“Soumission” (“Submission”), by Michel Houellebecq, éditions Flammarion, 299 pages (French)
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Until Patrick Modiano was awarded the Nobel Prize this year, Michel Houellebecq was the best-known contemporary French author in the world. But Houellebecq is actually closer to poetry than to the novel. He has published 10 books of poetry in a country and in a language where poetry has vanished almost completely from the literary landscape, and only six novels.
Another paradox: Even though French academia looks down on him and even shuns him, Houellebecq is widely read. His first novel, “Extension du domaine de la lutte” (1994; translated into English as “Whatever”), was not all that successful, but quickly became a cult novel.
The novel “Les particulares élémentaires” (1998, translated as “Atomised” and in the United States as “The Elementary Particles”) made Houellebecq successful, selling more than 30,000 as soon as it was published.
Thanks to his editors’ skill, “La Possibilité d’une le” (“The Possibility of an Island”) enjoyed almost exclusive fame among the 600 books that were published at the beginning of France’s literary season.
Houellebecq has been considered a hard-to-define phenomenon ever since. Is he a literary phenomenon? Opinions are divided. Some criticize his shallow style, others praise his stylistic complexity, his unique use of trivial and often-used forms. Is he a social phenomenon? Without doubt, particularly if we take into account the special place that each of his novels has occupied since 2005.
A Houellebecquian novel
The French language has even been enriched thanks to a new adjective, “houellebecquian” – a privilege granted to few authors, some French, such as Rabelais and Balzac, and some foreign: Dante, Shakespeare, Machiavelli and Kafka, to name a few. If Rabelaisian is synonymous with earthiness, Dantean with abysmal nightmares and Balzacian with dropping from the heights to the depths and returning to the heights, the adjective “houellebecquian” might signify that the author’s literary oeuvre is still incomplete.
But it seems that this adjective refers to the awakening from illusions in an ultra-liberal world, which celebrates the victory of money as the object of desire, and presents consumerism as an answer to frustration of whatever kind. The houellebecqian novel describes a world from which love is absent, where the males are reduced to satisfying their urges via prostitution, which is the highest level of the market economy. In Houellebecq’s novels, there is no more duality of Eros and Thanatos, but of Eros and Hermes: sex and commerce. The hatred of women stems from the same world in which the feminine body is reduced to its role as an object and no more.
“Soumission” (the meaning of the Arab word islam), Houellebecq’s latest novel, published on January 7, 2015, has made headlines once again. It has gotten a monopoly of coverage on television, radio, over the Internet and in literary supplements. The novel was accused of being Islamophobic, and the author has not stopped defending himself. Even if “Soumission” is not an Islamophobic novel, it is definitely a disturbing one.
The action takes place in 2022. For some time, the historical polarity between left and right in French politics has been undermined. In its place there is a polarity between two forces: Marine Le Pen’s Front National and the increasing number of supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood, a moderate party established by Mohammed Ben Abbas. To block the Front National, the right and left wings join a coalition with the Muslim Brotherhood, and Mohammed Ben Abbas is elected president of the republic.
This marks the beginning of legislation in the spirit of Islam, a return to family values and sending women home from the workplace. All this is accomplished by paying tempting allowances and with the assistance of polygamy. The novel’s protagonist is a professor at the Sorbonne, which is transformed into an Islamic university.
Reading “Soumission” leaves an odd taste. Houellebecq’s envisioning of secular French society as surrendering to religious dictates is chilling – not necessarily because the religion in question is Islam. It is likely that the same fear would arise if the Sorbonne were to go back to being a Catholic institution, as it was until the French Revolution.
A sense of Vichy France
The second fear arises upon reading the detailed descriptions of seizing power in any sick society, no matter where. Houellebecq does not show much originality here. It would have been sufficient for him to read a few essays on the seizure of power in Germany during the 1930s or in Vichy France to describe the process of change, the well-known combination of skepticism and opportunism. This change is not caused by force, but by the power of Mammon. Saudi Arabia has acquired the Sorbonne, and the professors are enticed with enormous salaries and palatial homes. They supposedly keep their freedom of instruction. They are only required to marry, even two wives, from a catalogue of Muslim women students.
“Soumission” is a houellebecqian novel in every sense of the term. All of the author’s preferred topics are here: a person suffering from ennui, a criticism of liberalism, of the god of wealth, of the objectification of women. “The Muslim woman was devoted and submissive. I could depend on her. She had been brought up that way, and to provide enjoyment, which is enough, actually.”
The style that Houellebecq has accustomed his readers to is present here as well: highly processed in the first part, but it seems that he becomes a bit lax in the second part. The sentences begin to limp halfway through the book. It is possible, of course, that they do not stem from the author’s laziness or the editors’ inattention, but from a desire to express the general submission that the protagonist symbolizes.
The 10 journalists and cartoonists at the weekly magazine Charlie Hebdo were murdered on January 7, the same day that “Soumission” was published, by two terrorists affiliated with Al-Qaida in an act that had nothing houellebecqian about it. But while for Houellebecq, the social mutations are caused by indifference by everyone around, the French awoke to a violent reality.
Four days later, and two days after four other people were murdered at a kosher supermarket in Paris, four million French men and women took to the streets to express, quietly and with love of humanity, but also with great determination, the adherence to freedom of expression that they hold so dear. According to the heritage of Voltaire and his successors, people may live whatever religious life they choose as long as they respect secular neutrality in the public sphere.
A far cry from French society
This magnificent response – and the love of humanity that it has unleashed since then – testify to the way French society is far from reaching the horrific situation that Houellebecq describes in “Soumission.”
French women will never let anyone send them home, or to the kitchen, for simple, comfortable enticements such as family allowances, and even if the university expresses the spirit of compromise most of all, the French people will never allow it to don a veil.
Houellebecq knows how to choose topics that are disturbing to society. From this perspective, “Soumission” is a success that blows up in the faces of the French. But the reader is still hungry because the characters are not developed enough, and the progression of events in the plot strives to be convincing. Ultimately, Michel Houellebecq is not whom he would like to be: George Orwell.
Gilles Rozier, a French writer, is the former director of Maison de la Culture Yiddish in Paris. His book “The Mercy Room” (“Love without Resistance”) was published in Hebrew by Schocken.