saying? They must be kidding. Houellebecq didn’t go for Le Rouge et le Noir, right? Anyhow, you’ll always find somebone trying to jump on the bandwagon of success. And then there ’s the fact that he cut and pasted three articles from Wikipedia, one on the housefly. The French version of Slate demonstrated it convincingly. Is that a literary crime, though? Not to my knowledge. On the contrary, it means Houellebecq belongs to a long tradition. Listen to how he responded to on these accusations of plagiarism from, as he puts it, incompetents: “If people really think that this is plagiarism, then they haven’t the first notion of what literature is … It is part of my method,” he said, in a video on Le Nouvel Observateur’s website.
He’s right. Borges, Perec, you name it, they all did it too. It’s a principle of modern literature. And Houellebecq is only sorry he didn’t manage to get a cooking recipe or a scientific demonstration into his novels.
But there’s something about Houellebecq that drives them crazy whatever he does. I’ve followed his work in my role as a literary critc from the very beginning, and I always saw his strength. But he rapidly became a persona non grata of the literary business, simply because he was holding up a mirror to his readers. And what they saw there was not very flattering: a cruel analysis of our time. The thing is: in describing the emptiness and denaturation of our condition, the literary form got closer and closer to its object. That was a pity.
Do you remember “Platform”? Well, there were some clearly anti-islamic comments in that book and a lot of debate over whether it is Houellebecq being anti-islamic or his narrator. The answer is clear: an author of crime thrillers never gets arrested for murder. The distinctions between fiction and reality are still cloudy, though.
Fact is, that his novel in its French original appeared at the beginning of September 2001. Platform is a kind of genre picture of the morals of mass- and sex-tourism. And you know how it ends? With a suicide bomber attacking a sex-bar in Bangkok. Not even two weeks after pubishing the Twin Towers came down and the whole world changed. Houellebecq had all of a sudden written the book of Nine-Eleven.
I like Houellebecq. He’s certainly the most Anti-Parisian of all the French authors. He is from another planet. For many years he lived in Ireland, now he’s settled in Spain. When I met him one time, he was with his dog, Clément, caressing him with fingers yellowed by tobacco. He must have been born with a cigarette between his middle and ring finger. I’ve never seen him without one.
It was at the Ruhrtriennale in Germany, when we met. He came by car, driving 50 km per hour on a German Highway, imagine! The organizers were happy that he got there alive. But then, once he was gone, the hotel manager called: nearly everything that was not incombustible in his room had been burnt. Some fires just burn brighter.