Britain's first book blogger (November 2000)

Thursday, September 15, 2005

Houellebecq: any possibility of a literary review?

David Coward's long review of the Michel Houellebecq's new novel is curiously lacking. It was the first thing I read when opening the TLS this evening. I was willing to be convinced he's an interesting novelist. And Coward is very enthusiastic about his subject. Except he doesn't say why MH is interesting as a novelist. Plot summaries are supplied, but there's little sense of what it is like to read the novels. Of course he's interesting as a cultural phenomenon (which seems enough to many) but as a novelist? We're not told. Worse still, in the final paragraph Coward conflates what's said in the narrative with MH's opinions. Perhaps they're obviously the same, but that would suggest he's not a very interesting artist.

Nothing said before this review had persuaded me to read Houellebecq, so it was especially disappointing. On Monday I read David Sexton's feature on him in the book pages of London's Evening Standard (not online). A lot of what he says looks like the kind of journo-gossip that would have featured in a profile of Thomas Bernhard in his prime: that he's hated by the mythical literary establishment, that the po-faced middle classes love to hate him, that he's a cantankerous old bugger, and that he's a massive seller across the continent. Yet one thing is missing: the overwhelming local-level joy of reading Bernhard's unique prose is not mentioned. The pleasure in Houellebecq seems to be two-dimensional; like the sniggering at a teenager's tag on the headmaster's wall.

Sexton says MH is a cynic only because he's a hopeless romantic. This rings true. Both positions are essentially the same. It's easy to be one or the other, just like it's easy to be a Communist one decade and a Neocon the next. It takes a great artist to move beyond these tired false oppositions. But it seems there is no space in the papers to talk about them.

13 comments:

  1. "Yet one thing is missing: the overwhelming local-level joy of reading Bernhard's unique prose is not mentioned."

    I would like to read an overall review of Houllebecq's work by someone who has read him in French and in English to see if the translations might be the problem.

    I can read almost anything, but I have never been able to wade through more than a few chapters of his books due to the "unique prose".

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  2. Brady, the TLS review was of the French edition. He doesn't mention the quality of the prose style. It's another thing that is taken for granted so what is (apparently) being said 'by Houellebecq' can be discussed.

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  3. I was aware the review was of the French edition which is why your mention of the lack of an evaluation of the literary qualities was even more pertinent.

    This is why I suggested I would like to see a discussion of his literary qualites and prose style - by someone who has read his work in both languages. It seems to me, any way, that the ... casual... way he appears to use language has a Gallic uniqueness that simply does not translate well into English prose.

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  4. If I can mention Bernhard again (will I ever stop?), I'm told he writes in Austrian dialect and cannot be translated without great loss. Yet his books in translation are still extraordinary. In French the same could be said for Blanchot.

    Recently I've reviewed two translated novels. The prose in each was seriously awful (the Christa Wolf in particular). In both cases I held off judgement until I'd looked at other translations of earlier works. Yet they were just as bad despite having different translators. They read like the same author. So, I think the translation issue is probably over-played as mitigation.

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  5. So is it possible that Houellebecq's prose is as bad in French as it is in English? I find that hard to imagine, if only because I do not wish to live in a world where that could be true.

    Now agreed, you make an excellent point in saying that Bernhard's prose is in a difficult dialect to translate, but that it still, nevertheless, translates, well. I , however, prefer to cling to the hope that Houellebecq might prove to be the exception.

    His prose is just such a... mess.. for a lack of a better word, that I can only assume that he must be an attempting to create in prose the rhythm of contemporary French speech patterns of a certain social group.

    I offer as a very desperate example the potential problems of translating into German a novel about surfer dudes in Malibu, with the novel's prose style modeled on their speech patterns.

    This, then, finally, comes back to my original quest. Finding a review of the literary - and prose - qualities of Houellebecq that includes the differences between the French and English editions.

    In closing, since I am not familiar with Bernhard other than having read a few essays about him - which of his books would you recomend to a novice?

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  6. I should add the reason I am now intrigued by Bernhard is that even though I have a lot of problems with Blanchot as a philosopher (his book with Foucault was - most regretably, my first exposure to him), I often pick up one of his works to read a page or two of prose to give a jolt to my brain.

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  7. Brady, go for 'Concrete'. It was my first Bernhard and is one of my favourites. Also has one of the funniest closing lines ever.

    And Blanchot is best in the essay collections - Faux Pas, The Work of Fire, Friendship, The Book to Come.

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  8. You should read Les Particules élémentaires Steve.

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  9. Michael,

    you might want to try this interview on "Bookworm" of Houellebecq's recent book. Though I have serious reservations about the host, Michael Silverblatt who is too often false (to me) and but the interview will, at least, give you Houellebecq in his own words
    http://www.kcrw.com/cgi-bin/db/kcrw.pl?show_code=bw&air_date=9/1/05&tmplt_type=Show

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  10. Thanks. Yes, he does seem to like EVERYTHING.

    But who's 'Michael'?

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  11. Oh, "Michael" Silverblatt is an American radio interviewer in California.

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  12. Yes, I know, but you addressed your comment to a 'Michael'. My name's Steve.

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  13. Steve, I'm so sorry. I think I had Michael Silverblatt on my mind when I was dropping you the note!

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