Michel Houellebecq wins the Prix Goncourt

The enfant terrible of French literature is awarded his country's most prestigious literary prize.

Michel Houellebecq, the enfant terrible of contemporary French letters, was awarded the Prix Goncourt on Monday evening for his latest novel La Carte et Le Territoire. At the awards ceremony, held at the Drouant restaurant in Paris as it has been since 1914, Houellebecq, when asked whether he thought that the award of the Goncourt meant that La Carte et Le Territoire should now be considered as his best novel, replied: "I don't know. It might be the easiest to read, it's certainly the most complicated in its construction". Houellebecq now joins an illustrious list of other previous winners of the Prix Goncourt, amongst whose number are Marcel Proust, Simone de Beauvoir and Marguerite Duras.

La Carte et Le Territoire is typically Houellebecq-esque in its plot: a biography of a French artist called Jed Martin, who goes to seek out a semi-fictionalised Houellebecq at his home in Ireland to persuade him to write an exhibition catalogue. Houellebecq has split critics since his debut novel, Whatever (1994), which traced the terrifyingly quotidian lives of two computer programmers, filled only by sexual frustration, junk food and a latent appetite for violence, and provoked huge controversy on publication, with some reviewers demanding that it be awarded the Prix Goncourt immediately and others decrying it as demonstrative of a new literary style that was as prosaic as the fictional events it described.

Curiously though, and despite Houellebecq's reputation for divisiveness amongst critics, the French press were almost uniform in their praise for his victory this week. Raphaëlle Rérolle, writing in Le Monde, commented that "they (the jury) ended by accepting the inevitable result ... they were forced to admit that it was no longer possible to avoid the obstacle of Houellebecq. That it was no longer feasible ... to ignore one of the most exciting writers on the contemporary French literary landscape".

Claire Devarrieux in a profile of Houellebecq in Libération lauded "the simple and supple style of the author of Atomised, his ability to bring to life the most trivial aspects of daily life in a phrase, to celebrate the banal whilst remaining original", whilst Le Point suggested that the fact that Houellebecq had finally been awarded the Goncourt, after more than a decade as an eternal also-ran, was due to a development in his prose style: "the tone of the new book is less obviously depressing and sordid than in those which preceded it, and the structure more classical."

La Carte et Le Territoire's publication was, however, not devoid of controversy. Houellebecq was criticised for using whole passages of factual content lifted directly from Wikipedia in La Carte et Le Territoire, though this didn't damage sales, which had reached 200,000 before the Goncourt was even announced.

In Susannah Hunnewell's excellent recent interview with Houellebecq in The Paris Review, when asked what he thought about the literary critics who had damned him previously, Houellebecq responded by saying, "they hate me more than I hate them". This time, it looks as if he might have just been proved wrong.

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Why did Britain's first road atlas take you to Aberystwyth?

Alan Ereira's new The Nine Lives of John Ogilby tells the story of a remarkable book – and its remarkable creator.

John Ogilby was a talented dancer with a bright future. Performing at White Hall Palace in February 1619, the 18-year-old leapt higher than ever to impress the watching James I and his queen. But then, crashing to the floor with a torn ligament, Ogilby never danced again. It was one of many misfortunes he overcame in a remarkable life. He went on to become a theatrical impresario, the deputy master of the revels in Ireland, a poet, a translator and a publisher of ancient classics. He even organised the public celebration of Charles II’s coronation. He was also an accomplished soldier, sailor and spy, as Alan Ereira reveals in this entertaining account of his “lives” and times.

It was a remarkable collection of lives for a man born in Scotland in 1600 and raised in poverty, the illegitimate son of an aristocrat. Yet Ogilby’s greatest achievement was to put Britain on the map when he was appointed “His Majesty’s Cosmographer and Geographick Printer” in 1674. His Britannia is the first detailed road atlas ever made. It opens with a map of England and Wales showing, he wrote, “all the principal roads actually measured and delineated”. It contains a hundred or so beautifully engraved plans of roads as winding ribbons sliced into sections. Rivers, forests, villages and bridges are included as landmarks.

Embracing the new science of measurement and experiment championed by the Royal Society, Ogilby’s surveyors used a wheel with a circumference of 16ft 6in and a handle that allowed it to be pushed along, as well as a clock face that recorded journey distances. With no universally agreed length of a mile, Ogilby chose 1,760 yards. Britannia led to the accurate measurement of almost 27,000 miles of tracks, paths and roads, though only about 7,500 are depicted in the atlas at one inch to the mile.

Britannia was published in September 1675. There were few who could afford it, at £5 (roughly £750 in today’s money), and it was too heavy to carry. Instead, travellers found their way around the country by following printed itineraries, with lists of the towns to pass through on any particular journey.

Britannia is not, as Ereira explains, an atlas of commercially useful roads of the day. The first journey is an odd one, from London to Aberystwyth, then a town of fewer than 100 houses and a ruined castle. Some of the roads chosen were no longer in use, while important routes such as those to Liverpool and Sheffield were left out.

But the choice of roads in Britannia begins to make sense as being those necessary for the royal mastery of the kingdom. The London to Aberystwyth road led to mines nearby. In the days of Charles I those mines contained lead and silver that helped the king pay his soldiers during the civil war. Britannia was a handbook, Ereira explains, for a conspiracy leading to a new kingdom under a Catholic king.

Ever since the start of the Reformation, Europe had been rumbling towards a religious war. When it came on the mainland it lasted 30 years and left millions dead. The subsequent Peace of Westphalia led to a new map of Europe, one of countries and defined frontiers instead of feudal territories with unclear borders and independent cities. England was not included in the peace but shared in its vision of separate sovereignty. This led to different results in different places. In France, the king became an all-powerful despot; in England it was the ruler who lost power as parliament emerged triumphant.

In 1670 Charles I’s son Charles II decided to throw off the restraints he had accepted as the price of his restored monarchy. He wanted to be the absolute master in his land. To achieve this, he entered into a secret treaty with the French king Louis XIV. Charles needed money, an army, allies to execute his plan, and detailed knowledge of the kingdom; Louis was willing to bankroll the venture as long as Charles converted to Catholicism. Britannia was a vital part of Charles’s strategy to assert military control: he would use it to help land and deploy the 6,000 French troops that Louis had promised him to assist his forces. The pact remained a well-kept secret for nearly a century, even though it soon fell apart when the French and British got bogged down in a war with the Dutch.

No matter. Ogilby died in September 1676 and in 1681 Charles II dissolved parliament for the last time during his reign. “Britannia provided an extraordinary grasp over the business and administration of the 399 communities that it identified in England and Wales, and the crown took a grip on them all,” Ereira writes.

In this way, the atlas played a significant part in enabling the king’s revenue to grow by one-third within a few years. No longer needing financial help from Louis, Charles ruled by divine right, exercising absolute power until his death in 1685. The lesson of Britannia was that whoever controls the map controls the world.

Manjit Kumar is the author of “Quantum: Einstein, Bohr and the Great Debate about the Nature of Reality” (Icon)

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge