January 2012

Christopher Merkel


Vive la Traduction; or, The French Are Coming... Again

An unfortunately likely story. A French friend was sure that American readers had a healthy diet of literature in translation because, well, the French do; or readers of French do, that is, and it seemed to her that consumption on the literary market should, as a matter of course, further the propagation of translations. The French, she said, for fifteen years or so had been translating pretty much everything. And of that I'd had an inkling whenever I'd gone in search of English translations of books that had been recommended to me by certain friends or, otherwise, in search of certain books that I would have liked to have been able to recommend: if probably not an English edition, there was almost certainly one in French. If you're trying to make an opinion on literature... my friend began her next statement with something or other (typically French?) like that, and I, in my part, was definitely the less surprised at the revelations of our conversation.

But good for the French, and for readers of French as well. They'll all have something to say about literature. And I do say that cynically, because I want in on the game; and they tell me that the French (typically) go for that sort of thing. Still, even if it seems like the United States might turn out more English writing creative writing MFAs than it does English written translations of non-English texts, it isn't as if Americans have no access to translated literature at all. Here, I don't mean to deny the talent of American authors, and perhaps it's because there are just so many that the French feel obliged to translate so much. But why not try to make a reciprocal gesture? And that, given my options -- which if comparatively limited weren't nonexistent -- was my excuse for revisiting the French. I certainly didn't feel any pressure to have something to say about literature to my friend.

But why -- and you say it this time instead of them -- the need for excuses at all? Suffice the book to have been translated into English, no? It was, and that would have been sufficient for going off on it from a different direction, except that there was the shame of knowing that I couldn't have made the going off any easier on myself than with my selection. Michel Houellebecq didn't write The Map and the Territory about translation. The book does, however, have something to say about art and literature, and whether or not we interpret it with (typically French?) cynicism, as far as Houellebecq's consideration of the art market goes, he puts considerable power in the hands of the critical media. To restate: Michel Houellebecq has given me carte blanche in my formation of your opinion of his book. So please do excuse me, but now I'll begin.

Gavin Bowd was able to write a translation of The Map and the Territory and have it published because Michel Houellebecq is famous and because the book won a prize. Michel Houellebecq is famous because some critics in France, likely the kind that determine to which authors the better prizes are awarded, at some point made him a reputation. Whether or not this reputation has been favorable, justified, or in keeping with the literary vision or purpose of the author himself, it has gotten him some money to keep writing. In other words, Michel Houllebecq had an investment and good (even if it was bad) publicity, and those are the things you need to move product at the best price on an open market. Especially on the increasingly speculative art market. This is not my opinion. It is, I suppose, somewhat speculative, but that speculation was made on the market as it is depicted in The Map and the Territory. I'm telling you.

I don't mean to deny that The Map and the Territory deserved the 2010 Prix Goncourt. It is a novel of colossal scope and insight. Verily, it is a novel. At its highest level, it is an investigation of the undying conflict of man versus nature. It questions posterity and the possibility of immortal legacies. Its lowest level is only as low as the grand (typically French?) theme of authorial intent. But every level of The Map and the Territory is ordered by the hand of criticism. No matter how idiosyncratic or unfounded his or her interpretation, it is the maverick (although still possibly conservative) critic that determines the worth of a work for the world. And, I'm telling you, that is the value of Houellebecq's book.

Michelin makes the first investment in Jed Martin's career. The (French) corporation sees something to be gained for itself in exposing Martin's photographs of its maps to the world. Both parties benefit from Martin's photo exhibition. The critics love it. Martin makes enough money to support himself through his transition to painting, and when his paintings are exhibited they make him gads more. In the meantime, he's introduced to the world of Michel Houellebecq, the character of the author, not of The Map and the Territory but of all of the author's other books. Martin paints the portrait Michel Houellebecq, Writer for his Series of Simple Professions, the author describing the artist describing himself through his interpretation of the author at work. There's certainly quite a bit of meta going on throughout the book (you think of Gide just before the character of Houellebecq drops his name), but Houellebecq's insight into late postmodern cool is hardly limited to that. What drives up prices in The Map and the Territory is the impression of authenticity, which in the world of Jed Martin and his contemporaries is based in their experience of daytrip nostalgia for rustic craft and the durable industrial objects of the twentieth century. Hardcore vintage. What kind of world will be left to the scions of the hipster baby boom? (And just when you think that the fatally artistic bachelorhood of Jed Martin reminds you of the disposition of the narrator of The Little Girl and the Cigarette, Houellebecq drops the name of Benoît Duteurtre.)

The character of Houellebecq in Houellebecq's novel certainly has something to say about literature, and French literature in particular. On yet another level, The Map and the Territory could be read as a catalog of the character of the author's personal library (and if you read it that way you've had a wonderful lesson in how to talk about books you haven't read). The character of the author gives a paragraph on Jean-Louis Curtis that connects Saint-Simon, Chateaubriand, Stendhal, Balzac, and Perec in the span of a page -- a readymade cocktail party anecdote. But what makes the character of Houellebecq so enormous is the part he plays in making his author irreproachable. The French critics apparently don't like the character of the author (or his books, anyway). Or they've interpreted them poorly. Something like that. Or so we infer. "I'm really hated by the French media, you know, to an incredible degree; a week doesn't pass without someone talking shit about me in some kind of publication." And there will be no shit talked here. It's not worth the trouble. Even if we let stand any shit already suggested, Houellebecq the character is, anyway, a fiction. At the safest extreme, we're obliged to conform to the ironic logic that the character of Houellebecq (written by Houellebecq) might not have anything to say about Houellebecq himself. The Houellebecqs have put themselves above the argument. And "By associating yourself with me, aren't you afraid you'll crash and burn?" No. You're almost forced to make the association, I tell you, or else risk banality. Houellebecq has already acknowledged the presence of the critic, and we might even be associating ourselves with brilliance. Maybe? The moot omnipotence of criticism.

The Map and the Territory isn't, however, all fun critical games. Nor, at its core, is its subject exclusively French. It also includes its share of typical love stories, at least one of them super sad. And although that story isn't at the center of Houellebecq's novel, the book isn't without other similarities to Gary Shteyngart's Super Sad True Love Story, which was published in the United States the same year as The Map and the Territory was published in France. Most obviously, both books are set in very near futures in which the media parrots information of its own creation in order to guide the cool hunters to where they probably already knew they were going. The ones with enough cash, anyway. Both, too, grapple with generational transitions, our collective transition away from "simpler" lives and the eclipse of the economic domination of the West. And even if Shteyngart's future is much more of an obvious dystopia, Houellebecq's more understated satire of faddish consumption and a future for sale is no less incisive in its indictment of the effects of the market on cultural transmission. The enlightened words of a critic. Should you believe them? Does an American audience even need a Houellebecq if it already has, say, a Shteyngart writing in its own cultural idiom?

Perhaps the more salient question is if the map is really more interesting than the territory? In focusing on the critical aspect, we might run the risk of self-fulfilling the prophecy: the medium might definitively overcome the message. (Now that's criticism!) It's also possible that, as Jed Martin and the character of Houellebecq both seem to imply, that all artistic subjects are actually the same despite their trappings. So dress them up! But if we're all just talking about the different ways that we see the same things (and they're dying, all of them), is reading about mortality during the late-early stages of post-industrial capitalism in The Map and the Territory any more important than seeing it in pictures in a tabloid magazine? (Now that's some shit.) Jed Martin, for his part, hasn't ever read magazines. Reading a book at least gives us something to say about literature, and Houellebecq has written this one well. So I say read The Map and the Territory, but read it as a critique of criticism. Martin's father is dying. We're all trying to enjoy ourselves before it kills us. The death of the author (very typically French, but I can't remember if Houellebecq references Barthes) interests me more. And Houellebecq definitely takes The Map and the Territory there. (I wonder, however, if the book's most peculiar comment on mortality and creative legacies was wholly unintentional: having incorrectly predicted Steve Jobs's longevity, Houellebecq has him alive in his fictional near future, and the fact of Jobs's life in the book is strangely morbid.)

At the very least, The Map and the Territory formally merited the effort its translation (and hype). Of course, its characters' stories edify its structure, so I suppose they're kind of indispensible. But I don't have any more interest in speculating on the visual art market than I did before reading The Map and the Territory (for better or worse I'll associate myself with the character of Houellebecq). The territory of the novel, its milieu, is French, but that's not really important, to me -- and so for you. The map is more interesting. And that a French author drew it is what matters, I tell you. We might get the same idea from an American novelist, but not necessarily the same picture. That's art. I say so, anyway, and I feel safe in that assertion, knowing that I have the French as an excuse for babbling around myself in intellectual circles.

But an unfortunately likely story: I've recommended The Map and the Territory to my friend, but I didn't have the audacious humility to offer her my translated copy. I mean, it's available in French. And she could, I suppose, argue that she had more to say about that particular piece of literature after reading it as it was originally written, but she should know from its contents that she can't deny the relevance (relevant irrelevance, maybe) of my opinion. I won't explicitly insist that she read it here, of course. Criticism, if intended to convince, isn't coercive. But, at the end of the conversation, who would ultimately be surprised if she knew how much we get paid for doing this sort of thing?