Michel Houellebecq – The Map and the Territory

This dark and thoroughly readable novel offers a thought provoking take on art and the art world the temporary nature of life.

It focuses on a reluctant artist, Jed Martin. After an almost loveless upbringing – his mother committed suicide and his architect father shut him out by choosing boarding school for Jed and working continuously – Jed finishes university as an intelligent loner. His father buys him a small Paris apartment, and from there Jed drifts and thinks and works.

His earliest phase an artist sees him photographing hundreds of industrial and man made objects, earning him a misunderstood respect among his peers.

He then begins creating a series of photographs based on Michelin maps that are regarded as works of huge beauty. The Michelin company loves them, he receives artistic prestige, meets a beautiful Russian woman living in Paris – Olga – but characteristic of Jed, he fell into creating these works of art and when Olga leaves for Russia he leaves it all

begins are becomes a recluse once more.

Ten years later he’s exploring painting, this time painting everyday and famous figures in ways that capture their essence. Waiters, bakers, executives, Steve Jobs and Bill Gates – he paints many – and they become recognised as great depictions of people, and at this point he comes to be seen as one of France’s greatest artists.

It’s at this point too that he meets the author Houellebecq, living as a drunken, depressed recluse in Ireland. They begin an acquaintance based on a shared antipathy to the world. Jed does a portrait and gives it to him, and though they rarely see each other it looks like they’d be friends of sorts – until, that is, Houellbecq is brutally murdered after moving into his family home in rural France.

The story then focuses on the policeman investigating the murder, and in a sense the book turns away from Jed and the art world to the investigators. But eventually we return to Jed as a rich artist who has bought his grandparents’ old house in the countryside and adjoining land and built an estate that allows him to live for over a decade without meeting anyone. He even builds a private road in order to avoid going into the nearby village.

At the same time, though, he is working on a series of overlaid films that depict the organic breakdown of matter, including his artworks, that show the finite nature of human life and meaning – a series discovered after his death, when it is seen as a masterpiece.

Besides the rich plot and characterisation, and the simple prose (despite its translation from French), there are some brilliant themes in this.

One is the question of the authorial intent of an artist. Jed appears to create works that people see as offering a deep insight into being human. But in Jed we see none of this gift: he is lonely, taken up by everyday concerns like the boiler, and rarely seems introspective or reflective. Where do these works come from? How much are they intended? The same appears to apply to the character of Houellebecq when we meet him too. Autobiographical maybe? Who knows.

Another interesting question raised, though a more cynical one, is the relation between money and art. Jed is able to spend time on complex artistic works because he’s relatively well off at the start and not occupied with the drudgery of work, and at the end when he’s rich. Further, it’s because Michelin and various rich people are flattered that he has taken them as subjects that we see his popularity and the price of his paintings increase. It’s not all about money, the recognition of good art, but it plays, its part it seems to be saying.

One thing that intrigues throughout the book is the author – is it Houellebecq? Whoever it is they often offer strong opinions that can’t always entirely be ascribed to the characters they are talking about: on religion, or immigration, or the state of France say. It might be that the little I know of Houellebecq is that he’s a controversial public figure prone to reactionary views, and so I was looking for this, or it might be that this undertone is there. I need to read more of him to see, and will.

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“I know very well that human beings are the subject of the novel, of the Great Western Novel, and one of the great subjects of painting as well, but I can’t help thinking that people are much less different than they generally think. That there are too many complications in society, too many distinctions and categories.”

Jed Martin speaking in Michel Houellebecq’s The Map and the Territory

“Mother died today. Or, maybe, yesterday. I can’t be sure. The telegram from the Home says: Your mother passed away. Funeral tomorrow. Deep sympathy. Which leaves the matter doubtful; it could have been yesterday.”

Albert Camus’s great opening to The Outsider 

On Cosmopolitanism – Jacques Derrida

Reading Derrida’s essay on cosmopolitanism, hospitality and the treatment of refugees what is most striking is how the mood on immigration has shifted so dramatically since it was written in 1997.

During the 1990s the ideas of cosmopolitanism and global human rights were relatively high on the agenda. In this context, Derrida argues in On Cosmopolitanism that when you deconstruct the concept of cosmopolitanism and how states should respond to claims for asylum or protection by refugees, it is divided between two poles.

On the one hand is a universalist normative ideal of hospitality which says everyone should be given refuge, regardless. On the other is the pragmatic consideration of the economic impact of accepting unlimited refugees. The principle is one of openness, of borderless-ness; the pragmatism is around what is financially possible. How these are negotiated, where the line is drawn, is the stuff of politics.

Derrida is aware in the essay, of course, that cosmopolitanism is not the only force driving nation states, and points to France as an example of a country that wants to be seen and understand itself as offering hospitality to exiles, refugees and migrants but also had started to crack down on migrants in order to control them. He refers to an ideal of ‘cities of refuge’ or ‘free cities’ as possible alternatives to state power, where we might see individual cities (he cites Strasbourg) offering hospitality to refugees regardless and despite what the state does.

Where we are today is light years from here – not just from these ideals but even the hopefulness that would allow someone like to Derrida to write this essay. The idea that the treatment of refugees comes from a negotiation between the universal of hospitality and the particular of what is possible seems almost impossibly utopian. Arguably, today the negotiation is wholly more negative.

On the one hand is the pragmatic need for a country like France to absorb migrants in order to ensure that the economy is viable. And on the other is the normative idea that there is an established nation with a people, an identity and a set of values that needs to be preserved. Debates about burkinis in France, Polish plumbers in the UK and Syrian refugees in Italy are all about borders and identity, with the concept of hospitality at best a marginal sentiment. Right wing populism, nationalism and borders are common currency now.

In typical Derrida fashion, On Cosmopolitanism is dense and at times obscure but ultimately sheds light – in this case on what was at stake when we were talking about ideals of cosmopolitanism.  But more than anything it makes you realise that question being asked in parliaments and city halls around the world is no longer, given we have an obligation to provide hospitality how many migrants can we practically take but, given we need migrants to power the economy how many can we take without diluting out national identity.

It makes you realise, put more simply, that our thinking on citizenship and immigration has taken a turn for the worse.

Rose Tremain – Trespass

A gothic tale of retribution, family, abuse and the effect of histories, real and imagined.

Set in the South of France, it tells the story of two sets of brother and sister. First there is Arundun and Aramon, the former sexually abused by the latter for 15 years, with the encouragement of their father Serge, and the power relation is now embodied by their housing, with Aramon in the large and increasingly decrepit manor house and she in a small bungalow, ambiguously on the edge of his land. Tired of the house and the responsibility, he wants to sell up. She continues to harbour murderous thoughts of revenge, but is yet to enact them.

Then there is Veronica and Anthony, she living in France with her partner Kitty, he an antiques dealer still in London, but fed up with the work, struggling with his business, and wanting to move to France.

He is interested in buying Aramon’s house, though worried about the bungalow on the edge of the property, and as the to and fro of the house purchase goes on Arundun sees an opportunity to take revenge on her brother for the abuse he subjected her to and the life he destroyed in the process. 

What is really strong in this novel is its gothic style, with the house and the land has a force and presence of their own; stronger than any of the characters in many ways. People – with their histories, families, houses, memories – they come and go, but land is always there. 

And equally powerful is the ways in which our histories and memories shape and ruin our lives. For Arundun and Aramon these memories are real: the abuse suffered has destroyed both their lives in different ways, and at the very end, when in prison, he expresses sorrow and appears happy with his lot, finally. For Anthony, his life is determined by his connection to his mother, Lal, but according to Veronica, it’s an imagined connection – his love for her was largely unrequited, and the mother was interest in her life and apparently lacked the maternal affection Anthony holds so dear.

Trespass is a very good book. I was expecting something more action-packed, so it’s slower revelatory style was a surprise at first, particularly given the opening chapter sees a you girl finding a body. But when you realise it’s more family saga than crime drama, it’s brilliant.

Jerome Ferrari – The sermon on the fall of Rome

Read September 2015
Given the cover blurb I ought to have liked this book, with its comparisons to European novels of big ideas, like Satre or Camus. But in fact I found if very hard going.
It is primarily the story of Libero and Mattieu who give up their studies in Paris and return to Corsica to run (and turn around) a struggling tourist bar. They make money, drink a lot, have plenty of women, but as the story progresses the debauchery grows, ultimately causing the pair’s dream to collapse.
As the author makes clear, it’s an analogy of St Augustine’s sermon on the mount, where he sets out the inevitable corruption of man.

There were some good passages but, in the end, the book is too much like magical realism for me (and in fact a comparison is made to Marquez on the cover which is ought to have paid more attention to). We never get under the skin of the characters – even the two main characters remain very distant, let alone the side characters which are sketches, even caricatures – and the focus on big philosophical and historical themes means the psychological analysis that the novel form does so well it just not here, making this are difficult read.

The Philosophy of Walking – Frederic Gros

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Read August 2014 

Sometimes you read a book that opens your mind to what a book can be.

The philosophy of walking is part philosophy, exploring the reasons, the feelings and the defining characteristics of walking. It is part biographical, telling us about the walking habits (and in fact wider lives) of philosophers and poets – Nietzsche’s epic walking, Rousseau’s incessant walking, Rimbaud’s constant fleeing, Thoreau’s belief in the walk, etc.

Above all it is lyrical, poetic even: the writing is beautiful throughout; it flows, it captures the moods and insights well beyond the sheer fact of putting one foot in front of another.

I have read other books like this, but not often.

A surprising element of the book is the focus on the countryside: on walking as something that is rural; across expanses of nothing; coming across streams, trees; coping with the weather; and so on.

Only one chapter is about urban walking where he talks about Baudelaire as the ‘urban flaneur’.

It’s refreshing and unusual for a contemporary philosopher or social theorist to talk about the countryside in a positive way: so many, like Negri or Harvey, see the city as the place of interest, change and potential.

Walking, too, in this book is about solitude: being alone, trudging, thinking and reflecting – it’s rarely a social affair. The aloneness takes many different forms, Gros says, but often – very often – it is the way in which thinkers think, the way they get their ideas.

Packed of little snippets of insight, one that is memorable for me is that books written in studies lined with books – books based on other books – are heavy, dense, difficult, whereas books borne of walking are light, airy, refreshing. This book is very much the latter – a lovely read, few references, philosophical and poetic. A very different kind of book.