Saturday, 18 February 2012

The Map and The Territory by Michel Houellebecq


Meh.
I wonder about books that gain notoriety or fame in their own country (i.e. in the country of the language in which it was first written) and which then make their way into English and are seized upon by the literati as the next [insert country / continental adjective here] masterpiece. A good example in my opinion is Alone in Berlin by “rediscovered” German war-time author Hans Fallada. There was a big fuss, lots of column inches and booksellers going a bit funny over this one, whereas when I was asked to read it for a review at the time, ignorant of its origins I found it childishly written and lacking both in pace and believable characterisation. Was this due to translation? Was it actually really chuffin' good in German? Were us Brits only going by what they were telling us?


I was concerned at the time that it was the subject of a cycle of hype that might eventually spin out of orbit with the introduction of a genuinely critical review from someone high up in the literary strata, but none was forthcoming. My own highly critical review was rejected and I was asked to return with something focused more on its many perceived virtues and its similarities to other successful war-time fiction, so that an open-minded and accepting audience might be inclined to view it with sympathy and then feel a collective ownership and thus protectiveness towards it and the many other “rediscovered” novels of Fallada soon to litter the shelves above Sebastian Faulks. The letter F had never made me more displeased.

Are people really that incapable of judging the worth of a novel, I thought, that they would put dubious critical acclaim from the book’s own publishers (who may or may not just be churning out the spoon-fed reviews from his German publishers) and those people whose livelihoods are at stake if it fails to succeed above an experienced reader’s honest and objective views? (Those of you, who at this point might be expecting a self-deprecating remark, leave now.) Is it fear of being seen to be different or just symptomatic of the book-consumer mentality at large, blithely unaware of the merits of a book as long as someone tells them they will like it?

Wow.
Houellebecq, I feared, might be another such author whose brilliance was lost in translation. Of course, The Map and The Territory shit all over that theory. What a marvellous book, full of brilliance, ideas, and so vividly expressed! If one were to believe his own assertion that France hates him (as he playfully inserts as a concept in the book), then perhaps my theory does hold water. Then again, he did win the Prix Goncort. When ma belle-m√®re sent my wife a copy in the original French, I was enthusiastic and she was suitably amused. The book itself kept her busy for a few days of concentrated reading, during which she made numerous comments on its enlightening portrayal of modern France, a country in which she had not lived for something like 11 years, and so I asked for an English version when one became available - it arrived for Christmas 2011. 


For such a depressing and joyless subject (the subject is a man's own lack of understanding of pretty much anything that isn't precision engineered, including his relationships with father, stunning girlfriend[s], and his collaboration with the author himself playing himself) the book made me happy and filled me with joy. Houellebecq's own highly entertaining cameo role, as the novelist whose painting by the protagonist is his last offering in paint to the art world, could be considered alarmingly bleak, but then he is mercilessly disposed of in a highly visceral manner part way through the book, a point which marks the beginning of a different strand of narrative, for a little while, before the artist, Jed Martin (who incidentally made his own name with an exhibition of photographs of Michelin road maps) returns to casually solve the crime and embark on his own private artistic denouement. All along the way, Houellebecq's astounding observations on everything from digital cameras to French politics are layered on top of a narrative style so cunningly simple-seeming that you could put a tail on it and call it a weasel. The plot wends lazily through to the inevitable ending (it is a story of a man after all) with periodic bursts of activity, but never labours, or races ahead, and is so damned fine that I can't put words together to describe it.


I am incalculably glad that this book both received rave reviews and is an excellent read. It is a rare jewel indeed in translated fiction (up there with The Book of Chameleons and The Discovery of Heaven) but sadly, reminds me that Hans Fallada is still selling, and selling well. Look at me, all graceless and curmudgeonly. 


Next week - I take a pop at Garcia Marquez.

Thursday, 16 February 2012

The Etymologicon by Mark Forsyth, aka The Inky Fool

The address at which the Inky Fool
can serve legal documents can be
found below...

It would be folly to attempt a comprehensive review of a book that reviews, meanderingly, select elements of the language of 328 million[i] Germanic Indo-European family members, especially using said language so to do – oh the irony! So, as not to disappoint those who may read more than once, here’s my particular folly, that of ignoring sage[ii] advice in the misguided belief that stubbornness and orneriness in the face of overwhelming reason was in fact the championing of the underdog in all but lost causes in some act of romantic nobleness. No windmill shall remain at which one has not tilted[iii].

What was I saying? Oh yes, The Etymologicon[iv], for that is the work to which I am referring. Of course, persiflage aside, it very much depends on what your expectations are before opening the book as to what you will take from it once you’ve finished. If you’re a devotee of the Inky Fool blog, from which this was constructed, then I am micturating against the prevailing south-easterly. If you happened to hear the Radio 4 serialisation with Hugh Dennis and thus sallied forth to infiltrate a place of purveyance (of such provisions) in order to negotiate the vending of some verbose literature, then you may, like me, have found the presentation a little breathless and the book will be a welcome respite, insomuch as the printed word is a delicacy over which one is able to take one’s time. However, if you were looking for anything but a circular and rather ambulatory stroll through the odd connections of the English language, instead, searching for a Brewer’s or similar reference work, you are likely to be disappointed. Mr Forsyth isn’t heavy on the footnotes and references, indeed falling back on a blanket “check out these sites at which I found out most of the things I know and have conveyed herein”[v] reference to take care of the details.

No matter, as what one finds in any case is really rather quite good, and again, fanatics need read no further lest they be insulted by my lack of hyperbole masquerading as fact, as what Mr Forsyth offers is a smorgasbord of tasty etymological nuggets, with a delicious cheesy fondue[vi] in which to dip them. Snack as you wish, or gorge outright, you will not really want to do anything but tell your long-suffering spouse all about every single entry to the point where he or she breaks and cancels your credit cards, shoots the dog and torches the house, parked across the street watching the flames climb higher, all Halloween orange and chimney red[vii].

Give it a punt. Sorry, a Dennis. Sorry, I should keep the puns on Twitter. Sorry.


[i] Correct as of 16th  February 2012 if correct is the right word to use of any information lifted without proofing from Wikipedia
[ii] From Middle English, coming itself from the Latin - via Old French – sapere meaning to be wise, and not, as my friend once pointed out, smelly herbs often found on pork
[iii] That sentence just made my top twenty-six of my worst sounding but grammatically correct sentences
[iv] And not The Entymologicon, which was a terrifying journey into the world of some very scary mini-beasts and one not recommended by this reviewer for anyone of a nervous or paranoid disposition
[v] Sorry, but my dad still has my copy, so I couldn’t quote from the references page at the back and therefore came up with a paraphrased version that suitably conveys the message, I think
[vi] Apologies to anyone who quite rightly spots the ongoing influence of The Cheese Shop sketch in this review – I solemnly promise to never watch Monty Python sketches on YouTube before attempting a quasi-serious review again
[vii] Sorry, Tom Waits on the iPod...

Monday, 6 February 2012

An apology or three

I must first apologise for being a little lazy in the pursuit of literary locution as I have been too damned busy to worry about such things as reviews of late. This will of course change in the near to middle future. 

Secondly, I must apologise for stealing this excellent graph from @thepoke and his or her rather good website here, and reproduced for your entertainment by way of mitigating your undoubted hostility.
Lastly, I will pretend to apologise but will probably never actually do so to a gentleman from my place of work who, amusingly, signed off in the manner likely breaking all sorts of copyright laws but wilfully nonetheless, in which I will do presently as a result of outright theft, intellectual property grey-area be damned.

So, for your patience with this perfidious man, please accept my many Hanks.