Michel Houellebecq: The Map and the Territory

Having not worn a suit since the boy’s christening in May I did not seem to spend a moment out of it this week on a trip to Frankfurt. During the course of the three days there I spent a total of one waking hour in my hotel room, which is just as well since not only were the walls toxically orange and the curtains lime green. This was the view out of my window.

Frankfurt's finest

While the trip meant no running since Monday night, waiting around in the airport for the delayed flight out and the parade of security checks on the way back, meant that I managed to get my teeth into Michel Houellebecq’s new novel, The Map and the Territory, reviewed everywhere, but with special delight by Alex Clark in the Guardian.

Too often I forget what great novels can do to make our experience of the mundane extraordinary. Of all the great books on running, there is only one which is a novel – Once a Runner. Each time I reluctantly closed the book I first reached for a pencil to underline a particular passage before being ushered on by surly guards.

It is through these kinds of novels that we can learn to see more clearly the world around us, and it with these new eyes that the simple experience of putting on a pair of trainers and heading off for a run becomes a truly profound one.

A sneak preview of Houellebecq

Take two (almost) random examples. The first describes the protagonist’s first great revelation. ‘The map was sublime…The essence of modernity, or scientific and technical apprehension of the world, was he combined with the essence of animal life…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.’ Or a throw-away description of the living in Ireland. ‘In spring it’s unbearable. The sunsets are endless and magnificent, it’s like some kind of fucking opera.’ We all know that these descriptions are true, but not until I read this did I know how to describe two fundamental elements of my every day.

I can only imagine what the chain-smoking Houellebecq would make of the idea that a novel of his has something to teach the runner, but I opened my emails this morning to see a reminder from the Serpentine Running Club about the training camp in Lanzarote. Houellebecq wrote a novel of the same titles, the French edition including his own photographs too, so maybe it’s all an illusion and under the crates of empty wine bottles there’s a muddy pair of trainers that we don’t know about.


About Robin Harvie

I have been running marathons for ten years. But when I couldn't around faster than 3 hours 12 minutes, I decided to see how far I could run before I keeled over. Turns out pretty far. In September 2009 I took on the Spartathlon - 152 miles from Athens to Sparta. Non stop. Why We Run is about that journey and about why we run at all.
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