After having for so long been treated with such disdain by the French literary establishment, Michel Houellebecq has at last been embraced by it. Last week La carte et le territoire, his fifth novel, was awarded the Prix Goncourt, a distinction any of his previous novels might just as well have merited.
Perhaps it has been possible to do him this belated justice because La carte et le territoire is less explicitly scandalous than its predecessors, more conventionally substantial even. If his previous novels have insolently portrayed life in our faithless, free-market world as a race between sex and death, here that race is over. There is almost no sex in this book. Houellebecq has been telling interviewers in France that he is old, that he may not have long, that this may be his last novel, that it is about ageing and the end. Michel Houellebecq is 54 — but then he has always been brutal about the value we place on youth, how rapidly it goes and how little then is left.
The apparent subject of La carte et le territoire is the life of an artist. Jed Martin is the son of an architect who dreams of building fantastic cities but has a business designing holiday resorts; his mother committed suicide when he was seven. Jed dedicates himself to an artistic career of ‘giving an objective description of the world’, beginning with photographs of ironmongery. Then, driving down to his grandmother’s funeral, he buys a Michelin map of the Creuse and Haute-Vienne and is enraptured by that clear depiction of such richness of life.
At his exhibition of treated photographs of these maps, he meets Olga, a beautiful, Francophile Russian who works in communications for Michelin, another of Houellebecq’s adored women. She becomes his lover and helps him make a first fortune by commercialising his prints through the firm. But, as would not have happened in an earlier Houellebecq, Olga soon disappears back to Russia and Jed’s love-life is over.
He stops photographing maps, goes into retreat for ten years and re-invents himself as a painter of contemporary trades, beginning with a portrait of a local horse-butcher, but then tackling the likes of Steve Jobs and Bill Gates discussing the future of the media, and Damien Hirst and Jeff Koons dividing up the art market. When he is ready for a show, the gallery-owner suggests he gets an essay for the catalogue written by . . . Michel Houellebecq.
Houellebecq has called his protagonists Michel before, but this exterior characterisation is quite a different gambit. Jed goes to call on Houellebecq at his home in Ireland and finds him a wreck, drink-sodden, living in an empty house, which is surrounded by an unkempt lawn, since he’s afraid of mowers and doesn’t like sheep (‘Il n’y a pas plus con qu’un mouton’, he says, perhaps a sly allusion to his most notorious remark, about Islam.)
Houellebecq accepts the commission, part of the payment for which is to be a portrait of himself as a writer. When Jed comes back to Ireland to take photos for it, he finds Houellebecq in a yet worse state, smelly, looking like ‘an elderly, ill tortoise’. He seems to have passed beyond all human relationships. ‘It’s true, I only have a weak feeling of solidarity when it comes to the human species’, he says.
But Houellebecq delivers the essay, and the exhibition is a great success, the rich of the world vying to buy, Jed receiving 15 million euros. And Houellebecq returns to France, buying his childhood home in the Loiret, living the country life, chopping wood, making pot-au-feu, enjoying the company of a big dog, reading de Tocqueville, looking better, as Jed discovers, when he visits him for a third time, to deliver his portrait, now worth a fortune.
And then Houllebecq is discovered murdered so revoltingly that the first policemen on the scene are sick. Both he and his dog have been beheaded and every strip of flesh carved off them and spattered around the room, like a bloody Jackson Pollock. At this point, the novel morphs into an engaging police procedural, as a sympathetic inspector — near retirement, childless, devoted to his wife and lapdog — investigates.
For his part, Jed too retires to the country, to his grandparents’ house in the Creuse, and immures himself in solitude for many years. In an epilogue, set 30 years in the future, we learn about the final phase of Jed’s artistic career. He now films entwining plants, corrosion and weathering, superimposing hours of film into brief sequences, to show the disappearance of all human traces, and ‘the total triumph of vegetation’.
La carte et le territoire, then, confirms the self-description Houellebecq offered in Public Enemies: ‘If there is an idea, a single idea that runs through all of my novels, which goes so far as to haunt them, it is the absolute irreversibility of all processes of decay once they have begun’ — for individuals, for relationships, for cultures, for whole societies.
It is a work of retreat, into solitude, the countryside, France itself. Houellebecq’s harsh view of the conditions of life has not softened, but here is conveyed with calm and distance. This book, so beautifully written, so inspiriting for all its pessimism, is the new novel I have loved best this year. We have not his equal.