A Week in Culture: Nelly Kaprielian, Critic
September 15, 2010 | by Nelly Kaprielian
10:00 A.M. How can you tell when a novel is great? When, even on a second reading, you keep discovering new things, you keep being amazed, impressed, amused, when the text keeps making you think about the world and your own life. That's how it is with Michel Houellebecq's new novel, La Carte et le Territoire. I just finished rereading it this morning in preparation for my interview with him tonight. The book comes out September 8 and already—ever since August 20—the press has been full of raves.
Every Houellebecq novel is an event. The only real phenomenon in French letters, and the only French author known abroad, Houellebecq has certainly paid a price: to be idolized like a rock star, yes, but also hated, scorned, dragged through the mud by his idolators. Since The Elementary Particles came out in 1998, Les Inrockuptibles has stood by Houellebecq, defending him against the unfounded attacks that greeted one of his best books, The Possibility of an Island, in 2005. Out of loyalty, Houellebecq has granted us the first in-depth interview about the book, and the only long interview in a serious weekly. Needless to say, such loyalty is rare in the literary world. Ironically, thanks to the new book, Houellebecq finds himself lionized yet again by the press. Whenever a book of his appears, the media’s reaction tells you as much about them as about the book itself.
11:00 A.M. It hasn’t got any sex in it, no swingers’ clubs, no Thai whores. The novel, which is less angry and less polemical than his previous work, will be read on its own terms, simply as a great book: a total novel, a metaphysical labyrinth of dizzying complexity, a vision of the world that we once knew and have lost to globalization. No, it isn’t exactly funny. And yet Houellebecq manages to combine his despair with an irony that draws you helplessly in. It strikes me that this is why I do my job—why all critics do—for the intense feeling, for the adrenaline rush, of discovering a work of genius. If it wasn’t eleven in the morning, I’d pour myself a shot of vodka.
12:00 P.M.. At the office, in Bastille. I have other people’s reviews to edit, headlines to write (trying to be witty, to think up puns … a nightmare), etc. But first I can’t resist going straight to the editor of the TV section and begging him—on bended knees, with clasped and trembling hands—to let me borrow season three of Mad Men. That’s one advantage of working for a culture journal. You can get all 13 episodes at once, and watch five in one night. Ecstasy.
5:40 P.M. Houellebecq’s novel features a misanthropic alcoholic named Michel Houellebecq, who says at one point: “You know, it’s the journalists who’ve given me the reputation of a drunk: what’s odd is that none of them ever realized that, if I drink a lot in their presence, it’s only so I can stand them.”
I pick up a bottle of Veuve Clicquot.
6:07 P.M. Houellebecq is … Houellebecquian. The Ritz? The Meurice? The Plaza? No. While in Paris he stays at a completely crummy chain hotel—in the 13th Arrondissement, no less, the same neighborhood where his main character, the artist Jed Martin, lives. The room is depressing enough to make you want to jump out the window. Pajamas balled up on the unmade bed, electric toothbrush recharging on the table. The usual slow delivery, the usual long silence before every sentence, the usual cigarette in the corner of his mouth. And yet he has changed: he’s thinner, his face is more deeply lined, his eyes seem washed out, he seems exhausted. It worries me. “Thank you for the champagne, but I already picked up a bottle. We’ll drink them both.” And so we do.
10:30 P.M. Michel orders a bottle of Chateauneuf du Pape at the Moroccan restaurant where he has taken me to dinner.
11:35 P.M. He has fallen fast asleep on the table. What to do? The kind waitress hails a taxi, I shake Michel by the shoulders to wake him up, help him to his feet and put him in the car. “Where are we?” he asks, still half asleep. In the taxi he finally recognizes the 13th Arrondissement and seems reassured. I tell him that the most worrying thing, for me, is that I seem able to hold my liquor better than … Michel Houellebecq himself. “Yes, but you have practice, what with all those literary cocktail parties they make you attend.” All is well: he has got back his sense of humor.
11:55 P.M. In front of his hotel we smoke a few more cigarettes while the taxi waits to take me home. “Alcohol, you know, is a thing of my youth. I don’t drink the way I used to. I’m old now, and I don’t think I have much longer to go. La Carte et le Territoire may be my last book … “ Touching, moving, sincere, brilliant, funny, utterly down-to-earth … An interview with Michel Houellebecq is not like an interview with anybody else. No doubt about it, I love the guy.
9:30 A.M. Not even a hangover! I call my head editor, who is dying to know how things went with Michel H. He’s thrilled when I told him the whole story: “Write all of that in your article, starting in the taxi on the way there.” He's right, naturally, only I hate articles that start with some cut-rate gonzo cliché about being in the taxi before an interview. Above all, I hate the kind of journalism that reduces a great writer to his biography for the sake of a profile. I recently read an article in a British paper about Bret Easton Ellis’s new book—and all it talked about was his bad relationship with his father. (While we’re at it, what about his dog?)
10:30 A.M. Starting to write my article about another great book: Summertime, by J. M. Coetzee. A fictional autobiography told by five narrators (mostly women) who mattered in Coetzee’s life (he is dead when the book begins). To hear the women tell it, he’s cold, shy, repressed, a bad lover, and they didn’t fall in love with him. He’s ridiculous and pathetic. Coetzee dwells on the distance between life and literature, the difference between the writer as his readers imagine him and as he, disappointingly, is. I have interviewed billions of writers. I’ve dated some. And of course Coetzee’s point amuses me deeply. He’s so right!
12:00 P.M. There is a funny similarity between Coetzee’s and Houellebecq’s books. Each writes about himself, presenting himself as pathetic—and, sooner or later, as dead. Each kills himself through fiction. Houellebecq describes himself as lonely, depressed, dirty, drunk all the time, eating junk food, spending his days watching cartoons on TV. Yesterday he was telling me that he took an intense masochistic pleasure in writing about himself that way. Also, he has turned up as a character in other people’s novels, and he likes showing all of these writers who used him that they could have done a better job. Indeed!
In his own way, Coetzee is making it impossible to write a biography after his death. No one, in speaking of those two, can do worse than they have done. Each novel is a sort of master class.
2:30 P.M. At the office. Not much going on, to tell the truth. Can’t wait to go home and watch Mad Men.
7:30 P.M. Oh, no ! I forgot I have a dinner party to go to. So much for Mad Men. Fortunately, Élodie, who works for a publishing house, lives just up the street. There are two other book critics there. Each manages the culture or book section of a weekly magazine. Each of us has brought someone from outside the business, so we do our best not to talk about literature. But it’s like asking junkies not to talk about drugs. After lots of champagne (in France, a good book critic is a critic who drinks, I wouldn’t trust a sober one…), we crack. “What did you think of X?” “Did you read Y?” blah blah blah. I pity our friends, who seem to be standing on the sidelines of a game whose rules nobody’s bothered to explain.
3:20 A.M. I notice my watch on the floor—what is my watch doing on the floor? I never, ever lose that watch. Or almost never. Pick it up and realize it’s after three. Standing up to leave, I also realize we’re all drunk.
9:00 A.M. Hungover. And wouldn't you know it, this morning I have to go on national TV (and not just national: France 24 is broadcast in other countries too) to talk about that typically French phenomenon known as the "rentrée littéraire." Every year, at the end of August, French publishers bring out about 700 books, all at once, hoping for a shot at one of the literary prizes that get awarded in October and November—most famously (and always most controversially) the Prix Goncourt.
10:45 A.M. I begged the makeup woman to camouflage my Elephant Man eyes, whatever it took. Now I have the eyes of an Elephant Man who tried really hard to look pretty.
11:00 A.M. Why are the offices of a TV station always spacious, neat, futuristic, beautiful--when the offices of a print journal are always a pigsty? The program starts. The interviewer asks the ritual question, the same one they asked last year and will ask again a year from now: "Seven hundred books—isn't that too many?"
It's funny, in June or July, while I'm trying to select the best novels for our special rentrée issue, I hate that figure, 700. I spend every night all summer reading while normal people are out on some café terrace having fun. But by late August, when it's all over, and when they ask me the question, I always answer, "Would you prefer to live in a country that published only three books a year?"
Choice is freedom. And if some of the books don't get read, too bad. A good book will always find readers.
11:30 A.M. The preordained question about the new Michel Houllebecq: "Everyone says it's a masterpiece. True or false?" No question about it, he's the star of the rentrée.
Forgive me. How can I help writing about him every day?
1:00 P.M. Back to work. Meetings, tension, soul-searching. All par for the course, since the magazine is being completely redesigned and relaunched on September 15. I'm happy because we managed to keep our book section long, with real reviews and not just advertorial capsules. Nowadays you can't take a thing like that for granted.
8:30 P.M. Mad Men and herbal tea. Everyone has a theory about Mad Men. Mine is that our era has reduced women to two choices about their bodies—puritanical guilt (the burka, the chador, anorexia) and pornography (fake boobs, fake blonds, muscles, tramp stamps, etc.)—and we're nostalgic for a time when a woman could dare to have a woman's body, when a woman could be comfortable with her sensuality, her breasts, her dress size, her legs. The dresses on Mad Men show everything, even as they hide everything, and that's what makes them so provocative in 2010.
Today Christina Hendricks's breasts are a thousand times more subversive than any tatooed lower back.
Nelly Kaprielian is a critic and editor in Paris, France.