Michel Houellebecq’s sixth novel, imagining an Islamic government taking power in France in 2022, has been widely assumed to be an act of pure provocation. He is, after all, the author who faced legal trouble after having said in an interview in 2001: ‘La religion la plus con, c’est quand même l’islam.’
Soumission (Submission) was announced quite suddenly by Flammarion in December for the first week of the New Year, with an initial print run of 150,000 copies. So keen was the interest that it was pirated online before publication. It’s an event — but a literary event, it turns out.
For Soumission is a fine, deeply literary work, not a prank. It’s devoted just as much to the 19th-century novelist Joris-Karl Huysmans (evidently its point of origin for Houellebecq) as it is to the future of Islam in Europe, offering a sustained, revealing commentary on his life and work throughout the book. So it’s profoundly inter-textual — even, in its way, a campus novel, you could say.
The first-person narrator, François, is a professor of literature at Paris III-Sorbonne, appointed after having spent seven years of his life writing a 780-page thesis, ‘Joris-Karl Huysmans, or the exit from the tunnel’, followed by a book, Vertiges des neologismes, about his innovatory vocabulary. Houellebecq has duly given François considerable linguistic flair himself.
Now 44, François, who has never liked teaching, and drinks like a fish, is at a loss what to do with what is left of his life, wondering if he’s suffering some kind of ‘andropause’. He has been steadily sleeping with students, changing them each year, the latest being a Jewish girl of 22, Myriam, whom he loves. ‘For men love is nothing other than gratitude for pleasure given. Every one of her blowjobs would have been enough to justify the life of a man’, François observes gratefully.
Politics, on the other hand, means little to him — he feels about as politicised as a hand-towel, he says. Yet changes are coming, a colleague warns him, three weeks before the 2022 presidential elections. François Hollande won in 2017, by the contemptible strategy of encouraging the rise of the Front National, so that in the second round there was little choice but to elect the left again. But a month after that, a new Muslim Brotherhood party was formed, under a moderate, appealing leader, Mohammed Ben Abbes, spreading its influence through youth movements, cultural institutions and charitable associations.
This time, the Muslim Brotherhood is rivalling the left to go through to the second round against Marine Le Pen, support for the traditional right-wing parties having collapsed. France is in turmoil. When the Muslim Brotherhood scores 22.3 per cent against the Socialists’ 21.9 per cent, the only way the Front National can be stopped is by the other parties making common cause with the Islamists. A deal is struck, the Muslims ceding many ministries to the Socialists in return for what matters to them most, alongside demographic change: control of education.
Myriam leaves for Israel (‘When a Muslim party comes to power, it’s never very good for the Jews’). But, François realises, as they part, ‘There is no Israel for me.’ He rather randomly seeks refuge in the South West:
To tell the truth I knew almost nothing about the South West, except that it’s a region where people eat duck confit; and duck confit seemed to me hardly compatible with civil war. Although I could be wrong.
There, after a fine dinner with a Péguy-reciting former intelligence officer who explains to him the way things are going, François spends time in Rocamadour, going each day to the chapel to sit before the Black Virgin, meditating on Huysmans’s conversion to Catholicism. The Virgin is calm, imperishable, sovereign — but François, in search of meaning but shrunken, damaged and vulnerable, can only feel an unbridgeable distance from this apogee of medieval faith.
Meanwhile France has adjusted surprisingly smoothly to the new regime, with that ever eager placeman François Bayrou serving as prime minister. Civil disorder has stopped and unemployment is down, as women leave the workforce. Ben Abbes (cunningly never shown, only spoken of admiringly) is planning to extend the EU southwards, taking in Turkey and Morocco, to be followed by Tunisia, Algeria, Lebanon and ultimately Egypt, perhaps becoming the first European President himself.
François returns to Paris, where women are now wearing the veil and shapeless trousers. Only Islamic teaching staff are allowed at the Sorbonne, so he takes generously funded early retirement, diverting himself with call girls, while trying to come to terms not only with the loss of Myriam but also with the consecutive deaths of both of his parents. His life seems to be closing down: ‘I was incapable of living for myself, and who else would I have lived for?’
But then, at this lowest point, he is offered the prestigious editorship of the Pleiade edition of Huysmans (it’s true, these volumes don’t yet exist) and is approached by the new head of the Sorbonne, Robert Rediger, to return to the faculty, on condition of conversion.
François calls on Rediger at his impressive hotel particulier, 5 rue des Arènes, the house where the Nouvelle Revue Française (NRF) editor Jean Paulhan once lived (again, really). In the lobby, he bumps into an embarrassed 15-year-old girl in a ‘Hello Kitty’ t-shirt, Rediger’s new wife; upstairs, an older first wife serves them superb Meursault and Arab pastries in the impressive library.
Rediger not only flatters François’s learning, and discourses impressively on God and astrophysics; he also tells him that he owns the house because of its association with Histoire d’O, the sado-masochistic classic written as a love-offering by Paulhan’s lover, Pauline Réage (also known as Dominique Aury): ‘For me there’s a link between the absolute submission of woman to man, such as Story of O describes, and the submission of man to God, such as Islam envisages.’ Such submission seems to him the height of human happiness, although he admits to hesitation about exposing this idea to his co-religionists.
François takes away Rediger’s pocket-book, Ten Questions about Islam, which has sold 3 million copies and, being a man, turns immediately to the section which justifies polygamy as a form of natural selection. The next time he meets Rediger, at a Sorbonne reception, he has one urgent question: ‘How many wives will I have the right to?’ Three, he is told — and further assured that, although he won’t be able to size them up in advance, the wise old women who act as marriage-brokers will inspect them naked to be sure their physique matches up to the social standing of their future husband. After his conversion, François will have nothing to regret...
Soumission, although inserting itself right into the debate about identity and Islam in France conducted by the likes of Alain Finkielkraut and Pascal Bruckner, as well as Eric Zemmour in his bestseller Le Suicide Français and Renaud Camus with his ominous theory of ‘le grand remplacement’, is not at all subjugated by that. It is certainly not a polemic like Jean Raspail’s notorious The Camp of the Saints, fantasising a Europe overrun by the Third World. It is genuinely more admiring than critical of Islam, which is the background, not the foreground, here.
As a Comtean, Houellebecq has always maintained that no society can survive without religion. (Rediger observes that ‘without Christianity, the European nations were no more than bodies without souls — zombies’.) Soumission is another novel both hilariously and hurtfully true to Houellebecq’s own sense of life being always a process of decay, survival always a contest between sex and death. This is expressed precisely, without shame, Houellebecq himself having ‘a kind of abnormal honesty, an incapacity for those compromises that permit people, in the end, to live’ (as Myriam says here of François). He stands both inside and outside his own times.
Soumission will be published in translation here by Heinemann, but not until the autumn at the earliest. A pity — it’s electrifying; no recent English-language novel compares. Early on François explains why Huysmans, as a representative of literature, the major art of the West, matters to him so much:
Only literature can give you this sensation of contact with another human mind, with the whole of this mind, its weaknesses and grandeurs, its limitations, its pettinesses, its fixed ideas, its beliefs; with all that moves it, interests it, excites it or repels it... A book that one loves is above all a book whose author one loves...
There it is, j’adore Michel, myself.