By Michel Houellebecq
(Heinemann, £18.99 stg)
Published in French on January 7th this year, the day of the Charlie Hebdo attack in Paris, and now appearing in English translation, you couldn’t say controversialist Michel Houellebecq latest novel, his seventh, is not prescient. He has form when it comes to Muslim immigration in France, and jihadism, of course. He was taken to court in 2002 for incitement to racial hatred, after calling Islam ‘the stupidest religion’, and his 1999 novel Platform culminates in the conflagration of a fundamentalist terrorist atrocity on a beach resort in Thailand.
Submission’s central character is a recognisable Houellebecq type. François, 44, a lecturer at the Sorbonne, is reclusive, friendless, existing on a diet of frozen dinners in his two room apartment, and trying to avoid mithering by postgraduate students he doesn’t consider up to snuff. He usually initiates an annual affair with a female student, which ends in the summer when he receives a message beginning ‘I’ve met someone.’ The current incumbent is 22-year-old Myriam, beautiful, sexy and Jewish, who clearly cares for him, but he can’t respond. He was the author, in his 20s, of a brilliant dissertation on decadent 19th century novelist Joris-Karl Huysmans, author of the infamous Au Rebours.
Set slightly in the future, Submission partakes of a trait of most of the best science fiction, that of a ‘What if…?’ projection on the present. It is also in the tradition of the dystopian narrative, á la Orwell’s 1984, although the timeline here is rather more truncated and immediate, for this is a dystopia we mostly already inhabit.
It is 2022, and the apolitical François is settling in to watch the Presidential election results on TV, entertainment he considers second only to the soccer World Cup. After the preliminary voting, two candidates emerge: Marine Le Pen, leader of the far-right Front National, and the head of France’s new Islamic party, Mohammed Ben Abbes. The Socialists coalesce with the Muslim Brotherhood to defeat Le Pen, and Ben Abbes becomes president. Because the Brotherhood cares more about education than the economy, as the chief instiller of appropriate moral values in the next generation, all they ask is that state secondary schools and universities adopt an Islamic curriculum. François is duly informed that he cannot return to his university work unless he converts to Islam, and is retired on a generous pension.
These events precipitate a crisis of (non) faith, which sees François taking off for the Benedictine abbey in southern France where Huysmans spent his last years after abandoning his dissolute life in Paris and converting to mystical Catholicism in middle age, and thence to the medieval Christian pilgrimage site Rocamadour. Myriam leaves for Israel with her parents, but François concludes “There is no Israel for me.”
This is no coup d’etat, so little seems to change at first, but over the following months François starts to notice small things, beginning with how women dress. He sees fewer skirts and dresses, more baggy pants and shirts that hide the body’s contours. Non-Muslim women have adopted the style to escape the sexual marketplace that Houellebecq has delineated so well elsewhere. Youth crime declines, as does unemployment when women, grateful for the social engineering of new family subsidies, begin to leave the workforce to care for their children.
François thinks he sees a new social model developing before his eyes, which he imagines has the polygamous family at its center. Men have different wives for sex, childbearing, and affection; the wives pass through all these stages as they age, but never have to worry about being abandoned. They are always surrounded by their children, who have lots of siblings and feel loved by their parents, who never divorce. François is impressed, but while his admiration may initially stem from a colonial fantasy of the erotic harem, it flourishes as acknowledgement of a secure social order, based on the family.
The big question here is, how much does Houellebecq himself endorse this view? Curiously, he may not simply be pulling our leg here. When François accedes to the gentle proslytising of suave university president, Robert Rediger, and returns to his now exorbitantly paid teaching post, it seems not solely out of self-interest, if at all. Similarly, when he also edits a complete works of Huysmans, where he concludes that his hero was not really a decadent after all, he genuinely seems to believe this. But if François rolls over, dose that mean Michel H has?
When asked about ‘the stupidest religion’ remark last January, Houellebecq declared that he had now changed his mind, through reading the Qu’ran. “Perhaps I hadn’t read it with enough care,” he said. “Now I think that a reasonably honest interpretation of the Qu’ran does not end up with jihadism. It would require a very dishonest interpretation to arrive at jihadism.” He also added that Submission is “not Islamophobic. Even an inattentive reading would not see it as that.”
So, while some in France have complained that the novel fans right-wing fears of the Muslim population, that is to miss Houellebecq’s deeply subversive point: Islamists and anti-immigration demagogues really ought to be on the same side, because they share a suspicion of pluralist liberalism and a desire to return to ‘traditional’ or pre-feminist values, where a woman submits to her husband, just as ‘Islam’ means that a Muslim submits to God. Rediger even permits himself a sly allusion to Pauline Réage’s BDSM classic The Story of O in this regard.
Which is all fine and well, unless you’re the kind of man who’d like to be with a woman who has a brain, or are the kind of woman for whom domesticity does not provide total fulfilment.
The other aspect of this timely novel to be remarked upon is how much Houellebecq has improved as a writer qua writing since his early scattergun sprawls. When he started off, he had a lot to say, but was not always all that careful about how he said it. However, aphoristic sentences such as ‘For man, love is nothing more than gratitude for the gift of pleasure’, and ‘Living together would have spelled the end of all sexual desire between us, and we were still too young to survive that as a couple’ partake of a Wildean exactitude. How much of this greater attention to language is the result of working with more skilled editors and translators we may never know, but it is one more reason to read this novel, from a writer who has never been afraid to grapple with the big questions.
First published in the Sunday Independent, 13/09/2015