What keeps coming to mind during my current Michel Houellebecq binge is that beneath the surface of his nihilism and despair is an un-extinguished faith in the redemptive potency of love and friendship, a hope that he realises is unfulfillable but impossible to abandon.
This afternoon, feeling a little dour, I took a break from my Houellebecq bender to reread some of Kate Chopin’s The Awakening, which I read at Francis’ recommendation some years ago. Once again I came across a favourite paragraph, underlined in pencil, which she repeats at the start and end of her novel.
The voice of the sea is seductive; never ceasing, whispering, clamoring, murmuring, inviting the soul to wander for a spell in abysses of solitude; to lose itself in mazes of inward contemplation. The voice of the sea speaks to the soul. The touch of the sea is sensuous, enfolding the body in its soft, close embrace.
The sea, in both deadly and enriching form, is almost a character in The Awakening, and Chopin’s poetic description stands in relief to the sparseness of the rest of the text.
- Fuji X100 camera
- The Cure’s Boy’s Don’t Cry album
- Beckett’s “trilogy” of novels: Molloy, Malone Dies, The Unnamable
- Tony Scott’s film True Romance
- Dr. Marten 10-Eye steel toe-cap boots (Cherry Red)
- Sibelius’ The Violin Concerto in D minor, Op. 47
- Leonardo da Vinci’s Ginevra de’ Benci
- Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining
- Cross “Townsend” black lacquer fountain pen (medium nib)
[Inspired by “Houellebecq’s” lament for three perfect products in The Map and the Territory. I’ve drifted beyond fungible manufactured commodities into performance: what can be manufactured with sounds, words, bodies and light.]
‘In my life as a consumer.’ he said, ‘I’ve known three perfect products: Paraboot walking boots, the Canon Libris laptop-printer combination, and the Camel Legend parka. I loved these products, with a passion; I would’ve spent my life in their presence, buying regularly, with natural wastage, identical products. A perfect and faithful relationship had been established, making me a happy consumer. I wasn’t completely happy in all aspects of life, but at least I had that: I could, at regular intervals, buy a pair of my favourite boots. It’s not much but it’s something, especially when you’ve quite a poor private life. Ah yes, that joy, that simple joy, has been denied me. My favourite products, after a few years, have disappeared from the shelves, their manufacture has stopped purely and simply – and in the case of my poor Camel Legend parka, not doubt the most beautiful parka ever made, it will have lived for only one season …’
It doesn’t amount to much, generally speaking, a human life; it can be summed up in a small number of events …
Fortunate today to have been able to spend several hours reading Michel Houellebecq’s The Map and the Territory and though I’ve got another eighty or so pages to go, it seems clear that this is his major work to date. The twelve years that separate it from Atomised (The Elementary Articles) are evident in the fully realised characters, and the maturity of its metaphysics. I may write a little more about it when finished, but I am inclined to go back and reread the earlier works. This is a drive-by posting to drop off a couple of quotes that resonated.
Olga loved him, he repeated to himself with a growing sadness as he also realised that nothing would ever happen between them again; life sometimes offers you a chance, he thought, but when you are too cowardly or too indecisive to seize it life takes the cards away; there is a moment for doing things and entering a possible happiness, and this moment lasts a few days, sometimes even a few weeks or even a few months, but it only happens once and one time only, and if you want to return to it later it’s quite simply impossible. There’s no place for enthusiasm, belief and faith, and there remains just gentle resignation, a sad and reciprocal pity, the useless but correct sensation that something could have happened, that you just simply showed yourself unworthy of this gift you had been offered.
Few beings have ever been so impregnated, pierced to the core, by the conviction of the absolute futility of human aspiration. The universe is nothing but a furtive arrangement of elementary particles. A figure in transition toward chaos. That is what will finally prevail. The human race will disappear. Other races in turn will appear and disappear. The skies will be glacial and empty, traversed by the feeble light of half-dead stars. These too will disappear. Everything will disappear. And human actions are as free and as stripped of meaning as the unfettered movements of the elementary particles. Good, evil, morality, sentiments? Pure ‘Victorian fictions.’ All that exists is egotism. Cold, intact, and radiant.
H.P. Lovecraft: Against the World, Against Life
In an odd way, summarising Michel Houellebecq’s work as a series of (mesmerising) quotes affirms the significance of his worldview-and the appeal of his nihilism for me-in a way that gets a little lost when I engage with each work on its own.
I hadn’t intended to read Houellebecq’s Lovecraft book, but these quotes propel it to my essential reading list. At the moment I’m reading The Map and the Territory for the first time, which I’d been saving as my only unread Houellebecq fiction, or so I thought but somehow Lanzarote escaped my attention. Did I read somewhere that Houellebecq intends to stop writing fiction? At some point I must read the BHL engagement, and then perhaps reread Houellebecq from the beginning.
It is my favourite time of the year for book buying, when publishers release the highest volume of compelling books. Most of the books I buy during the year are older releases, filling gaps in my collection of the thirty or so writers I return to repeatedly (the ‘I Prefer’ list in my side-bar). Occasionally I am drawn in by a new writer on the scene (Teju Cole) or by newly translated writers. Here are some of the books I have pre-ordered and look forward to reading in the colder, darker months:
- The second volume of Samuel Beckett’s letters covering the war years and the period when he wrote The Trilogy.
- Impossible Objects – Interviews with the inspiring Simon Critchley, covering tragedy, poetry, humour and music.
- 1Q84 – The long-awaited Murakami which I won’t be reading until the noise has passed.
- Pascal Quignard’s Sex and Terror and The Roving Shadows; a writer endorsed by two great readers.
- All the Roads are Open and Lyric Novella by Annemarie Schwarzenbach. A new writer to me but both books sound deeply fascinating.
- Professor Andersen’s Night – Dag Solstad. I enjoyed Shyness and Dignity and the brilliant Novel 11, Book 18.
- Dukla – Andrzej Stasiuk (review).
- The Map and the Territory – Michel Houellebecq’s latest provocation, his books draw me in like a rubbernecker at an accident scene.
- Parallel Stories – Péter Nádas. Though I must read A Book of Memories (“The greatest novel written in our time, and one of the great books of the century.” Susan Sontag) first.