Satire perched on the edge of a slippery slope
Submission By Michel Houellebecq William Heinemann, 356pp, $32.99
Histoire d’O was an erotic novel published in 1954 by Anne Desclos under the nom de plume Pauline Reage. The work, deeply influenced by the writings of the Marquis de Sade, described the sexual submission of a female fashion photographer to a series of dominant male figures in a chateau on the outskirts of Paris. If you have wondered just how deep the wickedness of Michel Houellebecq runs, consider this: Story of O is one philosophical model — a kind of sadomasochistic rhyme — for Submission, his speculative account of a near-future in which France submits to Islam.
Houellebecq’s Submission has been available, at least in French, for some months, and the arguments it has stirred up, especially in the light of the Charlie Hebdo massacre — which took place just hours after the novel’s initial publication — have been roundly examined.
None of these critical responses quite prepares the reader for the book’s oddity. The tale of one Parisian academic’s halting journey towards religious conversion, set against the backdrop of a profound sociopolitical shift in 2020s Europe, looks from a distance like a modest proposal in the Swiftian vein.
Yet the extraordinary possibility it explores is described in tones of bufferish moderation by a character who regards himself as ‘‘about as political as a bath towel’’. Here is a world-historical earthquake described with a donnish shrug. The effect is by turns subtle, hilarious, sly, cynical and earnest — and also, as our narrator observes passingly of Leconte de Lisle’s late poetry, ‘‘completely bonkers’’.
The novel’s set-up borders on the plausible. France’s political system has long relied on an enemy’s enemy approach, with centrist voters often holding their nose in order to stem challenges from extremes of Right or Left. In the opening chapters of Submission, a charming and talented politician named Mohammed Ben Abbes, son of a greengrocer and leader of a moderate Muslim party, is elected president of France with the assistance of the Socialists, as a means of holding Marine Le Pen’s National Front at bay. It takes the French a little time to realise that Abbes, aided by Saudis and Qatari petrodollars, is bent on an experiment without precedent in the modern era: a caliphate, founded by democracy not fiat, at the heart of republican Europe. Before long the veil is introduced and sharia law embedded in the civil code.
But this is as close to Islamic State as we are likely to get: the shifts are relatively benign (at least for men) and have all kinds of satisfactory repercussions. Crime drops by 90 per cent in some areas, while women’s evacuation from the workplace means the unemployment rate dramatically improves.
The person observing these changes is 44year-old Francois, a jaded academic whose scholarly interest is in Joris-Karl Huysmans, a 19th-century author whose writings evolved from naturalism to decadence, and from philosophical pessimism to a return to the Catholic faith as an oblate at a Benedictine abbey.
As in so much of Houellebecq’s work (even his quasi-sci-fi novel The Possibility of an Island draws on the work of EM Forster), the integration of an earlier, admired author is an essential aspect of the novel, a literary tuning fork with which to harmonise his own concerns. And it is this rare instance of investment in another human that somewhat softens the nihilism and misanthropy that looms elsewhere in Houellebecq’s outlook. As Francois explains:
… only literature can put you in touch with another human spirit, as a whole, with all its weaknesses and grandeurs, its limitations, its pettinesses, its obsessions, its beliefs; with whatever it finds moving, interesting, exciting or repugnant. Only literature can give you access to a spirit from beyond the grave — a more direct, more complete, deeper access than you’d have in conversation with a friend.
‘‘An author,’’ Houellebecq concludes, justifying his much criticised anti-style in the light of similar criticisms of Huysmans, ‘‘is above all a human being, present in his books, and whether he writes very well or very badly hardly matters — as long as he gets the books written and is, indeed, present in them.’’
In these pages, as is usual, we get a large dose of Houellebecqian presentness. He lurks in Francois’s promiscuity, his pornographic obsessions (‘‘I felt no real desire, only an obscure Kantian notion of ‘ duty towards the self’, as I surfed my usual sites’’) and his blanket disgust with bourgeois family life.
It is hard to hear a character describe himself as no more than ‘‘a jumble of organs in slow decomposition’’ whose life is ‘‘an unending torment, grim, joyless and mean’’ without drawing a direct line between character and creator.
Still, there is enough residual vim in his vindictiveness, enough aphoristic clarity to his nihilism, that we half forgive Francois his maker’s sins.
Having lost his university job because of a constitutional unwillingness to change his ways (or his religion), the otherwise esteemed scholar finds himself adrift in this new world. It will be his clear-eyed notations of the emerging social
and political moment that give the narrative its texture and drift.
Francois, quite frankly, doesn’t give a stuff. He watches the streets empty of women in skirts; he sees his university become an intellectual nullity; he tests the strength of Huysman’s old beliefs against his bored agnosticism and finds them admirable yet empty.
There is honesty here, but also a scepticism so determinedly deployed that it shades into absolutism. But this is not a novel about the rise of Islam so much as a critique of Christianity, or at least the half-baked simulacra of Christian democracy deployed by French media and the politicians of today. Houellebecq’s narrative delights in describing the self-defeating credulousness of various bien pensant figures deeply familiar to the French.
The curious thing about Submission is Houellebecq’s pleasant neutrality with regard to Islam, at least via the consciousness of Francois. Francois sees the rise of Islam through the prism of an older, prouder and culturally ambitious Christian culture; Islam’s current success is an index against which current, godless Western atheism is found sorely lacking.
As the academic is slowly drawn back into the fold by a charismatic convert, now running the Sorbonne — a kind of Niall Ferguson in cultural reverse — we get a sense not so much of Francois’s cynicism but of his gentle acceptance of events; he’s no jihadist, just an ordinary, self-interested man, trying to make meaning of his life.
Submission is not the novel people have taken it for, just as Houellebecq has never quite been the writer we praise or condemn. Nonetheless, what the author has produced here is a hugely controversial book presented as a damp squib. This may be an instance of scabrous yet nuanced possum-stirring on his account; it may be that he is a coward, hedging the force of what would otherwise be some creepy crypto-fascism. I believe it is a bit of both.
When the head of the Sorbonne, bent on recruiting Francois, praises the writer and notorious Catholic bigot Leon Bloy as ‘‘the ultimate weapon against the twentieth century, its mediocrity, its moronic ‘ engagement’, its cloying humanitarianism; against Sartre, and Camus, and all their political play-acting; and against all those sickening formalists, the nouveau roman, the pointless absurdity of it all’’, we bourgeois readers are doubtless intended to be pleasantly goosed.
But for all the ostensible mildness of Houellebecq’s novel, we should be wary of such flamboyant provocation.
In these pages, the most influential French novelist of his day flays what he sees as the banalities of the ‘‘reasonable’’ humanists of the Gallic mid-century intelligentsia. But so did Louis-Ferdinand Celine, once upon a time. He was the controversial author of some of the finest novels of the interwar era; and then he wrote anti-Semitic pamphlets, the most notorious of which was titled Bagatelles pour un
Massacre. Mere trifles, of course, as the translation suggests — but the idea that Europe may have entered a point of ‘‘putrid decomposition’’, as one of the characters in Submission avers, shows the slide from satire to true reaction in French literature can be slippery, and disturbingly so.
HOUELLEBECQ HAS PRODUCED A HUGELY CONTROVERSIAL BOOK PRESENTED AS A DAMP SQUIB
French novelist Michel Houellebecq, left, and 19thcentury writer Joris-Karl Huysmans, below