Michelle Bailat-Jones

Writer, Translator, Reader

Posts tagged ‘contemporary French fiction’

A bit late on linking to these reviews, but I had the pleasure of reading and reviewing two very interesting books in May and June.

The first was All My Friends, a short-story collection by French author Marie NDiaye. (You may know of her from her Goncourt-winning novel Three Powerful Women.) The collection came out in May with Two Lines Press, a new translation-only imprint (hooray – we need more of these!) and it is a really great read.

The five stories that make up All My Friends, a small collection by Frenchwoman (and Prix Goncourt winner) Marie NDiaye, are stories of breakdown. This breakdown is not necessarily the kind of single-character unraveling we expect from good psychological fiction, although there are certainly echoes of that more familiar and intimate falling apart in several of these pieces; instead, NDiaye seems more interested in setting her characters up to hover and worry over the self-disconnecting questions of reality perception and personal narrative—are my world and my person what I perceive them to be? Do others understand my reality, my history, and my memories as I do? The often frustrated desire to answer these questions (either by the character or the reader) is what drives these stories forward, and contained within that unsettling narrative movement is the foreshadowing of imminent collapse.

As I mention in my review, she is exactly the kind of non-English language writer that should have already been translated in full. Her work is stylistically complex and varies thematically – she is not easily placed into any category, and she has a long and steady publishing career already.

Read the entire review at The Rumpus here.

The second book was Courtney Elizabeth Mauk’s Spark. This is another novel from Engine Books – a still-relatively-new independent press that is publishing consistently good work and well worth supporting. (I wrote about another of their books, Echolocation by Myfanwy Collins, and Susan Jupp, one of Necessary Fiction’s regular reviewers also gave a lot of praise to Into This World by Sybil Baker.)

The initial premise of Spark has to do with the return home of a law-breaking brother and the awkwardness and anger that his presence creates in the life of his sister and her live-in boyfriend, but the book is really about the blurry line that runs between desire and obsession.

About Spark, I wrote:

Where Spark becomes gently provocative is that it sets itself up inside a framework of easily understandable psychology—the institutionalized language of “impulse-control disorder,” the built-in guilt of a sister for her wayward brother, the lingering effects of a damaged childhood—but as the story progresses, and as Andrea allows herself to experience and explore this notion of desire, Mauk reminds the reader that desire is as much about satisfaction as it is about control, and that there is nothing so false as the notion of easy psychology. People are messy, humans will do the unexpected. At this point, the narrative itself begins to blur around the edges. Scenes become a little more impressionistic. Andrea’s self-awareness (and therefore her clarity as our narrator) begins to softly break down. It is a wonderful narrative transformation, both surprising and extremely compelling, and it makes the book much more complicated than it first appears to be.

Read the entire review at Necessary Fiction here.

 

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Despite the fact that I did, on some level, really really really like his work, reading nine books by Michel Houellebecq in a relatively short amount of time was not a pleasant experience. A few weeks ago I mentioned to a friend of mine what I’d done and he looked at me with something like terror on his face and said, “T’es maso ou quoi?!” (“Are you masochistic or what?”). The answer to that question would be a definite no, but I understand his concern. Anyone who has read Houellebecq will know that he isn’t someone to read for the pleasure of it. His work is tricky, frustrating, infuriating (especially for women readers) and depressing. But it is also provocative, thoughtful, at moments exceptionally beautiful, and very often daring. On the whole I’m very glad I took the time to read him carefully and to consider his work in the way that I did.

Having said that, I’m quite happy to wait a few more years before reading anything by him again. After a nice long break from his work I will be curious to see what he does next, mainly because I found myself following one particular development of his writing technique—the way he handles himself in relation to each text—throughout his novels. I’ve discussed here before how Houellebecq can’t seem to get himself out of his own novels, even when they are meant to be completely fictional. I think that his latest novel, La Carte et le Territoire (The Map and the Territory), actually resolves that problem, and in a clever and ingenious way. So I’m curious to see whether going forward, he’ll actually be free to do something completely fictional or whether he will relapse into the same problem.

But without further ado – he’s the recap:

Contrary to what I usually do, I read his latest novel first because my French book group selected it. My reaction to that initial reading of La Carte et le Territoire is here.

Something about that first read invited me to go back and consider all of his work, poetry and essays included, in the order they were written.

I was quite struck by his collection of essays, La Poésie du Mouvement Arrêté, especially the title piece and how it asks the reader to re-consider our relationship with technology. His most provocative statement in this piece is to “refuse knowing.” Backing away from the constant stream of media is about refusing to “know” what’s going on, “know” what people are talking about. It’s scary to agree to “not know” anymore, but there is a beauty and a peacefulness in that idea that I find very compelling.

And I would recommend to anyone interested in Houellebecq they they take a look at the very first work he ever published – a biography of H.P. Lovecraft, Contre le Monde, Contre la Vie. I wrote my thoughts on this book here, and here. This long essay really endeared Houellebecq to me (good thing I read it before I tackled his novels as I think it upped my consideration for his work in general). He is so thorough, so admiring, and yet also appropriately critical. And the essay actually gives the reader a lot of information about Houellebecq the writer; it provides a series of helpful clues on how to read Houellebecq’s fiction.

I went on to consider his collection of essays and short fiction, Rester Vivant. The title essay of that collection will stay with me, not only for its impassioned consideration of what it means for someone to want to write, but also because it’s subtly quite funny. That mix made this particular essay really powerful. Houellebecq is very serious about this writing thing, but he also seems to realize that his seriousness is somewhat ridiculous.

I started to write about his individual novels on the blog but I stopped because I was working on a retrospective piece on Houellebecq for The Quarterly Conversation and it became difficult to consider them separately. That overview piece was just published last week. It’s long, but I hope it gives a solid introduction to Houellebecq. Here is an excerpt, from the introduction:

Houellebecq is the author of five novels and eight other books of poetry, stories, and essays. His work is ambitious—interested in philosophical questions of existence and perception as well as controversial scientific ideas about genetic engineering and cloning. Despite having a highly recognizable style, he is not a great stylist; his novels are compelling because they involve much uncomfortable honesty about human nature and are packed with challenging ideas. He has made depression and social pessimism a subject of literary meditation. He is also an obsessive cataloguer of contemporary cultural artifacts and trends, something which gives a documentary feel to much of his work.

In direct contrast to this broad scope, his work is also intensely personal: in some way, each of his novels oblige the reader to consider Michel Houellebecq the person alongside the story or the characters. Whether this is done deliberately or is an unconscious product of his writing style, whether this improves or detracts from the experience of reading his work, it is an unavoidable element of the Houellebecquian textual landscape.

You can read the entire essay here.

The essay spends a little bit of time on each of his five novels but finishes with more detail on his latest work. It was very interesting for me to see how my consideration of La Carte et le Territoire changed after reading everything else. Tied with La Possibilité d’une Ile, it remains my favorite of his novels. It successfully does what his others novels all try to do, but the accomplishment isn’t just a raw success, it’s elegant and meaningful.

 

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Now that I am several books into my Houellebecq Project, I feel that I have, by accident, gone about this in exactly the right way. The first Houellebecq I tried was La Carte et le Territoire, his most recent novel, which won him last year’s Prix Goncourt in France, and a novel which is, by Houellebecquian standards, rather tame. I don’t mean that it doesn’t have any shock to it, or any social criticism, but compared to the other works of his that I’ve now read, those elements come in a softer, less wince-inducing package.

There are two issues that seem to bother most Houllebecq readers: his portrayal of sex, and the fact that it is difficult to decipher whether the racist, sexist and other harsh comments in his work come from Houellebecq himself or from his characters—as Litlove points out in a recent comment, this is because his main characters almost always appear to be, at least in part, some incarnation of Houellebecq himself. That lack of separation is problematic.

But La Carte et le Territoire had very little in terms of provocation, in either of those areas. It was definitely a provocative text, but easy to read. I say all of this because it was pure dumb luck that I read that novel first and thus became curious to figure out what all the fuss was about.

Now, my second bit of luck came from my own strange obsession with reading an author in chronological order. I like nothing better than beginning with a writer’s earliest work and moving forward. For Houellebecq, this meant taking up with his long essay, H.P. Lovecraft: Contre le Monde, Contre la vie (H.P. Lovecraft: Against the World, Against Life, Eng. trans. Dorna Khazeni). And it was really fascinating. An essay that endeared Houellebecq to me, mostly because of the care he takes in writing about Lovecraft.

Who knows if Lovecraft was the single most important writerly reference point for Houellebecq, but he is clearly a huge influence. The essay is pure homage, but a serious study as well, filled with critical and autobiographical interpretation. However, the essay does more than just tell me about Lovecraft, it tells me about Houellebecq. As I am slowly coming to understand through Houellebecq’s other work, he is not able to remove himself from anything he writes. (I find this both a source of his brilliance and a possible weakness, but I will get to that in another review.) So in nearly every assessment of Lovecraft, Houellebecq is inside the message, leaving little clues to his own writing and his own vision:

Quand on aime la vie, on ne lit pas. On ne va guère au cinéma non plus, d’ailleurs. Quoi qu’on en dise, l’accès à l’univers artistique est plus ou moins réservé à ceux qui en ont un peu marre. [ A person who loves life doesn’t read. And rarely goes to the movies, as well. No matter what people say on the matter, access to the artistic universe is more or less reserved for those who are just a little sick of it all.]

OR

Le style de compte rendu d’observations scientifiques utilisé par HPL dans ses dernières nouvelles répond au principe suivant: plus les événements et les entités décrites seront monstrueuses et inconcevables, plus la description sera précise et clinique. Il faut un scalpel pour décortiquer l’innommable.

Tout impressionnisme est donc à bannir. Il s’agit de construire une littérature vertigineuse : et il n’y a pas de vertige sans une certaine disproportion d’échelle, sans une certaine juxtaposition du minutieux et de l’illimité, du ponctuel et de l’infini.

[The style HPL uses in his later short stories, like a summary of scientific jottings, responds to the following idea: the more monstrous and inconceivable the events and beings described, the more precise and clinical the description. One needs a scalpel to dissect the unnamable.

Thus, impressionism is to be banned. This means creating a vertiginous literature: and there is no vertigo without a certain difference of scale, without a certain juxtaposition of the meticulous with the limitless, of the specific with infinity.]

OR

Si le style de Lovecraft est déplorable, on peut gaiement conclure que le style n’a, en littérature, pas la moindre importance ; et passer à autre chose.

Ce point de vue stupide peut cependant se comprendre. Il faut bien dire que HPL ne participe guère de cette conception élégante, subtile, minimaliste et retenue qui rallie en général tous les suffrages.

[If Lovecraft’s style is deplorable, we can happily conclude that style has not the least importance in literature; and then move on to something else.

This stupid point of view is, however, understandable. One must admit that HPL hardly ever contributes to the elegant, subtle, minimalist and restrained craft which tends to win the most votes.]

The last two quotes I’ve given here end up informing a short discussion suggesting that if your job as a writer is to discuss the horrors of the world, writing them beautifully is a form of hypocrisy. Houellebecq criticizes certain Lovecraft passages, for their obviously bad writing, but at the same time he applauds the fact that Lovecraft’s form mimics his content.

And this is easy to see in Houellebecq’s own writing. He isn’t interested in wasting time writing about something horrific in a carefully-worked style. An ass in an ass. An ugly person is an ugly person. In La Carte et le Territoire, when he describes a vicious murder, he uses a clinical and distant style. Indeed, that book has something of the crime novel to it.

But he can write beautifully, and this is something I’ve discovered as I’ve moved forward in his work. This has gone on long enough for today, so I won’t parade out the examples.

Let me finish, however, with a mention of one other point that I’d like to discuss in my next post. In Contre le Monde, Contre la Vie, Houellebecq reflects on Lovecraft’s racism as the transformative element of his writing. He writes:

Toute grande passion, qu’elle soit amour ou haine, finit par produire une œuvre authentique. On peut le déplorer, mais il faut le reconnaître : Lovecraft est plutôt du côté de la haine ; de la haine et de la peur. [All great passion, whether a question of love or hate, finishes in the production of a genuine work of art. We can lament the fact, but we must acknowledge that Lovecraft is more about hate; hate and fear.]

And then he asserts that the secret of Lovecraft’s genius is that:

…il a réussi à transformer son dégoût de la vie en une hostilité agissante. […he managed to transform his disgust for life into a powerfully efficient hostility.]

This sentence has become the phrase I keep going back to as I read forward in Houellebecq, and I want to consider how it actually describes Houellebecq just as well as Lovecraft.

***

FYI – All translations provided here are mine, and rather quick ones at that.

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