France’s literary bad boy Michel Houellebecq is stirring controversy again. If you feel that literature has become too genteel, too much like Hollywood in its pursuit of blockbusters that eliminate all local flavor from prose, then you’ll be thirsty for Houellebecq’s very funny and provocative new novel Submission. The book has drawn mostly negative attention from the European media for its portrayal of a Muslim takeover of secular France in the near future. The book is critical both of the modern manifestation of Islam (especially its treatment of women) and of the political, theological, and cultural decline of Europe.
François, Houellebecq’s narrator, is the embodiment of France’s decline. He is a literature professor at the Sorbonne, best known for a seminal work of literary criticism regarding an arcane nineteenth-century French novelist named J.K. Huysmans. François feels ennui in most areas of his life, from his teaching to his lapsed relationship with Catholicism. About the only things that excite him are threesomes with escorts and good food, which he describes in more detail than just about anything else in the book. In short, the narrator is cartoonishly a French middle-aged man.
Houellebecq has evolved quite a bit as a novelist since his polarizing 1998 bestseller The Elementary Particles. His trademark objectification of women and passive-aggressive xenophobia are balanced by a higher level of self-awareness of the consequences of such attitudes in Submission. Consequently, François’s narration can be quite charming in a melancholic and droll way.
Myriam was undoubtedly the summit of my love life. How would I ever get over her? The only realistic answer was I wouldn’t.
While I was waiting to die, I still had the Journal of Nineteenth-Century Studies. Its next meeting was in less than a week. Also, election day was coming up. Many men take an interest in politics and war, but these diversions never appealed to me. I was about as political as a bath towel.
When a Muslim moderate named Ben Abbes slides into Élysée Palace thanks to France’s pluralist system of government, it sparks a quiet revolution, and both French nativists and Islamic extremists are emboldened. President Abbes is portrayed as an Obama-esque figure who hypnotizes the masses with eloquent speeches and broad platitudes. In a matter of months, the France that most of the world knows (wine-and-food-loving independent thinkers) submits and radically changes. Abbes wants France’s secular university system to embrace religion. The Sorbonne turns into a Muslim institution. Much of the faculty loses their jobs.
Later, over another beer, I explained to him that I was there by chance, and I told him what I’d seen at a gas station in Pech-Montat. He listened closely but without emotion. “I thought so,” he said, once I’d finished my story. “I suspected that there had been unreported clashes, beyond the attacks on the polling stations. No doubt there were plenty of others across France.”
He had good reason be in Martel: he had a house there, which had belonged to his parents. He was a native, and soon he planned to retire there. If the Muslim candidate won, Marie-Francoise was certain to lose her chair—obviously, no woman could hold a teaching position in an Islamic university. But what about his job at DGSI? “They sent me packing,” he said, with suppressed bitterness.
“Obviously”? Really? Though Muslim countries are among the worst in the world at gender equity in education, female scholars do exist in Islamic universities. An Iranian became the first woman to win a Nobel Prize in mathematics in 2014. Suffice it to say, Houellebecq’s absurd portrayal of Islam will likely offend many Muslims. But if you agree with Bill Maher’s assertion that liberals shouldn’t let Islam off the hook for oppressing women, you may pump your fist at Houellebecq’s hot take. François, somewhat humorously, doesn’t judge Islam at all. An Islamic Sorbonne is equally disturbing to him as his inability to get takeout food that isn’t mediocre sushi or Lebanese.
François loses his job, but watches some of his former male colleagues stay and convert to Islam. After conversion, they are provided two or more teenaged wives. François is offered a similar opportunity. Will he (and, by proxy, France) submit? This becomes the central moral question of the novel. Where does France begin to build a fence around its cultural borders? Yes, the question sounds like one from a GOP presidential debate, but, to Houellebecq’s credit, the French nativists sound as mad and paranoid as the Muslims running the university, as this monologue from the husband of François’s former boss demonstrates:
[Abbes] can’t possibility have high hopes for the Jews. What would really make him happy, I think is if they left France on their own and emigrated to Israel… It amazes me how few people have read his early writings—though, to be fair, they’re all in obscure geopolitical journals. The first thing you notice is that he’s always going on about the Roman Empire. For him, European integration is just a means to this glorious end. The main thrust of his foreign policy will be to shift Europe’s center of gravity toward the south… The first countries likely to join up will be Turkey and Morocco, then later will come Tunisia and Algeria. In the long term, Egypt—that would be harder to swallow…
Ultimately, Houellebecq’s dystopic France never becomes a visceral presence in the book because François doesn’t really have anything to lose. Job at the Sorbonne or not, he’ll still get his pension. Nothing really ruffles him until the dilemma of “Polygamy, Yes or No?” Not the armed nativists. Not the fiery riots in Paris. François’s main concern is one of purpose. Robbed of teaching—his purported, but humorously dismissed raison d’etre—what will he live for? The light nature of the rest of the François’s exploits (see: threesomes with escorts) makes it hard to take his allusions to being suicidal in unemployment seriously.
Submission never rises to the level of a must-read for those concerned for the future of France. But it’s fun to submit to Houellebecq’s easy charm.