Book Review: Michel Houllebecq’s Submission

With the recent Charlie Hebdo killings putting Paris and the rest of France on edge, it’s fitting to see Michel Houllebecq, perhaps the most celebrated and reviled novelist in the world today, unwittingly contribute to a pressing national conversation. His new novel
Soumission (Submission) is on the surface a dystopian novel about living under Sharia Law in France. That in itself should raise a few eyebrows, but like his other works, Houllebecq’s latest work is filled with biting irony and a complete distrust for any social narratives, be they from the “East” of “West”, Christianity or Islam.

Houllebecq has been the persistent enfant terrible of French literature for over three decades now, looking at everything from the vapidity of the upper-classes to the defeatist attitude of the country’s post-industrial underclass. Now, with his publisher under police protection and his new novel drawing the ire of France’s Muslim community, press attention will only help bolster the divisive nature of his novel.

But it’s not as divisive as people may think. Already, many major news organizations have accused the Houllebecq of xenophobia and have even touted it as a novel coinciding with the rise of the French right. Soumission, though, defies any fixed notion and leaves it up to the reader to decide.

The novel details the life of a professor of 19th century literature at the Sorbonne in France. Unlike most dystopian novels, it doesn’t begin with any shock or horror, but rather with the professor talking to us about life at the University and Joris-Karl Huysmans, 19th century novelist and the subject of his decades of study.

As a noted pessimist, Huysmans wrote novels in the Naturalist genre (like Emile Zola) until moving towards the Symboliste movement of the late 19th century, which featured the likes of Stéphane Mallarmé, Arthur Rimbaud and Oscar Wilde on the other side of the channel. His work and his own life feature greatly in this novel, so much so that the narrator will often interrupt the story to talk about one of his novels.

And while the long-winded passages may seem droll, there are some key similarities between Huysmans’ work and the overall atmosphere of the near future. There is a telling lack of conviction in the lives of the characters, who seem to drift from passive study and intellectual discussion into indifferent fecundity. Francois, the narrator, interrupts long-winded analyses of literature to talk about sex and pornography as though they were all naturally related.

While he moves passively through his career, the Islamic Party begins to take hold of French politics, with the Socialist Party using them to defeat the right-wing Front National. Now in power, the Islamic Party introduces Sharia Law and instills immediate social control over the populace, with laws forcing women to cover themselves completely, and polygamy becoming a permissible act.

Immediately, François loses his position at the Sorbonne and thus leaves Paris, as it immediately becomes a center for the Islamic elite, who are generously funded by states in the Persian Gulf.

On the day of the massacre, Charlie Hebdo published a satire of Houllebecq on its cover. (Photo Courtesy of: www.Telegraph.co.uk)

On the day of the massacre, Charlie Hebdo published a satire of Houllebecq on its cover.
(Photo Courtesy of: http://www.Telegraph.co.uk)

What is most horrifying about Soumission is the level of indifference that the narrator brings towards the complete social reversal occurring in France. While the gut reaction of the Western-world intellectual would be to challenge Sharia Law or cower away from it, François actually finds common ground with its traditionalism–namely, the subjection of women into a rigid social hierarchy. The women no longer work, but that means that “unemployment” is at a virtual zero. No longer second-class citizens, the Pan-Arab community lining the Parisian suburbs no longer feel stratified, and stop all protestation and violence.

François, who sees himself as a traditionalist at heart, at first opposes the election, but his passivity soon gets the best of him and he eventually fantasizes about the sexual particulars of polygamy and the subjection of women to his whims. The conventional dystopian vision would point the finger at the outside force–Sharia Law in this case–but the fact of the matter is the narrator, the paragon of a decadent and worn-out France, easily submits to a salacious interpretation of the new laws.

What Submission suggests is not that the rise of the muslim, immigrant class is an “Invasion of the Barbarians”, as the premise may suggest, but rather the suicide of a nation bogged down by secular indifference. The amorality of modern France has made it decadent and ultimately vulnerable to anybody wishing to impose a moral order within politics.

But Houllebecq also takes a birds-eye-view approach and sees the rise of Islam in France as just one notch on the belt of a rising Mediterranean empire spanning Southern Europe, North Africa and the Middle-East, the original goal of the Umayyad Conquests of the 8th century. During those invasions, The Franks fought off the muslim armies and prolonged a Christian empire that would last over a millenium. In the novel, François tries to return to these places of Christian lore, but they are as vapid as he is. Saturated by gift shops, they are noticeably banal and François soon grows bored of them.

In her 1988 novel The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood recreated the horrific misogyny and patriarchal rule not unlike that of the Taliban on American soil. Her portrayal of Sharia Law in extremis is perhaps more akin to what I was expecting from the novel, given the pre-emptive controversy surrounding it.

But Submission is more a satire of the dystopian novel. In the classics–say, 1984 and Brave New World, the protagonist internalizes virtue while the outside world turns into a nightmare. Submission is told by a narrator who is the opposite of a Winston Smith or a Bernard Marx, who embodies the lack of conviction many of us carry in a postmodern society.

For all the ire this novel has already drawn, I think that its message has far less to do with Islam and more to do with the European and North American “West” as a whole. Perhaps, amorality and cultural indifference will leave any nation vulnerable to any set of values, whatever they may be.

The English edition of Submission will be released later on this year. 

One thought on “Book Review: Michel Houllebecq’s Submission

  1. Asfidanken says:

    I am afraid you have missed what is really relevant in this book and that you have only mentioned in the beginning of your review: the subject of Francoise study: Joris Karl Huysmans. Houellebecq’s novel beside from containing some very beautiful pages on Huysman’s work which could feature in any critical essay on the french 19th century writer is an attempt for Houellebcq to engage with Huysmans and his own conversion to Catholicism. Houellebecq analysis of our present and future is bleak and believes like Huysmans that only a conversion can save us. Houellebecq has spoken openly about his failed attempt to convert to Catholicism as Francois fails to convert to catholicism in the novel. He eventually converts to Islam but only because it gives him the opportunity to carry on doing what he likes: fucking young girls and studying Huysmans. Politics and dystopia has nothing to do with the subject matter. Francoise is like all of us, completely dissatisfied with our relativistic, materialistic, senseless, postmodern fucking horrible world with no hope and would like to find solace like Huysmans did more than a century ago when facing the beginning of the western culture’s collapse by converting, but unfortunately he’s not able to do it as he’s not ready to give his miserable life. One day Houellebcq will convert, stay tuned.

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