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Posts Tagged ‘Michel Houellebecq’

Staff Picks: Country Life, City Life, Future Life

January 23, 2015 | by

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From the cover of The Edge Becomes the Center.

When we ran Sylvain Bourmeau’s interview with Michel Houellebecq earlier this month, a number of readers tweeted their distaste for Houellebecq’s new novel, as described by Bourmeau and by Houellebecq himself. They may want to think again. To American eyes (at least, to mine), Soumission is not a xenophobic screed, nor is it a dire prediction that Muslims will take over France. In the book, Muslims certainly do take over France and impose a form of Sharia. They also impose economic policies based on the theories of G. K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc, and appoint a minister of education with links to the Belgian far right. This is, in other words, a fairy tale premise, played deadpan; Houellebecq uses it to make fun of, and to vent his scorn upon, the firmly secular France of today. Whether it is tactful (or prudent) to invent a Muslim Brotherhood party led by Chestertonians is a fair question, but Houellebecq has never been celebrated for his tact or, thank heavens, for his good sense. —Lorin Stein

Before I picked up DW Gibson’s The Edge Becomes the Center, I would’ve told you it was impossible to write a significant book about gentrification, as fraught and ubiquitous as it is. But Gibson’s oral history, out in May, is a generous, vigorous, and enlightening look at class and space in New York; it ought to be required reading for the next generation of transplants. In the stories of tenants, buyers, landlords, architects, real estate agents, contractors, and politicians, Gibson has found vibrant humanity in a subject that is, paradoxically, lacking in it. If it seems obvious that gentrification is about people, then why has a book like this been so long in coming? The Edge Becomes the Center raises critical questions about what we expect from our cities and how groups become communities. Mainly, though, it’s a joy to read, its chorus of voices a reminder of oral history’s power. Anyone who cares about the shape and gestalt of life in New York—and anyone who believes in cities as centers of culture—will come away moved. —Dan Piepenbring

There are a number of reasons to love Pitchfork’s new interview with Björk: the unabashed feeling with which she discusses her new album; the way she describes trying to unite (sometimes unsuccessfully) motherhood, family, and work; and the glimpse into her extraordinary mind. It’s most important, though, for the candor with which she admits to finding it difficult to be a working woman, that despite her fame and success and obvious talent, she has felt the need to have her ideas annexed by men in order to have them heard. After at least a decade of seeing her own creative efforts passed off in the press as belonging to men, she exhorted herself to speak out: “You’re a coward if you don’t stand up. Not for you, but for women. Say something.” Her experiences—for instance, that “everything a guy says once, you have to say five times”—are now a refrain among women. (How did we cope before we’d coined mansplaining?) But the elephant turd on the carpet, as Rebecca Solnit once called it, should be pointed out at every opportunity. —Nicole Rudick

I first heard about Ben Metcalf’s Against the Country from The Paris Review’s Southern editor, John Jeremiah Sullivan. Set in poor, rural Virginia, Against the Country is narrated by an unnamed farm boy who was “worked like a jackass for the worst part of my childhood, and offered up to climate and predator and vice, and introduced to solitude, braced against hope, and dangled before the Lord our God, and schooled in the subtle truths and blatant lies of a half life in the American countryside.” The narrator’s father wants to flee town for a simpler life, so the family moves from suburban Indiana to Goochland, Virginia, where the narrator spends his later days ruminating over the evil they found in the country soil. Against the Country doesn’t preach against rural America’s perceived moral superiority—it holds it up, allowing readers to examine its farcical nature. Hilarious and dark, like most of Metcalf’s writing, the novel and its thick, rambling sentences had control of me from beginning to end. —Jeffery Gleaves
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Chaucer’s Bachelor Pad, and Other News

January 19, 2015 | by

Portrait and Life of Chaucer - caption: 'Portrait of Chaucer'

From Portrait and Life of Chaucer, sixteenth century.

  • Where did Chaucer get his writing done? In absolute squalor, apparently: “From 1374 till 1386, while employed supervising the collection of wool-duties, Chaucer was billeted in a grace-and-favor bachelor pad in the tower directly above Aldgate … The only natural light would come from ‘two (or at most four) arrow slits’ tapering through the five-foot thickness of these walls … Meanwhile ‘a stench wafted from the open sewer known in its northern extension as Houndsditch that ran (or festered) just outside the city wall’; Houndsditch was so called because of the many dead dogs dumped there. In addition to rotting garbage, dead dogs, and fecal waste from the next-door Holy Trinity Priory, you’d find ‘the occasional human corpse.’ ”
  • A Christian publisher has pulled a best-selling memoir, The Boy Who Came Back from Heaven, after its author, Alex Malarkey, admitted that he made the story up. “I did not die. I did not go to heaven,” Malarkey wrote. “I said I went to heaven because I thought it would get me attention.”
  • When he died in 1989, John Cassavetes left behind a lot of unpublished or unproduced work—novels, plays, screenplays. Now his last project, a play called Begin the Beguine, has finally had its premiere, in Vienna of all places …
  • Michel Houellebecq, Francophobe: “Houellebecq is not merely a satirist but—more unusually—a sincere satirist, genuinely saddened by the absurdities of history and the madnesses of mankind. He doesn’t ‘delight in depicting our follies,’ as reviewers like to say; he’s made miserable by them. French reviews and American previews of Submission might leave one with the impression of a sardonic, teeth-baring polemic about the evils of Islam, the absurdities of feminism, the terrible demoralization of French life. In truth, the tone of the book is melancholic rather than polemical. Life makes Houellebecq blue.”
  • On Arthur Goldhammer, who’s translated more than a hundred books from French to English: “Translation is like forming any kind of human relationship … When you meet a new person you think it might be a friend, you are still sometimes wary, you are not completely familiar with the kinds of exchange you are going to have with this person, so you are more cautious at the beginning. Caution is one of the things a translator has to overcome.”

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This Week on the Daily

January 11, 2015 | by

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Honoré Daumier, Advice to Subscribers, 1840.

Michel Houellebecq defends his controversial new novel, Soumission.

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How did the future look from the past? Jason Z. Resnikoff sees the sixties and seventies through 2001 and Alien.

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In the early nineties, Paul Thomas Anderson found an inspirational teacherDavid Foster Wallace.

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Dan Piepenbring on the demise of R&B groups and the promise of D’Angelo’s new album, Black Messiah.

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“Being interesting, at a very basic level, is sort of the point of telling a story in the first place.” Thomas Pierce talks to James Yeh.

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Michael Thomson on The Evil Within, a horror video game that breaks all the rules.

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Five new paintings by Mamma Andersson.

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Ben Mauk visits Berlin‘s art book fair.

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Plus, Sadie Stein on the history of okay; and a poem by the late Stanislaw Baranczak.

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How to Be Rude, and Other News

January 9, 2015 | by

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John Waters, Beverly Hills John, 2012, C-print, 30" x 20". Courtesy of the artist and Marianne Boesky Gallery, New York

  • Michel Houellebecq has announced that he’s stopped promoting his new novel in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo attack.
  • A history of Nabokov in adaptation: “Filmmakers have mined all of Nabokov’s movie-friendly novels … But the adaptation I’m still waiting for is Pale Fire, which pretty much everyone agrees is unfilmable.”
  • Who among us hasn’t thought long and hard about “what might have tickled the funny bones of folks suffering under Stalinism”? The Suicide, a 1928 play by Nikolai Erdman, was apparently so funny that Soviet authorities forbade it from being staged until 1982, ten years after its author had died. Now the play has been adapted for contemporary Western audiences, but “this bleakly comic portrait of desperate lives in Soviet Russia feels wheezy and labored, ultimately about as much fun as a winter holiday in Siberia. (Grim footnote: Mr. Erdman was exiled there after being arrested on political grounds in 1933.)”
  • On John Waters, who has a new show at Marianne Boesky Gallery: “He is the only funny conceptual artist I can think of. He is—like the cartoonists at Charlie Hebdo—a rude satirist who sends up the absurdities of American culture, in particular our obsession with fame and eternal youth.”
  • “Bitcoin may well be the world’s worst-performing currency. In 2014 it lost more than half of its value against the dollar, beating even Ukraine’s hryvnia and the Russian rouble. But measured by the number of new books it has inspired, bitcoin is top of the pile. Nearly 200 titles about the crypto-currency came out last year, according to Amazon. Another dozen will hit the shelves in the coming months.”

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Save the The, and Other News

January 8, 2015 | by

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The frequency of the over the twentieth century, as seen in Google Books ngrams. Image via Language Log

  • An English translation of Michel Houellebecq’s Submission will be published in America, though no date has been set. (Houellebecq and the controversial novel are on the cover of the latest issue of Charlie Hebdo.)
  • Have a question for Haruki Murakami? (NB: “Dear Mr. Murakami, I, too, enjoy jazz and cats” is not a question.) Go ahead and ask him. He’s answering queries from fans on a new site called Mr. Murakami’s Place, though as of this writing the site remains—maybe fittingly—impossible to find.
  • Our definite article is endangered. Linguists have crunched the numbers, and over the course of the twentieth century, our use of the plummeted. If you treasure the the as I do, join the campaign to employ the the as often as the circumstances allow. (We started by putting it in the title of our magazine.)
  • The key to an authentic sci-fi novel: show your work. Andy Weir’s The Martian, once a self-published e-book, has found a wide readership because of its attention to technical specifics: “An astronaut gets left behind on Mars in a near-future NASA mission, and has to survive until help comes. This he does through physics and chemistry, algebra and pipe fitting, botany and celestial navigation, all described in meticulous detail, some of it even simulated with software that Weir wrote himself.”
  • The descent of the English department—why do outsiders so commonly regard it as “a bastion of muddled thinking”? Some say “academics ‘must make their peace with the fact that viewed from the outside their work does not look like work,’ but this misses how academics are perceived by those sensible enough to dwell outside their ranks: The problem is precisely that their work looks too much like work—onerous, meticulous, pointless, jargon-soaked work without application either to literature or to living.”

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Scare Tactics: Michel Houellebecq Defends His Controversial New Book

January 2, 2015 | by

Photo by Sylvain Bourmeau

Photo by Sylvain Bourmeau

It’s 2022, and France is living in fear. The country is roiled by mysterious troubles. Regular episodes of urban violence are deliberately obscured by the media. Everything is covered up, the public is in the dark ... and in a few months the leader of a newly created Muslim party will be elected president. On the evening of June 5, in a second general election—the first having been anulled after widespread voter fraud—Mohammed Ben Abbes handily beats Marine Le Pen with support from both socialists and the right.

The next day, women abandon Western dress. Most begin wearing long cotton smocks over their trousers; encouraged by government subsidies, they leave the workplace in droves. Male unemployment drops overnight. In formerly rough neighborhoods, crime all but disappears. Universities become Islamic. Non-Muslim teachers are forced into early retirement unless they convert and submit to the new regime.

This is the world imagined by Michel Houellebecq in his sixth novel, Soumission (Submission), which will appear next week. Should it be read as a bad Op-Ed, as pulp fiction for an election year, or as the attempt of a great writer to air a social critique through farce? In an exclusive interview—the first he's given about this novel—Houellebecq explains what led him to write a book that has already created a scandal in France, even before its publication.

Why did you do it? 

For several reasons, I’d say. First of all, I think, it’s my job, though I don’t care for that word. I noticed some big changes when I moved back to France, though these changes are not specifically French, but rather Western. As an exile you don’t take much of an interest in anything, really, neither your society of origin nor the place you live—and besides, Ireland is a slightly odd case. I think the second reason is that my atheism hasn’t quite survived all the deaths I’ve had to deal with. In fact, it came to seem unsustainable to me.

The death of your dog, of your parents?

Yes, it was a lot in a short period of time. Part of it may be that, contrary to what I thought, I never was quite an atheist. I was an agnostic. Usually that word serves as a screen for atheism but not, I think, in my case. When, in the light of what I know, I reexamine the question whether there is a creator, a cosmic order, that kind of thing, I realize that I don’t actually have an answer.

Whereas before you felt

I thought I was an atheist, yes. Now I really don’t know. So those are the two reasons I wrote the book, the second reason probably outweighing the first.

How would you characterize this book?

The phrase political fiction isn’t bad. I don’t think I’ve read many similar examples, but at any rate I’ve read some, more in English literature than in French. Read More »

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