Reviews — From the October 2015 issue

Among the Believers

Michel Houellebecq’s immortal longings

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Discussed in this essay:

Submission, by Michel Houellebecq. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 256 pages. $26.

More than any of his European peers, Michel Houellebecq has benefited from the inquisitional turn in literary journalism. Since the publication of his second novel, The Elementary Particles, in 1998, each subsequent book — with the exception of The Map and the Territory (2010), a metafiction about the encounter between his authorial alter ego and a famous artist — has been subjected to numerous hostile investigations into Houellebecq’s alleged misogyny, racism, nihilism, and anticlericalism. Submission, his sixth novel, revives the charge of Islamophobia, first leveled at Platform (2001).

The novel narrates the democratic triumph of a French Muslim Brotherhood, which Houellebecq dubs La Fraternité Musulmane. The name is an untranslatable bit of cleverness that indicates the party’s ambivalent appeal to one third of the classic French Republican trinity and distinguishes the Brotherhood from the Egyptian version, known in the French media as Les Frères Musulmans. The rise of this fictional party and its charismatic leader, Mohammed Ben Abbes — whose policies and rhetoric mix a Thatcherite overvaluation of family-run businesses and a neo-Gaullist ambition for French dominance within a newly formed Mediterranean bloc — is described from the narrow perspective of a man we know only as Francois, a literature professor and an expert in the work of the nineteenth-century French novelist J.-K. Huysmans.

Illustration by Andrea Ventura

Illustration by Andrea Ventura

Submission was published in France on January 7, the day Houellebecq’s sallow and sunken-cheeked caricature appeared on the cover of Charlie Hebdo dressed in magus robes and predicting, “In 2015, I lose my teeth. . . . In 2022, I’ll observe Ramadan!” Yet even before that, the novel had been absorbed into a public conversation about the fears and fearfulness of present-day France. The head of the left-wing website Mediapart argued that, given France’s climate of Islamophobia, it would be better journalistic practice to pay less attention to Houellebecq. Sylvain Bourmeau, a journalist who has interviewed Houellebecq more than once, said that his appreciation for Houellebecq’s talents and principles

will not prevent me from letting him know, the next time our paths cross, how his novel takes part in all those things — some bigger than others, but all of them ugly — that make life in France a little more disagreeable for anyone with an Arab name or darker skin.

January 7 also happened to be the day that the Kouachi brothers walked into the Charlie Hebdo offices and murdered most of the magazine’s editors and staff, along with two policemen. Two days later, their accomplice Amedy Coulibaly killed four more people inside a kosher supermarket. In the aftermath, the French establishment attempted to balance condemnation of the terrorist attacks with reaffirmations of France’s commitment to equality for all citizens, and the extreme-right National Front reached unprecedented levels of support in the polls. Meanwhile, politicians and commentators denounced Houellebecq’s novel as the worst kind of right-wing fearmongering. In his first interview after the attacks, Manuel Valls, the Socialist prime minister, declared that “France is not Michel Houellebecq. It is not intolerance, hate, and fear.” Needless to say, no French politician felt obliged to say the same of Patrick Modiano, the 2014 Nobel laureate, or Virginie Despentes, the runner-up to Houellebecq for the Goncourt Prize in 2010.

Having suddenly become a metonym for the ills of an entire country, Submission received a startling amount of attention in the Anglophone world well before it was available in English. Two weeks after the massacres, Adam Gopnik devoted a long essay to the novel in The New Yorker, in which he attempted to reclaim Houellebecq as a satirist of French life, a more literary version of Charlie Hebdo’s jesters but cut from the same savagely unsparing Voltairean cloth. “The charge that Houellebecq is Islamophobic seems misplaced. He’s not Islamophobic. He’s Francophobic,” Gopnik argued.

Not long after, Mark Lilla published a lengthy treatment of Submission in The New York Review of Books as part of a series on France’s latest identity crisis. Lilla placed Submission within a European tradition of conservative cultural pessimism, alongside such heavyweight modernist novels as Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain and Robert Musil’s The Man Without Qualities. “Islam is not the target of Soumission, whatever Houellebecq thinks of it,” Lilla concluded. “It serves as a device to express a very persistent European worry that the single-minded pursuit of freedom — freedom from tradition and authority, freedom to pursue one’s own ends — must inevitably lead to disaster.”

In the London Review of Books, Adam Shatz, the best-informed American writer on Franco-Arab matters, noted that

Houellebecq writes about Islam with curiosity, fascination, even a hint of envy. [Islam] provides a . . . reliable vessel for a faith-based, patriarchal order where sex is insulated from the marketplace, men and women have clearly defined roles, and social harmony prevails over moral permissiveness, class conflict and crime, the ills of liberal capitalism. (Even its loopholes have the virtue of not being hypocritical: thanks to polygamy, men no longer need mistresses or sex clubs.)

1 This reviewer may feel more haunted than others, as he acknowledges having discussed some points of French grammar with Stein. 

If this admittedly small but ideologically diverse sample of cultural critics has succeeded in repudiating the idea that Houellebecq is an Islamophobe, then the most scandalous thing about the novel is the lag between its initial reception as a symptom of something rotten in France and its availability to readers who might want to judge it by some other criterion. The critical exonerations were written so far in advance of Submission’s U.S. publication that the translation, by Lorin Stein, comes haunted with a sense of déjà paru.1 The engine of controversy that ensures Houellebecq’s continued international prominence (he is the only living French novelist whose works have been translated into English throughout his career) seems, in this instance, to have backfired: he has become easier to publish but harder to read. If there’s an upside to this nine-month interval, it’s that the novel now has a chance at a kind of afterlife, outside the context of the terrorist attacks and the ensuing social and political panic that overshadowed its reception.

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