Review: Michel Houellebecq – Soumission

Michel Houellebecq, Soumission, Flammarion, 300pp.

The peculiar circumstances surrounding the publication of Michel Houellebecq’s latest novel constitute a case study in how even the biggest literary news stories are, in the wider scheme of things, small potatoes. Soumission, the 56-year-old’s seventh novel, was to be the big literary event of the New Year. A ‘what if?’ account of the coming to power of an Islamist president in France in 2022, the book dominated headlines and opinion pieces in what was a particularly fallow news week once Thomas Pikkety’s refusal of the Légion d’honneur had faded from memory. The book’s apparent inflammatory scenario aside, Houellebecq’s past brushes with Islam were portentous –– in 2001 he was sued by Muslim groups for inciting racial hatred after calling Islam ‘the stupidest religion’ (the French adjective he used, ‘con’ is of a coarser register and might be better translated as ‘stupidest fucking’). The court acquitted Houellebecq and though he has laid off Islam somewhat in recent years, references to the religion in his novels have rarely been positive or complimentary.

In advance of Soumission’s publication on the 7th of January, public personalities lined up to attack or defend the novelist –– the Canal+ presenter Ali Baddou, a self-declared secular Muslim, said on-air that reading the book ‘made me want to puke’, describing it as one that ‘accustoms the reader to anti-Muslim racism’; Laurent Joffrin, executive-editor of Libération, accused it of ‘anointing the ideas of the Front National and [far-right columnist] Éric Zemmour among the intellectual elite’. Nouveau philosophe Alain Finkielkraut, himself often accused of valorising anti-immigrant sentiment for the intelligentsia, weighed in behind Houellebecq, commenting that Soumission ‘depicts a future that is far from certain but plausible’. Writer Emmanuelle Carrère called it a ‘sublime’ novel and compared it to 1984 and Brave New World (however well-intentioned Carrère’s comments, the mention of such dystopias was hardly going to appease Houellebecq’s detractors). Meanwhile in the Élysée Palace, President François Hollande was more circumspect than most, saying that he would read the book since it had given rise to debate and he would wait till he had done so before commenting. In a number of interviews, including one broadcast on primetime news the eve of the book’s release, Houellebecq conducted his own defence, in his characteristically insouciant manner, rejecting the notion that Soumission would help Marine Le Pen (who professed to admire the book) adding that fiction has rarely, if ever, changed the world. He also denied that the Islam depicted in his novel was radical; it was, on the contrary, the ‘mildest form imaginable’ and Houellebecq went so far as to say that Islam wasn’t so bad, now that he had finally read the Koran.

All this became incidental when on the morning of the book’s publication, before even many shops selling it had opened their doors, Chérif and Saïd Kouachi forced their way into the offices of Charlie Hebdo in Paris’ 11th arrondissement and shot dead twelve people. Six of the dead were among the paper’s cartoonists, long targeted by Islamist groups for their recurrent publication of caricatures of the Prophet Mohammed. The attack, later followed by the addition of a third gunman acting alone, Amédy Coulibaly, sparked the biggest manhunt in recent French history, culminating two days later in two hostage sieges some thirty kilometres apart, ended almost simultaneously by anti-terrorist units. Soumission very quickly receded into the background. Hours after the Charlie Hebdo attack, Houellebecq’s publisher Flammarion announced he was suspending the promotional campaign for the novel and he was leaving Paris. As media attention turned to the hunt for the killers, Canal+ decided not to broadcast a pre-recorded interview with the writer programmed for that evening and you began to wonder if François Hollande would ever get round to reading Soumission. Sales of the book didn’t suffer –– an initial print run of 150,000 quickly sold out in days and another 100,000 were ordered –– but they too would be dwarfed by the several million copies of the ‘survivor’s issue’ of Charlie Hebdo for which French people queued in the early morning dark to buy. Overtaken by events, Houellebecq’s livre événement went back to being just another big-name new release.

The reason Houellebecq gave for his absconding was not fear of being targeted by Islamists (though that surely did prey on his mind) but distress at the death of his friend, the left-wing economist and contributor to Charlie Hebdo, Bernard Maris. In September last year, Maris published a monograph on the writer, entitled Houellebecq économiste , and one of the last pieces he wrote before he was killed was a review of Soumission, published in the issue of Charlie Hebdo that appeared the morning of the attack. The review is a classic piece of barely dissimulated literary boosterism, effusive in its praise –– ‘dythrambique’ even, a word Houellebecq is rather fond of using in Soumission –– the reviewer’s friend has written a ‘Houellebecquian masterpiece’, ‘yet another magnificent novel, yet another coup de maître’. Just as he was with other French media, Houellebecq was the big news in Charlie Hebdo that week, featuring on the cover, in a mocking cartoon portraying him as a fortune teller. The joke continued inside, with a sozzled ‘wizard Houellebecq’ giving his predictions for the 21st century: ‘In 2036 the Islamic State will make its entry into Europe…and DSK will join the disciples of Rael’; ‘In 2072, Malala will lead Boko Haram’; ‘In 2091, a diarrhoea epidemic will strike Thailand, 190,000 sex tourists will be reported missing, three of them French’; ‘In 2031, 2037, 2052, 2081, 2099, the Beaujolais nouveau will taste of bananas!’ It was an amusing but good-natured ribbing that its target later deemed ‘not bad’.

Though there were, other than his friendship with Bernard Maris, few explicit allegiances between Houellebecq and Charlie Hebdo, both were regularly accused of embodying leftist Islamophobia, along with, among others, the atheist philosopher Michel Onfray and feminist Caroline Fourest (herself a former Charlie contributor). Charlie Hebdo’s lampooning of Islam has always been more nuanced than the blanket charge of racism levelled at it in the wake of the attack by Anglophone commentators –– few of whom had either heard of it before or were able to read the language it was published in –– might lead you to believe. There was definitely a militant post-9/11 turn, similar to that of many English-speaking liberals, under the stewardship of former editor Philippe Val. Radical Islam became the greatest threat to the Western way of life, and particularly France’s vaunted laïcité, the secular ideology embedded in its public institutions. As debates over France’s headscarf ban in public schools raged in 2004 however, the field of suspicion appeared to be inexorably widened to any manifestation of Muslim piety. Still, much of the cartooning of the Prophet and of Islam in the magazine was in an irreverent but righteous vein of anti-clericalism that its creators, born into a ‘post-faith’ French Republic, clearly felt to be legitimate. Though undeniably blasphemous, few of the cartoons, which mainly skewered Islamic dogma and fundamentalist obscurantism, could be construed as anti-Muslim per se. But even if they often hit their satirical targets, there was also a messy overspill that mostly went unacknowledged by the magazine. Even a Muslim population as secularly inclined as France’s rankled at the mockery of their religion. That said, Muslim groups took the magazine to the courts for defamation (and lost) only once and, the 2011 firebombing of the offices and an Al-Qaeda death sentence on editor Charb (Stéphane Charbonnier) aside, few French Muslims went beyond indignant protest in their reaction (there were also, no doubt, many Muslims who did not feel put out by the mockery of a small-circulation paper that they never read).

Islam has featured only in passing in most of Houellebecq’s novels though his narratives have often looked askance at France’s Maghrebin and African communities –– the narrator of Lanzarote (2000) fantasises about a pretty young Arab girl he meets in a travel agency before dismissing the possibility of coupling with her unless ‘she could free herself from her stupid religion’. Bruno Djerzinsky, one of the twin brothers at the centre of Atomised (1998) spits racist bile about the black and Arab school kids he teaches. Platform (2001) begins, in an echo of Camus’ The Outsider, with the death of the narrator’s father, beaten to death by the brother of his Arab lover. The same novel ends in greater tragedy when the sex tourist resort in Thailand established by its protagonists Michel and Valérie is attacked by Islamist terrorists, killing hundreds, including Valérie. Many later praised the novel, published two months before September 11th, for its prescience in foretelling a clash between western hedonism and Islamic piety that resulted in the Bali bombing in October 2002 (I myself happened to be reading it that very weekend). But the real and fictional attacks had little in common. Bombing bars and night clubs was far from a recent phenomenon: the FLN, ETA, the IRA and Muammar Gaddafi’s Libya had all done it in the past simply because bars and clubs were soft targets. Neither did Osama bin Laden when claiming the attack make any reference to dissolute lifestyles; the motive for killing mainly Australian citizens was simply Australia’s part in the war on terror.

In more recent novels Islam and Muslims have barely featured. Their return in Soumission at first suggested that Houellebecq was actively rousing old controversies, perhaps to gain publicity (which he has certainly succeeded in doing). As if the novel’s scenario weren’t provocative enough, the title (‘submission’ in English) tilts things even further –– as well as being the literal meaning of ‘Islam’ it recalls the 2004 anti-Islam film of the same name by Theo van Gogh, assassinated by a Dutch Muslim soon after its release. The submission of the title refers not only to France’s accommodation of Islamic rule, but also the gradual submission of its narrator François –– as ever in a Houellebecq novel, middle-aged, alcoholic and depressive –– who converts to Islam, as much to give structure to his life as to retain his job in the now Islamic, Saudi-funded Sorbonne.

Houellebecq has admitted that the future depicted in the novel is an ‘accelerated’ one but that it is perfectly possible. The controversy surrounding Soumission has much to do with the fact that the notion of an Islamic takeover of western societies is such a staple of the Islamophobic far-right, particularly in France, where Éric Zemmour, author of last year’s bestselling chronicle of French declinism Le Suicide français, has called immigration ‘a demographic tsunami’ and another far-right author Renaud Camus says France is undergoing ‘le grand remplacement’ in which Islam, by way of immigration, will shunt the country’s Republican values, and European culture, off-stage. Houellebecq has in interviews dismissed these ideas, saying that the Islamisation of France is more likely to come from the inside, as society undergoes a ‘return of the religious’, where secular French people turn to Islam and conservative Catholicism makes an alliance with Islam and Evangelical Christianity. He cites Comte’s assertion that it is impossible for societies to survive without religion (Houellebecq has stated this before in interviews, as far back as 1998 and Michel, the libertine hero of Platform, spends his afternoons reading the works of the great Positivist). When put to him in an interview by Sylvain Bourmeau in The Paris Review that his hypothesis runs counter to the argument of the progressive secularisation of Islam advanced by Olivier Roy among others, Houellebecq shrugged it off, simply saying, ‘that is not what I have observed’.

While Houellebecq does subscribe to a certain view of French declinism –– one of his characters, a former intelligence agent, says the idea of French patriotism ‘was born in Valmy in 1792 and began to die in the trenches of Verdun in 1917’ –– Soumission is relatively sanguine about the implications of the onset of Islam. If anything, the election of the Muslim Brotherhood president Mohammed Ben Abbes rejuvenates the country and, by extension, Europe, reorienting its centre of gravity southwards, in a latter-day echo of the Roman Empire, as the countries of North Africa join the EU. It is Bat Ye’or’s ‘Eurasia’ come true but treated a lot more indulgently here. Ben Abbes’ accession to power is made possible by the support of the Socialist Party and the UMP, both of whom are ‘committed to abolishing France to benefit the European Union’. Other than the flight of nervous French Jews, including François’ student lover, there is nothing overly alarming. The Muslim Brotherhood quickly calms unrest in the banlieues that had marked a violent election campaign as far-right nationalists and salafists faced off against one another. The country’s unemployment rate is wiped out, not through any economic master plan but by way of a new social climate encouraging women to leave the workforce. The old Chestertonian ideology of Distributism is then rehabilitated by Ben Abbes, sparking a boom in small businesses among previously indigent communities. A France that was on its last legs after ten years of François Hollande is back up and running and has ‘recovered an optimism it hadn’t had since the end of the Trente glorieuses’ (more than one wag has commented that the most farfetched thing about the novel is not the election of an Islamist president but the notion that Hollande is returned for a second term in 2017).

The Socialist Party and the ‘progressive mummies’ of the 1968 generation are the big culprits for Ben Abbes’ rise to power and the ‘restoration of the patriarchy’ as François calls it –– ‘paralysed by its constituent anti-racism, the left had been since the beginning incapable of combatting or even mentioning [Ben Abbes].’ More concerned about keeping the EU together, the Socialists, in their election pact with Ben Abbes sacrifice the national education system, and consequently the creed of laïcité. The public school system is starved of funding and left to die, encouraging the rise of Islamic schools endowed with deep pockets thanks to Middle Eastern petrodollars.

Laïcité, enshrined in French law since 1904, maintains an almost obsessive separation of church and state throughout the hexagone (except in Alsace and Lorraine, which were German territories at the time of the law’s passing). In recent years it has been used as a stick to beat France’s Muslims with, such as the 2004 law banning the display of ‘ostentatious religious symbols’ (i.e. headscarves) in public schools and another in 2010 which outlawed the wearing of the full Islamic veil, the niqab (often erroneously called the ‘burka’ by many of those politicians who voted for the ban). Front National mayors have also used the secular Republican creed to force pork on Muslim children in school canteens even as other right wing municipalities defiantly violate it by placing nativity scenes in the lobbies of their town halls.

Though there is an undeniable hypocrisy to these particular instrumentalisations of the law, defenders of laïcité can reasonably point to the fact that it is accepted by even the most pious of French religious communities and that it has also been, however inadevertently, an effective bulwark against radical Islam in what is Europe’s largest Muslim population. Secularism is a reality rather than a desired goal among French Muslims –– a 2011 study by the marketing firm IFOP* showed that only 25% attended mosque for Friday prayers, less than 10% of Muslim women wore the veil and only 6% had done the hajj to Mecca, up from 4% in 1994. Various other studies have also borne this out. While religious observance has been rising slightly among the young, and French Muslim women are markedly more liberal than their male counterparts on social issues such as abortion, pre-marital sex and homosexuality, there is little evidence to suggest that France has an ‘Islam problem’ as certain demagogues contend. Jihadism has similarly failed to gain much of a foothold in France. While French police estimate at least 700 French citizens have departed to join ISIS in Syria, this is part of a broad international trend and the figure, proportional to size of population , is much lower than the number of Belgians, Danes or Swedes who have joined and about the same as the UK, which has a significantly smaller Muslim population. Violent radical Islamists like the Kouachi brothers, Amédy Coulibaly, Mohammed Merah, perpetrator of the 2012 Montaubon and Toulouse attacks, and Mehdi Nemmouche, who attacked the Jewish Museum in Brussels in May last year, are outliers, albeit dangerous ones. Their actions are also more likely to have been nurtured by a very real social exclusion experienced by France’s racial minorities, many of whom are Muslims, than by a rising wave of Islamism.

Still, despite being overwhelmingly ‘good Republicans’, French Muslims tend to be largely more socially conservative than society as a whole. It is this that prompted Houellebecq to tell Sylvain Bourmeau: ‘If a Muslim wants to vote, what’s he supposed to do? The truth is, he’s in an impossible situation. He has no representation whatsoever…For those reasons, it seems to me, a Muslim party makes a lot of sense.’ It is also true that in the 2011 Tunisian constitutive assembly election, the moderate Islamist party Ennahda polled better in northern France among Tunisian emigrants than it did in its leader Rachid Ghannouchi’s home town of El Hamma. But Ennahda, which was ousted by the secular Nidaa Tounes coalition in last year’s parliamentary elections, attempted few of the sweeping conservative reforms that Ben Abbes’ Muslim Brotherhood does in Houllebecq’s vision of the future. For the time being at least, France’s first Muslim president, should it ever come, is more likely to be in the mould of Idder Chaouch, the Franco-Kabyle Socialist presidential candidate who is the protagonist of Sabri Louatah’s four-volume Les Sauvages cycle, published between 2012 and 2014.

So in what way is Soumission ‘plausible’ as Houellebecq and his defenders have said? In an interview with the culture magazine Les Inrockuptibles upon the publication of Les Particules élémentaires (Atomised) in 1998, Houellebecq acknowledged the constraints of realism: “In a realist novel, the author’s freedom can only show itself fleetingly and must be used with extreme moderation. The novel itself is ultimately a fairly deterministic genre. You are very free when defining your characters but thereafter you can’t do whatever you want.” In this sense, the action of Soumission unfolds in a recognisable, quite non-sensational way. Houellebecq’s narrators, which, with the exception of the 2010 Prix Goncourt-winning The Map and the Territory, are invariably first person, often occupy a vantage point in the not too distant future, from which they sardonically survey the contemporary era and the years that follow. What is so frustrating however is that, for a novel that is so heavy on socio-historical theorising, there is little done to support or illustrate Houellebecq’s theory that secular French society would turn to religion en masse. It’s not the wildest supposition imaginable but it functions as a premiss for the novel that is blithely accepted and never interrogated throughout the book.

François, the hero of Soumission, is a lecturer in French literature at the University of Paris-III (La Sorbonne nouvelle), the main campus of which is located at Censier, beside the Grand Mosque of Paris. He is jaded by two decades of teaching and feels his intellectual career, as an authority on Huysmans, is going nowhere. A Houellebecquian hero to the smallest detail, he is estranged from his parents, lives a solitary life in Chinatown, subsisting on Indian ready-meals. He chain-smokes, drinks too much, sleeps with his female students, and when none are at hand, with hookers. He contributes to a journal of 19th-century literature and associates mainly with other specialists of the era (Houellebecq has said he greatly prefers Balzac, Stendhal, Flaubert and the Russians to most modernist fiction). Huysmans, the subject of François’ mammoth PhD thesis, remains an exemplar for him, and no doubt for Houellebecq too –– both were government functionaries and literary outsiders before being able to live off their writing. The conversion in later life of Huysmans to Catholicism presages that of the narrator, and François pays two visits to the Abbey of Saint-Martin de Ligugé, to where Huysmans (and later Paul Claudel) retreated. The long passages in which François discourses on Huysmans, and rediscovers his purpose in life amid the social upheaval around him, are improbably compelling, a reminder that Houellebecq, on the occasions he attempts it, is a fine literary critic. To non-French audiences however, who may know little of Huysmans other than his first novel À rebours (Against Nature), they could be hard-going.

Houellebecq’s dry narrative voice also leavens the book, such as when, after a TGV is announced as delayed, railway employees busy themselves deterring passengers from smoking on the platform rather than giving them information about the train. François Bayrou, the longtime nearly man of French politics, named as Ben Abbes’ prime minister, is a figure of fun, a ‘Hanswurst’ like the supporting player in old German pantomimes who mechanically repeats what his master says. If there is one thing that has rescued Houellebecq’s novels from being hotchpotches of clunky essayistic dialogue and serviceably mechanical prose (it was fitting he was accused of plagiarising Wikipedia entries in The Map and the Territory) it is the strength of this narrative voice. This in turn is bolstered by the fact that the narrators are, to all intents and purposes, Houellebecq himself –– only recently has he even bothered giving them names other than ‘Michel’. Few other writers’ personalities are coterminous with their narrators’ internal voices in the same way. Houellebecq is such a dominant personality now that he appears in films as thinly disguised versions of himself, such as Guillaume Nicloux’s The Kidnapping of Michel Houellebecq and Benoît Delépine and Gustave Kervern’s Near Death Experience. It is not for nothing that Philippe Harel, when playing the hero in his own film adaptation of Whatever in 1999, perfected Houellebecq’s idiosyncratic way of holding a cigarette (visible on the jacket photo on the back cover of Soumission). Whenever Houellebecq tries to produce work that cannot draw on this personality, such as in his dilettantish efforts at photography or his hapless foray into filmmaking when adapting his own novel The Impossibility of an Island in 2008, he falls sorely flat.

But the force of Houellebecq’s narrative voice cannot save Soumission from failure because, for all the humour and all its diegetic plausibility, the novel feels thrown together and forced. There is an overweening nominative determinism that is presumably intended to be clever but it ultimately renders its characters as ciphers –– ‘François’ recalls both France la patrie but also François I, who made a rapprochement with the Ottomans denounced in France and Europe; ‘Ben Abbes’ might be read as ‘son of the priests’, the embodiment of the return of religion while Robert Rediger, the ideologue who writes the best-selling Islamic proselytising manual shares his name with one of the French words for ‘write’. Such heavy-handedness is compounded by visits François makes to both Saint-Denis les Martel and Poitiers, scenes of famous victories by Charles Martel, the latter of which halted Islam’s northward march.

Houellebecq’s familiar pornographic interludes are particularly juvenile and pointless and there is the familiar whiff of misogyny too, something that has never been very sublimated in a Houellebecq novel. François cannot conceive of any woman he meets in terms other than her fuckability (or lack of it). Even an intellectual colleague like Marie-Françoise, a supposedly renowned Balzac specialist, is relegated to the role of silent housewife preparing dinner once her ex-intelligence services husband and François get together to talk about the serious business of what is to become of France after the election. The equanimity with which François (and Houellebecq) countenance the rolling back of women’s rights, including the rapid spread of polygamy among French men, has also raised hackles –– Italian philosopher and parliamentarian Michela Marzano told France Télévisions on the eve of the book’s publication that she found the ‘why not?’ attitude of the narration shocking.

Soumission is, along with The Impossibility of an Island, Houellebecq’s weakest novel though not without interest. He might be right in saying that the Islam portrayed in the novel is a mild strain but the civilisational change echoes the scaremongering of the far right, no matter how soberly it is framed. Secular French Muslims like Ali Baddou will in particular feel aggrieved by it, given it calls into question their own intentions as French citizens (not to mention the fact that it treats them as a faceless monolith). But in twenty years’ time, it will be a book that will be little more than a curiosity, no more so than Jean Rolin’s novel Les Événements, also published on the 7th of January and featuring a civil war between Islamists and far-left militias in a France of the near future. It is also unlikely to have any bearing on the 2017 presidential election, certainly not compared to the terrorist attack that took place on its day of publication.

Originally published by Berfrois.