Never Forget Houellebecq’s Corgi, and Other News


On the Shelf

A photo of Clément from Houellebecq’s show at Palais de Tokyo.

  • If you’re in Paris, you have only a few more days to catch Michel Houellebecq’s exhibition at Palais de Tokyo. Hot insider tip: bring a pack of cigarettes—you can smoke them on the premises. True, much of his art is devoted to his beloved pet corgi, Clément, who is no longer with us. (Miss you always, Clem!) But there’s also, as Chinnie Ding writes, plenty of art that wouldn’t feel out of place in the pages of The Map and the Territory: “Vaguely oceanic sounds and slowly throbbing lighting carry us through some corridors where Houellebecq’s photographs of anonymous terrain glow and dim to the steady soporific rhythm of a fogged-out distress signal or a drowsy peep show. An all-female island-themed soft-core short, La rivière (The River), 2001, directed by the author, plays in a carpeted baisodrome In the next room, eyes adjust to blindingly glossy souvenir place mats advertising scenic French regions, such as Guadeloupe and Bretagne, which tile the floor and rebrand the nation as one turquoise-skied terroir. [Robert] Combas has contributed several glinting, convulsive paintings that look like religious icons becoming unhinged. All this nervous enjoyment, culminating in a functioning smoking room, seems convinced of an unusable past and a fait accompli.”

  • Emily Brontë was apparently a wisp of a woman: frail, small of frame, sickly in temperament. They say her coffin was exceptionally tiny. But Laura June Topolsky looked into that claim, which is maybe not the historical bombshell we think it is: “One ‘fact’ I’ve ‘known’ for a long time is that Emily Brontë’s coffin was only sixteen inches wide, which was, I knew, very small. The thinness of her frame wasn’t lost on me; I was impressed with this fact every time I read it. It never occurred to me to question the veracity of this story, even though I live in a perpetual state of questioning veracity … What does it signify — what does it mean to us — to read this over and over? Simply that she was emaciated because she was so very ill? Was she deprived of even taking up the normal amount of space for a woman? Did her lack of width speak to her ethereality? It is, at the very least, depressing, right? How wide is an average coffin? Would it be a lot less wide in 1848, owing to like, smaller people and bad nutrition? Is sixteen inches really very narrow? She did have tuberculosis after all, and five foot seven, that’s taller than average, right?”
  • A few years ago, the writer L. S. Hilton turned her efforts from political biography to erotic fiction, as one does. Here’s what that got her: a novel called Maestra, a truckload of critical animus, a spot on the best-seller list, and a movie deal. She thought about the correlation between disdain and success: “Everyone hated my book. My agent hated it, and my publisher hated it, and pretty much everyone I showed it to hated it. Even now that Maestra has been sold in forty-two countries and garnered a film deal, it still seems to make a lot of readers furious. Equally, I have been hugely flattered and encouraged by the number who love it, particularly younger women who have told me that they feel empowered by the story, seeing Judith as a new kind of feminist heroine. Yet both reactions surprise me, demonstrating the disconnect between intention and interpretation. I thought I’d written something quite playful and entertaining, about a latter-day Becky Sharp who, in Vanity Fair, finds herself adrift in a man’s world with nothing but her looks and her wits; I had no idea it would enrage some readers as much as it delighted others … Many journalists have asked me why I turned from writing respectable history books to a presumably disreputable novel, to which all I can say is: if you spend as long as I have hanging around in Renaissance Europe, sex and violence have very little left to shock you with.”
  • Finally, some advice for people building large, unaffordable monuments: sell photos of the thing as you build it. You’ll make a ton of money, especially if you can work some nationalism and fraternity into the mix. It worked for the Statue of Liberty: “Beginning in 1875, images of the statue’s fragmented head, hands, and torso emerged to form comprehensive documentation of its construction. They were part of a carefully orchestrated campaign by its designer, Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi, to build worldwide excitement—and, of course, draw money, in order to make the mammoth work a reality … Conceived of in 1865 during a dinner conversation about France and America’s friendship, the statue had not received enough public donations—mostly from French citizens—to be completed, as Bartholdi had hoped, by 1876, the centennial of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. And so he continued to sell postcards, stamps, and other easily disseminated items emblazoned with the statue’s image.”