La carte et le territoire by Michel Houellebecq

George Walden detects signs of mellowing in this impressive novel by French literature’s most famous provocateur 

Sunday 10 October 2010

Houellebecq Michel Houellebecq. Photograph: Pierre Verdy/AFP/Getty Images

"The writer whose works the Goncourt judges handle with their fingertips, fearful of dirtying their hands", as a critic on Le Monde has put it, is in the process of enraging the French literary establishment once again. After he has been hauled before the courts for calling Islam "the most stupid religion", and reviled by critics as a vulgar provocateur, a pornographer and creature of the consumer society he affects to despise, there would seem not much more to be said against Michel Houellebecq. But with the French publication of his new novel, La carte et le territoire, pious opinion will find it.

 

"Le monde est ennuyé de moy, et moy pareillement de luy," says Charles, Duke of Orléans, in a quotation on the frontispiece. Boredom with the Parisian world is one of the novel’s themes, but are we bored by the author? After Atomised, the book that put him on the British map, there was a falling off into laziness and facile provocation, or the banal fantasies of his last novel, The Possibility of an Island (2005). In the new one the possibilities are more beguiling.

The book is a bundle of reflections tied together by a story, but the reflections are entertaining as well as elegiac and the story carries you along. The tale is of an artist, Jed Martin, who succeeds by photographing large-scale Michelin maps of provincial France, then by painting people at work. The opposite of the engagé artist, Jed is a dispassionate fellow, indifferent to his wealth and celebrity. He is just fixing the facts on canvas, he says, registering what’s there.

A reclusive artist who, apart from a single affair with a beautiful Russian and an annual dinner with his father has little personal or intellectual life, imposes narrative limits. The vacuum is filled by the sadistic murder of Jed’s acquaintance, a certain Michel Houellebecq.

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