Book Review: Michel Houllebecq, The Map and the Territory


I had never heard of Michel Houllebecq. It shows how local much news still is. France is no distance, you can even go there on the train, and yet someone famous in France can be nearly unknown in England.

Then I picked up his novel “The Map and the Territory” in my local library – in translation, of course.

To get this out of the way for those who had heard of him – Houllebecq is not purely famous in France for his novels. He was prosecuted for inciting racial hatred after saying Islam was “the most stupid of religions”. Now I don’t know the background, his arguments or other things he said, so I’m commenting from quite a lot of ignorance, and yet I feel I should comment.

First, that statement seem to me pretty stupid. But then I’ve got a History degree and if you ask me about Islam, I think of the culture of Andalucia, of Arab learning, of Sufi mysticism, of the mixed but by no means bad record of Muslim rulers of pre-Raj Indian states. Just as when I see it implied in a book that there may be some fundamental militaristic or warrior-like characteristic among Germans, I think, “Not so fundamental because the argument really won’t wash except for a period of at most two hundred years”. So I wonder what in contemporary Islam Houllebecq was attacking.

Secondly, in English and in English law at least, to attack a religion is not racist unless the attack on the religion is (as it sometimes is in England) a cloak for racism.

Thirdly, to incite racial or religious hatred seems to me to require more than to say something is stupid. His statement was silly, provocative, possibly grandstanding, but I’d have thought unlikely to incite the sort of hatred that leads to physical attacks.

Nonetheless, it’s probably a good thing I had no idea of all this when I read his book – because I liked it. As some reviewers commented, authors who include themselves in their own books rarely create credible characters (they may not have put it quite like that) and there are writers whose subject seems permanently to have become themselves (arguably forgiveable for poets, but I’m thinking, for example, of Norman Mailer). But the Michel Houllebecq who appears in this novel is shabby, self-deluding, ingloriously heavy-drinking, confused – though achieving something much better later. There are wholly inglorious touches like finding that his kicks have been from on-line lingerie catalogues. In other words, if you didn’t know this was a portrait of the author himself, you might well say, “What a fantastic character portrait!”

But Houllebecq is only the second character of the book. The main one is an artist who seems to be borderline autistic, brilliant with detail but oddly detached in his personal relations even a love affair, obsessional but fairly unworried about it, who first hits the headlines with endless photographic reproductions of Michelin maps. The author seems to be poking fun at the art world and the whole concept of art. This character has some similarity to the main character in Tom McCarthy’s “C”, which I reviewed a while back. But whereas I was unsure if McCarthy realised how oddly emotionless his character was, Houllebecq seems to know he’s making us a fairly sympathetic portrait of an odd fish – two odd fish, in fact.

The book is truly humane. In the third part, several police detectives appear and they are shown as conscientious, worried, uncertain people, doing their best to retain their humanity in the face of a job that obliges them to confront horror and immeasurable meanness. By the way, one of them is of Lebanese origin, another sympathetic character is Black African and I see no sign of racism.

It was interesting to read a contemporary French novel and find things that, even in what appeared to be a very good translation, one would not find in a British or American book. One is long sentences. There are several, peppered with semi-colons, that an Anglo-Saxon editor would not have allowed. Short sentences can pack a lot of punch, but I say, “Vive la France!”. Long sentences like these convey a complex interrelationship of ideas and qualifications in a way a series of short sentences could not. Another is a willingness to engage philosophical concepts head on. Few British writers do that, especially since Iris Murdoch’s death. But leading on from that is a French characteristic I like less, a tendency to throw around abstract concepts as though they were concrete, to talk about Liberty, Reason or whatever without any sense that these are fuzzy approximations needing clarification.

Houllebecq does seem to go a long way for publicity, but his book deserves consideration for itself.

Two short poems



Who is the thing that does not cry?

Who marches through without a loss?

Who finds no shadows in the forest,

Lives on a rock where nothing dies?

I made a statue with my hands

To clamp down happiness and peace

But it turned a killing beast

And I was left cold-eyed to stand.


The first step to my peace is restlessness,

For knowing of something else is reaching out

Reaching out is wondering

Wonder is peace

Not wondering is death

A quiet death

And I would sing.

Now first of all, anyone who recognises the statue – nothing personal. This is not a comment about a particular country and political and religious divide.

Secondly, both these short poems were written during the same activity, same place, same day. I wonder if anyone might guess at it. Precise right answers are very unlikely but wrong ones would be interesting.

See you. Hear you.


Patient Pathway


The patient pathway now for Mr Edwards

Is on to a trolley down that long corridor

And into the morgue. With improved direction management

Attainment of his aspirational journey goal

Is 98.6%. After that there is a handover

And, being task-oriented, we move on

As, indeed, Mr Edwards does.

It used to be thought, by the way,

That he would be taken to the banks of a river

Or triaged for his final destination,

But we don’t think that way now.

Off he goes.


copyright Simon Banks 2014

Book Review: Jane Austen, Persuasion


As a sixth-form student way back, I was helped to discover Jane Austen. I loved what I discovered. I loved the precision of the language, the clever, almost sly way she told us so much about a character by a few words spoken. The limited social focus, on upper-middle-class or lower-upper-class early 19th century people, in particular the underemployed women who could not pursue a career, were expected to leave estate management to men and had servants to do the cooking and care for the children, did not bother me. If all literature had been that way, it would have bothered me a lot, but it wasn’t. Jane Austen was very good at what she did.

“Persuasion”, her last novel, always appealed to me. “Pride and Prejudice” is much better known, but it seems to me that as with many first novels, it’s just a bit too personal and some characters, like Mr D’Arcy’s appalling sisters, are caricatured. “Persuasion” and “Emma” were my favourites.

In a way, Jane Austen, like any famous dead writer, now suffers from the fame. We know all her novels have happy endings, so that reduces the dramatic tension, and anyway, how many likely to read this book or “Pride and Prejudice” doesn’t know something of the plot already?

A popular game with writers who died quite young is to speculate on how they might have developed. You can’t be proved wrong. One thing I notice about “Persuasion” is that there’s a hint of social criticism. The heroine’s stupidly narrow and snobbish father has a title but is clearly meant to seem inferior to the rough-hewn, weather-beaten naval officers of modest origins he looks down on. I remember our teacher in the sixth form commenting that you could read “Pride and Prejudice” without realising there was a gruelling war going on. That would be impossible with “Persuasion”, set just after the Napoleonic Wars had ended and full of naval officers and references to military action. Patrick O’Brian or C.S. Forrester it is not, but when a naval officer remarks that a quiet and bookish colleague had proved himself in action, it’s entirely credible.

Despite the hint of criticism of social norms, like other Jane Austen heroines, Anne does not rebel against the norms. In typically Austen style, there is the merest hint of something different in the recognition that naval officers in war might rise from very humble beginnings (more humble than she shows, because unlike in the army at this time, promotion from the ranks was by no means impossible).

Now imagine this is not a famous text, but something by new writer J. Nostyn. There’s just about enough action to give it a faint hope, but only just enough. There’s too much dialogue. Worse, the author offends against the injunction to show, not tell, for she spends nearly a page telling us what kind of a man Sir Walter is (though she also shows a lot about him as the tale develops). It’s also rather short and an agent might tell her to fill it out a bit. Maybe some flashbacks of the naval battles?

What do you think of Jane Austen? If you quite like her books, which one is the best for you?