"Murray is the best kind of literary biographer" – The Financial Times.
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Winner of the 2015 Basil Bunting Award for poetry

Tuesday, 26 October 2010

Houellebecq Strikes Again

Any day now they will be announcing the results of the Prix Goncourt, whose recent prize winners, I have to say, have been more interesting to me than the Man Booker's in the UK.  One title being tipped is enfant [well he's actually 53] terrible Michel Houellebecq's new novel La carte et le territoire.  The low argument (and literary prizes of this kind are usually about low arguments) is that it will win because (a) it is long overdue (b) it's crazy that one of the most read French novelists worldwide hasn't won it and (c) under Buggins' turn it's Flammarion's turn, that being the way French literary prizes work, and MH is their big one this season.  The argument against is that (a) Houellebecq is far too politically incorrect (b) he has upset too many people and (c) the Ben Jelloun Question.  The last of these is the only one that matters.  In his regular column in an Italian newspaper, the French North African novelist Tahar Ben Jelloun (whom I admire far more than Houellebecq) laid into MH's latest novel saying he had wasted three days of his life reading it and that its trick of inserting real people into the narrative simply revealed a lack of inventive power.  Ben Jelloun matters because he is on the Goncourt jury.

So what about the novel itself?  I found it better written than his previous novels, both at the level of its prose, and in its tighter construction.  Some have found it less obviously provocative and, even more surprisingly, it is almost equable in parts.  There is also almost no sex in it which is a turn up for the books.  I think these critics who imply that the fire has gone out of him are wrong and that the old provocations are there even if they are a little less in-your-face.  The MH we love, mordant, savagely deadpan in his satirical swipes is very much in evidence and I found it very funny for that reason.  Yes, he inserts himself in the narrative but not in some sort of arch metafictional manner.  He does it to send himself up as a smelly, unwashed slob living in a hideous bungalow in Ireland feeding himself on cheap charcuterie, swilling cheap south American wine, and being generally surly and unattractive.  It's an old joke but it works.  The book sends up the contemporary art market through its central character Jed Martin, an artist with a touch of the master about him, and also aims at a range of Houellebecquian targets like assisted suicide, cremation, "inherently fascist" airlines etc etc.  It is also about ageing and death and his usual big subjects and it is about NOW.  He loves to describe, with toxic accuracy, the mediocrity of so much in the contemporary world.  Much of his "provocation" resides in his inability to praise what we know shouldn't be praised but regularly is.  Unfortunately I can't tell you what happens in the final third section of the novel because it will spoil your enjoyment but it is brilliantly done and funny.  It also made me think that he could have a future as the author of romans policiers.  But it probably won't win the Prix Goncourt.


Solange Berchemin said...

Hello Nick,

Thought you might want to hear/read the reactions : http://sites.radiofrance.fr/franceinter/ev/fiche.php?ev_id=1496


Nicholas Murray said...

Thanks, Solange, I'll check that out. I note he is still wearing everywhere that parka he writes about in the book. Is that is entire wardrobe?