Sunday 13 September 2015

Submission by Michel Houellebecq


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

Thursday 3 September 2015

Miss Emily by Nuala O'Connor

This review was in The Sunday Independent on August 24th, 2015:

Miss Emily

By Nuala O’Connor (Nuala Ní Conchúir)
(Sandstone Press, £8.99 stg, P/B)

The third novel from Galway-based writer Nuala O’Connor (who previously favoured her name rendered in Irish), concerns 17-year-old Ada Concannon, transposed from Tigorra on the banks of the Liffey in Co. Dublin in 1866, to relatives in Amherst, Massachusetts, where she finds employment as a maid-of-all-work with the Dickinson family. Our point of entry to this household is Emily, then in her 34th year and effectively retired from society, and better known to posterity than in her lifetime as the mould-breaking poet, who forms a bond with Ada, mostly over cake baking in the kitchen. Between them they narrate the story in alternating, first-person chapters. Apart from stern Father and remote Mother, Emily has an older brother Austin, already left the house and married to her best friend Susan, and a younger sister, Vinnie.

  In many ways, the title seems a misnomer, as Ada is certainly the more vividly and vivaciously depicted character, and the novel is essentially her story. Besides which, Miss Emily doesn’t give enough credit to the servant for the dually shouldered narrative duties. There are, however, some excellent meditations in the Emily sections on the creative process, and the sacrifice and satisfactions of the solitude Emily chooses in order to be productive. ‘And why do I write? I ask myself daily for the answer differs at every dawn, at every midnight. I write, I feel, to grasp at truth. The truth is so often cloaked in misleading speech. Sometimes I let words fall carelessly from my lips when I am with people but, alone, I make them settle carefully onto paper. There they must be accurate and they must work as a choir works to sing a tune well…Oh chimerical, perplexing, beautiful words! I love to use the pretty ones like blades and the ugly ones to console. I use dark ones to illuminate and bright ones to mourn. And, when I feel as if a tomahawk has scalped me, I know it is poetry then and I leave it be.’ 

  Like Yeats after her, Emily too feels forced to choose between perfection of the life or of the work: ‘But how can I explain that each time I get to the threshold, my need for seclusion stops me? The quarantine of my room – its peace and the words I conjure there – call me back from the doorway. Ada could not truly appreciate that the pull on me of words, and the retreat needed to write them, is stronger than the pull of people. Yes, words summon me to the sacramental, unsullied place where my roaming is not halted or harnessed by others. My mind and heart are only free in solitude and there I must dwell.’ Today, she’d just be diagnosed as agoraphobic.  

  Ada too, even if she is occasionally articulate beyond her years and can sound educated above her station, is no slouch when it comes to words, and it is a fine pleasure to see neglected locutions like ‘figairy’, ‘wall-falling’ and ‘laxadaisy’ in print again. Her gift of the gab extends to equally overlooked phraseology, for example ‘as pleased as a dog with two pockets.’

  The plot unfolds at a leisurely pace, and we are well into the book before the vicissitudes Ada must overcome (with Emily’s help and support) kick in, and so it would be spoilerish to reveal their specific nature here. Suffice to say that Ada makes a match with fellow Irish emigrant, Daniel Byrne, but the path of true love doesn’t run smooth, due mostly to the actions of the villain of the piece, the scoundrel Patrick Crohan.

  There are other facets of this well-made historical novel worth exploring. Aside from gender issues, and the relatively powerless position of women in 19th century society, tensions surrounding race and class raise their heads as well. There is a virulent strain of anti-Irish sentiment abroad in the air around Amherst (where there is no Catholic church), among the buttoned-down burghers, mostly voiced through the mouth of the stonily pompous Austin and, to a lesser extent, his wife Susan – although the latter’s prejudices may derive from nothing more than jealousy at Emily’s growing closeness to Ada. An evolving consequence of such attitudes is Emily’s increasing alienation from her immediate family, and their ‘closed, righteous, faces.’ A strong tendency to blame the victim is evident when Ada suffers her setbacks, which are no fault of her own, and are only resolved by the Dickinsons out of a desire to save face and maintain respectability, rather than any notion of humanitarian compassion.    

  Although it may take its own sweet time in getting going, Miss Emily gains considerable pace towards its finale, and is a satisfying and enjoyable read from one of Ireland’s more unsung talents, who deserves to make the step to a much wider readership.