The Sultanette chases down France’s ‘enfant terrible’. Houellebecq who?


The Sultanette takes Michel & Teddy to bed.

Clearly stated in The Male Harem bylaws: “All flattery welcome. False praise included. If you’re a liar just be a good one.” Who doesn’t love to be praised? Michel Houellebecq, it seems.

France’s persistent enfant terrible was recently described by Alexandra Wolfe in the Wall Street Journal as being “accused of misogyny, anti-Muslim bigotry and (more generally) nihilism, based in large part on the vulgar, resentful, unhappy characters in his novels.” At a surly sixty-one, he has done nothing to discourage that sentiment.

PHOTO:The Sultanette

Houellebecq photo at Venus.

Houellebecq writes about cheery subjects like dystopian societies and sexual obsession. Over the years he has been taken to court for inciting hatred, awarded France’s prestigious Prix Goncourt, and cultivated a reputation as “one of Europe’s most controversial cultural figures.”

He even has a healthy Twitter following. (There are several Houellebecq handles including a “fake” one which is probably the real one.) Not that he’s a social media geek. In a culture where intellectual is still a noun, Houellebecq is a real writer of real books that examine, for better and mostly worse, human nature.

PHOTO: TheSultanette

Groaning board of author’s books at Albertine.

Sex scenes can be the hardest to write, he tells Wolfe, because of the nature of sensuality. “Language isn’t really made for descriptions of sensual physical experiences. … There’s a dissolution of perceptions in sex which makes everything kind of blurry.” A brash contrarian who concedes to the je ne sais quoi of sex? The Sultanette needed a closer look at this specimen.

So when I learned that he was scheduled to appear at noon at New York’s premier cultural haunt, the Albertine Library of the French Consulate, I was there at 11:00 o’clock on the dot. For the next two hours I enjoyed VIP status behind the press section’s velvet rope.

PHOTO: TheSultanette

Awaiting Houellebecq at Albertine.

At noon it was announced that the author was running late. Soon the beau monde became bored with air-kissing and started squirming in their seats. Things didn’t look good. (Lauren Collins in The New Yorker describes the time Houellebecq missed the opening of the Channel Tunnel “because he wasn’t getting along with an official from the Culture Ministry.”) At 1:00pm, the apologetic announcement. Regrettably, Monsieur Houellebecq was under the weather.

I dragged myself out to the reception area and the table loaded down with the his books. Did the no-show deserve my investment? A New York Times Book Review blurb on Platform (2004, Vintage/Random House) said: “A terrific writer, funny and prophetic … feverishly alive to the world around him.” I bought the paperback and fled to lunch.

PHOTO: TheSultanette

Those who live in glass houses … ?

I needed to fuel up for the next venue the author was alleged to appear at – a presentation of his photography titled “French Bashing” now showing at the Venus gallery on Madison Avenue. Houellebecq has been taking pictures for decades but has only begun to show them and this was his New York premiere. Primed for more abuse, I was eager to see what the Journal had described as the medium “in which he has expressed his relentless dark view of modern France: Photography.”

As threatened, the first room of the show is nearly pitch black – better to enhance the bleak images described in the press release as “a continent on the verge of decomposition.” Quotes from the author’s book like, “I had no more reason to kill myself than most of these people did” add to the mood.

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France at your feet: Houellebecq at Venus.

Then just as you’re convinced that Houellebecq would be a lousy representative for the French chamber of commerce, you part back a heavy velvet curtain and are assaulted by blinding light and saturated color. In this second room the floor is paved in laminated travel posters, emphasizing kitschy “visions of tourism” framed against a white wall under fluorescent lighting. All this stimulation and still no Houellebecq. I’d had my fill of dystopia and was ready for a dry martini.

PHOTO: TheSultanette

In the shadows of Michel.

And lo! As I headed for the elevator, the doors opened to disgorge what had to be the man. The sullen presence, the protective entourage. I followed the group back into the gallery and circled him warily considering an approach strategy. No, the thought of extracting a conversation out of him was slightly less appealing than chatting-up Ted Bundy. Satisfied with the sighting, I escaped to the gilded glow of the Mark Hotel lounge.

PHOTO: TheSultanette

Houellebecq photo at Venus.

Later that night I crawled into bed with the novel that I’d picked up at Albertine. Platform might be raw in parts, I reasoned, but The Times blurb did say Houellebecq was “feverishly alive to the world around him.” With feverish anticipation, I opened the book. It began, “Father died last year.”

You might not want to take Houellebecq to bed with you but in a world where the conversation appears increasingly ordered around choosing sides, it may be healthy to dwell occasionally in the dark. When asked by Wolfe what he plans to do next, Houellebecq replied, “I don’t know. I never know.”

Michel Houellebecq: French Bashing is showing at Venus, 980 Madison Avenue until August 4.

Photo: TheSultanette

Trickery! Cheating! Chicanery! It’s Tax Time!

Head over heels at The Met.

Welcome to the perilous days of April, fellow Americans, when we’re reminded that nothing is certain but death and taxes, and that cheating (not the fun, sweaty kind) is a patriotic duty. So what better inspiration than a trip to New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art exhibit, Crime Stories: Photography and Foul Play.

Encouraged by Andy Battaglia’s Wall Street Journal review promising “shady characters, dirty deeds and their often grizzly results” I hopped an uptown subway to the Met, still a sacred monument to art in spite of its jazzy new logo.

Photo: TheSultanette

Enter under your own risqué.

Threading my way past heroically endowed Greek warriors in the buff and ermine-clad monarchs in gilded frames, it was a relief to face the raw candor of honest criminals and the exhibition’s inviting threat of graphic subject matter. “Rangy social outcasts” is how the opening salvo described the gallery of reprobates – always on the Sultanette’s A-List.

Runway Chic or Runaway?

Runway Chic or Runaway?

The first set of assorted characters, posed for booking shots at the Chicago Police Department, hardly looked menacing. One woman reminded me of my Aunt Annette Krystowiak whose closest brush with crime was cooking blood sausage in Milwaukee. The men might have been posing for a Dolce and Gabbana spread.

Lend me your ears!

Lend me your ears!

On to a more encouraging crew – French anarchists. Sniffing them out in late-19th century Paris was dealt with in such scrupulous detail by French criminologist, Alphonse Bertillon, suffering the process became known as being “Bertillonaged.” As curator Mia Fineman explained it to Battaglia, “If you really wanted to make sure you had the right person, you would look at the shape of their ear, which was unique.” Credited as the first mug shots, these are selfies on steroids.

Book it, Danno!

Book it, Danno!

If you were looking for naughty nightstand reading in 1860, you’d click on Amazon (What! There was no Amazon!) for Rogues: A Study of Characters. Compiled by Samuel G. Szabo, its medley of bad boys including sneak thief, highway man, lifter, and wife poisoner, are straight out of Dickens. Each entry, labeled in elegant script, purports to uncover criminality through physical characteristics.

The eyes have it!

The eyes have it!

Why have we made such a science of exposing evildoers? Are we that easily fooled by the con man? Or do we prefer to swallow the most convenient truths, even from our lovers, family, and cohorts? … Do my darling’s eyes betray that he’s a lying, cheating bastard? Is jolly cousin Molly plotting to edge us out of the will? Might glad-handing Bob at the office really be back-stabbing Bob?

Mea culprit!

The Reverend. Mea culprit!

Working my way through the show, I became an amateur criminologist, analyzing the faces of these masters of guile. “The Reverend” Lawrence Hight’s unimpassioned stare from behind bars masked a venomous nature coiled to break free.

Freddie the farm boy

Freddie the farm boy.

The benign demeanor of 12-year-old Freddie the farm boy who shot his two sisters in Wausau, Wisconsin, belied a calculating murderer.

Then there was Frank Smith (a likely name). Hauled back to Kansas State Prison on an illegal gun charge after moldering there for twenty-six years on a previous conviction, he’s reported as saying he was “glad to be back.” Compared to the deadly reality of life on the outside maybe incarceration had its perks.

Debutante romp.

Patty Hearst debutante romp.

The exhibit may best demonstrate the allure of crime in the Femme Nikita photo of heiress Patty Hearst turned bank robber. Snatched from her gilded cage by the Symbionese Liberation Army in 1974, she was held hostage for nineteen months of capers before being rescued by the FBI. “Tania” then listed her occupation as “Urban Guerilla” and was sentenced to seven years in prison, commuted after twenty-one months by President Carter. Upon release, she tied the knot with her prison bodyguard and raised two children. Was the marriage a form of self-imposed house arrest to resist the exciting life of crime?

If the shoe fits ...

If the shoe fits …

Or does it inevitably end on a shelf at the morgue like John Dillinger’s sheeted body, his feet tagged as if at a sample sale. I wondered studying the soles of this notoriously dashing gangster, if a hunted-down corpse manifests a different postmortem persona than a body that dies a natural death. If I ever invite a coroner into The Male Harem, we’re in for some grisly pillow talk.

Doormen on duty.

Doormen on duty.

Still, the romance of the outlaw persists. Based on the show’s 1892 portrait of the Wild Bunch, you’d take these hotties over your milquetoast accountant any day after April 18. All dapper and dandy in bowler hats, they look more like investment bankers than bank robbers (though these days they’re one and the same). In comparison, a gaggle of cops from the 40’s, taken by crime photographer laureate, Weegee, look like Upper Eastside doormen with nightsticks.

It would be easy to relegate Crime Stories as an homage to film noir and head for dinner at Demarchelier on 86th(their coq au vin makes for good tax-time comfort food). The Valentine’s Day Massacre has become endearing folklore. Even the infamous electric chair at Sing Sing earned the charming moniker “Old Sparky” and was painted by Warhol.

But that might be denying ourselves another impulse.“Poring through the gore in the collection offered certain forbidden pleasures,“ writes Battaglia of the show’s curation. Whether artistic in intention or vernacular in nature, curator Doug Eklund tells him, the images ‘have a kind of energy and make you look’.

"Old Sparky" at Sing Sing

“Old Sparky” at Sing Sing.

Maybe observing this parade of wrongdoers allows us to become voyeurs of our baser selves. These hard-boiled criminals stir up the dirty little secrets that we conceal with such immaculate pretense – those private transgressions that escape the scrutiny of judges or juries, spouses, friends, children, even the tax man. Yes villainous acts against society should be punished. But in freeing their calamitous spirits, are these daring outcasts more wildly sincere than our shamefully hidden selves?

To quote outlaw laureate, Oscar Wilde, “Sin is the only note of vivid colour that persists in the modern world.” These photos, in stark black-and-white attest to it.

Crime Stories: Photography and Foul Play is at the Metropolitan Museum of Art through July 31. Suggested admission is tax deductible.