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Michel Houellebecq’s immortal longings

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.)

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.* 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.

One place to start a more literary appraisal of Submission is with the question of genre. The American critics who considered the novel proposed apparently contradictory frameworks for understanding it. Is it a satire of French bourgeois mediocrity and racial-religious anxiety? A self-consciously late-European novel of ideas and cultural decline? A slapdash realist political thriller? A political fable?

Francois, the everymannish narrator of Submission, is a similarly confounding figure. About his profession, the study of literature, he can be both eloquent — “Only literature can give you access to a spirit from beyond the grave — a more direct, more complete, deeper access than you’d have in conversation with a friend” — and dismissive: “The academic study of literature leads basically nowhere. . . . It is, in other words, a rather farcical system that exists solely to replicate itself and yet manages to fail more than 95 percent of the time.” He is entirely apolitical, almost without opinions, yet he manages to have conversations with a series of well-placed characters in the French establishment. He doesn’t cook, but he is often so distracted by his appreciation of food and wine that he fails to pay attention to what’s going on above his plate. Like all Houellebecq protagonists, Francois is an emotional orphan; he hasn’t seen his parents in years, and both die during the novel. A serial dater of students who inevitably break up with him, he worries that he’s reaching “andropause” and attempts to cure himself by watching YouPorn.

Unlike the incarnations of Houellebecq’s homme sensuel deprimé who appeared in The Elementary Particles and Platform, Francois doesn’t wax lyrical about supermarket aesthetics. Nor does he share the rage and disgust that marked Whatever — as the title of Houellebecq’s first novel has been mysteriously translated — in which the narrator is in open revolt: “The society in which I live disgusts me; advertising sickens me; computers make me puke.” Submission contains almost none of the mini-essays, treatises, and pseudosociological generalities about life under the totalitarian regime of free-market economics that filled out Houellebecq’s earlier fiction. Instead, the author compresses Francois’s banalized sensibility and his prospects for a more meaningful existence into a deadpan counterpoint, a sort of running dialogue between the proverbial good and evil guardian angels, though in Francois’s case, it’s more like his habits are tugging against his intelligence. This alternation between contrasting modes gathers intensity over the course of the novel but can also show itself in a single paragraph. Here’s how Francois begins to think about whether his Jewish girlfriend might be breaking up with him because of the country’s increasingly anti-Semitic mood:

My afternoon seminar was exhausting. Doctoral students tended to be exhausting. For them it was all starting to mean something, and for me nothing mattered except which Indian dinner I’d microwave (Chicken Biryani? Chicken Tikka Masala? Chicken Rogan Josh?) while I watched the political talk shows on France 2.

That night the National Front candidate was on. She proclaimed her love of France (“But which France?” asked a center-left pundit, lamely), and I wondered whether my love life was really and truly over. . . . I couldn’t get my hopes up. Maybe I should have gotten into politics. If you were a political activist, election season brought moments of intensity, whichever side you were on, and meanwhile here I was, inarguably withering away.

These oscillations between Francois’s static self-absorbtion and the external events that might force him to change his life are given a type of false harmonic resolution in the next paragraph, which turns into a commentary on the reception of À rebours, Huysmans’s best-known novel: “ ‘Happy are those who are satisfied by life, who amuse themselves, who are content.’ So begins the article Maupassant published in Gil Blas on À rebours.” The shift in register, from stale complaint to academic lecture, feels abrupt, but it also follows naturally as an apt metacommentary on Francois’s fate. Huysmans’s Against the Grain, as it was published in English, is primarily an account of a man at a dead end, told in a thickly descriptive naturalist style that Huysmans also believed to be a dead end. It is a novel in which nothing can be said to happen: as Francois observes of the aristocratic protagonist, “Psychologically, Jean Des Esseintes remains unchanged from the first page to the last.” Houellebecq grasps that academics tend to be most insightful about their own lives when they’re explicating someone else’s, and he uses this combination of insight and obtuseness to good comic effect, allowing the reader to glimpse much more about Francois than the character realizes.

In keeping with his understanding of Huysmans, Houellebecq has written a novel in which much changes in society while Francois remains unmoved, almost stupefied. Part of the difficulty of nailing down Submission’s genre comes from this inversion of the usual relationship between background and action. In an early scene, Francois and a young colleague walk through the aftermath of a gun battle between nativist and Islamist gangs, in the center of Paris’s ninth arrondissement. The pair blithely point out landmarks from the lives of their favorite authors (the ninth was the Brooklyn of nineteenth-century French decadence) while riot police stroll by in the opposite direction — “As if nothing’s going on,” Francois remarks. The scene wants to do more than wink in rococo homage to Mallarmé and Léon Bloy. In an unsubtle way, Houellebecq makes a subtle point about events that we’re habituated to read as signals of important cultural or political change. Most New Yorkers remember exactly what they were doing on September 11, 2001, but probably not what they were doing when they heard about the Citizens United Supreme Court decision or the bank bailouts of 2008, in part because the consumption of news registers as a largely forgettable part of daily life. The Islamization of France is presented in the novel as exactly this kind of background event, a matter of electioneering, parliamentary negotiations, and cloakroom influence trading. The street fighting turns out to be politically unimportant but atmospherically relevant, much like the weather reports that Francois follows with a detached diligence.

If Houellebecq were an existentialist, we’d recognize such scenes as a dramatization of Francois’s bad faith, his unwillingness to regard himself as a part of the society he inhabits. Indeed, this is how Mark Lilla, a reader steeped in twentieth-century French intellectual history, interprets the novel, which he describes as “a dystopian conversion tale,” as if Francois were facing a choice about whether to join the French Resistance. Bad faith is still a kind of faith, however, and Houellebecq’s aim is to show what life feels like without faith of any kind. In this respect, too, Submission responds to Houellebecq’s earlier work and to an earlier moment in French literary history. The Elementary Particles presents an alternative to the cruel regime of loveless sexual selection in the form of the hermitlike Michel’s mad-scientist efforts to genetically engineer an angelic, asexual master race. In Platform, Houellebecq unsettles his otherwise straightforward erotic tale with the presence of a Catholic priest devoted to Christian agape. The Possibility of an Island, the last of this triptych of novels, explores the idea that romantic love might survive even after human beings achieve eternal youth and cellular immortality through cloning. It isn’t that much of a stretch to see Houellebecq, in the earlier novels, as a Christian idealist clutching at some form of crypto-religious redemption, or at a belief in ascetic piety that takes on more force for being so rarely portrayed. His characters weren’t suffering because they were losers in the Darwinian sexual marketplace (“pauvres types,” as Lilla refers to them); they were suffering because no amount of physical pleasure or success could stifle their yearning. The desire for transcendence, Houellebecq’s novels seemed to suggest, is as ineradicable a part of human DNA as lust or greed.

Houellebecq is often lazily compared to Céline, but Submission points to the more significant influence of certain early-twentieth-century French Catholic writers, such as Paul Claudel, Georges Bernanos, and the later Huysmans. Houellebecq recently confirmed as much in an interview. Submission, he explained, did not begin as a “political fiction”; the book’s title started as La Conversion. “And in my original project, the narrator converted, too, but to Catholicism. Which is to say, he followed in Huysmans’s footsteps a century later, leaving naturalism to become Catholic. And I wasn’t able to do it.”

Submission retains large parts of this earlier project, which might help explain why its political story is so often in the background. On the eve of Ben Abbes’s election, Francois, spooked by rumors of civil war, flees Paris and ends up in Rocamadour, near the Dordogne river. The village, a pilgrimage site, also claims a role in the epic of Roland, the legendary knight who held off the eighth-century Moorish invasion of France. There, Francois visits the village’s renowned carved wooden statue of the Virgin Mary and happens on a commemorative reading of a poem by Charles Péguy, an ardent Catholic whose death at the Battle of the Marne also made him a martyr of French nationalism. Instead of communing with some ancient spirit of Frenchness or Christianity, Francois finds himself, with each visit to the shrine, measuring the distance between the civilization that created the statue and his own life of on-demand porn and TV dinners. On his last day, before returning to Paris and the new Muslim Brotherhood regime, he gets up from the pew “fully deserted by the Spirit, reduced to my damaged, perishable body.”

Later, after the French university system is Islamized, Francois accepts an offer of early retirement and a generous pension paid for by Saudi donors, and he briefly joins a monastery. Three days and an enforced no-smoking rule (“I may not have had, like Huysmans, ‘a heart hardened and smoked dry by dissipation,’ but lungs hardened and smoked dry by tobacco — those I had”) are enough to convince him that he’s constitutionally unsuited for spiritual life.

This failure, and the recognition of his own emptiness that comes with it, prepares the way for Francois’s eventual submission. But the Islam that Houellebecq envisions sweeping France is less a militant faith than a mundane compromise. It’s the Islam of Qatar and Dubai, not of the Taliban and the Islamic State. What draws Francois to convert, ultimately, is the usual mixture of human frailties. Having reformed the Paris university system to reflect Islamic values, the new rector still needs scholars, and he sets out to woo Francois back to his old job. (It’s touching that Houellebecq can still imagine a need for French-literature courses in a Franco-Islamic state.) The rector, a tall Belgian janissary who favors leather jackets, is an intriguingly sinister figure who was a fellow traveler of neofascists before his conversion. He begins his seduction by arranging to have Francois edit the prestigious Pléiade edition of Huysmans. Soon Francois is attending university receptions at the Institute of the Arab World and rhapsodizing over the Lebanese catering. After that, he’s invited for drinks at the rector’s mansion, a stunning neo-Gothic folly that once belonged to Jean Paulhan, the editor of the Nouvelle Revue Française, and was used as a setting in another tale of submission, Pauline Réage’s Story of O. Francois catches an unveiled glimpse of the rector’s newest wife, a giggly fifteen-year-old in a Hello Kitty shirt, and he is served homemade pastries and fig brandy from the maternal hands of her precursor. The spectacle that awaits Francois in the house is like something out of Balzac’s Lost Illusions or Old Goriot, with their breathless scenes of arrival in upper-class French society. Houellebecq depicts a catalogue of earthly delights that is held temptingly just beyond the narrator’s reach, with the promise that it might someday be his.

The rector’s proselytizing speech to Francois is also an exercise in over-the-top worldliness. Between glasses of wine, he touches lightly on theology, offering up a soft version of the theory of intelligent design by way of Pascal’s wager. The adjective “embarrassed” accompanies all his pronouncements, even when he quotes Nietzsche’s critiques of Christianity. He describes the moment he realized that Western European civilization was doomed — the closing of the bar in the art-nouveau Hotel Metropole in Brussels: “To think that, until then, one could order sandwiches and beer, Viennese chocolates, and cakes with cream in that absolute masterpiece of decorative art, that one could live one’s daily life surrounded by beauty.”

Houellebecq again steers close to satire here. How could anyone take this seriously as an exemplary anecdote about the decline of the West? And yet, as Francois acknowledges, “He was right. . . . In the ‘art of living’ alone there had been a serious falling off.” The scene comes across almost as straight satire because the rector’s motives and Francois’s responses are so naked. The rector’s argument is essentially that Francois should wise up and convert, in order to enjoy the customary privileges once afforded to European bourgeois men: good food, easy sex, social status. Whether intentionally or not, Houellebecq seems to draw on the hoary Christian view of Islam as a false religion even as he playfully turns a negative judgment — that its polygamous practices seem to condone lust — into a positive one. Islam is better positioned to offer worldly goods to Frenchmen than European secular or Enlightenment values because the balance of capital and power has now shifted to the Gulf States and Saudi Arabia. (Neither Iran nor sectarian struggles within Islam figure in the novel.) The Islamization of France is a corporate takeover.

Seen in these terms, Submission becomes less interesting as a realistic novel about the possibility of an Islamist political party gaining power in the heart of old Europe, but more interesting as a thought experiment that evokes a familiar experience — in this case, life under the limited sovereignty imposed by euro-zone capitalism, and the disciplined, unfulfilling acceptance of worldly pursuits that it entails — and calls it by a name that’s meant to conjure feelings of anxiety and alienation (i.e., Islam) among French people of Houellebecq’s age and ethno-cultural background. What matters in the novel is not how French Muslims with cultural or ethnic attachments to Islam greet Ben Abbes’s silken revolution but how Francois and the other European converts fantasize about Islam in relation to their own ideas of French identity.

Tellingly, the novel provides no access to the minds of the few Arab characters (a prostitute, a djellaba-wearing businessman in the first-class compartment of a T.G.V. train) with whom Francois interacts. Ben Abbes only appears on TV, and his policies are explained to Francois by the rector and a series of white French political commentators. Houellebecq, after a long time living abroad in Ireland, turns out to be extremely limited in his ability to describe or imagine contemporary French life. He has no idea what to do about women, for instance. As the Franco-Iranian writer Chahdortt Djavann asked in an interview, “Does [Houellebecq] really think that French women will be less courageous in their resistance to the veil, to polygamy, and their expulsion from public life than their Egyptian or Tunisian counterparts?” Nor does Houellebecq know what to make of Jews. Myriam, Francois’s girlfriend, is an embarrassing compound of her author’s weaknesses. Visiting Francois for farewell sex before she emigrates to Israel with her family, she only manages to exclaim tearfully, “I love France. I love . . . I don’t know . . . I love the cheese.”

Bias or a failure of imagination doesn’t make Houellebecq an accomplice of the National Front, but it does mean that Submission lapses into two kinds of French Orientalism. The first is at the level of the author himself: Houellebecq’s use of Islam as a defamiliarization device to critique contemporary white European mores, while ignoring Islam as it is experienced by actual Muslims, in France and elsewhere, is a blithe literary appropriation strategy as old as Montesquieu’s Persian Letters. The second type of Orientalism belongs more to Francois than his creator and fits into a genre that Edward Said classified as the literary pilgrimage. “Nineteenth-century French pilgrims did not seek a scientific so much as an exotic yet especially attractive reality,” Said writes of the numerous French writers — Chateaubriand, Lamartine, Nerval, Flaubert — who traveled to North Africa and Asia Minor less for the sake of knowledge than to revitalize their writing or their souls. Francois doesn’t need to go abroad to be transported by idylls of “devoted and submissive” Muslim women and by the “images of constellations, supernovas, spiral nebulas . . . and also images of springs, of untouched mineral deserts, of vast, nearly virgin forests,” that pass through his mind when he envisions entering Paris’s Grand Mosque.

For all its literary ingenuity, Submission does make one wish for French fiction that explored, in an unapologetically realist fashion, the diversity of contemporary French Muslim life. Among France’s Muslims, some of whom have lived there for generations now, are university professors, public officials, psychiatrists, engineers, construction workers, grocers, men and women, the devout and the secular, Arabs, West Africans, and Persians, all of them loving, hating, aspiring, and debating and living out the dilemmas of modern life, just like everyone else in France. Among recent efforts, The Meursault Investigation, which was much praised in France and the United States, still considers Franco-Arab relations within a colonial framework, and is set mainly in Algeria, where its author, Kamel Daoud, lives. By writing so overtly against Camus’s The Stranger, Daoud finds himself depending on the canonical French literature he wants to critique. A more complex and tragic problem of reception clings to Sabri Louatah’s four-volume Les Sauvages. Set in Grenoble and depicting several generations of a single family, it is the most ambitious attempt, so far, to put forward a literary approximation of the varieties of Franco-Muslim experience. Louatah, however, disclaims the title of “French writer,” citing The Wire as his primary influence, not the heritage of La Comédie Humaine and Les Rougon-Macquart. If a French-born writer, writing in French, cannot see a home for himself in his native tradition, then French cultural life is suffering from a deeper malaise than even Houellebecq could imagine.

is a founding editor of n+1 magazine and the author of The Scientists (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), a memoir.

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