8 September 2015

Michel Houellebecq’s ‘The Map and the Territory’

This week sees the publication in English of Michel Houellebecq’s novel, Submission (Soumission). I thought it would be interesting to re-read The Map and the Territory (La carte et le territoire) published in France in 2010 and in English* translation in 2011. The novel gained Houellebecq the Prix Goncourt (for "the best and most imaginative prose work of the year") in 2010.

The Map and the Territory follows the life of a successful French contemporary artist, Jed Martin. After developing one genre based on photographs of Michelin maps, he switches to another, more conventional one of portraits of people at work. Works like Bill Gates and Steve Jobs Discussing the Future of Information Technology, subtitled The Conversation at Palo Alto become internationally successful, although Jed has a problem with Damien Hirst and Jeff Koons Dividing Up the Art Market which is where the book starts:
Koons's forehead was slightly shiny. Jed shaded it off with his brush and stepped back three paces. There was certainly a problem with Koons. Hirst was basically easy to capture: you could make him brutal, cynical in an 'I shit on you from the top of my pile of dosh' kind of way; you could also make him a rebel artist, (but rich all the same) pursuing an anguished work on death; finally, there was in his face something ruddy and heavy, typically English, which made him look like a rank-and-file Arsenal supporter. In short, there were various aspects, but all of them could be combined in the coherent, representable portrait of a British artist typical of his generation. Koons, on the other hand, seemed to carry in him something dual, like an insurmountable contradiction between the basic cunning of the technical sales rep and the exaltation of the ascetic. (page 1)
He also paints portraits of his father, The Architect Jean-Pierre Martin Leaving the Management of his Business, and of Michel Houellebecq, Writer. Jed’s conversations with his father and the alter-Houellebecq are surprising to an English reader because of the interest both characters share in William Morris. Jean-Pierre as a young man had admired Morris as a designer as much as he disliked Mies van der Rohe and
... above all Le Corbusier, who tirelessly built concentration-camp-like spaces, divided into identical cells that were suited ... only for model prisons. (page 145)
but alter-Houellebecq, although admiring Morris as a social reformer, comes to the conclusion that:
What can undoubtedly be said is that the model of society proposed by William Morris certainly would not be utopian in a world where all men were like William Morris. (page 175)
What French readers make of it, one has to wonder, William Morris not being particularly familiar to many of them. Come to that, most English readers will be at a loss with the description of the FR1 (France 1 television) New Year’s Eve party and the personalities there like Jean-Pierre Pernaut.

Houellebecq is never afraid to give offence with his opinions. Jed meets and observes a senior manager at Michelin:
… again he searched for the right words, which is a disadvantage with former pupils of the Polytechnique; they’re a bit cheaper to hire than those of the École Nationale d’Administration but they take more time finding their words; … (page 55)
Jed eventually decides to move into his grandparents’ house in the Creuse. Houellebecq likes the French countryside (see, for example his letters to Bernard-Henri Lévy) but, if his view is the same as Jed’s, not its residents:
Jed had no illusions about the welcome he would get from the inhabitants of his grandparents' village. He had noticed that while he was travelling through La France profonde with Olga, many years before: outside certain very touristy zones like the Provençal hinterland or the Dordogne, the inhabitants of rural zones are generally inhospitable, aggressive and stupid. If you wanted to avoid gratuitous assaults and trouble more generally in the course of your journey, it was preferable, from all points of view, not to leave the beaten paths. And this hostility which was simply latent towards passing visitors, transformed into hate pure and simple when the latter acquired a residence. (page 278)
Nor is Jed keen on Mercedes:
Although he knew nothing about his life, Jed was hardly surprised to see Jasselin arrive at the wheel of a Mercedes Class A. The Mercedes Class A is the ideal car for an old couple without children, who live in an urban or periurban area, yet do not hesitate to treat themselves from time to time to an escapade in a hôtel de charme; but it can also suit a young couple of conservative temperament - it will, then, often be their first Mercedes. An entry into the range offered by the firm with the Silver Star, it is a discreetly different car; the Mercedes four-door saloon Class C and the Mercedes four door Class E are more paradigmatic. The Mercedes in general is the car preferred by those who aren't really interested in cars, who place security and comfort over driving sensations - also for those, of course, who have sufficient means. For more than fifty years - despite the impressive commercial strike force of Toyota, despite the pugnacity of Audi the global bourgeoisie had, on the whole, remained loyal to Mercedes. (page 240).
Jed likes Audis which
… characterise themselves by a particularly high level of finishing which can only be rivalled, according to Auto-Journal, by certain Lexus models. This car was the first one he'd bought since reaching a new wealthy status; from his first visit to the dealer, he'd been seduced by the rigour and precision of the metal assemblages, the gentle click of the doors when he closed them, all that was machine-tooled like a safe. Turning the speed-regulator control, he opted for a cruising speed of 105 km per hour. Some small notches, marking every 5 kph, made driving all the smoother; this car was indeed perfect. (page 165)
Houellebecq places some interesting characters in Jed’s life, for example, the art world PR, Marylin, and Inspecteur Jasselin, the Maigret-like detective who investigates alter-Houellebecq’s murder, and his un-Mme Maigret-like wife. However Olga, for a while Jed’s glamorous Russian girlfriend, is too much of a male fantasy.

Something about Houellebecq which I find intriguing is that he must be one of the very few novelists with an international reputation who had a scientific education, in his case as an agronomist. His mother had trained as an anaesthetist. Although from his student days he was inclined towards literature, Houellebecq later earned a living in information technology (until he could get out) and, according to an interview in Le Figaro magazine this summer, he has had a long-term interest in photography. Certainly if, as he recently told the Guardian, “…the job of a novelist is foremost to hold a mirror up to contemporary society”, he is not reluctant to introduce its technical details, for example here the life-cycle of the housefly. But Houellebecq’s readers can never be sure where the boundary of his satire lies. Does Jed’s dislike of Mercedes and encomium for Audi, both expressed in marketing speak, reflect the author’s world view or, rather more likely, is he tilting at the commercial shallowness of contemporary art and some of its practitioners?

A couple of oddities in the translation. On page 165 Jed is driving an “Audi Sport Wagon” which on page 177 has turned into an Audi Allroad A6. As far as I can tell, “Sport Wagon” is a type of BMW SUV sold in North America. The French original refers to “son break de chasse Audi” – “his Audi shooting brake” or nowadays “his Audi estate”, which could indeed be an Allroad A6.

On page 287 there is a reference in a description of Jed’s camera equipment to “a hard disk of two teraoctets” which non-French readers might not recognise as two Terabytes. The French (with the Romanians and Quebecois) use octet instead of byte for eight bits .

*By “English readers” I mean those in that language, not, of course, just those resident in England.  Page numbers are as in the 2011 UK hardback, (cover above).

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