Skip to content

Posts from the ‘Michel Houellebecq’ Category

The Italics of Disdain

Can we talk about italics for a minute? In the last two books that I have written about here on Vertigo, both authors have used italics in what I think of as the italics of disdain. It’s a way of making clear to the reader that the speaker or narrator dislikes or wishes to distance himself or herself from the very set of words he or she is uttering.

In Mark Haber’s book Saint Sebastian’s Abyss, for example, a novel about two art historians, the Austrian-born Schmidt looks down his nose on his colleague simply for being American. The narrator tells us how Schmidt laid into him one day: “I couldn’t help myself being American, he hastened to add, I’d been stunted and impaired and because of this geographic shortcoming, I suffered a lack of nutrients readily found in the ancient soils of Europe, Austria especially, its soil as dark and rich and awash with history as one could ever dream of, the complete inverse of the anemic American soil on which I’d regrettably been raised, he’d said, a wasteland, he’d called it, a revolting abyss, he’d added.” Here, we not only have several instances where Schmidt cringes from the very words he is forced to tell his American colleague—detestable words like “wasteland” and “revolting abyss“—but we have an example of one italicized phrase—”ancient soils of Europe“—that serves as the exact opposite from the italics of disdain. These are the italics of triumph, the sound of slapping down the winning hand, of showing up the poor schlub who has forced you to say all these distasteful things.

Anyone who has read the novels of Thomas Bernhard will recognize even in this partial sentence that Haber is paying homage to the great Austrian writer in Saint Sebastian’s Abyss, not least through his similar use of italics, but also in the sentence construction of non-stop short clauses (and I’ve only quoted less than half of the original sentence) and the repeated insertion of variants of “he said,” to remind us that the narrator is telling us his own, possibly rephrased version of what Schmidt said to him.

Michel Houellebecq’s The Map & the Territory has an omniscient narrator, which is quite a bit different than having a known character as a narrator. Omniscient narrators are generally neutral, but Houellebecq’s narrator likes to use italics to point out whenever any of the book’s characters speak in clichés or use phrases that seem faddish. Here’s the narrator commenting on the main character Jed Martin, an artist: “he had produced a body of work, as they say, without ever encountering, or even contemplating, happiness.” Characters are chastised on the page for uttering trite phrases such as “a genuine human drama” or a “stupefyingly strong desire” or for using tired business phrases like “core target.” Sometimes the narrator makes fun of his own choice of words when even he resorts to clichés, as he does here in writing about one aging couple: “You could say that they still had some beautiful years ahead of them.” Houellebecq seems to be in love with italics in The Map & the Territory, using them to emphasize words and phrases, to indicate foreign words, and sometimes simply to make a point.

Thomas Bernhard was a master of italics of all kinds. Beginning with his second novel, Gargoyles (1967), his narrators begin using italics with increasing frequency, at first just for emphasis or little cries of anguish over the annoyances of the world. But by mid-career, there seem to be moments in every novel when his narrators just drip with disdain for whomever they are talking about or to, as Bernhard targeted pretensions of every sort throughout Austrian society and government. In Woodcutters (1984), his satiric novel about a literary dinner party, the narrator makes fun of the pretensions of the hosts by referring to the event as an “artistic dinner” on innumerable occasions throughout the book (lest we forget!). And he skewers one of the hosts for the “vulgar and repellent” way in which she continually refers to someone as “altogether the most important actor and the greatest living actor, an assessment with which the narrator apparently disagrees” Later on, the narrator snidely notices that an actor at the dinner party pronounced the phrase “dream role” “as though it denoted some culinary delicacy.” When the dinner ends, the narrator flees towards his home, determined to begin writing the first sentences of what will become the tell-all novel that we have just finished, letting the italics of urgency pile on. “And as I went on running I thought: I’ll write something at once, no matter what—I’ll write about this artistic dinner in the Gentzgasse at once, now. Now, I thought—at once, I told myself over and over again as I ran through the Inner City—at once, I told myself, nowat once, at once, before it’s too late.”

Bernhard’s narrators also loathe colloquialisms, even as they frequently resort to using them. On the opening page of The Loser, his novel about the pianist Glenn Gould, the narrator writes: “while now of course he didn’t kill himself like Wertheimer, but died, as they say, a natural death.” Later on: “The Wertheimers have always lived, as the saying goes, in grand style.” Or: “the three of us were, as one can say, friends for life.” It’s a way for the narrator to simultaneously use a cliché and allow the italics to let the reader know that he’s holding his nose while he utters it. Toward the end of the book, the narrator (and Bernhard) vents his spleen toward both the Austrian people and its government: “They all wanted a socialist government, I said, but now they see that precisely this socialist government has squandered everything, I purposely pronounced the word squandered more clearly than all the others, I wasn’t even ashamed of having used it at all, I repeated the word squandered a few more times with regard to our bankrupt state and our socialist government. . . Never before in its history has our country sunk so low, I said. . .”

Thomas Bernhard. Gargoyles. NY: Knopf, 1970. Translated from the 1967 German original by Richard and Clara Winston.
Thomas Bernhard. The Loser. NY: Knopf, 1991. Translated from the 1983 German original by Jack Dawson. Thomas Bernhard. Woodcutters. NY: Knopf, 1987. Translated from the 1984 German original by David McLintock

Michel Houellebecq’s The Map & the Territory

I picked up Michel Houellebecq’s novel The Map & the Territory, in part, because the front cover blurb said it was “a serious reflection on art, death, and contemporary society,” and I was curious to see how a writer of Houellebecq’s stature and reputation would deal with contemporary art. The Map & the Territory is the life story of Jed Martin, a fictional artist who develops a very quirky artistic career. His first important body of work, the portfolio that he used to gain admission to the prestigious Beaux-Arts de Paris, was titled “Three Hundred Photos of Hardware” and consisted of nuts, bolts, and other pieces of precision engineered metalwork that he had photographed in a “neutral lighting, with few contrasts” in order to take away “the menacing nature of the forms.” Once admitted to the school, he began his “grandiose and maniacal” project of “the systematic photography of the world’s manufactured objects. . . suspension files, handguns, printer cartridges, forks.” His goal was nothing less than to create “an exhaustive catalogue of the objects of human manufacturing in the Industrial Age.” Jed’s simple argument for his work was that “the history of mankind could in large part be linked to the history of the use of metals.” Some art historians agreed and saw this early work as a “homage to human labor.”

Jed’s next important body of work came about as a result of a road trip with his father. The two stopped at a service station and Jed purchased a Michelin Departments road map.

It was then, unfolding the map, while standing by the cellophane-wrapped sandwiches, that he had his second great aesthetic revelation. This map was sublime. Overcome, he began to tremble in front of the food display. Never had he contemplated an object as magnificent, as rich in emotion and meaning, as this 1/150,000-scale Michelin map of the Creuse and the Haute-Vienne. The essence of modernity, of scientific and technical apprehension of the world, was here combined with the essence of animal life. The drawing was complex and beautiful, absolutely clear, using only a small palette of colors. But in each of the hamlets and villages, represented according to their importance, you felt the thrill, the appeal, of human lives, of dozens and hundreds of souls—some destined for damnation, others for eternal life.

Eventually, Jed turned his interest from the products of modern technology to the leaders of various industries, including the arts (which Jed clearly thinks of as an industry of sorts), making a series of large painted portraits such as Damien Hirst and Jeff Koons Dividing Up the Art Market and Bill Gates and Steve Jobs Discussing the Future of Information Technology, which depicted the two tech giants playing chess in Jobs’ living room.

In keeping with the industrial and corporate subject matter of Jed’s artworks, much of the writing in The Map & the Territory is very factual, resonant of a corporate report. Its pages are littered with the product names for everything from camera equipment to fashion items to automobiles to Jed’s artistic supplies, as well as the the names of the books and magazines on people’s tables and bookcases. But that’s not to say that the book is dry to read. Houellebecq’s otherwise omniscient, disembodied narrator gets gossipy and even a wee bit snide when dealing with the people in Jed’s life, becoming something of a social critic at all of the pretense Jed encounters in the art world. The narrator is quick to latch on to all of the clichés and code words drifting in the conversational ether. Here’s how the narrator describes why the architects at Jed’s father’s firm felt that they needed a new location for their headquarters (the italics are Houellebecq’s): “They had felt the necessity of going upmarket, and the headquarters now had to be in a townhouse, preferably in a cobbled square, or at least in an avenue lined with trees.”

Houellebecq’s narrator sees contemporary art—artists, curators, gallerists, publishers, collectors—as nothing but a vast market system, seemingly severed from any kind of aesthetics or non-monetary value. But Jed remains a bit of a naïf. With a big exhibition and catalog on the horizon, he can’t even manage to theorize about his work and has to turn to a writer to do this for him. In a move that is ripe with irony, Jed commissions a writer named Michel Houellebecq to write the this catalog essay for him. Houellebecq seems to have way too much fun satirizing himself. His character is lazy. He hasn’t managed to unpack, despite living in his new house for three years. He spends most of his time in bed, “watching cartoons on Fox TV” in his pajamas, depressed, drunk, and suffering from athlete’s foot.

His essay is late, of course, forcing Jed to delay his exhibition, but when the it arrives it “asserts for the first time the unity of the artist’s work.” Houellebecq declares that Jed’s subject has always been commerce, “hunting for the essence of the world’s manufactured products,” and he confirms that Jed’s work operates in a neutral and detached manner, without any political or social comment.

As payment for his promised essay, Houellebecq agrees to have Jed paint his portrait.

Houellebecq is standing in front of a desk covered with written or half-written pages. . . Captured at the moment of noticing a mistake on one of the pages on the desk in front of him, the author appears in a trance, possessed by a fury that some have not hesitated to describe as demonic; his hand holding the pen, treated with a certain blurring movement, throws itself on the page “with the speed of a cobra stretching to strike its prey” . . . The expression in the eyes appeared at the time so strange that it could not, in the critics’ view, be compared to any existing pictorial tradition, but had rather to be compared to certain archival ethnological images taken during voodoo ceremonies.

But then, after his exhibition, in mid-career, Jed suddenly becomes a hermit and makes no more art for many years. Decades fly by before he slowly gets back to work, secretly making short videos of nature near his rural French hideaway. Then he makes portraits of all his friends who are still alive before putting his final work together. Without any further explanation, Jed’s artwork takes an unpredictable turn.

The portraits of human beings who had accompanied Jed Martin through his earthly life fell apart under the impact of bad weather, then decompose and disappear, seeming in the last videos to make themselves symbols of the generalized annihilation of the human species. They sink and seem for an instant to put up a struggle, before being suffocated by the superimposed layers of plants. Then everything becomes calm. There remains only the grass swaying in the wind. The triumph of vegetation is total.

As Jed Martin dies, his final artwork signals the end of the Industrial Age. Houellebecq clearly knows his way around the art scene. The Map & the Territory is a cynical but relatively accurate portrayal of the contemporary art ecosystem (at least as it was a decade ago when the book was published), although I have yet to know any artists who managed to remain as unscathed by the tenacious claws of the art market as Jed Martin. The novel is generally very engaging to read, but it’s too comfortable in its own skin to stretch the novel’s form in any new way.

Jed’s hyper-methodical art practice and his interest in the aesthetic qualities of Industrial Age products will remind some readers of the photography of Bernd & Hill Becher, the German husband and wife team who rigorously photographed the industrial architecture of the twentieth century during the years of its growing obsolescence. A retrospective of their work is on exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art until November 15, 2022.

Bernd & Hill Becher, Fördertürme, 1965–1996. ©ESTATE OF BERND AND HILLA BECHER

Michel Houellebecq. The Map & the Territory. NY: Random House, 2011. Translated by Gavin Bowd from the 2010 French original.