Satire perched on the edge of a slip­pery slope

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Ge­ordie Wil­liamson Ge­ordie Wil­liamson is The Aus­tralian’s chief lit­er­ary critic.

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.


French nov­el­ist Michel Houelle­becq, left, and 19th­cen­tury writer Joris-Karl Huys­mans, be­low

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