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Posts Tagged ‘Michel Houellebecq’

The Lesbian Pulp Novel, and Other News

November 20, 2015 | by

From a Penguin edition of Patricia Highsmith’s The Price of Salt, retitled Carol.

  • In the aftermath of the Paris attacks, Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast has landed the number-one spot on the French best-seller list—spurred in part by an interview with a woman known only as Danielle, who said the memoir helps the French “hold high the banner of our values,” even if it was written by an American.
  • Speaking of Paris—look out, world. Houellebecq is on the Times Op-Ed page, up to his usual tricks: “Despite the common perception, the French are rather docile, rather easy to govern. But they are not complete idiots. Instead, their main flaw is a kind of forgetful frivolity that necessitates jogging their memory from time to time. There are people, political people, who are responsible for the unfortunate situation we find ourselves in today, and sooner or later their responsibility will have to be examined. It’s unlikely that the insignificant opportunist who passes for our head of state, or the congenital moron who plays the part of our prime minister, or even the ‘stars of the opposition’ (LOL) will emerge from the test looking any brighter.”
  • If you’d rather not read on, head elsewhere in the Times, where high-tech Japanese toilets are on parade. (And remember, gift givers, the holiday season is approaching.) “For those who own Japanese toilets, there is a cultish devotion. They boast heated seats, a bidet function for a rear cleanse and an air-purifying system that deodorizes during use. The need for toilet paper is virtually eliminated (there is an air dryer) and ‘you left the lid up’ squabbles need never take place (the seat lifts and closes automatically in many models) … Toto, arguably the industry leader (though other companies sell them), has tried over the years to get Americans to embrace the concept. Their latest bid to toilet-train the public is the Connect+ system of the Carlyle II 1G with s350e washlet. The model offers the standard comforts, along with something Toto calls SanaGloss, a glaze that seals the porcelain and repels waste.”
  • But you don’t look for this space for hygiene advice. You’re here for literature. May we recommend a dime-store paperback, then? Patricia Highsmith’s The Price of Salt, first published in 1953, depicted a lesbian couple without putting them through the wringer: it was “a landmark book for queer America, offering readers a powerful and hopeful ending, one that didn’t see the two women at the center of the story end their affair, commit suicide, or attempt murder … As an act of secretive reading, the lesbian pulp novel formed an invisible lesbian community.”
  • On the plays of Caryl Churchill, who’s still honing her craft at age seventy-seven: “Churchill’s interest in mutable, shifting identities has remained a major theme—and from the perspective of contemporary debates about gender and the essence of identity, seems almost prophetic … Whatever one thinks of her politics, Churchill has been able to respond rapid-fire to current events in part because she has stayed away from the convoluted development processes of film and television: she remains committed to live forms. And it is hard to see how anything but theatre could give her the flexibility to write as she pleases. The early texts are rich, dense, often sprawling as they hop-skip across time; these days, the plays are pearlescent in their minimalism. Sometimes they’re as short as eight minutes: one sentence can be an entire scene.”

Tumefied and Syphilitic, and Other News

November 16, 2015 | by


J. K. Huysmans just relaxing in front of this crucifix like it’s no big thing.

  • Houellebecq’s Submission features many an excursus on Joris-Karl Huysmans, the nineteenth-century French writer of whom Houllebecq himself has said, “I think he could’ve been a real friend to me.” What was Huysmans’s MO? His novel À rebours, which tells of “a nature-hating aesthete named Jean des Esseintes,” has an approach to desire and spiritual malady that feels strikingly on point, even in 2015: “Subtitled ‘A Novel Without a Plot,’ the narrative concerns des Esseintes’s attempts to furnish and decorate a country home where he will be able to live without ever again having to deal with the outside world … He gets turned on by locomotive engines: their steaming, sweating loins girdled in glittering copper corsets; their disheveled manes of black smoke; their horns’ muffled, impassioned cries … Huysmans’s prose isn’t just purple: it’s ultraviolet. Everything in À Rebours is tumefied and syphilitic, damasked with ennui, liver-spotted with arcane longings.”
  • In which Gay Talese slips on a pair of virtual-reality goggles, and balks: “But this doesn’t interest me in the least! … You know why? You know why? It’s the sort of stuff you see in a documentary, but there’s no insight into the situation, into the characters … It’s just a bunch of scenes … Television is driven by imagery … There will be a lead on a slow night, the networks will lead with a forest fire in Topanga California—great visual scenes—or a bombing of Baghdad. Anything that shows you color, smoke, fire, bullets, dodging gets on because it’s visual, but you don’t get anything … There has to be face to face confrontation between the writer and the subject, and the writer has to be able to cultivate something from the subject to get something approximate to the truth of the subject.”
  • What does a debate about the abridgment of Moby-Dick tell us about reading on the Internet? Oh, nothing terribly encouraging: “Countless readers have run aground on Melville’s mountain of details on the art of whaling, or have been left behind as he plunges, like his Catskill eagle, into philosophical realms, but it is precisely in these passages where his real appeal resides … It is rather quaint to locate the manifestation of our collective ruin in a British publisher of abridgments, which have been around nearly as long as novels themselves … Thanks to the oceanic expanses of the web, there is no need to condense or abridge anything anymore, at least not for want of space … This would appear to be a problem. And it is one that is likely to get worse.”
  • Today in techno prophesy: a bunch of smart interdisciplinary types got together and decreed that by the year 2100, “libraries will be both highly distributed and deeply connected, sharing a single collection as they work to meet the emerging demands of their individual communities.” As for the physical books in the libraries, they’ll probably disappear, but only a fuddy-duddy would mourn their loss. “Library isn’t etymologically related to books at all, deriving instead from a Latin word for the smooth inner bark of a tree. It was, in this sense, a thing on which one might write rather than a storehouse of what had already been written. Whatever they become … libraries will retain that original implication, always ‘spaces for creation or curiosity,’ even if they leave the books behind.”
  • Meanwhile, in a concrete bunker seventeen feet underground, the New York Public Library is preparing to store vast, high-density reserves of print: “a new retrieval system [will] ferry the volumes and other materials from their eighty-four miles of subterranean shelving, loaded into little motorized carts … Books will be stacked by height and tracked by bar code rather than by a subject-based system, making for some odd bookfellows … The climate-controlled repository encompasses more than 110,000 square feet … It stretches from beneath the back wall of the main building, which fronts Fifth Avenue, a full block west to Sixth Avenue, and from 42nd Street to 40th Street.”

The Hermit Kingdom—in Fabulous 3-D! And Other News

October 8, 2015 | by

Won Il-myong, a furnace worker at North Korea’s Chollima Steelworks. Photo: Matjaž Tančič, via The Guardian

  • The Belarussian writer Svetlana Alexievich has won this year’s Nobel Prize for literature. Read her piece “Voices from Chernobyl” from our Winter 2004 issue. “Alexievich,” The New York Times writes, “is best known for giving voice to women and men who had lived through World War II, the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan that lasted from 1979 to 1989, and the Chernobyl nuclear disaster of 1986.”
  • Our editor Lorin Stein discusses translating Michel Houellebecq’s novel Submission—specifically, one sentence about arousal, Muslims, and politics: “At first I wrote, ‘Given the political situation, choosing a Muslim turned me on.’ But this was very un-Houellebecqian … One of us came up with arouse: ‘Arousing, in a way’ — for me, that’s how Houellebecq sounds. And even though the syntax doesn’t track the French exactly, it preserves the air of anticlimax, the slight fussiness, the stoicism of the original. The sentence became less brutal, less vulgar.”
  • When he’s not making movies, Wim Wenders takes photographs—and yes, most of these photos contain landscapes, and sure, most of them are devoid of human life, but don’t call the guy a landscape photographer. He’s got your number. “I am not a landscape photographer. I am interested in people. I am interested in our civilization. I am interested in what traces we leave in landscapes, in cities and places. But I wait until people have gone, until they are out of the shot. So the place can start talking about us. Places are so much more able to evoke people when people are out. As soon as there is one person in the shot everybody looks at that person. If there is nobody in the shot, the beholder is able to listen to the story of that place. And that’s my job. I try to make places tell their stories about us. So I am not a landscape photographer. I am really interested in people, but my way of finding out things about people is that I do photos about their absence, about their traces.”
  • When the Oregon Shakespeare Festival announced plans to translate all thirty-six plays into modern English, people got very pissed, very fast. These days we like our Shakespeare unadulterated; his genius, the thinking goes, reposes in his language. But it wasn’t always so.So many serious Shakespeareans over the centuries have argued the opposite: that Shakespeare’s genius had to be salvaged from the obscure, indecorous, archaic, quibbling mess of his language. For poets, playwrights, editors, and actors from the seventeenth century through much of the nineteenth, Shakespeare’s language wasn’t intoxicating so much as intoxicated: it needed a sobering intervention.”
  • North Korea just held its first photography exhibition curated by Western artists. Among the works on display were pictures by the Slovenian photographer Matjaž Tančič, who took portraits of North Koreans in—wait for it—3-D. And though that art form is liberating, his travels were not: “My guides would keep trying to trick me by taking me to the ‘beautiful bits’ like the pristine maternity hospital in Pyongyang, or a newly refurbished library. I’d keep trying to trick them into letting me talk to ordinary North Koreans.” Tančič described the country as “like a stage,” and then, later, “like a movie.”

You Can’t Build That, and Other News

September 10, 2015 | by

Alexander Brodsky and Ilya Utkin, Hill with a Hole (detail), 1987–90. Image via Hyperallergic

  • “The role of a novel is to entertain readers, and fear is one of the most entertaining things there is … I don’t particularly feel like apologizing. It’s impossible to increase the proportion already given to Islam in the news. We’re already nearly at 100% … A good provocateur knows who he’s going to shock. I’m absolutely incapable of predicting that ... It’s always a surprise every time.” That’s Houellebecq, saying typically Houllebecq things about Islamophobia, on the eve of his novel Submission’s release in the UK. (It comes to America next month, translated by our own Lorin Stein.)
  • Today in wacky and yet not implausible Pynchon theories: Is this brick of a novel called Cow Country—published this April by one Adrian Jones Pearson through a very, very small press—actually the work of the P-man himself? It has all of his hallmarks: “Need I mention that this novel is serious while spoofing … that high satire with a healthy dollop of bodily humor and a keen eye for paradox is this literary sensibility’s chosen (and perhaps as a person, inevitable) metier? … With a magnifying glass, one could look closely and find what seem to be minor instances of Pynchon jokes from earlier novels recycled in Cow Country, tweaked for their new context.”
  • Alexander Brodsky and Ilya Utkin were architects in the late days of the Soviet Union, which set strict aesthetic parameters for the buildings it erected—all but ensuring that architecture ceased to be an imaginative discipline. But Brodsky and Utkin found a way to skirt the rules: they designed buildings that could never exist, like “precarious scaffolding, classical domes, huge glass towers, and other visionary architecture that referenced everything from ancient tombs to Le Corbusier’s sprawling city plans.”
  • What is an author’s reputation made of? Reviews, sure. Critical studies, yes. But there’s also a less tangible factor you might call “litchat”: “the conversations that writers, readers, and critics have amongst themselves. Whether another writer is spoken of respectfully, whether you get the impression that ‘everyone’ is reading his or her new book enthusiastically, or how well people think he or she comes across in interviews—these and a dozen other imponderable factors constitute a reputation during a writer’s lifetime, particularly in the early part of a career.”
  • The image of the booze-soaked, tortured writer is a distinctly male one—but let us not forget the women who drink. “Male writers get careful interpretation of the role of alcohol in their creative lives; women writers are alcoholics, pure and simple … Women writers, meanwhile, have evolved a more complicated relationship with drunkenness. It is no longer quite the stain it once was … Still the canon is for the most part seriously dented by the effects of what you could call the Hemingway attitude—this idea that a woman is contaminated by self-destructiveness, and contaminated in a way that slurs her art.”

Let Him Buy Groceries in Peace, and Other News

August 28, 2015 | by

Is that the author of The Map and the Territory in there?

  • Today in Houellebecq: the author has inveighed against Le Monde, the French newspaper of record, for publishing a series of unauthorized pieces about him. Calling journalists “parasites” and “cockroaches,” Houellebecq dismissed the articles for their “malicious sneakiness,” noting that he’d refused to meet the reporter and had explicitly instructed his friends not to speak with her. “Knowing which Monoprix I shop in is not a subject of national importance,” he wrote—somewhat mystifyingly, as the Le Monde piece made no mention of said Monoprix. (He’s also recently announced an exhibition at the Palais de Tokyo, in Paris, where he’ll show “photographs, installations and films, along with commissions by other artists such as Iggy Pop and Robert Combas.”)
  • Reading: Why bother? What’s all the fuss about? Four new books aim to show that reading makes us thoughtful and empathetic—“training” for the art of being human. “We might describe it as paideutic criticism, the term taken from the ancient Greek idea of paideia—the original foundation of humanistic study. Paideia meant the pursuit of self-knowledge through examination of the beautiful and the good … By reading and rereading the classics in the company of these genial guides, Virgils to our Dante, we can, in a more modestly modern way, achieve some similar serenity.”
  • We can also find serenity in forgetfulness, which allows us to let go of that ultimate nuisance, personal identity: Going along with Locke’s view of memory as identity is the narrative theory of identity—the idea that one forges and maintains an identity by weaving a coherent narrative out of memories, tying one’s present to one’s past. Memory and the process of remembering are essential to this. Forgetting is an enemy, causing narrative gaps and undermining the sense of having a coherent narrative … Some people court forgetfulness. My students like to quote the old adage that ‘ignorance is bliss’ when we talk about memory and forgetting; from this they think it follows, as night follows day, that ignorance is to be preferred to knowledge when such knowledge undermines happiness. If forgetfulness serves the goal of bliss, who wouldn’t pursue it?”
  • In the wake of the controversy surrounding Duke and three students who refuse to read Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home, Sam Stephenson remembers his time teaching at the university’s Center for Documentary Studies: “ ‘There are people teaching at Duke that barely graduated from UNC,’ I’d tell my students on the first day of class. The ones who laughed usually proved to be the more engaged and thoughtful documentarians … The outlying students—the ones frustrated by the emphasis of their fellow students on linear, pre-professional tracks—tended to find their way to our building, on the wrong side of the tracks, literally … These three students who are objecting to Bechdel’s book could use a dose of good documentary engagement. (I doubt they would have thought my introductory class joke was funny.) The words document and doctor come from the same Latin root, docere, which means, variously, to teach, to learn, to pay attention, to care, and, ultimately, to heal.”
  • There’s a highly advanced, deeply treacherous form of storytelling far beyond the realm of mere literature: dating. Specifically, sugar dating, in which courtship between a sugar daddy and a sugar baby is clouded by the exchange of money. “You can tell yourself whatever story you want, and eventually you'll forget you’re telling a story and you’ll find yourself in the parking lot of a Pizzeria Uno getting sucked off by someone who thinks she’s getting the better end of the deal. And the worst part is, you’ll think you’re helping her. And she’ll give you that blow job, all the while wondering how she could get so lucky, how you could be so dumb. Everyone gets what they want. And, sure, what’s so wrong with that?”

Relax—It’s Our Summer Issue

June 1, 2015 | by


Our new Summer issue features work in and about translation. There’s a story from Andrés Neuman and a sneak peek at Michel Houellebecq’s controversial novel, Submission, plus poems by Coral Bracho, Xi Chuan, Radmila Lazić, and Iman Mersal. At its center are two interviews in our Art of Translation series—first with Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, who have been married for thirty-three years and whose thirty-odd translations include The Brothers Karamazov, Crime and Punishment, War and Peace, Anna Karenina, and Chekhov’s Selected Stories. “Very naive readers think you take the Russian and you put it in English, and then you’re done,” Pevear says. Read More »