Submission is a meaning of the word Islam in Arabic, and is also the title of a 2015 novel by French provocateur Michel Houellebecq, freshly translated into English by our own Lorin Stein, editor of The Paris Review. The book is about a near-future Paris in which, following fighting in the streets by armed militias, a moderate “Muslim Brotherhood” party takes political power. It has the tragic claim-to-fame of having been published on 7 January 2015, the date of the Charlie Hebdo shooting in Paris, and having to some extent predicted events of the March 2016 Paris Terror. As the title indicates, the book’s central theme is the giving-way of one form of society to another, the collapse of what Houellebecq identifies as “atheist materialism,” or secular democracy, or the values of the Enlightenment, to a resurgent global religiosity, spearheaded by Islam.
A review of the novel in my copy of Bookforum tells me, basically, that we’re not supposed to take Houellebecq seriously as an idea man. He’s been called a misogynist and Islamophobic, and has been taken to trial for inciting racial hatred (he was acquitted). He says things we’re not supposed to say with obvious button-pushing glee, from quotes like this about what even moderate Muslims want :
For these Muslims, the real enemy—the thing they fear and hate—isn’t Catholicism. It’s secularism. It’s laicism. It’s atheist materialism.
To something more subtle like this, from the POV of a professor at the Sorbonne, which tells girls in burkas they don’t belong at the Sorbonne:
…what did those two virgins in burkas care about that self-proclaimed analist, Jean Lorrain? did their fathers realize what they were reading in the name of literature?
But, you know, I surprised myself by loving this book anyway. I thought Submission was a ravishing good read, beautifully written, very difficult to put down, and also hilarious. I appreciated my literary encounter with those two hot topics of our time, misogyny and Islamophobia, though I may have drawn different conclusions than the author intended me to. Or not. It’s hard to tell with Houellebecq, whose hot topics tend to be the sort people bring their own strong opinions to.
The book’s protagonist, Francois, is a French academic with a specialty in the 1800s French decadent author Joris Karl Huysmans. He says in the opening line that “For all the years of my sad youth Huysmans remained a companion, a faithful friend; never once did I doubt him…”. After defending his dissertation, Francois realizes “that part of my life, probably the best part, was behind me.”He’s a stand-in for his society, one of the “remaining Western social democracies,” (quote also from the first page) for whom the best part of their existence, Houellebecq believes, is also behind them. Francois at his best has the virtues of art-appreciation and intellectual curiosity, but mostly he’s callow, radically isolated, degraded, sees the women around him only as sex objects, drinks too much, eats microwave food. He can find nothing to value, and no one to value him. He’s riding on the fumes of history.
Here he is, in all his glory:
My life would have been truly tedious and dreary if I hadn’t, every now and then, fucked Myriam. I pulled over at a service station called Mille Étangs—Thousand Ponds—just after the exit to Chateauroux. I bought a chocolate-chip cookie and a large coffee at La Croissanterie, then I got back in the car to have my breakfast and think about the past, or nothing at all.
Erotic memories of an ex-girlfriend—the best memories of Francois’s life, no less—are juxtaposed with eating a cookie from a service station. It’s a witty and vicious illustration of the banality of consumer culture, which turns people into products and love into a sugar high. I also laughed at this:
My attempt to interest myself in the natural beauty of the region was obviously doomed to failure.
Francois, in his transparent loathsomeness, is funny. But his despair is real, and his story is, for all its satirical elements, a search for meaning.
When the Muslim Brotherhood takes over France and deprives Francois of his rote existence as a teacher at the Sorbonne he has to come up with something other than suicide. He tries to find love (getting back together with an ex-girlfriend, frequenting prostitutes…) and fails. His somewhat vague stirrings of political consciousness suggest to him that maybe good old-fashioned patriarchal marriage where the woman stays home and cooks a nice meal was a better way of life. Or perhaps religious faith was. He tries half-heartedly to embrace traditional values by experimenting with Catholicism, but also discovers he cannot. Mainly, it seems, because he can’t deny himself the fruitless pleasures religious faith would prevent. (He leaves a spiritual retreat at a monastery because he’s annoyed that he’s not allowed to smoke.)
But Houellebecq, it seems, can’t believe in faith for his modern man. He closes the story in an explosion of spite. In newly Islamic France, polygamy is legal, and the old elite seamlessly shares power with the new. Francois is offered a plum teaching position and a couple of teenage wives if he’ll convert to Islam, which cheers him up. Is this an extension of the idea that a return to “traditional values” is actually a good thing? Or meant as vicious satire, not of women or Muslims, but of the protagonist and the French intellectual classes he represents?
Either way it’s a satisfyingly cynical demonstration of one boys’ club handing the reins of power to another. It also draws satisfying parallels between Francois’s atheist-materialist pornotopia and a religious system that runs on women’s bodies (as the version of Islam in this book seems to). And—I’m not sure Houellebecq means to be making this impression—but it felt to me like Francois’s misogyny was the key to his despair. Why blame a failed society for his isolation when there’s a closer, more direct explanation: He’s totally blind to any qualities of the women around him other than their sexuality. No wonder he’s lonely. His condition is less a reflection of his society than of himself.
Francois doesn’t find much relief in art, or not enough, at least. But I think that possibly Houellebecq does. You can tell by the carefulness of his craft, and the deliciousness of those explosions of spite, and passages like the following, that make a greater attempt at spirituality than anything Francois finds in the monastery.
The beauty of an author’s style, the music of his sentences have their importance in literature, of course; the depth of an author’s reflections, the originality of his thought certainly can’t be overlooked; but an author is above all a human being, present in his books, and whether he writes well or badly hardly matters—as long as he gets the books written and is, indeed present in them.
There is presence in this book. It’s obnoxious, despairing, cynical, but I really liked it.