10:00 A.M. How can you tell when a novel is great? When, even on a second reading, you keep discovering new things, you keep being amazed, impressed, amused, when the text keeps making you think about the world and your own life. That’s how it is with Michel Houellebecq’s new novel, La Carte et le Territoire. I just finished rereading it this morning in preparation for my interview with him tonight. The book comes out September 8 and already—ever since August 20—the press has been full of raves.
Every Houellebecq novel is an event. The only real phenomenon in French letters, and the only French author known abroad, Houellebecq has certainly paid a price: to be idolized like a rock star, yes, but also hated, scorned, dragged through the mud by his idolators. Since The Elementary Particles came out in 1998, Les Inrockuptibles has stood by Houellebecq, defending him against the unfounded attacks that greeted one of his best books, The Possibility of an Island, in 2005. Out of loyalty, Houellebecq has granted us the first in-depth interview about the book, and the only long interview in a serious weekly. Needless to say, such loyalty is rare in the literary world. Ironically, thanks to the new book, Houellebecq finds himself lionized yet again by the press. Whenever a book of his appears, the media’s reaction tells you as much about them as about the book itself.
11:00 A.M. It hasn’t got any sex in it, no swingers’ clubs, no Thai whores. The novel, which is less angry and less polemical than his previous work, will be read on its own terms, simply as a great book: a total novel, a metaphysical labyrinth of dizzying complexity, a vision of the world that we once knew and have lost to globalization. No, it isn’t exactly funny. And yet Houellebecq manages to combine his despair with an irony that draws you helplessly in. It strikes me that this is why I do my job—why all critics do—for the intense feeling, for the adrenaline rush, of discovering a work of genius. If it wasn’t eleven in the morning, I’d pour myself a shot of vodka.
12:00 P.M.. At the office, in Bastille. I have other people’s reviews to edit, headlines to write (trying to be witty, to think up puns … a nightmare), etc. But first I can’t resist going straight to the editor of the TV section and begging him—on bended knees, with clasped and trembling hands—to let me borrow season three of Mad Men. That’s one advantage of working for a culture journal. You can get all 13 episodes at once, and watch five in one night. Ecstasy.
Houellebecq’s novel features a misanthropic alcoholic named Michel Houellebecq, who says at one point: “You know, it’s the journalists who’ve given me the reputation of a drunk: what’s odd is that none of them ever realized that, if I drink a lot in their presence, it’s only so I can stand them.”
I pick up a bottle of Veuve Clicquot.
Houellebecq is … Houellebecquian. The Ritz? The Meurice? The Plaza? No. While in Paris he stays at a completely crummy chain hotel—in the 13th Arrondissement, no less, the same neighborhood where his main character, the artist Jed Martin, lives. The room is depressing enough to make you want to jump out the window. Pajamas balled up on the unmade bed, electric toothbrush recharging on the table. The usual slow delivery, the usual long silence before every sentence, the usual cigarette in the corner of his mouth. And yet he has changed: he’s thinner, his face is more deeply lined, his eyes seem washed out, he seems exhausted. It worries me. “Thank you for the champagne, but I already picked up a bottle. We’ll drink them both.” And so we do.
Michel orders a bottle of Chateauneuf du Pape at the Moroccan restaurant where he has taken me to dinner.
He has fallen fast asleep on the table. What to do? The kind waitress hails a taxi, I shake Michel by the shoulders to wake him up, help him to his feet and put him in the car. “Where are we?” he asks, still half asleep. In the taxi he finally recognizes the 13th Arrondissement and seems reassured. I tell him that the most worrying thing, for me, is that I seem able to hold my liquor better than … Michel Houellebecq himself. “Yes, but you have practice, what with all those literary cocktail parties they make you attend.” All is well: he has got back his sense of humor.
11:55 P.M. In front of his hotel we smoke a few more cigarettes while the taxi waits to take me home. “Alcohol, you know, is a thing of my youth. I don’t drink the way I used to. I’m old now, and I don’t think I have much longer to go. La Carte et le Territoire may be my last book … “ Touching, moving, sincere, brilliant, funny, utterly down-to-earth … An interview with Michel Houellebecq is not like an interview with anybody else. No doubt about it, I love the guy. Read More