Much as Jonathan Franzen does on these shores, Michel Houellebecq pulls duty in France as a gauge of the tenor of public intellectual life — or of whether such a thing can still be said to exist. Like Franzen, Houellebecq has chronicled the terrible personal fallout of misguided ideological commitments, and looks upon information-age capitalism with a withering skepticism. And like Franzen, Houellebecq has given rise to cottage industries devoted, respectively, to the celebration of his lone genius and to a great deal of online offense-taking.
Unlike Franzen, though, Houellebecq has homed in on another culture — the Islamic religion — to dramatize his own discontent with the present age. He views Islam as a mounting fundamentalist threat to France’s de facto civic faith of secular, social-democratic humanism. In 2002, he famously faced down a lawsuit charging him with inciting racism for calling Islam “the stupidest religion” in an interview with the French press. He dialed down some of his provocations after reading the Koran, and declared that perhaps Islam could be negotiated with.
But in early 2015, he published Submission—a satirical depiction of an Islamist takeover of the French state in the year 2022. The publication coincided with the January 2015 Islamist massacre of the staff of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo. A fresh round of controversy ensued. Was Houellebecq, who’d been readily dismissed as a belligerent Islam-baiter in the Christopher Hitchens mode, suddenly a prophetic voice? Or was he now self-indulgently calling down another terrorist assault on the embattled French literary scene?
Submission, now translated into English by Paris Review editor Lorin Stein, doesn’t supply pat answers to either question — which is to say that it’s a novel, not a candidate’s brief or an oped column. It’s also, surprisingly, not anything close to a blistering account of violent jihadism run amok. The Islam featured in the novel is confident, cultured and intellectually curious— not a blueprint for jihadist retribution, censorship and terror.
Or at least not on the surface. We’re made to understand throughout the pages of Submission that the Islamic annexation of France is all the more sinister for being so comparatively free of nagging intellectual, spiritual or cultural frictions. Its narrator is a bored, self-obsessed literature professor at the Sorbonne named François. He’s dedicated to the arcane diction of the decadent naturalist writer JorisKarl Huysmans (who famously broke off his career as a chronicler of dissolute modern moeurs and ended his life in a monastery) and the serial bedding of his female undergraduate students. Lately, however, both pursuits have lost their luster, as he frets that he’s “fallen prey, in middle age, to a kind of andropause” — a condition he selfmedicates with a steady diet of Internet porn.
So far, so Franzen. François’s sodden malaise seems to mirror the temper of his time — as Huysmans’s did before him. And like his literary idol, François is alternately sybaritic and overcome with ennui. At the margins of his attention span, he’s aware that France’s 2022 parliamentary election is under way, with the Westernized Muslim Brotherhood party eventually entering into a coalition with the Socialists, who are too cowed by the “multicultural background” of the Muslim party leader, Mohammed Ben Abbes, to offer effective resistance to the party’s deeply conservative domestic agenda. The spineless, accommodationist French Left “had never been able to fight him, or so much as mention his name” during the campaign.
François can’t much be bothered with the overheated electoral spectacle; he’s “about as political as a bath towel,” he reports, and as he watched the election returns, “the idea that political history could play some part in my life was still disconcerting, and somehow repellant.” In the end, the slick, ambitious Ben Abbes brokers a deal for the presidency — and as the old saw would have it, politics takes an interest in François even if he doesn’t reciprocate. One of the new Islamic government’s first acts is to retool France’s fabled higher-education system and dismiss all faculty, like François, who have not converted to Islam. Since the new regime is also flush with petrodollars, Ben Abbes and his allies arrange for François to retire on a full pension at 44.
Left to his own devices, François succumbs to still greater complements of aimlessness and ennui — much of it sexual. His former lover, Myriam — a 22-year-old literature student — had fled to Israel with her family in advance of the takeover; now, François is hard pressed to work up any erotic interest, particularly as French women have taken to wearing veils and full-length dresses in the streets. Deprived of such casual visual stimulation, he flirts briefly with following Huysmans’s footsteps, toward the end of the decadent aesthete’s life, into a Christian monastic sect, but is temperamentally unsuited to its cheery proselytizing and is especially provoked, as only a French intellectual can be, by the sect’s ban on smoking.
And like all narcissists of a more cerebral bent, François is inclined to detect telltale signs of civilizational decay in every mundane detail of his undemanding life. He’s afflicted with an echt-modern terror of being alone (he decries the numbing routine of working life, for instance, on grounds of its “stupefying and radical solitude”) — yet he’s also constitutionally unable to sustain anything resembling an adult relationship, or even a grown-up simulucram of basic domestic obligations. Both of his parents die over the course of the novel’s action, and he only bestirs himself to observe rites of mourning long enough to put in for his dad’s inheritance. He’s as ardent a gourmand as he is a sexual adventurer, and yet he never troubles himself to learn the basics of cooking, arguing instead that microwaved evening meals are a kind of synecdoche for Western democracy’s decline: “There was no malice in them, and one’s sense of participating in a collective experience, disappointing but egalitarian, smoothed the way to a partial acceptance.”
Small wonder that, in one of his many forays in sexual self-pity, Fran- çois reflects that “in the end, my dick was all I had” — he’s methodically eliminated every other source of connection and pleasure in his life. It’s little wonder as well that the lure of arranged polygamy is ultimately what permits François to make his peace with the new spiritual order — it’s the amatory equivalent of a microwavable buffet (but, miraculously, with a young live-in cook thrown into the bargain). In the process, François’ grateful endorsement of the Islamic patriarchy’s institutionalized sexual license permits the patient reader of François’ maunderings to give up entirely.
It’s not so much that Submission offers trenchant political insights into either side of the Muslim-secular divide. Like his narrator, Houellebecq seems deeply bored by politics, and, as he strains to produce a relevant precedent for the action in Submission, he reaches, lazily and unconvincingly, for “the intellectuals, politicians and journalists of the 1930s, all of whom were convinced that ‘Hitler would come to see reason.’ ” (“All of whom?” Really? That wasn’t even true in France.)
Rather, it’s the retrograde and dismissive view of women on display throughout Submission that makes the inner travails of François not merely tedious but actively offensive. In the throes of his spiritual crisis, he reflects to himself, oafishly, “I should have found a woman to marry. That was the classic, time-honored solution. A woman is human, obviously” — humanity being, it should be noted in fairness here, the objectionable quality of life for François at this point — “but she represents a slightly different kind of humanity. She gives life a certain perfume of exoticism.”
Unless, that is, she’s a dissolute Western careerist given to rote and soulless sexual display, François takes pains to observe. While orthodox Muslim women make a great display of their chastity and untouchability, François grouses, they were at least “the exact opposite of Western women, who spent their days dressed up and looking sexy to maintain their social status, then collapsed in exhaustion once they got home, abandoning all hope of seduction in favor of clothes that were loose and shapeless.”
Lest you think that Muslim women get the better of the invidious comparison here, well, guess again: No, they “remain children nearly their entire lives. No sooner had they put childhood behind them than they became mothers and were plunged into a world of childish things. Their children grew up, they became grandmothers, and so their lives went by.”
All this essentialist pontificating sits awkwardly, to put it mildly, alongside François’s loving descriptions of his own fugitive, yet ever-ennui-laden, moments of sexual pleasure. One night with a sex worker, for instance, proves briefly transformative.
“Rachida kissed me on the cheek, then with a little smile she slipped behind me. She rested one hand on my ass, then leaned in and started licking my balls. … Wild with gratitude, I turned around, tore off the condom, and offered myself up to Rachida’s mouth. Two minutes later, I came between her lips. She meticulously licked up the last drops as I stroked her hair.”
Embedded somewhere within the meandering, self-mythologizing pages of Submission, there are no doubt a few subtle nuances and political asides pertaining to the fraught encounters between Islam and secularism in France. But I have to confess, at the risk of echoing François’s own haughty stance of depoliticized apathy, that I don’t much care. Sometimes, to paraphrase Freud, a dick is just a dick.