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B+ : oddly entertaining wallow in the comeuppance of decadent and failed Western society
See our review for fuller assessment.
From the Reviews:
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The complete review's Review:
Submission is narrated by François, and the book opens with him describing finishing his studies in 2007. After defending his dissertation, on French author Joris-Karl Huysmans:
I realized that part of my life, probably the best part, was behind me.He doesn't look forward to the transition to adulthood and taking up some traditional form of employment -- since: "The academic study of literature leads basically nowhere, as we know" -- but as it turns out, and somewhat to his own surprise, his dissertation is good enough that: "Suddenly, a tenured position as a senior lecturer was within my reach, if I wanted it". Despite admitting to having not the slightest vocation for teaching, such a position is too cushy not to grab, and so he winds up a lecturer and later full professor at Paris 3 (Sorbonne-Nouvelle) -- a slight step down from Paris 4 (the good old Sorbonne), where he took his degree, but good enough. Instead of moving on, he essentially stays in place; instead of leaving behind Huysmans -- his companion: "Throughout all the years of my sad youth" -- he continues to cling to the decadent author. And beyond publishing a book he can barely point to any real accomplishments in his life after that: that and completing his dissertation were the early and only summits of his life, intellectual and otherwise. Only years later, his life disrupted by the reverberations of a national shake-up, would he be forced to reconsider and reëvaluate his path.
François' account is from some fifteen years later, from a very changed France. The closing pages see him preparing to embrace a new life in this new world; interestingly, his account ends before he actually makes the transition, and the novel that had been entirely retrospective, describing what had happened, after the fact, becomes, in a grammatical shift, prospective, describing what lies ahead -- the promise of the future -- but not actually taking the reader along there. So also the conclusion is entirely prospective, the future as he imagines and expects it, and hopes for -- down to the claim: "I would have nothing to mourn for".
In his dissertation -- a nearly 800-page work -- François had: "interpreted Huysmans's work in light of his future conversion" (the decadent author eventually embracing Catholicism). His account follows a similar personal trajectory, as it also leads to religious conversion. His is a 'submission' to Islam -- yet it is less an embrace of the religious than a reaction to circumstances, and hence also strategic and opportunistic. Not that François lacks conviction -- but his decision is entirely personal and, in a sense, anti-social; he has written off traditional Western/European society and sees this as his way to remain comfortably afloat.
François is a typical Houellebecqian protagonist, an aging male (just reaching his mid-forties as he recounts this story) who does not engage in any meaningful way with many other people and can barely be bothered to maintain a relationship; "rather cultured, rather sad, without much in the way of distractions". He cycles through girlfriends at a steady rate of one student every academic year; the one he briefly thought might perhaps linger or return, Myriam ("the summit of my love life"), is Jewish and follows her parents to Israel as the French situation becomes more worrisome; in the distance she quickly fades from his life, leaving him essentially entirely alone. (His parents also die in quick succession, but they hardly seem to have ever figured in any significant way in his life after childhood.) Eventually, he finds:
I had to admit, I was going to die if I kept that up -- I was going to die fast, unhappy and alone. And did I really want to die fast, unhappy and alone ? In the end, only kind of.(That perfect: "only kind of" is quintessential Houellebecq -- both the sentiment itself, and François' forthrightness in admitting to it.)
Submission is a novel in which there is a fundamental political and social change in France, the 2022 presidential elections seeing Mohammed Ben Abbes, leader of the French Muslim Brotherhood, win the runoff (which he just squeaked into) "by a landslide" and taking France down a very different path. As with so much else, François has largely been indifferent to politics most of his life. He admits: "I was about as political as a bath towel" and, Parisian through and through, also: "I didn't actually know much about France" (beyond Paris); even once the Islamic government has settled into power he has to admit: "Really, it wasn't a religion I knew much about". Yet for all his ignorance and lack of interest, he has no doubts about the decline of the West (and France in particular) as well as some of the reasons behind it and the ascendance of Islam.
Sex is important to François -- "sources of pleasure were hard to come by. In the end, my dick was all I had" -- but for him sex is entirely divorced from its ostensible purpose, procreation. (As is the case with most Houellebecq protagonists, fatherhood is almost inconceivable to him.) As such, he is a representative of the decadent Western type, who fails at the fundamental and is in it just for pleasure -- and he recognizes his failure, and that of the society around him, a Europe at a point of: "putrid decomposition".
François is not necessarily nostalgic for patriarchy, but argues for its worth:
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.Meanwhile, as someone explains to him, the Muslim Brotherhood doesn't care much about most political issues but:
What they care about is the birthrate and education. To them it's simple -- whichever segment of the population has the highest birthrate, and does the best job of transmitting its values, wins. If you control the children, you control the future.Blindsided -- "We're so used to the politics of right versus left that we can't see another way for things to be" -- the Muslim Brotherhood sweeps to power by also playing to traditionalism, toning down the Islamic spin on religion and selling their programme as one of 'family values'. So also then in changes they institute, such as in the educational system -- mandatory education only through elementary school, vocational training after that encouraged, all secondary and higher education privatized, all as part of an effort to: "restore the centrality, the dignity, of the family as the building block of society". Women leave the workforce and resume their traditional roles in the home, and among the ideas that are embraced is that:
The transition to a salaried workforce had doomed the nuclear family and led to the complete atomization of society, and that society could only be rebuilt if industry was based on a small-business model.Houellebecq shows a France and Europe that has been completely outflanked and is helpless against the new order. Almost effortlessly, and seeming like a benign force, the Islamic influence spreads, with the European Union soon to welcome traditionally Islamic states which will then soon be in the majority (once again: it's all about the headcount; in Houellebecq's very simplistic worldview numbers win).
The Sorbonne is essentially bought by the Saudis and reinvented as the Islamic University of Paris-Sorbonne -- a change that also means François can't continue working there: adherence to the religion is mandatory. Typically, however, there's little pain involved in this transition: the retirement-package they offer is more than generous, and François could very comfortably while away the rest of his days without any worries. He does, for a while, but the emptiness of his life (which, let's face it, had already been pretty damn empty) gets to him. An offer to to edit a two-volume Bibliothèque de la Pléiade edition of Huysmans (yes, amazingly he's not part of the series yet) perks him up -- but even more tempting is the offer of reinstatement at the university. The only catch is the original one: he has to convert.
Robert Rediger, the new man in charge, tries to seduce him. Inviting François to his new digs -- the house at 5 rue des Arènes which used to be Jean Paulhan's -- and having François run into his new, fifteen-year-old wife (he kept the old one, too, however) certainly help in showing some of the appeal of conversion. Rediger's bestselling Ten Questions on Islam helps clear up some of François' concerns too; he's not that interested in the religious details and skips straight ahead to chapter seven, "Why Polygamy ?". Shallow, sex-obsessed as he is, it's a major selling point for him -- especially when Rediger suggests: "I think you could have three wives without too much trouble".
As Rediger notes about the ideological issues:
The fact is, most people live their lives without worrying too much about these supposedly philosophical questions. They think about them only when they're facing some kind of tragedy -- a serious illness, the death of a loved one. At least, that's how it is in the West, because in the rest of the world people die and kill in the name of these very questions, they wage bloody wars over them, and they have since the dawn of time.It's the rare hint that maybe Western decadence isn't on the wrong track after all, but neither Rediger nor François follow up on the implications.
Rediger himself is a convert from Christianity. He believed:
Without Christianity, the European nations had become bodies without souls -- zombies.But he despaired of a Christian revival -- and found Islam instead. Spiritually vacuous François is even easier to convince -- the promise of a lifestyle, rather than a meaningful life pretty much enough to win him over.
Houellebecq’s vision of post-2022 France is all the more unsettlingly dystopian for seeming so benign. Yes, the women disappear in the shadows -- but then women rarely figure very prominently in his novels anyway, his concern for them as anything other than sexual objects so limited that their disappearance from public barely even registers; it's necessary that François specifically points it out for readers to become aware of it. There are also indications that the change will accelerate -- beginning with the EU expansion, and with Belgium already falling into Muslim line -- but little overt sense of menace.
In many ways Islam merely seems to be a vehicle for Houellebecq: this is not a book of warning about what will or might happen, but rather one reflecting on a dissolution -- of a culture and society -- already completed. Fin de siècle, end of days: the self-destruction of Western culture is a done deal and there is no more hope for it.
Islam doesn't represent hope, here, either; it's the briefly flowering false idol of a stability based on an untenable social order; so too the suggested new economic system based on "distributism". Houellebecq doesn't even strain too much to suggest France's turn to Islam as plausible, in the short or long term; it is simply a convenient sign of the times: just as Huysmans looked towards Christianity just as Christianity's day was done, so too Houellebecq allows François to turn towards a Mecca in (violent, self-immolating) eclipse, that greater Islam beyond François' so limited gaze which, tellingly, Houellebecq doesn't even have to bother mentioning, leaving it for the reader to fill in.
Indeed, as noted, Houellebecq can't even bring himself to see François' conversion through: the novel concludes prospectively, François imagining what will be. Submission can be misperceived as a thought-experiment, positing what-if (Muslim domination came to pass), but here is yet another indication that it isn't, Houellebecq uninterested in looking beyond the ruins of contemporary French and Western society.
Submission is a typical Houellebecq novel, for better and worse. With its sad-sack protagonist, condemnation of (and yet also wallow in) contemporary Western society at its most decadent, and largely despairing worldview, it offers all the usual Houellebecq-pleasures, quite nicely served up. Intellectually, it's problematic -- Houellebecq's theorizing and his imagined world are shallow and don't withstand much scrutiny -- but he throws enough in to be intriguingly provocative. The literary foundations help: he understands his Huysmans considerably better than Islam (but then he's more interested in individuals than systems), and even when it's lazy his writing is strong enough (and he knows enough tricks) to engage the reader fully. Exasperating though it can be, in so many ways, Submission is also a lot fun to read.
Touching, too, is his belief that literature can endure:
It was amazing, even, to think that the only thing left to people in their despair was reading.With its big themes, and in apparently taking on such a major issue of the day -- the 'rise' and increasing influence of Islam in France -- Submission sounds considerably more provocative than it is. In fact, it's (agreeably) old school and (unsurprisingly) reactionary, a fin de siècle novel casting its gaze over what's been lost. Houellebecq dazzles -- but a lot of it is tricks and mirrors, with neither the ideas nor the writing standing up to closer scrutiny. But it is fun dazzle, and there is a lot of it to keep readers entertained.
- M.A.Orthofer, 11 July 2015
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French author Michel Houellebecq was born in 1958.
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