If you’ve recently been mourning the end of the Novel of Ideas—take heart. And dig in, for Submission is a smorgasbord, offering strong-flavored bites of a wide variety of subjects.
Submission by Michel Houellebecq. Translated from the French by Lorin Stein. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 246 pages, $25.
By Kai Maristed
At any given moment most of us labor under a bizarre collective illusion: namely, that we have a pretty good idea of where we are situated in human history, of which way the rivers are running. Without that certainty, how could people act, argue, torture, or give up their lives for a cause? It’s only in looking backward that we boggle at the ridiculously bad calls and appalling false assumptions made by our forebears and younger selves. After all, if the year is, say, 1943, who can predict whether the war will be won or lost? If we’re Romans in 22 BCE, is that charismatic leader a ruthless dictator or a selfless genius? If the year is 2015, will the strained secular Pax Americana hold against chaos in the Middle East and beyond, or will a version of Islam, in form perhaps of the dread caliphate, prevail? Merely to imagine the latter outcome cracks open a Pandora’s box of strange, heretofore unthinkable new social orders.
This kind of radical doubt permeates Submission, the brilliant and audacious thesis-in-form-of-a-novel by Michel Houellebecq, now available in a pitch-perfect translation by Lorin Stein. While each of Houellebecq’s previous novels, beginning with Whatever and including The Elementary Particles and The Map and the Territory, has inflamed controversy for one reason or another, Submission hits a collective central nerve. Readers’ reactions range from an unsettled “Mon dieu, could this really happen here?,” through delight at his satirical, deadpan skewering of the Western condition, to disgust, rejection, and accusations of Islamophobia.
Published in the original French last January, Submission, which in a concise 246 pages posits nothing less than the swift effacement of European civilization as it has developed over thousands of years, quickly became an uber-bestseller. Over 500,000 copies were printed in France by the end of February, over 200,000 for the Italian and German editions, respectively. Critics around the world have had a whack at the new work by the 2010 Goncourt Prize winner, including, with the September release of the US edition, a score of American literary heavyweights. One might think there’s nothing left on the bird.
But the horrendous, carefully planned suicide attacks that took place in Paris on November 13 cast a new light on Submission, as Houellebecq himself might agree. One has to wonder: are we in fact witnessing the beginning of the juggernaut change his unnerving scenario so persuasively sets in motion—or the reason for its abrupt derailment?
This morning, five days after the atrocities, over coffee and newspaper in Paris, I read the first detailed accounts by survivors of the attacks on the Bataclan Theater and nearby cafés, where 130 people died, mostly young and from all backgrounds, either mown down by bullets or blown up by explosives. The survivors, with astonishing presence of mind, describe their ordeals and terror, the certainty of death, the accidents of survival, the laughter of mocking killers, a lake of blood and bits of flesh everywhere. People lying under corpses for hours, playing dead to survive.
This morning, too, police commandos raided a flat in the working class suburb (essentially ghetto) of Saint-Denis, shutting down the area—trains, schools, and so forth—for hours. Not that people were eager to venture out. After an extended exchange of fire, two suspected terrorists were dead, seven people under arrest, five police officers wounded. At the scene, police found heavy weapons and charts of the interior of the Bataclan. Perhaps the most disturbing discovery was evidence of a planned imminent attack on la Defense, the high-rise business center on the western edge of Paris. The president has pronounced the IS, or Daech, “an enemy army.” A state of emergency continues. New laws are being quickly prepared. France is fighting back.
In summary, at this point the battle between government forces and the radical Islamic terrorists seems pitched and open in a way that would preclude the back-room deals and media compliance that, in Submission, boost a French-based Muslim Brotherhood to power. In real life, the shock over last January’s ‘Charlie Hebdo’ murders devolved to nasty name-calling between liberals and conservatives, and between part of the Muslim population and ‘nativist’ non-Muslims. But 10 months later, after the indiscriminate November slaughter, the country seems far more united in both mourning and defiance, with the government determined to take a strong (some fear, too strong) offensive.
François, the narrator of Submission, is a 45-year-old Sorbonne lit professor, resting on the faded laurels of his dissertation, shacking up serially with female students, and teaching classes one day a week in the spring of 2022—a national election year. At the outset he’s “about as political a bath towel,” bored by “the mediocrity of…the phenomenon of democratic change, [which] amounted to little more than a power-sharing deal between two rival gangs, [who] would even go to war to impose it on nations that failed to share their enthusiasm.” Recently, though, the scene has been enlivened by the ascendance of the canny, avuncular Mohammed Ben Abbes to the head of the comparatively moderate Brotherhood Party, which, working through the institutions, is mounting a major challenge to Marine le Pen’s ‘nativist,’ France-for the-French Front National. What remains of the old two-party system threatens to self-destruct for good, with polls showing a three-way equal split between the two upstart parties and the Socialists, and the conservative UMP on the skids. The indifferent François, having provisioned himself with microwaveable Indian dinners, his minimum requirement of two bottles of wine per evening, and heaps of cigarettes, settles in to watch the televised candidate debates purely for their entertainment value.
Only a week or so later François, who is something of an intellectualized Eeyore, stops brooding (about, e.g., his malfunctioning microwave, successive afflictions such as eczema and hemorrhoids, the pointlessness of his life, and his inability to sustain a relationship) long enough to attend a faculty garden party. “All at once, in the distance, we heard a kind of sustained crackling. ‘What was that, do you think?'” As the guests fall silent and edge for the exit, “a hundred yards north of us, Place de Clichy was completely enveloped in flames, we could see the burnt-out husks of cars… There was no one in sight and no sound but the repetitive wail of a siren.” Next day, the university is closed. News is hard to come by, since the government has convinced the media to tone down reporting, in order not to excite more sympathy for the far right. But Paris is emptying out. Jews—including François’s smartest and sexiest ex, Myriam—are moving to Israel. There’s a rush to open foreign bank accounts.
Urged by a new acquaintance to drive south for an impromptu vacation in Spain until the elections and instability blow over, François hesitates. “I’d feel like a rat leaving a sinking ship.” To which Godefroy Lempereur, a conservative eminence grise deeply in the know, answers calmly, “Rats are very intelligent animals.” And so, 10 days later, after his final hot fling with Myriam—infused with the melancholy of anticipated loss and regret—our hero hits the road.
Submission is not merely topical, it is an extremely readable book, verging on a page-turner. It is also curiously dense and complex, and not exactly what some would judge an artistic ‘success as a novel’ in conventional terms. On the primary level, in the foreground, it unrolls its provocative thesis as heavily as a broadside, detailing just how Ben Abbes manages in a time of chaotic violence to exploit fears (of the people), cupidity (of the old-style politicians), and stupidity (of both) in order to hamstring the FN and form a coalition government with the Socialists while effectively taking the reins of power.
François may not know much about French politics, but one sure can’t say that about his creator, whose analysis of the current political gridlock in France, zoomed forward and brought to the turning point in seven years, is as informed and intelligent, more intriguing and less clichéd, than the partisan nattering of most of today’s professional journalists and commentators. Having set François up as a naif in desperate want of political education, Houellebecq provides us with that and more in the form of long—really incredibly lengthy—theoretical disquisitions by certain key mouthpieces: the aforementioned Lempereur, Alain Tanneur, husband of a colleague and soon-to-be-fired senior secret service officer, and, somewhat later in the course of events, Robert Rediger, the suave convert to Islam who is named Rector of the University. It’s he who, after Ben Abbes’s landslide victory, will invite François home to his luxurious hotel particulier, where the Rector’s 15-year-old wife giggles and tries to hide her face, and the sweet 40-year-old first wife serves up a paradisiacal meal, well-drenched with alcohol. It’s here that Rediger makes François an offer no man could refuse.
If you’ve recently been mourning the end of the Novel of Ideas—take heart. And dig in, for Submission is a smorgasbord, offering strong-flavored bites of a wide variety of subjects. To name a few… The abstruse economic theory of Distributism, espoused by Belloc and Chesterton. The glorious achievements of the early middle ages, when “moral judgment, individual judgment, individuality itself, were not clear ideas…” The essential femininity of Catholicism. The religion-hatred that is humanism. The nature of female sexuality. (Here, François/Michel really is a know-nothing.) The evidence for existence of a Prime Mover. And, built up from different angles, a running argument that superior population growth and control over education add up to global dominance, and therefore patriarchies—all-encompassing systems of submission—must in the long run triumph.
Thus the thesis, and the broadside tone, and the vigorous armchair philosophizing that have made Submission the object of both praise and derision. But there is a second, quieter novel in the book as well. If Rediger, Myriam et al. are two-dimensional characters, Francois, who strikes me as a more faithful and frank self-projection than any of Houellebecq’s previous fictional narrators, is someone whose skin one can share. It’s not only the accretion of everyday annoyances, not only the irresistibly sharp asides on mores—a specialty of Houellebecq, a natural born sociologist. It’s that François is deeply unhappy as only an individual long divorced from his emotional wellsprings can be, and, being smart, he knows it. He struggles with his anomie, but can’t even fully experience his own unhappiness. Expensive sessions with (improbably enthusiastic) young whores don’t lift the boredom either.
Life is slipping away for the man who once wrote an acclaimed, definitive thesis on J.K. Huysmans, the nineteenth-century French novelist and self-castigating libertine who found solace in re-conversion to mystical Catholicism. François makes a stab at retracing Huysmans’s spiritual journey, going so far as to sign in as guest in a monastery—only to be driven away by… “the smoke detector [that] glared at me with its little red hostile eye.” The conflict played out here is far removed from the chess games of power and politics—it’s the old, sad story of man versus himself. Strolling under the ugly metal arcades of Sorbonne-Paris III, he realizes that, “We feel nostalgia for a place simply because we’ve lived there. … The past is always beautiful. So, for that matter, is the future. Only the present hurts, and we carry it around like an abscess of suffering, our companion between two infinities of happiness and peace.” How appropriate then, not to say brilliant, to find the final pages of Submission, in which François appears to have found the solution to all his troubles, told in the future conditional tense.
French opinions on where we now stand in history—and what actions should be taken—are diverging sharply, and not always along traditional lines. A few days ago, writing for an Italian newspaper, Houellebecq accused the government of Hollande/Valls of bearing responsibility for the November 13 attacks. He warned against a dangerous gap between the ineffectuality of the political classes and what the population really wants, an outburst that goes some way to clarify Houellebecq’s actual intent in Submission. That said, the French public debate resembles the crackpot, viciously xenophobic demagoguery running wild in the US about as closely as a billy-club resembles an AK-47. In fact, it would be wonderful to have this ageless enfant-terrible and self-taught sociologist come hang out in the US for a while, and reveal in a next book what his sharp, illusion-free eye makes of the comic duo of panic and proud ignorance. Michel Houellebecq? Should you read this, here is an invitation: a room in the country for you and your dog, copious supplies of whiskey and cigarettes, ink and paper, for as long as it takes—in exchange for that next book.
Kai Maristed studied political philosophy in Germany, and now lives in Paris and Massachusetts. She has reviewed for the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times, and other publications. Her books include the short story collection Belong to Me, and Broken Ground, a novel set in Berlin. Read her Paris-centric take on politics and the arts here.