One of Europe’s preeminent literary enfant terribles is back in force with Submission (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), sowing discomfort among readers across the political spectrum with this satire projecting the rise of Muslim political power in France. The novel is now inextricably linked with the Charlie Hedbo shootings that took place on the day of its release as the magazine cover displayed Michel Houellebecq as Nostradamus, but Submission is less a roadmap to a possible Islamist future than it is a critique of Western secular humanism. Ably translated by the editor in chief of The Paris Review, Lorin Stein, it sets a scene of oddly sedate political turmoil and proceeds almost casually to skewer the values of the French Republic.
As French national elections approach, a stalemate has developed between the Socialists and the Muslim Brotherhood, with the Le Pen National Front outstripping both in the polls. Violent skirmishes take place on the streets between the far right supporters of Le Pen and young Muslim immigrants, and yet life amidst the intellectual class of the narrator and his peers at the Sorbonne continues almost undisturbed; even the media hardly seems to report on the frequent riots. Professor François, an expert in the literature of J.K. Huysmans, watches the election coverage over a frozen dinner more as a matter of entertainment than of conviction. While his university colleagues are more invested, François himself drifts from one day and semester to the next, the chief variants in his life being idle departmental gossip, the choice of a new kind of microwaved meal, and the trading of one undergraduate lover for another.
The most recent, an attractive young Jewish woman named Myriam whose blow jobs are described in lavish detail, is prodded by the election results to decamp for Israel. Her departure and the simultaneous closure of the university leave François more adrift than ever. As run-off elections are scheduled and the Socialist party makes alliance overtures to the charismatic Muslim Brotherhood leader Ben Abbes, he leaves Paris and its intensifying clashes for the ominous calm of France’s Southwest region, where rumblings of a possible civil war are quieter. There, François meets a colleague and her husband, who has worked in French intelligence and sees the signs of a deep realignment on the horizon, one that has ousted him from the department.
Meanwhile his wife Marie-Françoise, a cultured woman whom François dismisses as lacking sex appeal, is retiring as well. She expects a Socialist-Muslim Brotherhood coalition to bring the educational system under Muslim control and render the presence of female faculty unwelcome. Nevertheless things seem to have quieted down, and François makes a tour of the region’s highlights as Ben Abbes is elected to take over the country’s leadership.
On returning to Paris, François finds that broad changes have already been instituted. Muslim countries in North Africa are approached to join the EU and domestically, policy shifts to favor the nuclear family above all. Women dress more conservatively on the street, and more risqué clothing stores have shuttered. Flush with an infusion of Gulf state cash, the Sorbonne has become an Islamic university, with non-Muslim teachers shunted into early retirement. Conversion is rewarded with generous salaries and young wives from the student body.
François also finds a notice of his mother’s death awaiting him in the mail, a common theme for Houellebecq and one that here serves to accentuate the lack of cohesion in family and intimate life under the old order at large and in François’s life in particular. Keenly feeling the loss of Myriam and lacking the structure of classes or research, François takes advantage of the city’s still-thriving escort businesses but finds little pleasure in the services of the lithe young women who attempt to entertain him. Overcome with a deep sense of purposelessness, François makes a pilgrimage to Ligugé Abbey, the monastery where Huysmans took his vows. The site of his doctoral studies in the past, its prayer offices fail to bring him the meaning he is searching for, and he leaves soon after arrival.
In Paris again, he is suddenly brought into the inner circles of the Sorbonne’s new power structures by an invitation to edit a prestigious Pleiades edition of Huysmans as well as an offer to consider converting and rejoining the faculty. Courted by the university president with a full display of the worldly comforts offered by the regime--excellent wine, young wives, tasteful surroundings – François surrenders to the inevitable with a deep feeling of relief. Even the new restricted role for women is welcomed; a conservative at heart, Houellebecq mistrusts the sexual revolution and what he sees as an attendant breakdown in traditional gender roles. Obsessed with the attractions of young women’s bodies, he sees his male characters as unable to escape from their desires, and in need of a productive outlet for them.
It is not only polygamy’s promise of abundant sex that appeals to François; it is also, surprisingly, the possibility of forming a lasting, loving bond, which has hitherto escaped him. Like the decadent character at the center of Huysmans’ A rebours, François is ready to flee from a life of empty debauchery; like Huysmans himself, religious conversion without a related sacrifice of all worldly pleasures is the answer. It is only the religion at issue that has changed. More than a scare-mongering screed warning of a coming Muslim invasion of Europe, Houellebecq’s thorny, hard-to-decipher novel warns of the dangers of modernism, untethered as it is to a larger belief system.
As befits a book set in the highest echelon of France’s intellectual class, the critique pulls on past political and philosophical ideas of the role of the state for an analysis that underneath its inflammatory premise has more positive to say about a possible Muslim theocracy than it does about the current state of affairs. Houellebecq prods and antagonizes the reader with the novel’s extremely sexist judgments on women in specific, but in the end one feels the author believes that the immediate surrender of François’s kind to a foreign belief system is the best that could be expected of a nation with, as he sees it, such a rootless, sensual culture. Or perhaps not: the book constantly seems to be laughing at us and our politically correct intentions, defying the reader’s ability to know where things stand.
Michel Houellebecq is a French novelist, poet, and literary critic. His novels include the international bestseller The Elementary Particles and The Map and the Territory, which won the 2010 Prix Goncourt. He lives in France.
Lorin Stein is the editor in chief of The Paris Review.
Nora Rawn works in publishing and lives in Brooklyn.