06/25/17

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

PHOTO:TheSultanette

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.

PHOTO: TheSultanette

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.

08/19/16

The Care And Handling Of Pussy

Dali, Photo Philippe Halsman, 1948.

Dali, Photo Philippe Halsman, 1948.

The Sultanette refers here to those beguiling furry creatures that rub against you when they’re petted and go wild when toys are dangled in front of them. Did you have something else in mind?

Back to pussies that purr, when I read last weekend’s Wall Street Journal piece, “Wild Thing,” on training your cat to get along with people, my fur went up.

Satyr Mason, Agostino Carracci, 16th C.

Satyr Mason,Agostino Carracci,16thC.

I’ve treasured two main kitty squeezes in my life. The Abyssinian Turkey, who graciously agreed to relocate to Paris with me and the Good Ex. And Oscar Wilde the Persian who obligingly put up with One&Only for seventy-two cat years. (When his sweet life ended, a friend suggested it was a shame that the vet couldn’t have sacrificed One&Only instead.)

Turkey, Oscar, and I understood the key to compatibility. We agreed that there was one thing on earth we didn’t want to be told: What to do. So when writers John Bradshaw and Sarah Ellis explained that “training can help our feline companions adapt to the demands we put on them” I wondered if they’d overdosed on catnip.

Little Jam Thief, McLoughlin Bros Pub, Pearl Series, 1880.

Little Jam Thief, McLoughlin Bros Pub, Pearl Series, 1880.

Cats are aloof, the article condemns. While man’s best friend, the obsequious canine, has been nuzzling up to humans for 15,000 years, it took cats another 5,000 to show a little love. And that was only when they realized it was easier to raid the farmer’s cupboard than the steppes.

The first evidence of cats becoming companionable was 4,000 years ago in Egypt, where archeologists have found them ceremonially buried with their owners, though that might have been a final effort to get them to stay off the kitchen table.

Regardless of their attempts at becoming warm and fuzzy Bradshaw and Ellis report, “owning a cat was taken as evidence of collusion with the devil.” Even into the 17th century, they were still making mischief, resulting in an association with paganism and witchcraft that lead them to be highly suspect during the Salem witch trials.

Cleophea Holzhalb,Hans Asper,1538.

Cleophea Holzhalb,Hans Asper,1538.

But this is now. Cats are clever enough to get with the program, right? Just like the male human is in relationship lockstep? Not so fast. “Cats aren’t programmed to interact with all humans,” the Journal reports. While felines may become “genuinely fond of their owners” unlike the tail-wagging pooch, “they don’t feel the need to ingratiate themselves with every human on Earth.” Don’t we spend millions on therapy to wean ourselves off of that behavior?

Off you go! Book cover, Anonymous,1922.

Off you go! Book cover, Anonymous,1922.

Themost shocking pussy report: “Cats like to be alone.” They don’t even much like to spend time with their own breed, says “Wild Thing.” Apparently before they joined civilization “cats’contact with one another was usually limited to a few days each year during the mating season and the few weeks in which mother cats raised their kittens.” No helicopter parents here. A little sex, a little time with the kids, and it’s off to the races!

The article does allow that “the independence of cats can be part of their charm.” Unless you ask them to leave home. “Cats’ solitary, territorial nature means they are more strongly bonded to the place where they live than with any of the people with whom they share it.” Really? When Good Ex and I moved to Paris, Turkey took to the pigeons toying with her like courtesans on our wrought-iron balcony much more readily than I embraced the dominatrix behind the counter at our neighborhood patisserie. Besides, everybody know these conniving creatures pour their greatest affection on those who feed them.

Cat in a Cage,Gottfried Mind, c1800.

Cat in a Cage,Gottfried Mind, c1800.

But never mind, these failings can be trained away! If this sounds daunting, Bradshaw and Ellis reassure us that “the goal shouldn’t be to bring cats under our control” but to teach them “how to control their own behavior in a way that forges a better fit between feline nature and 21st-century human life.”

Case in point, “cats are hunters.” Yet by keeping them cooped up at home, eating gourmet cat food and sleeping in their designer cat beds while we clean the litter box, we deny them the need to capture prey. Solution? To “reduce a cat’s stress levels” play hunting games with them. Research has proven it! We may think that Snowball is playing, but “the cat seems to think that she is catching prey.”

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Lewis Carroll, 1869.

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Lewis Carroll, 1869.

As for those anti-social tendencies, “you can also train your cat to be more accepting of its fellow felines.” If a new cat moves in next door, for instance, organize a series of play dates. This is not as easy as Tinder and we are advised “to make the introductions very slowly.” First give them a scent sample like you might sniff an insert of Obsession in Vanity Fair. Then let them check each other out from afar. When you start seeing “signs of relaxation” reward them with a “tasty treat.” Only then can you allow the experts to chase tail.

Congratulations, you have now taught your cat to conform to the 21st century. Simple enough. But by the looks of how we’ve managed love, companionship, and the pursuit of sex and happiness in the 21st-century, might we be better aspiring to the ancient, worldly feline? Single-minded. Discerning. Detached. Playful. Never ingratiating. Valuing its solitude. With a little witchcraft thrown in. That even sounds worth a few hair balls.