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Monday 27 August 2012

Review: Nassim Nicholas Taleb, The Black Swan: the Impact of the Highly Improbable

I took on the The Black Swan in the 2010 Revised edition but I only read the first edition material. This took me to page 300, by which time I had exhausted my enthusiasm for this bar-room brawl of a book. Maybe some other time I will tackle the second edition material (pages 305 - 379).

Taleb wants to convince us of the importance of the truly unpredictable in some of the most important areas of our life.

Apparently well-confirmed generalisations ("All Swans are White") can be upset by a single counter-instance, a pesky Black Swan. That counter-instance can be game-changing, as when the Thanksgiving turkey discovers that today he is not going to be fed but instead slaughtered. This is the old Problem of Induction from past to future: no matter how many confirming instances you can gather, they do not protect you from tomorrow's disconfirming upset.

Areas of life which are elaborately modelled - the behaviours of markets, for example - are in fact areas of massive uncertainty, vulnerable to the fortuitous event which may make (or more often) break the bank. It is utterly foolish to proceed as if this was not so. Taleb's most striking example comes towards the end of his argument (pages 275-76) when he casually tells us that on the US stock market over the past fifty years movements on just ten days account for half of the aggregate opportunity for making or losing money. Think a bit about that and you may soon come to the conclusion that the stock market is one of those things not worth getting out of bed for.

Worse, when we try to explain What Went Wrong in stock market crashes and such like, we promptly fall victim to the Narrative Fallacy believing that if we can seem to make sense of it then we have made sense of it. In this case, the sceptic points not to the problem of induction but to the problem of the underdetermination of theory by data [Quine, Goodman], the problem that for any set of data there are an infinite number of theories which will make sense of them (pages 185 - 88).

Taleb has a rococco Bibliography (pp 401 - 29) and it seems a bit unfair to quibble with him for skipping classes. Nonetheless, I often felt that if he had been a bit more patient with some of the philosophy of science of - say - the past fifty years, then he could have presented his arguments both better and with more acknowledgement of their vulnerability.

In particular, I would have like to have seen a clearer acknowledgement that philosophers of science have tried hard to get us to see the asymmetry of explanation and prediction. They have highlighted how different are closed and open systems in their amenability to "scientific method".

At the same time, they have acknowledged the very large problems created by the underdetermination of theory by data - with Paul Feyerabend going off in the anarcho-skeptic direction (much to the dismay of Popper's pupil, Imre Lakatos) and someone like Noam Chomsky using a Naturalist solution - which goes back to C.S.Peirce - to argue that well, we just are adapted to understanding the world around us (in Chomsky's case, this is the claim that children just are adapted to figuring out the grammar embedded in the limited samples of language output to which they are exposed). In effect, it's an evolutionary argument.

In the case of Taleb's "narrative fallacy" my own view is that the pastness of an event constitutes it as an event in a closed system - the passage of time closes the system. Hence, we can in principle hope to explain it in a way that we cannot even in principle hope to predict events in open systems (the future).

Nassim Nicholas Taleb is a sort of Philip Roth of Risk and Uncertainty. If you like Roth, you will probably like Taleb.

Saturday 18 August 2012

Review: David Satter, It Was A Long Time Ago And It Never Happened Anyway

David Satter lives in Washington DC where the FBI has its Headquarters in a J. Edgar Hoover Building which retains its name despite the fact that Hoover was a serial criminal. You can, of course, read all about it in Anthony Summers, Official and Confidential: the Secret Life of J. Edgar Hoover and to an outsider it's very strange that the FBI is still determined to keep Hoover's name on the front door, despite everything. It's like they have never repented of the past.

This thought occurred to me when I hit Satter's brief characterisation of Stalin's KGB bosses: "Yagoda collected pornography, Yezhov was a promiscuous homosexual, Beria a serial rapist" (page 21). He complains that Russia has failed to come to terms with its past, whether through repentance or reconciliation, and part of the evidence for that claim is that there are still statues of the bad guys all around and streets named after them.

The problem is that if you divide the world into Them and Us - as Americans do and as Russians do (which is very convenient if you want to have a Cold War with each other) but as we all do to some degree - then you inevitably get double standards. President Putin never misses an opportunity to bang on about the West's double standards: Satter gives an example at page 213. Putin is quite often right.

So though I read this book while Pussy Riot were being sentenced in Moscow and had a strong disposition to agree with Satter's main thesis - which that Trial well illustrated - I also felt that Satter's book is not free of tendentiousness.

Satter's main thesis is summarised in his Conclusion:
Russia differs from the West in its attitude towards the individual. In the West, the individual is treated as an end in himself. His life cannot be disposed of recklessly in the pursuance of political schemes, and recognition of its value imposes limits on the behaviour of the authorities. In Russia, the individual is seen by the state as a means to an end, and a genuine moral framework for political life does not exist" (pp 304-05)

It is true that Russia has known very little except centralised and unaccountable power since the Romanovs consolidated their hold - next year, it's their 400th Anniversary. It is also true that the Russian Orthodox Church has almost always positioned itself as an instrument of state power, so that the potential for religious inspiration to provide a "genuine moral framework" has been lacking. (Of course, there have been heretics and schismatics in Russia, sometimes numerous; the Romanovs generally exiled them to the periphery of their domains, thus removing the contamination they threatened).

It's also true that Russia has never really separated State and Government. Interestingly, Satter himself never makes use of this distinction.

What do I mean by it? Institutionally, countries which have a largely ceremonial head of state make it easy for individuals to position themselves as loyal to the state but enemies of the government of the day. In the United Kingdom, the political party out of power is known as "Her Majesty's Loyal Opposition". It couldn't be clearer.

Likewise, any country with an independent judiciary provides its citizens with a potential source of values with which to oppose the regime of the day.

In Russia, the nearest equivalent to something supra-governmental is the idea of the Motherland which Stalin deployed to effect in World War Two, but which also potentially opened a space in which individuals could position themselves as loyal to the Motherland and hostile to the regime. But the Motherland was invoked at precisely the moment - the Great Patriotic War - when there was every reason to repress one's doubts about the regime in favour of the common struggle against an enemy actually worse than any caricature a regime propagandist could conceive.

If President Putin was reading this book, he would underline "life cannot be disposed of recklessly in the pursuance of political schemes" and comment, Vietnam? Cambodia? Latin America? Iraq? (And so that the Brits don't get off scot free, Diego Garcia?).In other words, "the West" defines rather narrowly which individuals benefit from being regarded as "ends in themselves".


In a rather erratic narrative which shifts between brief histories and contemporary journalism, Satter concentrates on the failure of the Russian state / successive governments to address the full horror of the Great Terror and the wickedness of the Gulag. He has interesting stories to tell about the activities of Memorial, and he travels well away from Moscow to document them. He charts the shifting responses of post-Soviet governments to demands for monuments to be put up or taken down and to demands to open the archives. He has interesting things to say about the Khruschev era and the Gorbachev years. He has one chapter (chapter 14) which reads likes special pleading for the CIA and which, had I been his editor, I would have challenged him to take out.

Though this book is published by Yale University Press, it's the foot-slog journalism which is its strength.

Wednesday 15 August 2012

Review: Fyodor Vasilevich Mochulsky, Gulag Boss

In 1940, aged 22, Fyodor Mochulsky, candidate member of the Communist Party, graduated from the Moscow Institute of Railroad Transport Engineering and - having rejected the offer of a graduate studentship in favour of "practical experience" - was assigned to work on the northern section of the railway being built from Kotlas to Vorkuta via Pechora. The rail link was being constructed so that coal could be shipped south from the Vorkuta coal mines and, in the context of a possible conflict with Germany, was regarded of great strategic importance.

The railway was being built by GULAG NKVD and Mochulsky became an NKVD employee, working inside the Arctic circle, foreman and boss over a prisoner labour force. He continued with this work until 1943, when he was (unexpectedly) moved sideways into Komsomol work with civilian employees along the railroad. After the war, he was re-trained as a diplomat and served in China and at high levels in Moscow. He retired in 1988, aged 70, and shortly thereafter - and it seems before the collapse of the Soviet Union - wrote out this Memoir of his Gulag years. Later, in the 1990s, he added further reminiscences (Part III of this book). At some point before his death in 1999, and having failed to find a publisher in Russia, he handed his manuscripts to Deborah Kaple and asked her to translate and publish them as she has now (2011) done.

I got the feeling that he has not been well-served by Kaple - and not just because of the delay. The translation of his Memoir quite often made me wonder what Mochulsky had actually written; and I found Kaple's Introduction and Afterword unimpressive.

Equally, it seems without a doubt that Mochulsky is not a good writer in any ordinary sense. But it is this which partly makes his book so interesting.

Right at the beginning of his professional life, Mochulsky is hauled up before a Party meeting for fiddling his very first statistical returns from his work Unit, for which it is proposed he should lose his Communist Party candidate status (p 43). He is allowed to offer a defence, and he gives an account of himself ( 43 -44) which repeats what he has already (32 - 37) told us: on arriving at his first assignment in the Gulag, he finds his forced labourers sleeping in the open air in Arctic conditions. And they are dying. So he suspends work on the railway for two weeks while the men build themselves barracks. At the same time, he continues to report upwards that track laying is continuing at the scheduled rate. Then when the barracks are built, the labourers work doubly hard for two weeks to make up lost output. Mochulsky continues to report normal output. By the end of one month, the books are balanced. But the daily returns have been faked and that's why he is in trouble.

Mochulsky escapes punishment because he gives a good account of himself. Nearly fifty years later, he again gives an account of himself in his Memoir - and I suspect he still has this idea that being honest and forthright is the best way to get yourself out of a fix, whether with the Communist Party or your soul.

When I read the opening narrative just described, I thought Mucholsky was going to use his Memoir to make out a case for himself as a Gulag Schindler, but he doesn't. At no point does he suggest that his actions are primarily guided by humanitarian considerations. Kaple writes, "His family says that he often spoke about the Gulag and his work there because the experience deeply troubled him all his life" (page XX). That is as far it goes. And Kaple also writes, "In his talks with me, Mochulsky stressed the importance of patriotism. In the face of a war on Soviet soil, he said, a patriot would do any job the government needed to be done, to win the war" (179).

His employers early on recognised that if you gave Mochulsky a job, he would get it done. Ironically, in the context of Soviet bureaucracy, Mochulsky gets things done not just because he is technically competent and hard-working, but because he is willing to take decisions and take risks. He uses his initiative. And this in a system which often penalises that. On one occasion, for example, he only gets to do what he thinks he should do because he signs a chit "stating that I had been warned of the dangers and that I took the responsibility for any possible consequences" (59) - most likely, getting killed.

I do not know if Mochulsky's account is "warts and all" but he does write about things which clearly - at the age of seventy - make him uncomfortable. He does not like the loss of self-control involved in drinking, for example, and stuck in the Gulag he is both sexually frustrated and curious about sex. But despite his reserve, he gives an account of these things and hopes for the best.

The awkwardness of the prose is one of the things which makes him quite endearing, as well as opening up many more avenues for reflection than a more polished performance would permit.

This book could be read alongside Orlando Figes, Just Send me Word, reviewed here recently. Both books are centred on Pechora and the Kotlas - Vorkuta railway. It would be good to have Figes' thoughts on the book now under review.

Sunday 12 August 2012

Review: Rajiv Chandrasekaran, Little America: The War within the War for Afghanistan

Some Americans just shouldn't leave the country. Many more don't and so have no reason to know that getting a Visa (what's that?) may involve a visit to a Consulate (what's that?) (page 172). All think they understand foreign policy.

When it first came out, I read Chandrasekaran's devastating critique of American civilian rule in Iraq, Imperial Life in the Emerald City so when I saw this new book in the shop I bought it without even riffling the pages. Now I have read it, I think it confirms him as a brave man, a fine investigative journalist, a good writer, and a shrewd critic. ( His Bibliography, though, is rather short and does not include Braithwaite, Cowper-Coles, or Abdul Salaam Zaeff ).

The author got himself into Helmand as an embedded journalist with the Second Marine Expeditionary Brigade (page 335) and develops his analysis and critique very much out of his account of the Obama "surge" into southern Afghanistan in 2009. He details the problems which arose both from not having enough boots on the ground (the British failure in Helmand) and from having too many: the Marines ended up with outposts in places which simply weren't worth it, not least because the government in Kabul is neither able or willing to follow up successful counter-insurgency operations with the installation of its own civilian administration. In one instance, the Marines even end up in a village where they are greeted as Russians - no one from the outside world, apparently, having been there since the 1980s. (page 245 ). At the same time, key areas like Kandahar were repeatedly neglected.

Whatever the official policy, some soldiers did not believe in counter-insurgency (making friends with the locals, fighting the insurgents) so they just went their own way and killed anyone who didn't look like an American. Chandrasekaran describes one bad case in detail (pp 152 - 161) and indicates (but rather in passing) how damaging to America's war aims such things have been.

More central to his critique is the failure of Military (Pentagon) and Civilian (State Department) to work together effectively. I guess there is nothing new in this. It's as familiar as the old story of the FBI and the CIA. Chandrasekaran reserves his most powerful criticism for USAID which comes out as ignorant and incompetent. If you were running a poor country and read this book, I reckon you would immediately ask for a report on the local work of USAID and start wondering whether, like Mr Romney, these were people who really shouldn't have left home.

In the course of his critique, Chandrasekaran names and shames in a way which would not be possible in a British book on the abject British failure in Afghanistan: at page 182 - 84, for example, two named State Department officials are characterised in terms which, to me, are simply career - terminating.

The critique of USAID is the least nuanced part of the book and reminds me of the well-deserved trashing of the Coalition Provisional Authority in Imperial Life in the Emerald City. The more nuanced critique of the rest of the book is perhaps more valuable because it shows that though Afghanistan, unlike Iraq, had claims to be the "good" war it was never clear what the war was for. Or else, when that was articulated as "making Afghanistan ready for hand over to a good-enough Afghan government" then it became clear that there was no such government around or likely to become available in the near future. The Karzai regime, in many accounts (not just Chandrasekaran's) is just not going to step up to the plate.

It costs $1 million to keep one American soldier in Afghanistan for one year (page 324). You can see why Obama wants out. Reading this book written from an American point of view, with very little attempt to characterise "the Insurgents", you can also see why so many Afghans feel, "We don't want you here. We don't like you. Get the hell out" (page 238)

The final chapter of this book is titled, "What We Have Is Folly"

Friday 10 August 2012

Review: Orlando Figes, Just Send me Word

The backbone of this book is provided by long extracts from correspondence between Lev Mischenko (1917 - 2008) and Svetlana Ivanov (1917 - 2010) during the eight years (1946 - 1954) when he was a political prisoner in the Soviet Gulag and she a scientific researcher in Moscow. They had met before the War as students and were courting each other when Hitler's invasion of Russia separated them: Lev was captured by the Germans in the summer of 1941 and spent the War in German Dulags, Stalags and concentration camps. For that, he was then sentenced to ten years in the Gulag (Article 58 - I(b)).

He survived and Svetlana waited - from 1941 to 1954, with short annual visits to him (at first, unauthorised) from 1947. After Lev's release in 1954, they married, had two children (Svetlana by then an elderly prima gravida) and lived into their nineties. Their correspondence between 1946 and 1954 comprises 647 letters from him and 599 from her. It is now held in the archives of Memorial in Moscow and "is the biggest known collection of private letters relating to the history of the Gulag" (Irina Ostrovskaya, page 297).

The work of transcribing, translating and making sense of these letters should not be underestimated; it was surely an enormous undertaking. But Figes has also spent some time researching the archives of the Gulag network in the Komi ASSR where Lev spent his imprisonment in the Pechora Wood Combine.

I guess that those archives were also hard to make sense of and in wishing there was more contextualisation in this book, I am aware that it is not something which is delivered to the researcher on a plate. Of course, we have Anne Applebaum's massive book Gulag (2003), but still ...

On the other hand, Lev's letters posted outside the camp to avoid censorship do provide a mass of detail about his daily life - about food shortages, about brutality, about lack of health care, about bribery and corruption. There are even significant photographs, partly thanks to a former Pechora camp inmate, Lev Izrailevich, who after finishing his sentence elected to remain in the area as a free worker and, for prisoners, a valuable link to the outside world (see notably pages 95 - 97 for his biographical details).

The book is highly readable: it's an extraordinary love story and also a story of extraordinary luck. Lev had many talents, and those helped him survive, but he also had strong outside support from able people willing to take risks on his behalf. Even so, at any point, things could have gone wrong and quite often it was a close shave.

Lev's biggest fear was that he might be moved to a camp - say at the Vorkuta mines, just a little to the north of Pechora - where life would be harder, the regime more strict, the opportunities for enlisting the help of free workers to act as couriers much more limited, and so on. In those circumstances, his chances of living out his sentence would have been much reduced. Svetlana, as a Communist Party member and involved in "sensitive" scientific research, ran considerable risks in maintaining a relationship with a "political".

In fact, the main limitation of the book is that it is about people so hugely untypical. The Gulag was a machine for destroying people, either physically or morally. You died, horribly, or you lost your hope or your reason. That was a much more common outcome and those millions to whom that happened leave us no voice.

So though this book can be placed alongside Applebaum's on the shelf, it also belongs with Martin Amis's very well-informed novel House of Meetings (2006) which takes its start from the fact at the end of the 1940s (1950 at Pechora - Figes, page 207) some camps provided facilities ( Dom svidanii) for brief conjugal visits.

The legacy of the Gulag does not end with the deaths of the last of its inmates. Lev and Svetlana had two children. One of them, Nikita, was able and willing to co-operate fully with Figes (page 293). About the other, Anastasia, Figes says only that she "suffered chronically from bipolar depression and was unable to work" (page 284).

Wednesday 8 August 2012

Essay: Writers, Intellectuals, Professors

One of the first things by Roland Barthes that I read was, "Ecrivains, Intellectuels, Professeurs" which appeared in Tel Quel (Issue 47, 1971) just as I turned up to enroll as Barthes' student at l'Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes. It came to mind as I was reading Adam Phillips's On Balance (2010) - a book I can't review here because I didn't read it Cover to Cover: I skipped some of the book reviews.

Barthes (at least as I recall) carves up a space which can be occupied by different kinds of individuals (the ones he names in the title) and different kinds of writing (which, as it were, go with the job). Over time, the organisation of the space changes: roles and styles get (partially) interchanged; orders of dominance shift.

Nowadays, the professors and the academic style very much have the upper hand. The fundamental reason is economic.

Imagine. A Prof earns let's say 36 000 a year (dollars, euros, pounds- it doesn't matter) for a working commitment of 240 days (probably a bit less but it makes the arithmetic simple). So it's around 150 a day, before tax. Modest, but it pays the bills. In the United Kingdom, it would not be unusual for a third of those 240 days to be charged as "research". For a Prof in the arts and humanities, this is when he or she can read and write and get paid for it. Eighty days (plus whatever voluntary overtime you put in). And no one says (yet) into how many published words that must convert, though if no words are published then eventually the Prof will lose those 80 days back to teaching and "admin".

In contrast, the writer and the intellectual have to live off Royalties - which depend on number of books sold - and Fees - which usually depend on number of words commissioned. At the beginning of a career when you have no back list of publications generating continuing income, there is absolutely no way to make a living out of being a "writer" or "intellectual". Even many years later, only a few do. That is why you find novelists taking jobs teaching Creative Writing and critics taking jobs as Visiting Professors.

Adam Phillips is a figure to be honoured. Starting out as a working child psychotherapist (in the National Health Service), he has gone on to carve out a space for himself as a writer and (public) intellectual. He showed in his Fontana Modern Master Winnicott that he could do the kind of job only a very good academic could do; he has also done the kind of editorial work academics reckon is their job. But he has now worked for a couple of decades, without footnotes, exploring how we live our lives (or have them lived for us) in a way which is both creative and open-ended but also disciplined by an enduring commitment to a psychoanalytic paradigm - a paradigm which universities, at least in the UK, have never really endowed with salaries.

The pressure must sometimes feel immense.

Academics feel (peer - ) pressured to publish and end up finding outlets in unreadable (and unread) journals for work which is - what? - ninety percent of the time banal or simply repetitive of what they published in another journal last year. Unless they belong to a fraternity or sorority whose members swear to cite each other, the only person who will ever cite these publications is the author, in his or her CV.

Writers and Intellectuals look at their bank balances. The temptation to publish every last jot and tittle, if you can, must be considerable. The temptation to take on too much, ditto. Even in Adam Phillips there are times when I feel he multiplies his trade mark Questions because they provide the words on the page that he needs without consuming the hours it would take to craft considered Answers.

Roland Barthes had more elevated concerns in his essay than my Benjamin Franklin preoccupations, but he wrote as someone who himself made the transition from intellectual (writing newspaper columns even) to (rather uncomfortable) Prof.

In the year I studied with him, he was assigned a real theatre for his popular lectures. He sat modestly enough on the stage behind a small table, with a sign from the current production ("Le Petit Cirque" ) hanging in the background. But he abandoned the theatre for a seminar room the week after someone stood up in the Balcony and denounced his reactionary adherence to theories of Binary Opposition. Someone there was making a Category Mistake.

Friday 3 August 2012

Review: Thaler and Sunstein, Nudge

There are Econs. There are Humans. And there is America. We need to talk about America before we talk about Nudge theory.

America is in many ways a failed state. It is enormously wealthy but a large part of its population lives in poverty. Ordinary people work longer hours, take fewer holidays, are in more insecure employment, and get paid less than their counterparts in other wealthy countries.

It spends more - publicly and privately - on health care than any other country but gets a lousy return for the money spent.

An ossified Constitution exaggerates the fissures of a deeply divided society where lobbyists and fundamentalists (of whom there are many) can block even the most sensible changes. It is massively indebted, runs a structural deficit and has no Plan A or Plan B to get itself out of the mess. Tacitly, it relies on the goodwill of China to prevent total meltdown.

America professes to value freedom but imprisons people (especially young black men) on a Gulag scale. Like North Korea, it has a truly massive military budget combined with a crumbling infrastructure (think, Hurricane Katrina).

It refuses to check or even acknowledge what economists call Exernalitities: the harms some people do to others. So for over fifty years the conduct of the War on Communism, the War on Drugs and the War on Terror have subverted governments, destroyed law and order, trashed infrastructure, reduced populations to poverty, and created an incalculable toll of human misery. On every occasion, America has walked away - often enough, in demoralised defeat - and has never paid up for the catastrophes it has caused. The calculations alone are terrifying: try Joseph Stiglitz and Linda Bilmes: The Three Trillion Dollar War. The True Cost of the Iraq Conflict (2008)

What is true for foreign military adventures is true for domestic policy: though China now leads the way, America's tolerance over decades for domestic environmental pollution was simply a refusal to even acknowledge externalities.

Externalities - quantifiable "harm to others" in J.S.Mill's terms - get just a couple of mentions in Thaler and Sunstein's book (page 50, page 194). They limit their attention to fields where, really, since there are few if any externalities everyone can be a winner - and those who don't want to play can simply walk away. This is what they call "libertarian paternalism": the State nudges people towards outcomes which are in their own better (longer-term, rational, sensible) interests but does not punish them or make them incur costs if they choose to opt out. Instead, with the help of clever psychologists, governments set out to create a "choice architecture" which guides (or defaults) people to good choices and away from bad ones. Who could possibly object?

Well, in America, they could and that is part of the problem. Our two Professors of Public Policy are constantly looking over their shoulders for a negative reaction from the fundamentalists. (They don't even mention guns).

So it is really an achievement in the depressing context from which their work emerges that they have things to say which are relevant to public policy choices in countries less blighted than the United States - even if, in the case of the United Kingdom, it is not for want of trying.

All the stuff on Saving for Retirement, for example, relates to a topic of enormous importance and what they have to say is useful and practicable. Ditto for mortgages (and remember that the sub-prime mortgage crisis in the USA triggered the 2008 global financial crisis). But when you hit the chapter on Prescription Drug Insurance Plans à la George W Bush (Medicare Part D) you are into the kind of weird world which makes me think that the USA is the galactic twin of North Korea.

It's an easy read; it has its enthusiasts outside the USA (Mr Cameron, though I am not sure he could tell a Nudge from a Shove); and it is probably the kind of thing that die-hard command-and-control politicians like President Hollande should read, as a corrective to the natural habitus of their thinking.

Postscript: A while back on my General Blog for 19 April 2012, I suggested that it would restrain democratic countries from wars of aggression if Campaign costs had to be funded from a separate War Tax imposed every time a country went to war. This would make the costs of war making transparent and remind voters who think of war as free prime time entertainment that it is not paid for from advertising or sponsorship but from their taxes. So I will now re-cycle this idea as an application of Nudge theory.

Wednesday 1 August 2012

Review: Michel Houellebecq, La Carte et le territoire

The first two sections of this book, extending over 260 pages, tick all the boxes for a very good novel: the structure is there, the pacing is there, the style is there, the content is there. I read them with pleasure and anticipation.

Then comes a hundred page policier which starts abruptly in quite another place from where the first two parts ended. It casts Houellebecq himself as the murder victim and eventually incorporates the other central character of the novel, Jed Martin, into the plot and then - the story spilling over into the Epilogue - proceeds to a reasonable resolution. We end up with a satisfactory, but not outstanding, detective story.

The Epilogue then prolongs the story into the future. All Epilogues are risky ("Reader, I married him") and I thought this prolongation ill - conceived: it is contrived (it uses a naff Rip van Winkel device) and sentimental ("Reader, he died").

In the first 260 pages Houellebecq crafts a modern artist, Jed Martin, and very carefully charts the development of his artistic work. Just like Houellebecq, Martin is interested in the nuts and bolts of life (literally - his starting point is to photograph quincaillerie) and in the everyday: he photographs Michelin maps and this gives him his artistic breakthrough as well as a love affair. Houellebecq develops all of this patiently, in an undemonstrative style. Along the way he shows he can do knock-about humour (finding a plumber), develops a convincing portrayal of a difficult father-son relationship, and introduces himself as a character - Houellebecq is asked to write the Introduction to the catalogue for Martin's second exhibition. This allows a large number of themes about contemporary art and society to be developed. Houellebecq is no slouch: he is a very well-read, very thoughtful writer who knows how to express himself brutally and to effect.

So I read with pleasure and interest - and despite the fact that it is what I think of as a Metropolitan-Parochial novel: it's the kind of novel in which the chattering classes of Paris can recognise themselves. I am sure this is one reason it got the Prix Goncourt where earlier (and more unconventional and challenging) novels by Houellebecq failed to do so. (Les Particules Elementaires and Plateforme, which I read some years ago [the former in the English translation, Atomised], are surely at least as important as this novel).

Then comes the policier with Houellebecq as victim and Jasselin as the wife-loving and dog-loving flic, who retires with the murder still unsolved. (He asks his subordinate Ferber to call him if ever the case is resolved and the loyal Ferber does just that; it would fit well in the film).

There is quite a lot of sentimentality here, some of it expressed around Jasselin's wife and rather more around his dog. I can't buy into this. I am happy with Paris as a city of romance; I just wish it wasn't a city of romance and dog shit.

Houellebecq closes by following Jed Martin into the future. Like Houellebecq before his murder, he retreats to the countryside but encloses himself behind electrified fences. He exits his estate from a specially constructed road in order to avoid the awful village in which he lives. And then, suddenly, many years later he decides to venture out into the village he has avoided for so many years... and, Lo!, it is completely transformed. This is toe-curlingly bad (where was Houellebecq's editor: cut everything after page 384 and you have a better ending) and it is not retrieved by an account of Martin's artistic work in the final years of his life: this is now too little and too late.

My French is good enough for a novel like this (I just get stuck over acronyms and no doubt miss incestuous allusions), but not so good that I can read any-old 400 pages. A book has to engage my interest and this one did. He deserved his Prize for the first 260 pages.


Just one thing I cannot develop without re-reading the novel: I don't think the chronology is very secure. Over which period of years does the novel spread? And connected to this, why does it seem to me that Martin and Houellebecq and Jasselin are all characters who prematurely age? They are all old men before their time.