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La carte et le territoire (original 2010; edition 2012)

by Michel Houellebecq

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Member:thalassa_thalassa
Title:La carte et le territoire
Authors:Michel Houellebecq
Info:J'ai lu (2012), Poche, 413 pages
Collections:Your library, Fiction - French
Rating:****
Tags:top100, %book, %ebook

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The Map and the Territory by Michel Houellebecq (2010)

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In Michel Houellebecq's novel The Map and the Territory, a young Frenchman begins an artistic career photographing industrial objects, capturing details without irony or other underlying commentary. He stumbles upon the idea of photographing details of Michelin maps of various areas of the French countryside, again showing the things themselves without transformation. He begins to make a name for himself in the art world.

For ten years, no one hears anything of Jed Martin. He emerges with an exhibition of portraits of people who embody various professions, from the lowliest cleaner to Bill Gates and Steve Jobs. Martin makes a fortune, retires to his grandparents' village home and doesn't venture forth for twenty years. His final artworks are multiple-exposure films showing photographs of family members that decay and decompose in the elements. In the end, nature wins out in the last artworks of a man who became rich and famous capturing images of an industrialized world and the people in that world. All artifice is gone.

For the exhibition of his paintings, Martin reaches out to writer Michel Houellebecq at his home in Ireland. Drinking, alone, acting decades older than his age, the reclusive author agrees to write the catalog text. The money will come in handy, but Houellebecq agrees instead to Martin's offer to paint his portrait. The two meet once before the exhibition and then months later when Martin delivers the portrait.

The real Houellebecq then opens the third act of his novel with a shocking act that involves the character Houellebecq. But to what purpose?

.

A formerly quiet, chatty novel without a great deal of action suddenly shifts to a narrative that readers of Fred Vargas or Mankell Henning would appreciate, with detectives not nearly as quirky as the creations of these authors, but fully as morose. After this spurt of activity, Martin's last 20 years go by.

The tone of the epigraph by Charles d'Orleans -- "The world is weary of me/And I am weary of it" -- and the tone of the novel match.

There is a detachment and inability to connect or understand anyone not intimately connected for both Martin and both Houellebecqs. For example, when Jed's ailing father tells him of his grandmother's death, the commentary reeks of the condescending cosmopolitan:

Jed's grandmother had, we know, never got over the death of her husband, whom she had loved passionately, which was surprising in a poor, rural milieu that normally didn't lend itself to romantic outpourings.
Instead of people, including the only family member he knows, his father, Jed is drawn to inanimate objects that represent people to him. It is only through inanimate objects that he is close to the idea of humanity. Here is his epiphany over the detail of a map:

The essence of modernity, of scientific and technical apprehension of the world, was here combined with the essence of animal life. The drawing was complex and beautiful, absolutely clear, using only a small palette of colors. But in each of the hamlets and villages, represented according to their importance, you felt the thrill, the appeal, of human lives, of dozens and hundreds of souls -- some destined for damnation, others for eternal life.
He has love affairs, but nothing that lasts, and nothing that breaks his heart. He and his father are distant during their entire lives. His father makes sure Jed doesn't know when he dies. For someone who has been dispassionate his entire life, Jed does something out of character when he beats up the woman in the office that has information about his father's death. It is as disturbing in a cool story of detachment as what Houellebecq does to the fictional Houellebecq. The last conversation Jed and his father have makes one long to reread the scenes between Tengo and his father in Haruki Murakami's 1Q84, because no matter how strained that relationship, there was love and concern and genuine emotion expressed.
The Map and the Territory is a discourse on the ability of art to reflect what exists, not what the artist thinks about what exists or the artist's view of what should or should not exist, although the novel itself does not ultimately reflect this. Houellebecq's vision of the village and society in general that Martin discovers after hiding himself away for twenty years is the most hopeful part of the book, even as the ending reinforces the idea that nature, not society, will prevail. At least technology will not be doing us in.

Overall, reading the novel is a disquieting experience. The issue of what the real author does to his fictional self, his protagonist beating up a woman, do not fit in with the rest of the work. Is Houellebecq deliberately trying to break trust with the reader by shoving this uncivilized, reprehensible acts in the reader's face? Just as his artist Jed Martin deliberately destroys a painting (of other artists, during his most successful period) that he does not like, and his final works picture art of people decomposing and being destroyed, Houellebecq's inclusion of these two violent acts in his novel are about destruction and disdain for people and what they hold dear.

A writer should not have to craft his work to conform to what may be conventionally expected by readers. But to deliberately include out-of-character acts that go against the tone of everything else in the work is Houellebecq's statement that this is a work of detachment, not connection, to the human condition. It is the antithesis of the idea of humanity progressing, as the end of the work shows. The saddest part is that this is not a work of despair, but a statement that this is how things are.

Writing is an act of communication. To use that act of communication to say that people don't matter is to break trust with readers, with the social contract. If people don't matter, then why bother to tell them so. ( )
1 vote Perednia | Mar 23, 2014 |
The Map and the Territory
By Michel Houellebecq

This novel depicts the life of an artist. Alienated from the world around him yet able to critique it with a unique perspective.
Houellebecq himself becomes a main character in the book until he is gruesomely murdered and one surely sees the humor and satire exhibited.
The structure of the novel is easy to digest , each chapter being a brief 5 pages the story moves quickly.
Jed Martin is a young man, his mother dies of suicide and his father, a financially successful architect whose true artistic nature never has a chance of full expression; a lonely figure, repeated by the son and Houellebecq himself. Indeed the book is a statement on the meaning of art, the marketplace and the struggles of the artist. The artist remains a solitary figure, frustrated in the marketplace’s whims versus his true expression.
As Jed retires from the Art World his last project portrays the finiteness of man versus the never-ending nature of earth and the world of plants. What endures is not what mankind produces but what nature has to offer.
The book is humorous, hip, and sad. Houellebecq has portrayed a cynical lonely world for the reader to consider. ( )
  berthirsch | Feb 23, 2014 |
As a longtime Houellebecq fan, THE MAP AND THE TERRITORY started off oddly - like a greatest hits album or a caricature. I kept hitting these familiar notes:

"It's no doubt through compassion that we imagine old people have a particularly good appetite, because we like to think that at least they have that left, when in the majority of cases the enjoyment of taste disappears irredeemably, along with the rest. Digestive problems and cancer remain."

"The image of the virile brute who is good in bed had been coming back in force recently, and it was indeed much more than a simple change in fashion; it was the return to the fundamentals of nature, of sexual attraction in its most elemental and brutal form."
I mean, I adore Houellebecq but this kind of misanthropy and sex-talk felt so familiar that I started wondering if the author was a little like the book's artist-narrator, Jed Martin, who muses to himself that there "was a sort of force that had carried him for a year or two but was now dissipating, crumbling," - if he'd lost the spark that made me believe Houellebecq was a genius, and not just a witty guy with a nasty vision of the world.

And then Houellebecq introduces himself as a character, and things started to change. At first I was suspicious of this, too; I thought of Milan Kundera, pictured a cute little cameo, and shrugged. But here's his first introduction onto the page -

"the author of The Elementary Particles came to open the door, wearing slippers, corduroy trousers, and a comfortable fleece of undyed wool. He looked long and pensively at Jed before turning his eyes to the lawn in a morose meditation that seemed habitual.

"I don't know how to use a lawnmower," he concluded. "I'm afraid of the blades cutting my fingers off; it seems to happen quite often. I could buy a sheep, but I don't like them. There's nothing more stupid than a sheep.""
And all of a sudden I was in. Because it was one thing to suspect that Houellebecq was making a mockery of himself with this book; it's another thing to know he's making a mockery of himself in the book, to see that he's in on the game and giving us a wink.

And then, a few pages further along, Houellebecq delivers the most Houellebecq-ian diatribe imaginable, I mean:
"I once tried to stay here [in Ireland] the whole spring and summer and thought I would die. Every evening, I was on the brink of suicide, with this night that never fell. Since then, at the beginning of April, I go to Thailand and stay there until the end of August. Day starts at six and ends at six, it's simpler, equatorial and administrative. It's unbearably hot, but the air conditioning works well and it's the dead season for tourists. The brothels are empty, but they're still open and that suits me fine; the service remains excellent or very good."
And then Jed Martin says, "Now I have the slight impression you're playing you're own role..."

And then Houellebecq says, "Yes, that's true," and I was...boggled and in stitches and finally, finally I realized that yes, Houellbecq has done it again. Because usually I read Houellebecq despite the fact that every one of his past books left me in a state of cynical disillusionment, hating all humanity and wondering, Eeyore-like, why bother about anything ever. THE MAP AND THE TERRITORY is playful and, at times, almost bubbly - it made me laugh. It was really fun.

Houellebecq always seems to be writing books about himself - or, at least, I've always interpreted them that way - especially the sad-sack writer in THE ELEMENTARY PARTICLES and the clown in THE POSSIBILITY OF AN ISLAND who can't tolerate his own success. THE MAP AND THE TERRITORY presents us with a visual artist - Jed Martin - and Houellebecq himself. Both of them, in different ways, seem very much at peace with their own artistic output. They do good work. They triumph even after the world has forgotten them, or seemed to forget. They are not worldly.

As much as I've admired Houellebecq, this is the first time I'd apply the adjective "mature" to one of his novels.

THE MAP AND THE TERRITORY contains a lot of mini-essays; discussion about artists, writers, architects that go on longer than I'd tolerate from most any other author. But I enjoyed them here, and it made sense for a book that includes the author as a character - always, by the way, always introduced as, "the author of..." - to be so explicit and deliberate. It felt fitting, and right, when THE MAP AND THE TERRITORY ended like every other Houellebecq novel.

I loved THE MAP AND THE TERRITORY. I recommend it to readers who've never tried Houellebecq before, but I especially recommend it to fans. He did us proud with this one. ( )
2 vote MlleEhreen | Apr 3, 2013 |
Houellebecq's The Elementary Particles remains the last book by a new author that completely impressed me, and I read that in 2000. Houellebecq's unique synthesis of vulgarity, pathos, mockery and sublimity thoroughly captured the moment for me. It was the last time I felt something genuinely new. (James Wood's recent review in the New Yorker, where he negatively re-evaluated Houellebecq's original famed novel, struck me as, well, missing the point.)

I haven't really loved any of Houellebecq's novels since then. This new one, however, is much more satisfying. It's more sober stylistically, and certainly less savage overall--one might even say sympathetic--but it's still droll and devilish in the best ways. His use of italics for dead or overused metaphors and cliches is especially delicious. He plays around with their obviousness, yet shows how they still do the trick.

If you're interested in the art world or crime fiction, these elements are featured, and generally with interesting results.

I wouldn't call The Map and the Territory great. I'd call it entertaining, interesting and, at times, beautiful. I'm sure I'll read it again at some point. Which is more than I can say for most other new novels I've come across. I'd say it's a good read. ( )
1 vote Carl_Hayes | Mar 30, 2013 |
A strangely fascinating tale in which the author Michel Houellebecq places himself as a fictitious, or possibly real, character in the life story of artist Jed Martin. A French artists with a decidely anglophone name if that is significant. Who knows? A simply told story of an artist made good in the style of Damien Hirst. With little emotion where lots would be expected when M. Martin splits with a beautiful girlfriend, when his father commits euthanasia and when his distant friend M. Houellebecq is brutally murdered in an original, art inspired fashion. Full of stylistic quirks such as a fascination with inserting real and precise street addresses tempting you to look them up on Google Street View to see if you can spot the characters and get a better sense of their life. Thought provoking but possibly in the same empty sense as Mr Hirst's art. ( )
  Steve38 | Feb 10, 2013 |
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Houellebecq, Michelprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Keynäs, VilleTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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« Le monde est ennuyé de moy,
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Charles d'Orléans
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La valeur marchande de la souffrance et de la mort était devenue supérieure à celle du plaisir et du sexe.
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Book description
Jed Martin is emerging from a ten year hiatus into the art world which aclaimed his exhibition of photographs. A doomed love affair and awkwardness with his Parisian architect father mars his concentration on his new exhibition plans involving a great writer. An Inspector Jasselin requests his assistance in solving an atrocious crime.
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Jed Martin is an artist. The novel recounts his entire life, with particular emphasis on his 30s and 40s, his relationship with a Russian woman named Olga, his friendship with the writer Michel Houellebecq and his feelings about his father. Martin and Houellebecq meet because Houellebecq gets asked to write the catalog for Martin's biggest exhibit. The men develop a strange friendship, which is cut short when Houellebecq is savagely murdered.… (more)

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