Tuesday, 6 October 2015

Submission by Michel Houellebecq Review

Michel Houellebecq’s latest novel Submission is set in France in 2022 where a Muslim political leader becomes President and Islamic law is established nationwide. Women must be veiled while their education and equality is curtailed, and polygamy is encouraged. 

The protagonist is Francois, a middle-aged academic who teaches the work of nineteenth century novelist Joris-Karl Huysmans at the Sorbonne. A sad single man, Francois reminisces on the many former affairs he had with his students and feels isolated in 21st century French society. When he loses his job after refusing to convert to Islam, he becomes increasingly alone – he has no friends or family - and decides to follow in the footsteps of Huysmans who found Christianity late in life.

Submission is a deeply satirical work that, on the surface, is very pro-Islam but, I felt at least, that Houellebecq (by the way his surname is pronounced “well-beck”) was taking an anti-Islamic/anti-religious stance in a very militant, ironic way. 

I find Houellebecq a very readable writer which is to say that though there isn’t a plot to speak of and Francois trudges from one dreary scene to the next, it’s still a surprisingly engaging book. Houellebecq focuses on Francois’ vapid sex life, tedious professional life, and non-existent social life for the majority of the book, so I can understand readers saying it’s a bit boring - I was bored at times too! - though it’s done deliberately in service to the satire. 

The next two paragraphs are spoiler-y though it’s kinda predictable to see where it’s headed once you get into the novel. 

So at the end Francois converts to Islam, buying into the religion like seemingly most of France. But Houellebecq hits two things very hard when it comes to the successful proliferation of Islam in France: sex and money. So this is the kind of person he believes who would find Islam and/or religion appealing: spiritually deadened, dull and miserable older men with a small measure of power who’re shallow and only care about having young women to sleep with and money enough to live comfortably and pursue their pointless interests; a self-satisfied enclave of patriarchal backwardness that are hardly admirable. 

The reason I don’t think it’s a critique on academia is that Houellebecq notes in his afterword that he knows nothing of that life and has never been to university himself – he just doesn’t seem that interested in lampooning that world. I think he chose Francois to be an academic perhaps partly because his life is similar to Houellebecq’s and easier to write as a result, but also because the setup of an older man sleeping with younger women, while also being their intellectual superior, informs his decision at the end of the book as he views Islam to be encouraging his lifestyle in perpetuity.

Houellebecq isn’t so obvious in his critique of Islam - though that doesn’t stop him from throwing out a cheeky barb early on: "When I reached my classroom there were three guys in their twenties, two of them Arab, one of them black, standing in the doorway. They weren't armed, not that day." - and in making Francois, a white middle-aged/middle class Frenchman his symbolic target for dogmatic religion of all sorts, as opposed to a Middle-Eastern caricature, he gets to have his cake and eat it too. 

I don’t think it’s necessarily just a critique against Islam as Houellebecq at one point says that Christianity is a very feminine religion and then at a later point compares Islam to The Story of O. The novel - a racy S&M number - is about woman’s submission/acceptance of man as master, in a way that Houellebecq’s character Rediger says mirrors Islam’s acceptance/submission to God. In trying to conflate the two world religions into one (they are both “feminine”) Houellebecq is taking aim at a broader target. 

Houellebecq deliberately glosses over the details of how Islam overthrows French society so effortlessly because that’s not the point of the book. Nor is he throwing up his arms and saying that the future is Muslim and that’s the end of Western civilisation; through embracing the tenets of Islam so fully, as well as calling the novel Submission, he’s doing the opposite - quietly celebrating the progressive nature of Western society. He isn’t suggesting a submission of our values but rather an energised defence of them. Like most novels with a dystopian angle, Submission is concerned with the times it was written in, not the future.

Though little happens in the novel, Houellebecq captures a keen sense of loneliness in modern society. One of the few positives I feel he is genuine about with regards Islam is the focus on family and community, respect for the elderly – I get the impression that he wants western society to adopt those values, hence why he spends so much time on Francois’ singular misery. Houellebecq also writes some remarkable statements along those lines: "For me, love is nothing more than gratitude for the gift of pleasure," and my favourite line in the novel: 

"We feel nostalgia for a place simply because we've lived there, whether we lived well or badly scarcely matters. 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."

Wow. Also, I’ve never heard Nirvana’s music described as “belchings” before but Houellebecq is bang on with that description (I’m still a fan)! 

Submission is a provocative novel but Michel Houellebecq is a provocative writer which, coupled with his ability to craft truly exceptional prose, has made him enormously successful and relevant, deservedly so. However I don’t think Submission is among his best work - besides the absence of a great story, the satire is largely one-dimensional and repetitive. Francois himself is basically the same protagonist who has appeared in all of Houellebecq’s previous books, the familiar misanthropic proxy reappearing once more. 

Submission is still worth reading for Houellebecq fans who I’m sure will find the novel generally enjoyable though not especially fantastic; I’d point newer readers to his earlier books like Platform to see him in his element(ary particles).


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