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Showing posts with label Michel Houellebecq La Carte et le territoire. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Michel Houellebecq La Carte et le territoire. Show all posts

Sunday 18 October 2015

Review: Michel Houellebecq, Soumission

I think Michel Houellebecq is a very good writer - sometimes superb - but I don't think this is a good novel. It doesn't really work.

He imagines France a few years on from now (2022) electing a (moderate) Islamic President one of whose (less moderate) priorities is to islamicise - with the help of Saudi Arabian funding - university education. The events of the novel unfold through the eyes of a jaundiced professor who is cast, first, as an Outsider à la Camus: there is an obvious nod to the opening page of L'Etranger at page 174. But he is cast, second, as a faux naïf  who sits open mouthed (always nibbling at the canapés or the mezze) as others, more clued in politically, give him lessons in what is happening to France. These lessons take the form of set piece speeches, delivered by a secret policeman and a university rector to their audience of one. It is one of the drawbacks of a roman à thèse that you are forced into such desperate literary devices.

I should add that the narrator is also cast, third, as an academic expert on J K Huysmans, sufficiently distinguished to get the invitation to edit a Pléiade edition of his works. What Houellebecq writes about Huysmans is interesting and clearly knowledgeable; some university should probably give Houellebecq a doctorate for his thesis and overlook the novel.

Houellebecq can be an amusing writer when he wants to be but I am not sure - maybe my French isn't good enough - if he intends that we should be in fits of laughter as he brings his novel to a close. His narrator likes food and sex, preferably free but he will pay for both if necessary. He's a bit down on his luck when he is compulsorily retired from the new islamicised Sorbonne. But he is tempted back. He sees what is happening to those of his colleagues who have converted to Islam. They not only have the salaries, but new wives. The rector of the University has been given a 15 year old, very sexy, but also has an older wife who can cook, very well.

And so the narrator, after dutifully reading the little introduction to Islam provided,  discreetly enquires - If I accept the invitation to return, for how many wives would I qualify? Well, there is no obligation to take all of them, but we could probably offer you three. That settles it and, to the delight of his colleagues, our Vicar of Bray returns to his university post.

Thursday 30 July 2015

Review: Ferdinand von Schirach, The Girl Who Wasn't There

I didn’t find this a gripping novel in the way that the author’s previous book The Collini Case is gripping: I read that book in a single sitting (see my Review 16 March 2014). With this one, I struggled.

Roland Barthes back in the early 1950s developed the concept of a “Degree Zero” of unmarked prose in modern writing; he had in mind works like Camus’ L’Etranger – the original English translator of that novel found its plainness so unacceptable that he or she simply padded out the Spartan text with invented flourishes. Von Schirach adopts a Spartan style reminiscent of Camus. For well over a 100 pages everything is described in flat prose, short sentences resisting emotional charge or effect. I don’t think this is the translator getting it wrong.

For example, though there are clear similarities between this book and some of Houellebecq’s writings (notably La carte et le territoire reviewed here 1 August 2012), von Schirach – unlike Houellebecq who is very good at it - does not try to write erotically charged and arousing prose; he just narrates sexual scenes as he might narrate having a shower.

I was on the point of giving up (even though the book is very short) when the murder mystery section opens – at page 115 of the 215 page book - and the writing becomes more lively, more open and even funny. The first joke appears as late as page 142 (top line) and I found it inordinately funny – that’s what emotional starvation does to you.

Alternatively, you could say that it shows good crafting, good pacing. I don’t think so. I think the pace – or if you like, the tone – is unchanged for too long (115 pages say) and then the murder mystery is compressed and underdeveloped.

Like Houellebecq in La carte et le territoire von Schirach imagines himself into the work of a modern artist of conceptual orientation (actually a photographer) and is thus able to create a complete work – a project, an installation – for his character just using words. The reader can enter fully into this totally imaginary art work. This perhaps illustrates the weakness of conceptual art, which is often no more than a narrative illustrated with a few props. But von Schirach has done his background reading and some of the more interesting passages in the second half of the book are those which give the background to his photographer’s disappearing trick.

There is a happy ending which is so brief and abrupt that it could be called trite.

My advice: in his next novel, von Schirach should give himself another 50 or 100 pages and he should change the pace, the emotional tone, more often. Trite but possibly true.