This is the second Goncourt Prize winner that I have read, the other being “The Patience Stone” by Atiq Rahimi and I am now trawling bookstores to get my hands on the other winners as this is a truly memorable novel.
This book reminded me about the joys of reading, what can be done with the written word and how as an art form the novel can often be underestimated.
Our story centres on artist Jed Martin, hugely successful with his first exhibition of photographs of Michelin maps, coming out of a ten year hiatus with a new show. An exhibition of paintings that centre on celebrities such as Steve Jobs and Bill Gates is about to be launched and he approaches the celebrated novelist Michel Houellebecq to write the introduction to his exhibition catalogue. Our protagonist Jed has a number of issues to deal with, a broken boiler, a once in a lifetime love affair that he let slip from his grasp, an ageing father who he dreads seeing for Christmas dinner each year as well as a painting of Damien Hirst And Jeff Koons Dividing Up The Art Market. For the non-art readers Damien Hirst is reportedly Britian’s richest artist (a show selling at SOutheby’s for 110 million pounds) and Koons holds the world record for an auction price for a work by a living artist (over $33 million US).
As you can probably tell this is a lamentation on what constitutes art, how are artists motivated, how Jed manages to get 500,000 euros plus for a single work.
Jed’s studies had been purely literary and artistic, and had never had the occasion to meditate on the capitalist mystery par excellence: that of price formation.
Throw in the character of the novelist himself, who is revealing his warts and all alcoholism, sloth and general banality and besides the obvious self-parody, we have a masterful piece in our hands.
To make matters more interesting our novelist Houellebecq himself is brutally murdered and we then have lamenting, ready for retirement, policemen, tired of investigating celebrity murders because of the pressure they bring. And with no clues, as Houellebacq is a despised loner, the story has to lead back to Jed, our artist.
How one can weave a masterful plot about himself, who is actually dead in our novel (and living from 1956 to 2010 on the back cover which presents the novel itself as an artwork), as well as have a cutting attack at the art world’s fickle nature and lack of sincerity whilst presenting itself as art? This alone makes this one of the most entertaining books I have read in years.
…Anyway, Picasso’s ugly, and he paints a hideously deformed world because his soul is hideous, and that’s all you can say about Picasso. There’s no reason any more to support the exhibition of his works. He has nothing to contribute, and with him there is no light, no innovation in the organisation of colours or forms. I mean, in Picasso’s work there’s absolutely nothing that deserves attention, just an extreme stupidity and a priapic daubing that might attract a few sixty-somethings with big bank accounts.
Or the wonderful passages describing the dead author himself:
The funeral had been arranged for the following Monday. On this subject the writer has left extremely precise instructions, which he had put in his will, accompanied by the necessary sum. He did not wish to be cremated, but very classically buried. ‘I want the worms to free my skeleton,’ he added, allowing himself a personal note in an otherwise very official text. ‘I have always had excellent relations with my skeleton, and I am delighted that is can free itself from its straightjacket of flesh.’ He wanted to be buried in the cemetery of Montparnasse, and had even bought the plot in advance, which by chance was a few metres away from that of Emmanuel Bove.
Emmanuel Bove was a famous French writer whose first work in his own name was published with the assistance of Colette, “My friends” (or “Mes Amis”) .
This is an intricate novel, one that goes to such extremes that it has lamentations on flies (I learned a lot), and one that demands rereading. One of my absolute favourites of 2012 and a further startling example of what the written word can achieve. From the two examples I’ve come across, I will be seeking out more Goncourt Prize winners, which, naturally, I will review here.
Note this novel has also made the 2013 IMPAC Dublin Literary Award (the world’s richest literary prize) long list. I’d love to hear the acceptance speeches if the deceased Michel Houllebecq won such a large sum of money!!!