Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Has notorious French author begun to mellow?

Michel Houellebecq's latest novel keeps sex to a minimum

  • Print

Has France's most notorious writer begun to mellow?

On the evidence of his new novel, Michel Houellebecq may indeed be toning down the shock quotient.

The Map and the Territory, which arrived on these shores late last year after having won the equivalent of the Governor General's Literary in his home country in 2010, is many things: a satire of the visual-arts world, a murder mystery, and a meditation on aging and globalization.

What it isn't, however, is a full-out assault on the bourgeois sensibility, as are his earlier novels, most notably The Elementary Particles (1998) and Platform (2001).

This time out, Houellebecq keeps the sex to a minimum, grudgingly admits to the value of human relationships and seems almost resigned to the influence of European multiculturalism and religion. At least the deadpan comedian remains.

His protagonist is a Parisian artist, Jed Martin, who makes his reputation in the highbrow art world as a kind of Andy Warhol figure photographing Michelin maps.

When Jed turns to painting, churning out a series of figurative works employing world-renowned artists and businessmen, his agent suggests he hire a successful writer to pen the catalogue copy for a solo exhibition.

The writer? None other than "Michel Houellebecq."

"He's a good author, it seems to me," Jed's father says at one point. "He's pleasant to read, and he has quite an accurate view of society."

In his fictional presentation of himself, the real-life author Houllebecq plays into his reputation as a drunk, a misanthrope and a loner.

Without giving too much away, we can say he puts this characterization of himself to rest in grisly fashion, while his main protagonist, Jed, moves on to and isolated and sad existence not unlike his earlier alter-egos.

By definition, it seems, a Houllebecq novel must be pessimistic about the human condition. After all, here is writer who is perennially compared to the likes of such scabrous French writers as Camus and Celine, even the Marquis de Sade.

He signals early to his English language readers -- the novel is translated clearly by Englishman Gavin Bowd, who has worked with him before -- that he is fluent in British and North American culture.

The opening scene has American artist Jeff Koons and Britain's Damient Hirst sitting for one of Jed's paintings.

Jed's most famous work, which goes on to sell for millions, is called Bill Gates and Steve Jobs Discussing the Future of Information Technology. (Houllebecq, of course, finished The Map and the Territory well before Jobs' death last fall).

That said, parochial North Americans will be mystified by the references to and depictions of leading French cultural figures. It's as if Houllebecq is saying to us: "We in France are familiar with your cultural avatars; the least you could do is know ours."

Even more noteworthy, perhaps, is Houllebecq's ability to converse fluently on such topics as computer science, genetics and consumerism.

The Map and the Territory may not the ideal place to start with the Houllebecq oeuvre, but it does provide a good catalogue of his novelistic strengths.


Morley Walker edits the Free Press books section.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 28, 2012 J9

Fact Check

Fact Check

Have you found an error, or know of something we’ve missed in one of our stories?
Please use the form below and let us know.

* Required
  • Please post the headline of the story or the title of the video with the error.

  • Please post exactly what was wrong with the story.

  • Please indicate your source for the correct information.

  • Yes


  • This will only be used to contact you if we have a question about your submission, it will not be used to identify you or be published.

  • Cancel

Having problems with the form?

Contact Us Directly
  • Print

You can comment on most stories on You can also agree or disagree with other comments. All you need to do is be a Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscriber to join the conversation and give your feedback.

You can comment on most stories on You can also agree or disagree with other comments. All you need to do is be a Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscriber to join the conversation and give your feedback.

Have Your Say

New to commenting? Check out our Frequently Asked Questions.

Have Your Say

Comments are open to Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscribers only. why?

Have Your Say

Comments are open to Winnipeg Free Press Subscribers only. why?

The Winnipeg Free Press does not necessarily endorse any of the views posted. By submitting your comment, you agree to our Terms and Conditions. These terms were revised effective April 16, 2010.


Make text: Larger | Smaller


Key of Bart - A Criminal Mind

View more like this

Photo Store Gallery

  • June 25, 2013 - 130625  -  A storm lit up Winnipeg Tuesday, June 25, 2013. John Woods / Winnipeg Free Press - lightning
  • A Great Horned Owl that was caught up in some soccer nets in Shamrock Park in Southdale on November 16th was rehabilitated and returned to the the city park behind Shamrock School and released this afternoon. Sequence of the release. December 4, 2012  BORIS MINKEVICH / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

View More Gallery Photos


Do you plan on attending the Winnipeg Folk Festival this year?

View Results

View Related Story

Ads by Google