MICHEL HOUELLEBECQ has incredible timing. His third novel, Plateforme, which centrally features a devastating Islamicist terror attack, was published a few days before September 11, 2001. Soumission (Submission), his sixth, in which a Muslim is improbably elected president of France, came out on January 7 of this year, the day of the Charlie Hebdo murders, which was also the day Charlie Hebdo itself paid sardonic homage to the author on its cover. And because his new novel is, among other things, a satirical vision of Islam-on-the-Seine, it became an immediate succès de scandale, selling out its initial print run in Francemuch as the subsequent issue of Charlie Hebdo sold millions. But there the similarities end, as the true target of Houellebecq’s barbs is not Muslim fundamentalism (as it was with Charlie’s alleged defiling of the Prophet) but the French establishment.
Soumission depicts a France of the near futuretwo presidential election cycles hence, in 2022in which the rise of the National Front and the pusillanimity of the Socialists have paved the way for a Muslim party to take over the countryand, perhaps more to the point, the Sorbonne. For education is at the very heart of the Fraternité musulmane’s plans for the future of France (and, eventually, Europe), since, as one of the characters explains, whoever controls the children controls the future. Details like the economy can be left to the coalition centrists; the Muslims only have eyes for the national education system. The centralized university network is quickly taken over, the Sorbonne becoming the world’s richest university thanks to boundless infusions of Saudi cash.
Education is also at the heart of Soumission, which is a campus novel in addition to being a dystopian polemic. Its protagonist, François, is a literature professor, a specialist of the late-nineteenth-century French writer Joris-Karl Huysmans, and a great deal of the book is taken up with commentaries on Huysmans’s career trajectory and quotations from his works. The epigraph is from the 1895 novel En route, in which Huysmans’s semiautobiographical character Durtal muses on his motivations for converting to Catholicism: He is attracted by the incense and liturgical trappings of the religion, while noting that prayer is not for him. This foreshows François’s own conversion to Islam at the end of Soumission, a move undertaken out of expedience rather than belief.
What is striking about Houellebecq’s novel is the extent to which the Islamization of France doesn’t change all that much about the unpleasant little world of its protagonist. Women are no longer allowed to teach in the newly Islamized Sorbonne, for instancebut then, François’s female colleagues were shadowy figures to begin with. An early passage depicts a woman at a reception trying vainly to take part in a conversation between two of her male colleagues; she ends up looking on with an expression of mixed irritation and indulgence as they ignore her attempts to participate. The pre-regime-change president of Paris III, the university where François teaches, is a bossy woman with a gray buzz cut and a background in gender studies, evidently a lesbian, though she is also rumored to enjoy sexually humiliating men. Her replacement is a smooth-talking Muslim convert whose most recent wife is a comely fifteen-year-old alarmed to be glimpsed wearing a Hello Kitty T-shirt at home when François arrives for a meeting. The new order can only be an improvement.
Instead of having to hit on their students, as had been the habit of François and the rest of his male counterparts, those who embrace the new regime are provided with multiple wives chosen from among the undergraduate population. Like most of Houellebecq’s works, this one is centrally concerned with the social and sexual unhappiness of its protagonist and those like him; the author loves to inveigh against what he sees as a sexual free-market economy largely brought about by the excesses of May ’68. A Muslim theocracy, it turns out, neatly takes care of these concerns. If François doesn’t mind converting to Islam in the end, though, it’s not just for the young wives on offer, but also because this version of Islam is a very Gallic one: At the Islamized Sorbonne reception he attends, there is ample wine served. François, who throughout the novel catalogues his impressive consumption of alcohol and tobacco, quickly downs six glasses.
For a polemical work that has caused an international uproar, Soumission contains a disconcerting amount of literary history. François, and presumably Houellebecq along with him, is intent on drawing parallels between himself and Huysmans, which at first glance seems odd. Huysmans remains best known for the 1884 novel À rebours, often cited as the bible of the Decadent movement and a great favorite of Oscar Wilde’s; it is the unnamed French book with yellow covers that inspires Dorian Gray. The hero of À rebours (variously translated as “Against Nature” or “Against the Grain”), Jean des Esseintes, based in part on the fatuous dandy Robert de Montesquiou, who also served as a model for Proust’s Baron de Charlus, is a dissipated, sexually ambiguous aristocrat who retreats into his own obsessively aestheticized world. Des Esseintes is a fop who collects real flowers that look fake and takes as a pet a tortoise, which he has gilded and encrusted with jewels.
Houellebecq’s characters, in contrast, like their increasingly ungroomed author, care nothing about their appearances or surroundings. The author of Soumission would therefore seem to represent the very opposite of Huysmans’s most famous character, and yet there is a certain perverse dandyism in Houellebecq’s insistence on incarnating the opposite of Bernard-Henri Lévy, the suavely self-satisfied philosopher-cum–public intellectual with whom he collaborated on a book of letters, Public Enemies, in 2008. As he notes there, his ultimate desire is to be appreciated not in spite of his flaws but for them. In the mid-nineteenth century, Charles Baudelaire inaugurated the tradition Houellebecq exemplifies when he (Baudelaire) wrote,“Ce qu’il y a d’enivrant dans le mauvais goût, c’est le plaisir aristocratique de déplaire”: “What is intoxicating about bad taste is the aristocratic pleasure of displeasing.” Baudelaire was another disheveled provocateur, at vociferous odds with his time and place. Here is how Houellebecq characterizes himself on the first page of Public Enemies (after telling Lévy that the only thing they have in common is that they’re both contemptible): “Nihilist, reactionary, cynical, racist, and shamefully misogynist: it would be too flattering to put me in the not very appealing category of right-wing anarchists; fundamentally, I’m just an asshole [beauf].”
Soumission, which would seem to confirm Houellebecq’s self-appraisal, is a strange book. It has been greeted with cries of outrage because of its apparent Islamophobia; the National Front leader Marine Le Pen didn’t do Houellebecq any favors when she hailed the novel as a measured response to political trends in France. (In Soumission, she is the candidate who loses the runoff election to one Mohammed Ben Abbes, who immediately imposes sharia law.) As a work of literature, Soumission is, like the rest of Houellebecq’s work, interesting but flawed. The writing tends to be flat, and the characters barely characters at all. If the novel includes a commentary on anti-Semitism it is only because François’s sometime girlfriend, the (now) twenty-two-year-old Myriam, is Jewish, and her family wants to leave for Israel out of fear of what will happen to French Jews after the election. Indeed, Myriam’s sole characteristics are her youth and physical attractiveness; her perfunctory Jewishness, which allows for said commentary on French anti-Semitism; and a talent for fellatio. She comes over to François’s apartment to give him a valedictory blow job, which provides the novel’s most lyrical descriptive passage, and then starts to cry because she doesn’t want to leave France. “I love France!” she sobs, adding, “I love, I don’t know . . . I love cheese!” François leaps up to offer her some of the three varieties of cheese he has in the fridge. He is sorry to see her leave, though it doesn’t occur to him until afterward that he might have persuaded her to stay.
Houellebecq’s saving grace is humor, but that only goes so far in what is, after all, not an essentially comical novel. (Houellebecq would be unreadable without the humor; perhaps he has missed his calling.) The male characters are merely mouthpieces for various points of view, often proffering extended lectures on current events, intercut only by narrative interjections along the lines of “I nodded, pouring myself another glass of the excellent Bordeaux.” The women are merely mouths. The attractive ones, that is; unattractive women are dismissed with extravagant disgust. At one point a female colleaguewhom François likesstarts to tell him about her husband, and he reacts with astonishment at the idea that “a man could, once, have felt desire for this short, stout, almost toad-like creature.” Houellebecq seems determined to offend, and at that he certainly succeeds.
Huysmans, too, managed to outrage and annoy his contemporaries. Houellebecq, who once notoriously declared that Islam was the stupidest religion, has been repeatedly taken to court for his anti-Islamic pronouncements. And yet, the uproar notwithstanding, Islamophobia is not really the point of Soumission. Instead, along with the rest of his work, it offers a lugubrious take on the decline of the West. In the January 7 issue of Charlie Hebdo, the last published drawing of Cabu, one of the cartoonists assassinated that day, features a dissipated Houellebecq, complete with wineglass and cigarette, sitting on the lap of Marine Le Pen, who announces, “Tu seras mon Malraux!”“You’ll be my Malraux”a reference to the author of Man’s Fate, who became de Gaulle’s minister of culture. Charlie Hebdo was, and still is, an equal-opportunity offender, offering savage satirical takedowns of everyone and everything, including all major religions and political parties, and it paid an unthinkable price for its transgressions. Cabu’s drawing confronted Houellebecq himself with an unpleasant taste of his own medicine, a view of a dystopian future in which he plays a degraded Malraux to Marine Le Pen’s fascist version of de Gaulle.
At least since Flaubert and Baudelaire were prosecuted by the Second Empire government in 1857, French writers have seen it as their duty to subvert commonly held beliefs and provoke their right-thinking contemporaries. Houellebecq has managed to enrage a public well versed in the idea that the proper function of art is to say what can’t be said. In that sense, Soumission hits its target. As a work of literature, however, it is less successful. The narrative’s shortcomings could be those of the restricted point of view of his hapless protagonist, but since the same may be said of Houellebecq’s other novels as well, the shortcomings belong to the author.
Submission, translated by Lorin Stein, will be published in the United States by Farrar, Straus and Giroux in October 2015.
Elisabeth Ladenson, a professor of French and comparative literature at Columbia University in New York, is the author of Dirt for Art’s Sake: Books on Trial from “Madame Bovary” to “Lolita” (2007).