The persistent subject of Michel Houellebecq’s fiction is the stunted French heterosexual male and his eventual desolation in the liberalized post-1960s sexual marketplace. In this sense, his new book, Submission, is of a piece with his five previous novels. The narrator, François, is a middle-aged professor of literature who drinks and smokes to excess, loses his job, is left by his ex-student girlfriend, pays escorts for sex, eats a lot of bad takeout, and is dizzy with self-pity and self-disgust. The book is a diary of a defeated man, and often a very funny one. But of course that’s not the whole story. The novel is set in 2022, a time of political realignment in France that sees the rise of a Muslim president, Mohammed Ben Abbes, and the rapid Islamicization of many of the country’s institutions, including its universities.
As you might remember, the January attack on the offices of Charlie Hebdo coincided with Submission’s French publication date — a caricature of Houellebecq, with a big nose and dressed like Nostradamus, was on the cover, saying, “In 2015, I lose my teeth. In 2022, I observe Ramadan.” In 2002, Houellebecq had gone to trial when Muslim organizations sued him for hate speech after he said to an interviewer, “Islam is the stupidest religion.” He’d also feuded publicly with his now-deceased mother, a convert to Islam. In his third novel, Platform, released in French not long before 9/11, Muslim terrorists attack a group of sex tourists in Thailand and kill the narrator’s girlfriend. He becomes suicidal and relates that news reports about deaths in the Gaza Strip cheer him. So by the time of Submission, Houellebecq had a long history of flirtation with Islamophobia, not to mention the misogynistic and pornographic aspects of his books that had always incensed some readers.
The Hebdo attack put a grim stop to whatever games Houellebecq might have played with the press this time around. (Among the victims was a close friend of his.) He had already told an interviewer, “The Koran turns out to be much better than I thought, now that I’ve reread it — or rather, read it,” and jostled over questions of racism (“One can be shocked by polygamy without being the least bit racist”), Islamophobia (“We have extended the domain of ‘racism’ by inventing the crime of Islamophobia”), and misogyny (“I still don’t think I’m a misogynist, really. I would say that this isn’t the crucial thing, in any case”), before canceling his publicity efforts and going under 24-hour police protection.
Critics of Salman Rushdie at the time of the Ayatollah Khomeini’s fatwa said, more or less, that he was asking for it: “I don’t think it is given to any of us to be impertinent to great religions with impunity,” John le Carré put it. Houellebecq is perhaps less guilty of impertinence than of superficiality in his treatment of Islam. In this case, it’s a strategy. “What interests me is the fear that it creates, not the contents,” Houellebecq recently told the New York Times. Though Houellebecq often seems to be playing a character when he speaks to journalists, I think here we can take him at his word. In Submission, Islam has the quality of a historical force, ascending in the person of President Ben Abbes, a character who never appears but is only spoken of, and then pervading French society at large and the Sorbonne, where François works, in the manner of a corporate takeover, subsidized by Gulf State investors.
For François himself, the new dispensation has the initial effect of depriving him of his girlfriend and his job. Myriam, a young Jewish woman, flees the new France for Israel, and her letters to him grow cooler until they stop appearing. As a non-convert to Islam and therefore someone no longer qualified to be on the faculty, he accepts a generous pension and lapses into a lifestyle of dissipation, punctuated by pilgrimages to various sites connected to the life of J. K. Huysmans, the fin de siècle author whose work is the object of François’s scholarly efforts. Huysmans is remembered as a decadent — the work of his best known to Anglophone readers is Against Nature, with its central image of a meal of food entirely black in color — but at the end of his life, he converted to Catholicism and joined a monastery. It’s a life François considers embarking on himself, but he can’t endure the monastery’s ban on smoking.
After this negative epiphany, the new head of the Sorbonne, a convert to Islam named Robert Rediger, begins a sly campaign to lure François back to his post, beginning by arranging for him to edit the Pléiade edition of Huysmans’s collected works and then convincing him that conversion to Islam would have its advantages, among them a high salary and multiple wives. Even his fears that religion would prove restrictive are unfounded: Rediger, something of a hypocrite and an opportunist, as well as a former semi-Fascist, has him to his house and shares with him a bottle of very good wine. It’s an arrangement François finds seductive, and in the novel’s last pages, he imagines his conversion. “I’d be given another chance; and it would be the chance at a second life, with very little connection to the old one,” François says. “I would have nothing to mourn.”
The political elements of Submission are so comically exaggerated that it’s hard to take them very seriously. Presto! The retreat of women from the workplace into the home ends unemployment in France! Massive flows of oil money from Saudi Arabia gives everybody a nice pension. The nations of Northern Africa begin negotiations to enter the E.U.! It’s all a bit too much: a parody of the xenophobic European right’s nightmare scenario with the ironic twist that it brings one miserable man solace. (And here the stress is placed heavily on the benefits of polygamy, as a source of sex and domestic comforts, and a refuge from dreary cycles of casual dating and the sad act of paying for sex.) Life in a Muslim France wouldn’t be so bad, Houellebecq winks, especially compared to the empty life that’s ultimately resulted from the Enlightenment. This is the novel’s big joke. It’s designed to agitate the right by suggesting the right may have a point about the erosion of France’s national culture, and to tweak the left by lending ironic credence to the right’s fears.
Most of all, it’s a vehicle for the Houellebecq male’s halfhearted nostalgia for a lost patriarchal order. “Is the patriarchy really gone?” many might ask. But not François. Before she leaves for Israel, Myriam asks him, “So you’re for a return to patriarchy?” He replies: “You know I’m not for anything, but at least patriarchy existed. I mean, as a social system it was able to perpetuate itself. There were families with children, and most of them had children. In other words, it worked, whereas now there aren’t enough children, so we’re finished.” She responds: “In theory you’re definitely macho. But then you have such refined tastes in writers: Mallarmé, Huysmans. They don’t exactly play to the macho base. Plus you have a weirdly feminine eye for household textiles.” François thinks: “I didn’t even want to fuck her, or maybe I kind of wanted to fuck her but I also kind of wanted to die, I couldn’t really tell.” When Rediger arrives and draws him into the embrace of France’s new Muslim order, the best prospect it offers is a cure for his depression. And even that, as I’ve said, is a joke.
The only time Houellebecq seems not to be joking is when François speaks about literature. Of his fiction, Houellebecq has said, “I deny all responsibility, I claim utter irresponsibility — except when I discuss literature in my novels, then I am engaged as a literary critic.” And the most extraordinary passages in Submission happen to be about Huysmans and literature itself. Houellebecq has said he originally set out to write a novel about a character who was, like Huysmans, a Catholic convert, but, in something like the present day, he’s said, “it didn’t work.” But if François’s turn to Islam comes off as a cynical act of accommodation, when it comes to literature, he and Houellebecq are true believers: “Only literature can put you in touch with another human spirit, as a whole, with all its weaknesses and grandeurs, its limitations, its pettinesses, its obsessions, its beliefs; with whatever it finds moving, interesting, exciting, or repugnant. Only literature can grant you access to a spirit from beyond the grave.” Whatever it says or doesn’t say about Europe and Islam, Submission is a love letter to the novel itself.
*This article appears in the November 2, 2015 issue of New York Magazine.