Submission by Michel Houellebecq (tr. Lorin Stein). Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 256pp, $25.00
The worst fate a writer can suffer is to become a “writer”: for ease to eclipse inspiration, for fluency to allay the long struggle with words, for the dreadful void of the inchoate work to become schematic and ho-hum, like an instruction manual. Yet the writer-as-cultural-figure is an inevitable facet of the present, when the commodification of literature and the compression of news, entertainment, and what was once known as high culture into a vague but ubiquitous entity called “media” has led to writers vying for “exposure” alongside politicians and athletes. A similar set of factors leads to authors’ overstaying their welcome: readers and publishers are more comfortable with a known quantity than something undigested, and writers themselves grow inured to a measure of wealth and attention that are, it seems, not easy to give up. As a consequence, the ravaged, naked bitterness Adorno saw as characteristic of the late style are frequently replaced by undisciplined prose, a profusion of parentheses, a more or less pathetic drive to keep current, and an overreliance on cliché.
That such traits are not more readily indicted speaks to the timidity of many critics (or, just as likely, to their not having read the books under review), to the power of certain authors or publishers, or to the fact that often, commentators fail to recognize a writer’s early talent and feel compelled to make up for it later. The last is perhaps the case with Michel Houellebecq. His brilliance was already evident in his early collections of poetry and his haunting, idiosyncratic biography of H.P. Lovecraft, Against the World, Against Life. Though his first novel, Whatever, obtained a cult following, selling 30,000 copies over the course of four years, it was not until 1998, with the publication of The Elementary Particles, that Houellebecq met with true success. Two brilliant, popular, and controversial books followed, Platform and The Possibility of an Island. Taken together, they offered a moving, acerbic portrait of the collapse of love under global capitalism and confirmed Houellebecq’s reputation as one of France’s most important contemporary writers.
For more than a decade, Houellebecq has enjoyed unusual notoriety: his dismissal from the board of the review Perpendiculaire for the retrograde views allegedly expressed in The Elementary Particles made the front page of Le Monde; his portrayal of Islam in Platform, as well as his subsequent description of it in an interview as “the most moronic religion,” landed him in court on charges of inciting racial hatred; in 2011, he went missing, stoking fears he’d been snatched up for ransom. He would dramatize his disappearance in the faux documentary The Kidnapping of Michel Houellebecq.
In 2010, he won the Prix Goncourt for his widely praised but pedestrian novel The Map and the Territory. It was not Houellebecq’s best, but there was a sense that his hour had arrived, particularly as great contention had surrounded his failure to win for the infinitely superior Elementary Particles in 1998. Among the book’s few detractors was Tahar Ben Jelloun, a member of the Goncourt jury, who dismissed it as “chatter about the human condition,” lacking in imagination.
Yet nothing was comparable to the commotion that would arise when Submission, Houellebecq’s most recent novel, hit the shelves on January 7 of this year, a few hours before Chérif and Saïd Kouachi would burst into the offices of the satirical paper Charlie Hebdo and murder members of its staff. Coincidentally, the cover for the issue released that day featured a portrait of Houellebecq in magician’s garb, offering a pair of predictions: “In 2015, I lose my teeth. In 2022, I do Ramadan.” (Charlie Hebdo was running behind: it has been years since Houellebecq’s mouth could confidently be described as containing teeth.) That week, Submission sold 150,000 copies. Mark Lilla classed it alongside The Magic Mountain and The Man Without Qualities. Marine Le Pen, apparently oblivious to the absurd figure she cuts in the book’s pages, marshaled Houellebecq to her cause, calling the Submission “a work of fiction that could one day become a reality.”
The plot is fairly simple: in the year 2022, François, a horny literature professor and expert on Huysmans, finds himself at the end of his existential rope. At the same time, the center-left and center-right parties, in order to prevent the National Front’s Marine Le Pen from winning the presidency, unite to back Ben Abbes, a candidate from the Muslim Brotherhood, a moderate Muslim party that controls around twenty percent of the electorate. Unlike the traditional parties, which have continually trimmed back public benefits, Ben Abbes sees education as the key to forging a new culture, and he cedes the other ministries to his coalition partners in exchange for control over the schools. With money from Saudi Arabia, Ben Abbes renovates the Sorbonne, laying off secular professors with generous retirement packages and replacing them with believers. François accepts a pension, takes a trip to an abbey in the country, and returns to find himself wooed by the university’s new president. Offered a salary three times his pension, promised a trio of attractive young wives, convinced, moreover, that secular Europe is on its last legs and that the time has come to switch to the winning team, François accepts the president’s offer. The book ends with his vision of himself converting in the Great Mosque, giving a speech in front of his colleagues, and eyeing up his pretty, veiled students, each of whom “would be proud and happy if I chose her, and would feel honored to share my bed.”
In interviews, Houellebecq has stated that his initial design for the novel involved a conversion to Catholicism, modeled on the one Huysmans depicts in the autobiographical Durtal novels. It is true that Islam as such takes up little room in the book, serving mainly as the counterpoint to the author’s vision of an occident in irrevocable decline. The arguments Houellebecq adduces for his pessimism are familiar to anyone who has read Bernard Lewis, Orianna Fallaci, or the authors associated with the concept of Eurabia: European institutions are weak and decrepit, their artificial values fundamentally estranged from the real issues that govern people’s lives; the Muslim population is growing while Europeans fail replace themselves; and, in the words of one of Houellebecq’s characters, a normalien possessing “almost abnormal brain power,” “whichever segment of the population has the highest birthrate, and does the best job of transmitting its values, wins.”
The archetypal Houellebecq protagonist follows one of two routes: either he fails to evolve, and his picaresque adventures become a pretext for more or less biting observations about contemporary life (Whatever, Lanzarote), or he moves from muted anguish about his lovelessness and the deplorable state of the Western world into wan, often lyrical resignation (The Elementary Particles, The Possibility of an Island). Submission is in the second camp; the narrator, whose vital possibilities were inseparable from the institutions and value systems of early 21st-century France, glimpses a possibility for a new kind of life in the serene acceptance of his society’s obsolescence and an opportune accommodation of the order destined to succeed it.
The conceit is original, and a pleasant departure from the apocalyptic invective and more or less thinly veiled racism that tend to surround Islam’s growing significance in the occident. Where the book falls short is at the level of style. An essential ingredient of Houellebecq’s success has always been his skill at presenting his pessimism, cobbled together from Cioran and Nietzsche and a frequently exaggerated familiarity with biology and physics, in an idiom more proper to the bestseller. Houellebecq himself is not unaware of this; in his opening letter to Bernard-Henri Lévy in Public Enemies, he describes himself as “an unremarkable author with no style,” and he has frequently made reference to his familiarity with genre fiction. In his best works, the neutral tone lulls the reader, so that the cruelty of the author’s vision becomes even more shocking; but in Submission, his most anodyne novel yet, it bears the marks of a listless, exhausted author content to go through the motions.
Houellebecq has adopted the old Flaubertian trick of peppering his prose with clichés, many marked off with italics. At times this is done to good effect:
“But there’s the Muslim Brotherhood. They’re an unknown quantity. If they got twenty percent, it would be a symbolic benchmark, and could change the balance of power . . .” I was talking utter bullshit, of course. Ninety-nine percent of the Muslim Brotherhood would throw their votes to the socialists. In any case, it wouldn’t affect the results at all, but that phrase balance of power always sounds impressive in conversation, as if you’d been reading Clausewitz and Sun Tzu. I was also rather pleased with symbolic benchmark. In any case, Marie-Françoise nodded as if I’d just expressed an idea.
After fifty or so pages, the joke becomes tiresome, and one gets the sense that the author is not so much engaged in satire as taking shortcuts with the aid of commonplaces. The book abounds in lame adverbs like “literally” and “absolutely” and such stock descriptions as “eyes glittering with intelligence.” It is not a case of lost in translation: Lorin Stein cleaves close to the original, and has already proven his talent with accomplished and poignant translations of Édouard Levé’s Autoportrait and Grégoire Bouillier’s Mystery Guest. Checking numerous passages of Stein’s translation against the French original has revealed no hidden vein of poetic brilliance that the translator has failed to transmit.
Submission possesses the same virtues and vices present in Houellebecq’s other fiction, but the former have shrunken to mere vestiges, while the latter obtrude so insistently that not even a sympathetic reader can ignore them. His wit is still there, and his sardonic antipathy for the rituals of modern life, as when he derides conversation between men as “part buggery, part duel” or passes an afternoon “flipping back and forth between reality shows on obesity.” But the reader laughs little, and the laughter is forced, provoked less by the text in hand than by the memories it stirs up of the wry vitriol of earlier works like Platform or the essay Jacques Prévert is a Cunt. At the same time, Houellebecq’s refusal to portray women as something more dignified than receptacles for his protagonist’s member is both deeply offensive and tiresome. In a sense, Houellebecq has missed an opportunity in Submission: the passages on YouPorn and escort websites, which might have provided context for the narrator’s terse, mechanical sexuality, instead reveal a glancing acquaintance with the subject rooted in an auctorial delusion sadly common in the age of Wikipedia: the idea that a bit of clicking around on the web can stand in for research or sustained consideration.
Houellebecq’s has previously proven adept at submitting contemporary life to a larger scientific framework and pursuing the ontological questions that this procedure invites: at asking, for example, whether civic virtues are a flimsy pretext for the more basic imperatives of evolutionary struggle, or examining the place of love and longing in light of physical determinism. In Submission, unfortunately, the grounding assumptions are flawed. Houellebecq takes men to be agents of unquenchable sexual desire repulsed by the sagging flesh of any woman over thirty, while women, save the young and nubile, see sex as a pretext for the acquisition of money and status and weary of it once they’ve snared a man in marriage. This flies in the face of much contemporary research into female sexuality as well as anecdotal evidence available to anyone who converses regularly with flesh-and-blood women. Similarly, professional demographers have dismissed doomsaying about falling birthrates and the Islamization of Europe as slipshod, racist propaganda. Curiously, the plot would have rung truer had Houellebecq devoted less time to depicting the particular mechanisms of Europe’s inevitable downfall; in the absence of specifics, it is possible to suspend one’s disbelief, but when page after page proffers the same nativist boilerplate, which the reader must take seriously for the narrative to have any sense, credulity reaches a breaking point.
Not everything in the book falls flat. It is biting in its portrayal of academic venality and opportunism, with its gallery of repugnant professors ready to lay down their liberal principles for the money and young wives the administration has promised them, and their resolute mendacity in finding natural, even scientific reasons why they deserve these rewards, which are in fact the mere outgrowth of proximity and subservience to power. Houellebecq is also good on the idiosyncrasies of the modern gastronome, with his strange combination of mediocrity and refinement. But over two-hundred-plus pages, the bright spots get lost among the dreary sex scenes, indistinguishable from Penthouse Letters, as well as the tiresome pastiches of tourist brochures and academic journals and the stock prose of bestsellers, with lines like “I woke around four in the morning, lucid and alert,” or, “… Boris Cyrulnik isn’t fucking around. When it comes to psychology, no one’s got anything on him.”
It is true that the European response to Muslim immigration has normally ranged from apathetic to hysterical to foolish, with little serious inquiry into its long- or even midterm consequences. For this reason, Houellebecq’s novel is considered timely. But the label “timely” suggests a degree of relevance to everyday life that is hard to square with Submission’s superficial portrayal of Europe’s Muslims, let alone its incorrigible misogyny. A lack of realism would be forgivable in a book whose style showed greater elegance, originality, or delicacy. But lines like “As for blow jobs, I’d never encountered anything like them” or “the businessman looked as if he was under some serious stress” prove a torment to any but the lowest of lowbrows. In the end, Houellebecq has made a turn toward an unsavory substrate that has always been there among his admirers: solitary woman-haters, reactionaries who air their retrograde beliefs under the guise of “telling it like it is,” and right-wing alarmists like Alain Finkelkraut and Theodore Dalrymple, who describes Submission in the New Criterion as a last-ditch warning to turn back to social conservatism or risk being overrun by barbarians. This is tawdry company for a writer whose early work was among the most interesting fiction to be published in the past quarter-century.
Adrian Nathan West is author of The Aesthetics of Degradation and translator of numerous works of contemporary European literature, including The Weight of Things by Marianne Fritz and Pere Gimferrer’s Fortuny. He lives between Spain and the United States with the cinema critic Beatriz Leal Riesco.
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