Lately I’ve been doing something rather unexpected. I’ve been reading a book. For fun.
I remember hearing actress Diana Quick on the radio a few years ago, explaining how her English degree had ‘stopped her reading for three years’. I know how she feels. It’s taken me a long time to regain the spirit of voracious reading that led me into a literature degree in the first place - and which that three years of reading lists, essays and determined analysis almost beat out of me.
Thankfully, I can now pick up a book without an ulterior motive, and The Map and the Territory by Michel Houllebecq is my latest choice. My flatmate is a fiction buyer for Waterstone’s, and so our living room is filled with books she’s brought home from the office, and this one caught my eye because it looked odd, and I like odd things. There was something about art, murder, and Paris on the jacket, and so I gave it a go.
It’s… well, it’s well written, but very, very French. In a bad way. Especially in its attitudes towards women. Men are described in terms of their temperament, and their emotional pain, (every man is in emotional pain), and women are described in terms of their tits and arse. Seriously, if I have to read the line ‘Olga’s perfect breasts’ once more I might have to throw the book across the room. Beautiful, inconsequential women encrust the novel like jewels at a cocktail party, and are met with the cool indifference of the troubled protagonist who is so intelligent as to be beyond such things. Even that ‘sumptuous black girl’s plump arse’ or whatever the last casual reference was. Oh dear, Michel.
Possibly this is more beautiful in French - I’m reading a translation - but the wafer-thin plot was also giving me pause about finishing up. It has that air of extreme philosophical importance that I can imagine happening in a cafe full of cigarette smoke, hipsters, berets and bullshit. The reality is that nothing is happening, and as a writer, if you’re not bothering to tell me a decent story, I don’t see why I should put up with you for 400 pages. But then someone got murdered, so I kept on reading.
Does that make me fickle? Possibly I’m too demanding. But you know what? It doesn’t matter. Because I’m not being graded, I’m not reading it to impress anyone and it’s just for pure fun. So I don’t mind if it’s not perfect, or a bit sexist, or a bit slow. It’s a book. It’s not perfect. Plus ca change.