This week’s Best Translated Book Award post is from Tom Roberge from New Directions, Albertine Books, and the Three Percent Podcast. He’s not actually a BTBA judge, but since he’s helping run the whole process, he thought he’d weigh in and post as well. For more information on the BTBA, “like” our Facebook page and follow us on Twitter. And check back here each week for a new post by one of the judges.
I’m just back from seeing Houellebecq’s new cover, Submission, and am writing you to try to make sense of it. My first impression is that it’s asking the viewer to do a lot of work. And I’m not entirely sure it’s successful, commercially, to have taken this approach, but it has been taken and here we are.
The canvas is bleached white, the material left untreated. No gloss. No coating at all. The visual elements consist mostly—with one enigmatic exception—of black text, all in the same elegantly simplistic serif font employed with a few variations on style and formatting. SUBMISSION itself appears in all capital letters, centered horizontally (as is all of the text). It’s also the largest of the words on the canvas, sitting atop the others in an obvious position of primacy. Below this are the words A NOVEL, also in all caps, but so much smaller that it seems almost inessential, a presumed fact, perhaps, or, on the other hand, something no one particularly cares if the viewer incorporates into the overall message. On either side of these two words, stretching to the width of the word SUBMISSION, are thin black lines that serve to separate SUBMISSION from the text below. Bracketing A NOVEL in between these division lines only further enhances the impression that the proviso was included reluctantly. That said, I admit the possibility that rather than it being a bit player in the visual drama unfolding, it might be the most subtly important clue to understanding the assemblage, a nuanced sort of knowing nod, the artist saying, basically, “I know you know it’s a novel; no need to shout.” I’m unsure. Beneath the line is Michel Houellebecq’s name, centered, with his first and last names occupying their own lines. Michel is formatted slightly smaller than Houellebecq, the latter of which is in all caps while the former is not. It seems obvious that the artist wanted HOUELLEBECQ to be as large as possible within the decided-upon design, by which I mean that it couldn’t be wider than the word SUBMISSION above. The length of the name prevents an equivalent size, and so the result is that it’s smaller. Alas. My eyes, for what’s it worth, are consistently drawn to the tail on the capital Q at the end of HOUELLEBECQ. It seems, to me, to be somewhat ostentatious, as though the font was largely designed with great restraint, apart for a few flourishes, this Q included. Lacking any other tailed letters, this Q stands out and hints at a certain disassociative quality to the work. Below HOUELLEBECQ is another line, and beneath that, in nearly the same size font as A NOVEL above, is a line that reads AUTHOR OF, and below that, in a slightly larger although still quite small all-caps letters (the three words don’t span the width of the words SUBMISSION or HOUELLEBECQ) is a previous work’s title, THE ELEMENTARY PARTICLES. All of these elements, I should add, are debossed, which definitely made me smile to myself when I realized this fact. Submission, recession, blending in… there’s something playful happening here, and I appreciate it.
There is one remaining design element to mention, one that, even as I write, I’m still trying to make sense of. Stretching from the top of the frame to the bottom, edge to edge, is a thin red line. Writing that phrase (thin red line), made me, just now, think of the Terrance Malick film, which led me to the Internet for a few minutes of research on the possible origins and meaning of the term and, perhaps, I’d hoped, an indication to its visual manifestation here. (You see what I mean about asking the viewer to do a lot of work?) Wikipedia’s page on “Red Line (Phrase)” includes the following in its “Thin Red Line” subsection:
From British English, an entirely different figure of speech for an act of great courage against impossible order or thinly spread military unit holding firm against attack, a or the “thin red line”, originates from reports of a red-coated Scottish regiment at the Battle of Balaclava during the Crimean War. A journalist described a “thin red streak tipped with a line of steel” with the appearance of the 93rd (Highland) Regiment and parts of the Turkish army as they stood before (and repelled) a vastly superior force of Russian cavalry. The reference soon became apocopated into the thin red line, and famously described by Rudyard Kipling in the poem “Tommy” as “the thin red line of ‘eroes [heroes].”
Is it safe to assume the artist’s intention was an allusion to this sort of militaristic framework? I mean, it’s never safe to assume such things, but we do it all the time. We’re incapable of refraining.
Having gotten these thoughts down in writing, I am still of the opinion that the cover shirks some of its responsibilities in terms of providing context or access points. But to be fair to the artist, a lot of that work has been done by the media, which has repeated Houellebecq’s name and the title and a brief (if perhaps inaccurate) summary of the work ad nauseam over the last year or so. Its fame precedes itself, as they say. And so the artist needs only to convey the bare essentials, to remind viewers of certain recent events, of discussions and articles and pictorial cues that may have already left a deep impression on the viewer. It’s communication via nudging. Everything else—the debossed text, the thin red line—is fun and games, a friendly wink to the cognoscenti.
I think I like it.
After two exciting quarterfinal match ups yesterday—with Chile and Mexico moving on to the semifinals—we’re back today with two “impossible to call” matches. First up is Michel Houellebecq and the pride of France facing off against America’s David Foster Wallace as The Map and the Territory takes on The Pale King.
Houellebecq’s trek to the quarterfinals started with a 3-2 victory over Ecuador and Alicia Yánez Cossío’s The Potbellied Virgin. He then rolled Cesar Aira and An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter 4-1.
DFW started with a tough matchup against Portugal’s Gonçalo Tavares and his novel Jerusalem, but the American prevailed 3-2. Then, he took down Belgium’s The Misfortunates by Dimitry Verhulst by a score of 3-1.
Two heavyweights in today’s first quarterfinal . . .
P.T. Smith: USA
The Map and the Territory may play a flawless game, but it’s a familiar one, and like in soccer, those teams are always at risk against ambitious teams that have moments of glory, hoping their inevitable stumbles don’t cost them. The Pale King made me laugh more than anything in a long while, and created full consciousnesses on a single page. There are flaws, yes, but DFW’s writing is to an unfinished book as Tim Howard is the U.S. defense, and The Pale King holds on. Besides, when, other than WCL and the WC, do I get to root for the U.S. and have it not involve corporate capitalism or the military?
Lori Feathers: France
The Map and the Territory defeats The Pale King because it contains all the elements of the perfect novel: big ideas (art, death, capitalism), a great narrative with good pacing (this is where Houellebecq smokes DFW), and Houellebecq’s expressive (sometimes great) writing style. Not to mention, inventing his own brutal murder (so few remaining body parts that they fill only a child’s coffin) is original and ballsy enough to advance beyond the quarterfinals.
Tom Roberge: France
This match makes you painfully aware of the folly in pitting works of art against each other. If I’m forced to choose a winner, then I give the edge to Houellebecq if only because I enjoyed reading The Map and the Territory more, and pure and simple pleasure has to count for something.
Scott Esposito: France
The Pale King isn’t even actually a book after all . . .
Lance Edmonds: USA
By a mile.
Will Evans: USA
How funny to have two powerhouse novels by two brilliant authors who feature caricatures of themselves as characters in these two sloppy but brilliant novels. I preferred The Pale King but it came down to a shoot out for me.
Ryan Ries: USA
The Map and the Territory is a dark (and darkly funny) novel about death and art, a work that might be deemed a masterpiece if its author hadn’t already written one. The Pale King is shaggy, of course, disjointed and overlong too, but it also contains a few dazzling passages that make your heart ache in recognition of the so-called “human condition.” In a close match, it is these moments of transcendence, despite a consistent and accomplished effort from France, that push USA through to the semifinals.
And the US World Cup of Literature representative does what the US Men’s National Team just simply can’t: move on to the semifinals where The Pale King will face off against Mexico and Faces in the Crowd.
I genuinely love the World Cup. And yet every four years I’m reminded why I haven’t picked an English Premier League team to support, why in the end I’m glad it’s over, why I have no trouble understanding some of the more salient arguments put forth by the trolls. It has nothing to do with the game itself, with the low scoring or the simplicity, but rather with the game’s on-the-field stewards: the referees. I’m sure I’ll get plenty of counter arguments suggesting that NFL and NBA refs alter games just as much as soccer refs do (looking at you, 2007 NBA Finals refs who gave the title to Wade and the Heat), but I hate that soccer officials have so much control over the outcomes of the matches. They call offsides and disallow goals. They call penalties in the box that result in PK goals that are practically foregone conclusions. They issues red cards and handicap teams. Or they miss biting incidents (there were teeth marks!) that should have, at the very least, resulted in a red card that might have given Italy the advantage it needed. Maybe I’m biased on that one.
I concede that most of the time these calls are accurate. But sometimes they aren’t, and it gets ugly. Really ugly and frustrating. Instead of the athleticism and strategy and sheer drama of the players and coaches and the action itself being front and center stage, these bad and/or pivotal calls put too much attention on the refs, and entire matches end up hinging on their decisions, which is just awful. I want the referees to fade into the background, to do their (difficult and perennially unappreciated) jobs in anonymity. I don’t want to know what they look like, or have any reason to remember their names.
Which is a way of explaining why I’m ditching the straw man I originally planned on setting up here, namely the notion that this match would be a tough one for me to judge given my employment by the publisher of César Aira and, on the other hand, my slavish devotion to the work of Michel Houellebecq. I’m ditching it because that would force you all to focus on my situation, my context, my imposed narrative. And just like it’s wrong for refs to steal the spotlight from the players, I also think it’s wrong for reviewers to (try to) steal the spotlight from writers and their books. So I’m stepping aside as much as I can and letting the books speak for themselves. It’s a bit difficult because, like in sports, a few highlights in condensed format utterly fail to convey the context in which the highlights occurred, but it’s the best I can do without outright demanding that instead of reading the notes and short selections below, you stop what you’re doing, go find a copy of the books in your local store, and read them without stopping. Wait, that’s a great idea. Go!
Still here? Alright, let’s go straight to the highlights.
A book about, well, a 19th century landscape painter named Johann Moritz Rugendas. Rugendas was real, as was his trip to Argentina, but what Aira describes—Rugendas being struck by lightning in the Pampas—is completely fictional.
We have to begin with a description of Rugendas’s approach to the art of landscape painting:
The artistic geographer had to capture the “physiognomy” of the landscape . . . by picking out its characteristic “physiognomic” traits . . . The precise arrangement of physiognomic elements in the picture would speak volumes to the observer’s sensibility, conveying information not in the form of isolated features but features systematically interrelated so as to be intuitively grasped: climate, history, customs, economy, race, fauna, flora, rainfall, prevailing winds . . .
Got it? It turns out to be the underlying point of the entire book, that something as seemingly benign as a landscape portrait actually speaks volumes about the history of the world and civilization.
Later on in the quasi-defense of sending a German painter to South America to document what he sees in painting, we get a taste of Aira’s tendency towards quirky scene-setting:
Travel and painting were entwined like fibers in a rope. One by one, the dangers and difficulties of a route that was torturous and terrifying at the best of times were transformed and left behind. And it was truly terrifying: it was hard to believe that this was a route used virtually throughout the year by travelers, mule drivers and merchants. Anyone in their right mind would have regarded it as a means of suicide. Near the watershed, at an altitude of two thousand meters, amid peaks disappearing into the clouds, rather than a way of getting from point A to point B, the path seemed to have become quite simply a away of departing from all points at once. Jagged lines, impossible angles, trees growing downwards from ceilings of rock, sheer slopes plunging into mantles of snow under a scorching sun. And shafts of rain into little yellow clouds, agates enveloped in moss, pink hawthorn. The puma, the hare and snake made up a mountain aristocracy. The horses panted, began to stumble, and it was time to stop for a rest; the mules were perpetually grumpy.
Rugendas dwelling on the value of art as compared to the rigors of historical accuracy:
The purpose of storytelling could be better fulfilled by handing down, instead of a set of “tools,” which would enable mankind to reinvent what had happened in the past, with the innocent spontaneity of action. Humanity’s finest accomplishments, everything that deserved to happen again. And the tools would be stylistic. Accord to this theory, then, art was more useful than discourse.
Aira is also fond of mood juxtaposition. To wit: this sentence that appears just before the lengthy, detailed description of the lightning strike:
“At least it will cool off,” he said to himself, and those trivial words marked the end of a phase in his life; with them he formulated the last coherent thought of his youth.
And here he blatantly echoes the lightning strike when describing Rugendas’s condition. I’m not what you’d call a fan of this technique:
Rugendas, who was going through a particularly critical phase, had attacks of vertigo and cerebral short-circuiting all night; he could only withstand them by taking an excessive dose of morphine, and dawn found him sleepwalking, covered in sweat, his face a jig of lightning tics, his pupils shrunk to pinpoints as if her were at the center of the sun.
A dose of quirk combined with mood juxtaposition. This is top-notch Aira:
The morning was truly glorious, perfect for a raid.
Lastly, a prolonged analogy (for, yet again, the art of storytelling) that I think might represent the best passage in the book.
There is analogy that, although far from perfect, may shed some light on the process of reconstruction. Imagine a brilliant police detective summarizing his investigations for the husband of the victim, the widower. Thanks to his subtle deductions he has been able to “reconstruct” how the murder was committed; he does not know the identity of murderer, but he has managed to work out everything else with an almost magical precision, as if he had seen it happen. And his interlocutor, the widower, who is, in fact, the murderer, has to admit that the detective is a genius, because it really did happen exactly as he says; yet at the same time, although of course he actually saw it happen and is the only living eyewitness as well as the culprit, he cannot match what happened with what the policeman is telling him, not because there are errors, large or small, in the account, or details out of place, but because the match is inconceivable, there is such an abyss between one story and the other, or between a story and the lack of a story, between the lived experience and the reconstruction (even when the reconstruction has been executed to perfection) that widower simply cannot see a relation between them; which leads him to conclude that he is innocent, that he did not kill his wife.
Another book about a painter, the completely fictional Jed Martin. In act one of his career he photographs Michelin maps and then manipulates them dramatically, earning high praise. Several years later, in act two, he paints portraits of celebrities (see below). In an interesting plot element, Michel Houellebecq is a character in his own book; he is asked (and agrees) to write the catalog essay for Martin’s biggest show.
From part one, a description—with quotes—of the critical response of Jed’s very first vernissages. Satirically pretentious and hyperbolic? As if you had to ask:
From the very first lines, he likened the point of view of the map—or of the satellite image—to that of God. ‘With that profound tranquility of the great revolutionaries,’ he wrote, ‘the artist—a man of tender age—moves away, starting with the inaugural piece by which he makes us enter his world, from that naturalist and neo-pagan vision by which our contemporaries exhaust themselves in an attempt to retrieve the image of the Absent One. Not without gallant audacity, he adopts the point of view of a god co-participating, alongside man, in the (re)construction of the world.’
Followed soon thereafter by a potential reason for the works’ popularity, also equally dismissive of a vast swath of French culture:
The growing popularity, across all of France, of cookery classes, the recent appearance of local competitions rewarding new creations in charcuterie or cheese-making, the massive and inexorable spread of hiking . . . combined to bring about this new sociological fact: for the first time in France since Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the countryside had become trendy again . . . And the Michelin map, an utterly unnoticed utilitarian object, became in the space of those very weeks the privileged vehicle for initiation into what Libération was to shamelessly call the ‘magic of the terroir.’
Did you think this one was lacking in Houellebecq’s typical despair? Come on. Here you go:
Over the cheese course, Jed’s father got slightly animated and asked him about his projects. Unfortunately, this time it was Jed who risked spoiling the atmosphere, because since his last painting, Damien Hirst and Jeff Koons Dividing Up the Art Market, he no longer felt much about art. He was going nowhere. There was a sort of force that carried him for a year or two but was now dissipating, crumbling, but what was the point of saying all that to his father, who could do nothing about it. To tell the truth no one could; when faced with such a confession, people could only be slightly sad. They really don’t amount to much, anyway, human relationships.
Houellebecq, a few pages after materializing in his own novel, discussing his life in Shannon, Ireland with Jed. And it’s everything you expect in the best possible way:
“The sunsets are endless and magnificent, it’s like some kind of fucking opera, there are constantly new colors, new flashes of light. I once tried to stay here the whole spring and summer and thought I would die. Every evening, I was on the brink of suicide, with this night that never fell. Since then, at the beginning of April, I go to Thailand and stay there until the end of August. Day starts at six and ends at six, it’s simpler, equatorial and administrative. It’s unbearable hot but the air conditioning works eel and it’s the dead season for tourists. The brothels are empty but they’re still open and that suits me fine; the service remains excellent or very good.”
“Now I have the slight impression you’re playing your own role . . .”
After the overwhelmingly positive (i.e. lucrative) response to Jed’s vernissage featuring the portraits, with the essay by Houellebecq, a discussion between Jed and his gallerist that succinctly, subtly, and perfectly describes the current state of the art market.
“In your view,” Franz went on, “In your view, which painting should’ve got the best offer?”
Jed reflected for a moment. “Maybe Bill Gates and Steve Jobs,” he finally suggested.
“Exactly. It’s gone up to one and a half million euros. From an American broker, who apparently works for Jobs himself.”
“For a long time,” he continued, his voice tense, one the brink of exasperation, “For a long time, the art market has been dominated by the richest businessmen on the planet. And now, for the first time, as well as buying what is most avant-garde in the aesthetic domain, they have the opportunity to buy a painting that portrays themselves. I can’t tell you the number of proposals I’ve received, from businessmen or industrialists, who would like you to paint their portrait. We’ve returned to the time of the Ancien Régime court painting.”
Like all of Houellebecq’s novels, there is violence in The Map and the Territory. It arrives late in the book, but has an incredible impact on both the plot and tone. A description of the crime scene:
The head of the victim was intact, cut off cleanly and placed on one of the armchairs in front of the fireplace. A small pool of blood had formed on the dark green velvet. Facing him on the sofa, the head of a big black dog had also been cleanly cut off. The rest was a massacre, a senseless carnage of strips of flesh scattered across the floor. However, neither the head of the man nor that of the dog were frozen in an expression of horror, but rather one of incredulity and anger.
A passage I have to include because it left me (and, I assume, many others) exhausted and depressed. A rare instance when the context doesn’t matter:
Olga was nice, she was nice and loving, Olga loved him, he repeated to himself with a growing sadness as he also realized that nothing would ever happen between them again; life sometimes offers you a chance, he thought, but when you are too cowardly or too indecisive to seize it life takes the cards away; there is a moment for doing things and entering a possible happiness, and this moment lasts a few days, sometimes a few weeks or even a few months, but it only happens once and one time only, and if you want to return to it later it’s quite simply impossible. There’s no more place for enthusiasm, belief and faith, and there remains just gentle resignation, a sad and reciprocal pity, the useless but correct sensation that something could have happened, that you just simply showed yourself unworthy of this gift you had been offered. He made another coffee, which definitively dispelled the mists of sleep, then thought of leaving Olga a note. “We must think,” he wrote, before crossing that out and scribbling: “You deserve better than me.” He crossed out that sentence again, and wrote, “My father is dying,” then realized that he’d never mentioned his father to Olga, and scrunched up the paper before throwing it in the bin.
And I’ll end with this, which I think represents as much of an artist’s statement as Houellebecq is ever likely to give. Bear in mind that this is a man who loves Balzac and Dickens and Tolstoy:
The question of beauty is secondary in painting: the great painters of the past were considered such when they had developed a world view that was both coherent and innovative, which means that they always painted in the same way, using the same methods and operating procedures to transform the objects of the world into pictorial ones, in a matter that was specific to them and had never been used before.
My analysis, comparing the two novels, side by side? It seems to me that in this particularly novel, Aira is writing about writing by writing about another art form, painting. He takes a good look at a specific kind of painting, at one specific painter, and at one specific incident in his life in order to spell out his extended metaphor and, ideally, see if anything else can be gleaned from the material. It’s a haphazard approach (he famously writes without aims, and doesn’t edit), and one that can be fun and occasionally transcendently beautiful, but I’m afraid it feels like what it is: narrow in scope.
Houellebecq, on the other hand, takes on big, fundamental questions about life and happiness and our fundamental need for companionship, empathy, and simple understanding. He explores the primal urge to create, and the (often horrific) affects of modern capitalism on the creators and their creations. He doesn’t peddle in metaphors; he strips events down to reveal their piercing emotional power, and, in the process, leaves the reader in that curious state of mind that the best works of art enable: the sneaking suspicion that although it seems like you’ve learned something new about humanity and yourself, you’ve also been reminded that you’ll never truly understand the world, but that asking the questions is nonetheless essential.
Final score, no contest: France 4 – Argentina 1.
Tom Roberge works at New Directions and loves Arjen Robben.
France and Ecuador take to the pitch in what appears to be a serious mismatch. France, represented by Prix Goncourt winner Michel Houellebecq, teamed up with translator Gavin Bowd, puts forth The Map and the Territory. Its first moves on the field show the level it wants to play at: Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst have posed for a painting, and the protagonist, another artist, this time fictional, is struggling to finish it. Houellebecq’s strategy is clear. He’s going to portray the contemporary world, the high-brow of commercialism, and while his flair and spite is French, he’s speaking to the English, to Americans, to the Western world.
Against the strength of the French side is them oldest contender in the tournament. Pushed into service without another able to take its place representing Ecuador, Alicia Yánez Cossío’s The Potbellied Virgin, aided by Amalia Gladhart’s translation, arrives to the tournament as an outsider. Set in the 60s and often reaching further into the past, living wholly in one small Ecuadorian village, The Potbellied Virgin can’t compete with The Map and the Territory on the same terms, to have any chance of moving on, it must embrace its own style, letting the French be as adventurous in the attack as Houellebecq wants, hoping to keep him from scoring, looking for its own opportunities to counterattack.
Houellebecq is indeed looking to be on the offensive, to strike often and quickly, against art, for art, against commercialism, for commercialism, against himself, and, through Jed, for himself. Yet, at this point he is a veteran, suave and poised on the ball, no overly-ambitious balls or reckless challenges. He understands when to be showy, creative, and why. The passes, towards the goal, away, towards again, are intricate. Of the attitude of French hotels Jed imagines:
a rich young urban couple without children, aesthetically very decorative, still in the first phase of their love affair—and for this reason quick to marvel at everything, in the hope of building up a store of beautiful memories that would come in handy when they reached the difficult year, perhaps enabling them to overcome a crisis in their relationship. They represented, for any professional in the hotel-restaurant trade, the archetype of ideal clients.
Houellebecq is probing the defense, pointing out the weak spots, the ways that we as humans give in to, thrive on, love commercial materialism, but then he’s letting us have it, writing of an artist dedicated to it, and the people caught up in it.
Against the hipness, the humor, the way the reader is rewarded while putting forth little of his own effort, Ecuador plays a complicated, defensive, possession game. Potbellied Virgin is a denser affair, inward-turning. It is slower than Map and the Territory, patient and asking the reader to pay more attention while not being as easily thrilled. In a unnamed Ecuadorian village two families rival for power, or more accurately, one family dominates while the other passes the time sitting on a bench, smoking cigarettes and remembering when they had land and power. Yánez Cossío sets opposites against each other, but they do not get split in the obvious ways. The matriarchy controls the town through religion, through their devotion to the town’s miracle idol, that Potbellied Virgin. The Benavides are conservative, but younger, newer to the town, and rich, rewarded by capitalism, and notably lighter-skinned, blonde, closer to those rewarded by imperialism. The other family, the Pandos, is the patriarchy, devoid of influence, tied to communism, irreligious, and though not native Indians, aligned with them rather than the American influence from the north.
The Potbellied Virgin may not be as bunkered down as Greece is in the Real World Cup, but it is content to keep the ball without moving forward. It wants to set up this self-contained world, tell the history of the town, of the political turmoil of the whole country, of the miracle of the flatbellied virgin becoming the Potbellied Virgin. Its defensiveness is not thuggish tackles or packing five men in the box, but of little passes amongst teammates, and beautiful ones at times. The relationships in the village matter for everything. The sons and daughters who switch their allegiance from one family to another are the forces that are quieted throughout much of the story, but build into the best chances at goal. Holding onto the ball, playing beautiful passes in the dusty streets of the village may not move forward, but is still nice to watch, and becomes an expression of a life outside of the world of Houellebecq’s grasping:
The acid deposits in her overworked veins ache, ache with the pain that will last until her death without respite or remedy, because she will always be standing among the large boulders of the river washing her clothes, the clothes of Magdalena Benavides who passes her time galloping from the hacienda into town, and who dents her so much clothing that isn’t even dirty, for the pleasure of making her work and harassing her with the hard soap of bad fortune.
In control of the match, Houellebecq tells of Jed Martin’s career as an artist, and his life as a man. He has a distant connection with his father, brought close by their shared isolation and their acceptance of that isolation, and though he has great loves in his life, Houellebecq never gives us hope that they will break Martin from his isolation. Besides, if those loves did take him from solitary life, we cannot imagine room for his art. Jed is a Zidane, a Pirlo, playing his own game in the middle of the pitch, independent, grumpy, yet making connections no one else is able to see until after the fact. By creating a visual artist, with works that if brought to life could be as interesting and successful in real life as they are in the book, Houellebecq threatens to score early but Ecuador manages to hold on. Until just before half-time that is, when the pleasure of The Map and the Territory, through pure enjoyment of the game, playing while having fun, puts through a lovely ball (Houellebecq’s portrayal of himself, beaten, a wrecked man, but through Jed’s eyes, somewhat magnificent), cleanly finished, and takes a lead into the locker room.
Drawn out, The Potbellied Virgin needs to press forward to tie. It is a task Yánez Cossío is up to. To solve a country-wide drought, the Benavides are willing to send out the Potbellied Virgin to travel the country, followed by rain. When the army becomes involved, the Pando convince the town that the Virgin is being sold, greedy religious-capitalism from the Benavides, and the town rises up, fighting off the army with whatever is at hand, mainly the mattresses they were sleeping on in the church while protecting the Virgin:
But what gives the greatest results in the uneven and ferocious combat are the mattresses. With the bare mattress blows they charge the sacrilegious troops calling them thieves, faggots, and all the son-of-a-bitches they can muster. A cloud of dust obscures the sun and the sheep’s wool of all the disemboweled mattresses covers the streets and plaza.
With humor and violence, all the while staying reserved, sticking to the slow style that kept the match equal for so long, The Potbellied Virgin ties the match at one.
But right after, The Map and the Territory presses again. The relationship between Jed and Houellebecq deepens, and so the relationship between Houellebecq and Houellebecq becomes more compelling, an old love briefly returns, human connection again and again seems briefly possible before falling off. The Potbellied Virgin is playing with confidence, happy to have made things level eager for another one. Yet, Ecuador is overexposed, the conflict between Pandos and Benavides heats up, without either side gaining anything.
With the massive success of Jed’s art career, a project of portraits culminating in one of Houellebecq, he almost finds happiness. He is rich, he has a chance with his greatest love. There’s a happy ending in sight, and even if we bemoan sappy, unearned happy endings, don’t we still want one sometimes? Destroying one so perfectly set up, what’s the reward in that? Houellebecq finds it. It is lost not because of cynicism, not because of the dark brooding that feeds every summer blockbuster now, but because for Jed, it is overwhelming, happiness is impossible to embrace, it is too fleeting, and must be caught in the perfect moment, or it’s lost, and that moment can be, will be, terrifying. Jed does not turn to angst or depression, but a sort of paralysis, and when this is so compassionately understood, articulated, given compassion, The Map and the Territory goes up 2-1.
Ecuador is more desperate now. The Benavides begin to lose their control of the village, their daughters not living up to their roles as living icons. Power and wealth become more important than their faith. The Virgin, belief in her miracle, becomes fully a tool of control, no longer true devotion. Their matriarch, Doña Carmen blackmails and bribes rivals into aligning with her. The three daughters of a former communist are rewarded with riches, if they act out the role of virginal caretakers for the Potbellied Virgin. Purity no longer matters, just the obedience that faith in it once created. When Doña Carmen begins to paint threats on her own walls in order to foment dissent between her rivals, any sense of herself is lost. These risks, this destruction of the village, looks like it is going to pay off. Crosses bang in, but are too high, or headers go wide.
In the midst of this, The Map and the Territory makes a substitution. Satire, humor, art, commercialism, are left in, but pure literary fiction is taken off, and sent on in its place is top-flight genre fiction. French police vomit at a horrific crime scene, aging detectives work with their young replacements to solve a high-profile murder, and our former protagonist becomes part of the investigation. The switch does wonders. Losing no pace, no fluidity, but gaining width and pace where exhaustion had it lagging, France scores again almost immediately after the substitution, to take what seems like an impossible to overcome 3-1 lead.
From then, Ecuador fights back fiercely. Finally giving in to rough challenges, unafraid of hitting again and again to take control of the ball, The Potbellied Virgin never stops threatening France’s goal. Knowing that violence has suited Houellebecq well, Yánez Cossío tries her hand at it, with the accidental death of a child in the conflict that Doña Carmen created, in the awful and haunting retribution for that accident, where our hearts break as the offender lays dying, accepting that death. Past that, though, she offers that thing Houellebecq denies us: successful love. The lovers need to exile themselves, but there is hope for a return one day, for: “the man of flesh and blood, of weakness and lunacy that he was until a short time ago, becomes the mystic the town needs to move ahead through so many troubles, for it seems even the image of the Virgin was wearing out . . .” With that, with relentless fierceness and hope, Ecuador scores in the 87th minute, bringing it to 3-2 and giving hope.
It was not to be. France holds on to the victory we expected them to take, too wily, too thrilling, rewarding us with ease, but Ecuador was inspired, and created a memorable match, one you recount any time you’re at a bar, one too many in, telling tales of sports and literature. It’s the type of performance that truly makes you hope that Alicia Yánez Cossío has the chance to compete in translation again.
P.T. Smith is a writer and critic living in Vermont. He has written for Three Percent, BOMB, Quarterly Conversation, and most recently Bookslut.
As in years past, we will be highlighting all 25 titles on the BTBA Fiction Longlist, one by one, building up to the announcement of the 10 finalists on April 10th. A variety of judges, booksellers, and readers will write these, all under the rubric of “Why This Book Should Win. You can find the whole series by clicking here. And if you’re interested in writing any of these, just get in touch.
The Map and the Territory by Michel Houellebecq, translated from the French by Gavin Bowd and published by Knopf
This piece is by New Directions publicity and Three Percent podcaster, Tom Roberge.
When dealing with any book by French author Michel Houellebecq, it’s almost impossible to discuss the book itself, by itself, so we might as well address this whole thing right now. Yes, he seems (how can we really know, after all; his writerly persona might be precisely that: a persona) to be a bit of a, to put it nicely, antisocial curmudgeon. He seems to have little patience for the literary world and the window-dressing sort of appearances and interviews that coincide with the publication of any novel by a well-known (if not exact well-loved) author. This is, after all, a man whose mother wrote some rather disparaging things about him in her own memoir. And these are all frequent topics of discussion because his narrators, too, possess many of these characteristics. They’re often selfish, apathetic, skeptical, and downright miserable. But, and I’ve been pleading this case for years now, I believe that underneath the surface-level nihilism and general ennui of his novels is an author who truly believes in love, in human beings’ ability to make each other profoundly happy. The ability, he suggests, is within all of us, if only we’d stop worrying about the rest of the crap that defines our modern world.
Which brings us to The Map and the Territory. I’ve read and reread all of Houellebecq’s novels, and though I think The Elementary Particles is brilliant and that Platform is insanely fun, I also think this is his best book, the most accomplished in terms of pacing and plotting, the most stylistically riveting on a page-by-page basis, and the most sophisticated in terms of its themes. And boy oh boy are there a lot of them packed in here, twisted into each other, fighting for control and attacking the reader with their combined power.
Artist Jed Martin is the novel’s central conduit for Houellebecq’s exploration of these themes, and the first section of the book focuses on a series of Martin’s digital prints that are fantastic enlargements of Michelin road maps, with quite a few creative embellishments. The prints critique something that a lot of Americans living in big cities will also recognize: the middle and upper-class romanticization of rural life, of farming, of living off the land, of what they imagine is “a simpler life.” All bullshit, obviously, and not exactly news, but Houellebecq dissects the trend beautifully, mimicking and mocking the obtuse language of the art world at the same time.
But then Martin stops working. Altogether. For years. And when he re-emerges, he decides to become a portrait painter, and yet again he takes dead aim at the prevailing trends of the middle- and upper-class consumers of “intellectual” products, be they works of art or gadgets or something in between. By which I mean he paints portraits of people like Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, but puts them in an imaginary scene in which they “Discuss the Future of Information Technology,” their expressions greedy and all-knowing, larger-than-life, terrifying. He also—and this brings me back to the opening paragraph, to the notion of Houellebecq as the antisocial curmudgeon—travels to Ireland to paint a novelist, Michel Houellebecq, who has agreed, after much trepidation, to write the catalog copy for an exhibition of the portraits in exchange for a portrait of himself. This is, and excuse the pun, a stroke of genius. It allows Houellebecq (the writer of the book, as opposed to the writer/character in the book) to confront the personal attacks on his character head-on, to bring the discussion of the prevailing themes that recur in his books into this book, to offer a subtle rebuttal to everything that’s been said about him and his work in the book, rather than having to appear on television to be mocked by a pretentious journalist, or having to endure an endless interview session. “Here,” he seems to be saying, “you want to know what I think about everything that’s been said about me? This is what I think, and this is why I’ve fled to Ireland, to get the hell away from your miserable games.”
There’s also one more theme and plot element that’s thoroughly amazing, but I really don’t want to spoil anything about this book for anyone who might be compelled to read it. Let me just say that it’s both typically Houellebecq-esque and wholly surprising and, of course, provocative. And who doesn’t love being provoked?
Not sure if the infamous French author is still missing or not, but his last novel, The Map and the Territory, just came out in the UK (it’s due out here in January) and the Guardian has a really enthusiastic write-up:
Michel Houellebecq’s new novel The Map and the Territory opens with an artist at work on a painting called Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst Dividing Up the Art Market. It is a realistic portrait of the two famous artists in conversation, based on their photographs in the media, and although the novel’s fictional artist character Jed Martin can capture Hirst quite easily with his brutish British arrogance, he can’t really get a visual grasp of Koons. In his despair at being unable to portray this “Mormon pornographer”, he destroys the canvas.
The painting’s analysis of the art market is pursued later in the book, however. When Martin himself becomes rich, his dealer points out that now he would be in a position to exhibit that work – before, it might have seemed like sour grapes. The painting was meant to record the moment when Hirst replaced Koons as the number one selling contemporary artist in the world. This marked the triumph – according to Houellebecq’s novel – of death and morbid fear over pornography and pleasure.
Those who come to Houellebecq’s novel for a satire on the contemporary art world will find more than they bargained for. This is the brilliant and controversial French writer’s most intellectually ambitious book. The way it portrays the contemporary art world is both deadpan and subtle. On one level, Houellebecq makes it plain he is not claiming anything like an accurate reportage of the art scene: the career of Jed Martin is shaped by the patronage of Michelin, a gloriously surreal idea that does not really bear any resemblance to the art world – the target here is, rather, France and Frenchness.
Can’t wait . . . Maybe Knopf will actually send us a galley of this one. (Still waiting for 1Q84 . . . )
This is pretty bizarre:
Michel Houellebecq, the French writer whose novels address sex tourism, sado-masochism and cloning, failed to show up for a scheduled reading tour of the Netherlands and Belgium and cannot be reached by his publishers.
“We really don’t know what is happening,” said Barbara Simons, a spokeswoman for Het Beschrijf, the literary organization that arranged the tour. “It’s bizarre. There has been no news and he hasn’t arrived.”
Simons said neither Houellebecq’s French publisher, nor his agent, nor his translator knows where the 53-year-old writer is. [. . .]
“I wouldn’t panic yet,” [Piet Joostens, who organized the readings] said. “We have no concrete evidence that he is a missing person. Of course we are worried. It has happened before that he doesn’t answer e-mails, but it is rare for him not to show up to meet his public.”
Hopefully this will turn out to be nothing, but in the meantime, I’m going to join in with Jeff Waxman (who emailed me about this) in believing that Houellebecq is living the plot of Metropole.
The new Houellebecq novel won’t be available in English for another year, but in the meantime, ArtInfo has seven “things to know” about the new book. As with Houellebecq’s other novels, it sounds pretty interesting . . . Here are a couple of AI’s 7 points:
HOUELLEBECQ IS A CHARACTER IN THE BOOK, AND HE’S A DEGENERATE
Jed meets the author Michel Houellebecq, a repugnant, decrepit alcoholic who looks like “a sickly old tortoise.” Houellebecq likes the short days of an Irish winter so he can go to bed early with sleeping pills, a bottle of wine, and a book, but spends spring and summer in Thailand, when it’s the tourist off-season and “the whorehouses are quiet but they are still open and . . . the service is still excellent or very good.” The author’s drinking bouts are restricted, however, to when he hangs around journalists — so he can endure their presence: “How can you meet someone who works for Marianne or Le Parisien Libéré without wanting to puke immediately?” Jed finds himself inexplicably drawn to the morose but sophisticated intellectual, who later finds happiness in the bucolic French countryside. [. . .]
THE BOOK WILL PROBABLY WIN THE GONCOURT PRIZE, FRANCE’S HIGHEST LITERARY AWARD
Houellebecq has been passed over several times for the prize, and the general consensus is that this time he will win — despite having a lot of enemies, including French-Moroccan author Tahar Ben Jelloun, a member of the award committee, who trashed “La Carte et le Territoire” in the Italian newspaper La Repubblica. Perhaps Ben Jelloun has been nursing a grudge against Houellebecq since the acerbic author called Islam “the stupidest religion” in 2001. Houellebecq has certainly not done himself any favors, having previously said that the reason he hasn’t won the Goncourt Prize was that his publisher had no line in the budget for buying off members of the award committee.
Flammarion released Ennemis Publics—a series of letters between French “bad boys” Bernard-Henri Lévy and Michel Houellebecq—last fall, and based on the recent review in the Times Literary Supplement, this sounds like it would be a lot of fun to read, even if it’s not as over-the-top and aggressive as it could be:
Michel Houellebecq’s opening shot in Ennemis publics, an exchange of letters between the two men over the first half of 2008, ranks up there with the very best anti-Lévy prose: “A master of the damp squib and the farcical media hype, you bring dishonour even to the white shirts you wear. Intimate with the powerful, you have bathed in obscene wealth since childhood and typify what slightly low-brow magazines such as Marianne continue to call the ‘caviar left’ . . . . A philosopher without thought but not without connections, you are also the author of the most ridiculous film in the history of cinema”. [. . .]
After the first letter, however, the satirical vein runs out. The expected argument turns into a dialogue between the two about their lives, experiences of the Paris literary scene and their basic outlooks on the world. Much of it makes for interesting reading.
Their exchange about public attacks and unauthorized biographies sounds pretty compelling as well:
Houellebecq and Lévy not only shrink from vigorous engagement: they actively look for common ground. They find it in the fact that both have been targeted by “un-authorized” biographers, and in the plentiful abuse they receive. “I am attacked as few writers are. Each of my books draws an amount of insults that would dishearten many”, Lévy writes, adding that he never lets the hostility get to him. The novelist marvels at the philosopher’s thick skin.
Midway through the exchange, Houellebecq is subjected to the mother of all attacks: a memoir by the woman who gave birth to him, and left him to be raised by others. Lucie Ceccaldi, now eighty-three, calls her estranged son a pervert and a liar. Houellebecq’s reaction is distressed, but he reserves his anger for those who publicized what he says should have remained a private dispute – although in Les Particules élémentaires (Atomized), the novel of 1998 which made him famous, he names one of the worst mothers in French literature after his own.
Seriously, does anyone know if this is being translated into English? Seems like it should/would be, but I haven’t heard anything . . .
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