Reviews — From the October 2015 issue

Among the Believers

Michel Houellebecq’s immortal longings

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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.

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