Some thoughts on the NY Times Notable French Novel of the Year by Stuart Krusee

Even before the events of Friday, Nov 13, and the declarations of state of emergency and war cast the suspicion that a large portion of France’s population were potential terrorists, ‘Submission’ was a special book. Strangers -invariably men- seeing it read in a café would smile and engage you in conversation. One could almost believe, chez Houellebecq, in a culture that had for so long privileged the book, the novel rather than twitter or television was still the essential medium by which our reality is communicated. It needs to be added though, the ‘essential medium’ in its fully assumed decadence and auto-derision. « France’s most famous writer », Michel Houellebecq over the last twenty years has managed to impose himself on the media landscape. Ubiquitous, even in his physical absence - he lived for years as a tax exile in Ireland, and later in Spain- his assumed role is that of a ‘provocateur’, simultaneously condemning the modern world while hailing science-fiction as the 20th century’s only major art form, and presenting his physical body’s decrepitude as both a living spectacle and evidence for his age’s degradation. In an age in which even minor newspaper columnists show their smiling photo before their words, Houellebecq has created a persona for the screen, ‘the image of the writer as drunk cynic’, also called ‘Michel Houellebecq’, a persona whom he masochistically presents as misanthropic and pathetic, a hip and despicable cartoon caricature of himself. On television fans vie to complete his unfinished sentences while noting the migration of sores on his emaciated face, his missing teeth observable though the unsmiling slurred sibylline sentence fragments. Houellebecq has gone to the point of putting his persona in a novel where he is gratuitously tortured and assassinated. More recently, he played himself in a film in which, during a book tour, he is kidnapped, beaten, held for ransom, caressed, and fêted. Thus in a manner similar to Serge Gainsbourg, or, closer to home, Woody Allen or Phillip Roth, Houellebecq has created a personage who is both a mouth-piece for and a caricature of the author’s world-view. A character incapable - too pathetic, too undisciplined - to have created the oeuvre although he incarnates the author’s world-view. Need it be stressed Houellebecq is a slippery character?

In his latest novel, Submission, Houellebecq takes a different tactic. The style is sober, uniform, and the events as narrated, oddly uneventful. Oddly, because the novel recounts an historical world-altering event occurring only ten years in the future, not an environmental or military catastrophe, but nothing less than the beginning restoration of the Roman Empire’s Geographical boarders under an Islamic-Socialist government.

Submission is less a novel of ideas than it is a nouvelle of an idea. The hero is yet another Houellebecqian lonely guy, a misanthropic stand-in for the author, though in a minor key; a type of Everyman, named François. Specifically he is an updated version of Camus’ Stranger. Only now Meursault happens to be a full professor at the Sorbonne, a specialist in the decadent Catholic fin de siècle writer Karl-Joris Huysmans, thus a curator of Classical French culture, going about his miserable daily life without significant attachments. Like a successful sex story (aka pornography; which, not coincidentally, plays a large part in these pages), the plot merely dissolves at the end of its ineluctable unfolding. The only tension is the temporary threat of tension during the political uncertainty in the beginning, which quickly dissipates with the new political order installed at the end. In-between, descriptions of our recognizably mediocre everyday world and ennui are hung like ornaments on this narrative tree, with only a slight fictional ‘décalage’ allowed by 10 more years of decline.

Whereas the great traditional novel put into play multiple subjectivities free - more or less - of one’s domination of another, ‘Submission’ has only one fully depicted character, and only one subjectivity. As for ideas, although it fits in the genre of ‘novel of ideas, this ‘subjectivity’, expressed in diary entrees in a generic professional language, rather than a personal voice, doesn’t engage ideas so much as it refuses them. So despite a number of odd ideas floated, lighted mused-over, some of them resurrected from non-Marxist 19th century social theories, they quickly disappear in the rise of the hero’s passive social ascension and complacency, leaving for the novel’s sole arching idea summed up by the novel’s title.

The question left hanging by this po-faced, if jaundiced, narrative is: how ironic is it? And at whose expense? Houellebecq’s art is the mixing of ironical and direct statements, some movingly banal and others outrageous, without giving the reader cues as to how to separate them. Better: neither the author nor his protagonists hesitate to mix large existential statements that elevate bathos as profundity. To take an example amongst many, what are we to make of the hero’s assertion concerning his latest jewish-student girlfriend: « As for her blowjobs, I’d never encountered anything like them. She approached each one as if it were her first, and would be her last. Any single one of them would have been enough to justify a man’s existence » Fair enough, even if in his story he neglects her, and after she immigrates to Israel, this life’s justification is then left hanging. It is a justification of a man’s life, which religion, notably Christianity, in a later chapter fails to give the narrator. But how are we to situate this cocktail of existential irony and bathos? Is it a joke, and if so what kind? At whose expense is it? And what if it is not a joke?

In Houellebecq’s novels there are so many such non-jokes that his modus operandi can be said to lie in making it difficult for the reader to separate irony from an over-earnestly harangue. Yet it is necessary to try, because Houellebecq, neither in his own name nor through his characters’ embittered world-view, is a stranger to diatribes. That he often chooses to present them in novel-form, rather than directly as pamphlets or Facebook screeds, automatically relativizes their message, making them seem ‘ironical’. This is a strategy of confusion typical of Houellebecq: he takes ideas he genuinely holds, often passionately, that he has published in polemical interventions, and places them in the context of a novel which makes them auto-derisive, ridiculous and earnestly all encompassing. This might seem to make his work and thought another ‘blague’ in the French tradition, like those of Duchamp, Jarry, and others at the birth of modernism. Alas, Houellebecq is not a provocateur engaged in provocation as an ‘art for art’, like the rIght-wing libertarian anarchist Serge Gainsbourg, who for three decades managed to infuriate the Right, something Houellebecq has yet to do. Yet, as his public pronouncements make clear Houellebecq’s provocations desire to effect a political change in the world. With such an agenda, the arching-narrative in Submission of a coming Islamic-Leftist domination of France is the opposite of innocent. This is particularly apparent as neither the Houellebecqian novel, nor the Houellebecqian man can be considered successful aesthetic creations standing on their own as works of ‘art’ (not a failing, they aren’t meant to be examined aesthetically). Neither can they be considered as political, engagé works, in the traditional sense. Although there are frequent denunciations of the established Left and Right, this does not mean that Houellebecq is apolitical. Rather that his novel is a type of arm imagining a ‘post-political’ world, in which there is a complete resolution, personally and socially, for both its hero and for society. If ‘Politics’ is damned it is because it belongs to the past, with its discredited notions of ‘parliamentary democracy’, that is: differing interests, parties, each with their ‘special interests’, which they fight for or make compromises to achieve. The entire comedy of life embodied in the misery of competition that the Houellebecqian hero will have none of, but regards passively with the disdain of a dandy, observes it all and despising.

Luckily for our hero, he needn’t assert himself: he can passively witness his social assent, based on an unpublished doctoral thesis written twenty years earlier, once the new régime kicks in. This odd absence in Submission of conflict between the hero and the world he despises is not incidental to the story. There might be the threat of a civil war and rumors of a bloody mass conflict, but it is quietly muted and off-stage. Normalcy quickly returns. Even if François has to step over a dead body at a gas station to fill his pump during his flight from Paris, none of it risks affecting the lonely hero’s life, or the novel’s story. He might lose his Jewish student girlfriend when her family flees to Israel, but little percolates to touch him, or enjoin him in any struggle. Relieved of his job at the newly Islamized-Sorbonne, François is simply awarded a generous pension, and he becomes bored. At the novel’s end, re-united with his profession and content with his social ascension, the moral is clear: only once politics are over -after the tug and pull with other’s wills have finished- can our hero’s ‘new life’ begin. Only when the dissensions of ‘politics’ have ceased and he be effortlessly rewarded by society, can our hero begin to feel ‘love’.

How ironical is this? On the level of realism Submission asks to be taken fairly seriously, with its finely woven, vaguely plausible political machinations meticulously thought out - how the parties position themselves in relation to the others, which events could tilt the electoral tables, etc. There are, however, some very odd omissions. As in a paranoiac’s endlessly connecting visions, where a thousand little details fit almost seamlessly, uncannily together- if only a small omission is allowed to pass which only happens to be the size of the Pacific Ocean. In Houellebecq’s dystopic story, there is more than one such omission. When the university, one day to the next, simply excludes women from their teaching positions, the narrator notes blandly, as always, that although there was some ‘teeth-gnashing’ ‘on the left’, they quickly got over it once the economic lift-off caused by women’s exclusion from the workforce kicked in, and the women appreciated the generous stay-at-home welfare plan. No fight, no protests; people, women, patriots, leftists, simply get over it. This problem solved, the flat language of Houellebecq’s ‘realism’ continues on its way.

If this is ironic, the irony is rigged. As Houellebecq ‘ironically’ exposes the Left’s fundamentally craven impotence, or exposes women’s real desire to be at home (points he has made innumerable times in his public pronouncements), he carefully merges them with wish-fulfillment. In a better world, for example, where society’s tensions could be resolved by putting women in their place, in veils, out of the work-force.

The details of this Islamic-Leftist take-over of France are, for a realistic novel, even more provocative, not to say absurd, particularly in light of the recent election. French political life the past 30 years has been dominated by a continuing rightward sweep. Over the frontiers between the extreme (some might say Fascist) Right and the traditional conservative Right of de Gaulle, has been suspended a heavily traveled footbridge, while the decadent Left has merely rushed to occupy the space recently abandoned by the Right. Following the evidence of this slope, it would be not difficult to imagine France in ten years run by ultra-right nationalists, with perhaps a Catholic twist, for traditions’ sake. In Houellebecq’s vision, against this actual slope, the happy winner is a Muslim party that doesn’t even presently exist, an event no more likely in France than it would be in the USA. But why entertain this ‘caprice’? What does this vision of the near future do for the reader, even in it relativized in a novel? Are we to take this new political order as a threat, an irony, a promise ?

This non-conflictual view of French behavior and history, ironical or not, is not only radically implausible, it is also extraordinarily familiar. The narrator and novelist wholeheartedly accept the worst of collaborationist caricatures of the French: that they are innately weak, complacent, German soldier champagne serving (in Submission, Saudi serving) ‘Surrender Monkeys’, without honor or conviction. If the Nazis occupy their country, or if the Saudis turn the Sorbonne into a Madrasa, so long as they are allowed their private ‘jouissances’, the French will be content, the novel insinuates. If the government tells women to go home and wear veils, in this novel the people will shrug and obey. The French are just like this. The people want a master. What can one do? This old story, recounted by Pétain and supported by the Nazis, blamed the republic and parliamentary democracy with its ‘factions’ , rather than the failure of authoritarian Generals for the German victory. Clearly, Pétain implied, France had got what it deserved. This is the story that has been the one warmed-over by Le Pen and the French Right these past thirty years. Eerily, Houellebecq recounts the same myth of France’s impotence with the same result for the 21st century, in his bland and matter-of-fact way Only now France is invaded and subdued by the stronger, more masculine force of Islam which is no outside, but is already within her boarders.

Non-native readers, submerged by the exoticism of the many named public figures presiding over the political machinations, risk missing many of the overtones. The naming of so many contemporary public figures might appear as a type of ‘branding’ in political fiction, as it is in consumer fiction, as simply a mark merely denoting ‘realism’. But its import is not cosmetic but reaches directly back to the far-right literature of the 1930s and 40s. For in the literature of denunciation it is essential that public figures be exposed, named, and shamed for their hateful compromises, real or imagined; these traitorous beings shown for what they truly are. This ethic of denunciation is undiluted in Houellebecq, with the only irony added that the ‘politicians’ are named and denounced are not done so for actions that have already occurred in their actual political career, but for assertions of fictional base actions said to occur in the future. (The name of François Hollande, given two ‘calamitous’ terms, will be easily recognizable to foreigners; but that it is François Bayrou, an innocuous figure from France’s sticks, famous for overcoming a speech impediment and forever claiming to represent the political ‘center’ in his own imagination, who accepts the position of token prime minister facilitating the new Islamic state, will go over the heads of non-natives). The importance of this name-dropping is in the desire for political vengeance, a tradition shared with the 1930s extreme right, and its targets are those figures implicated in parliamentary compromises. This is not quite satire, but a form of denunciation of real people based on humiliations they are imputed to be willing to make in a fictional future, and it is essential to the novel’s damning moral center.

There has been a long and noble traditional of French conservatism that seeks France’s solace in its rootedness in the soil, its castes, in its identity as ‘the oldest daughter of the Church’. France’s abandonment of Catholic and aristocratic values in the face of modernity and Laïcité are seen as the reason for its decline. Houellebecq in his private life and public opinions refuses this form of conservatism. The option in Submission though is examined. François fleeing the political instability in Paris, follows in the footsteps of his idol, Huysmans, to visit the ancient and impressive monastery at the site where the ‘Muslims’ were ‘defeated’ by Charlemagne’s nephew Roland, in 778 AD, thereby saving Christianity in France for a millennium. (Irony, encore.) Wasted effort for François. Despite the highly competent and attractive monks there lies a problem at the heart of Christianity for Houellebecq: its desire to change the ‘inner man’, particularly the mandate to ‘love thy neighbor’. Neither Houellebecq nor his hero have the desire or wish to love. Above all else, they want their inner-self left untouched. François leaves the Monastery running. Within Islam, on the other hand, Houellebecq’s hero will find it cares nothing for the ‘inner-man’, only for social conformism. Buttressed by a single citation of Khomeini, Islam’s superiority is asserted for leaving the inner-man unmolested, with all his vices intact which is a program the hero can adhere to.

In François’ failed conversion flight there is an undramatic, yet curious, psychological moment. On a train, he observes with interest an over-burdened middle-aged businessman texting, one of the new Muslim executives who now run the country, and his two young veiled teenage-wives reading gossip magazines. He observes their infantile behavior with fascination. Ignoring the obvious example of the harried and pre-occupied Muslim executive, François envies them and marvels that it is ‘Islam’ which allows them to spend their entire lives in such perpetual childish state : François wishes to be a young Muslim wife. It is at precisely this moment, after the failure in the monastery, that François’s gravitation toward conversion begins.

The crucial conversion scene in this novel, or nouvelle, of ideas follows with intellectual seduction between the new head of the Islamic Sorbonne and François. A former right-wing nativist himself converted to Islam, he explains the reasons behind his intellectual journey, while flouting his worldly success to the blasé but intrigued former professor. François only needs to ‘convert’ in order to get his position back. After stumbling into a flustered unveiled newest wife in the hallway of the rector’s private mansion, ‘who had just turned 15’ (blandly insinuating in passing that Islam is also a legalized excuse for pedophilia), and after being flattered by having his dusty 20 year old thesis pulled out and admired, they drink a glass of ‘Meursault wine’ in the very ‘hôtel particulière’ in which the famous novel of masochist submission, ‘The Story of O’ , was written. The abounding ironies and logic of the conversion are best left to the reader to discover. Let us point out though, that this is not a world in which Catholic or conservative values are honored, while other political values that were popular in the 1930s and 40s are: a tabula rasa of morality, contempt for social forms and democratic government, a liberated sexuality at the service of power, and a hierarchy of force are seen as indicative of the world’s natural order. Nietzsche’s name is bandied about by the rector, and he flatteringly compares François’ thesis favorably with ‘The Birth of Tragedy, while making a snide remark about the absurdity of ‘left-wing Nietzscheism.’

How to explain Houellebecq’s success? In part it is owing to the peculiarly compelling quality of his prose. In contrast to his idiosyncratic media persona, his style calmly and seemingly ‘objectively’ reports the world, rather than questioning it. In the endless sea of published prose, where one navigates amidst so many personalized and poetic positions, Houellebecq’s style leans toward impersonal descriptions of the social and materially abject world we see daily. It seems to be a precise and impersonal description of our fallen world, as ‘it is’, if our banal life were stripped of any concern we might have for it. It was unsurprising that Houellebecq, in a previous novel, was discovered to have simply cut and pasted certain place-descriptions from Wikipedia.

I had an insight into Houllebecq’s force as a writer returning from work on November 13, in the afternoon before the assassinations. Attempting to enter the metro, a row of soldiers in camouflage and armed with machine guns were blocking the entrance. (Wouldn’t grey suits would work better in a gray city as camouflage, I thought, but didn’t offer my opinion.) All pedestrians were being turned back; the Gare de Lyon was in the process of being evacuated Everyone, myself included, shuffled silently along the decaying formally modern now dilapidated corridors, thinking how best to go his or her own way, by bus? Another metro? Transfer where? Walk? No one asked questions, nor did anyone look at one another. Later on hearing of the assassinations, I assumed the events were connected but I couldn’t find a trace in the papers. It is this type of scene that is captured perfectly in Submission: amidst the banality of quotidian sordidness, an anonymous and drab ambience of horror that is both spectacular and accepted in silence, passively. With only a couple of obscene and cynical sexual fantasies added to this decor of commuting, crumbing infrastructure, I would not have doubted I was walking in the pages of Houellebecq’s novel: that he is describing a reality.

Of course Houellebecq’s ‘reality’ is voided of human affection, hope for the future, identification with other people, or genuine politics that might include the recognition of another’s will or point of view. Stripped of anything but mechanical love - as always, chez Houellebecq, pornography hovers over the prose like a guardian angel - what is left is the external horror seen in the dandy’s passive fascination and self-pity: his imagination sucked dry, believing in nothing, he can watch himself being washed along with cynical and perverse pleasure. Submission is a message in the form of a novel that is part prosecution witness to the debasement of contemporary life, part cry not to be helped, and part program for a neo-fascist ‘post-political’ social renewal, which he both yearns for and fills him with disgust. Although too intelligent, or cynical, to accept society’s values or believe they have any meaning in themselves, the Houellebecqian hero perversely accepts society’s capacity to define him negatively, statistically: by age, income, race, class. Lamenting himself and detesting the world, he refuses to create or search for alternative values to live by. Houellebecq is justly famous for his profound sympathy for the ‘little man’, the losers in society, invariably white men (‘de souche’), who sense themselves being uprooted in their own country by so many things. But fight? Never. His heroes’ clutch onto their 'misérabilisme' as a rattle. Luckily for François in Submission, his refusal to contest society is rewarded by an effortless social ascension, which he can enjoy with all the cynical passivity of soft pornography. That Houellebecq’s ideas and public proclamations often seem the embodiment of Nietzsche’s ‘Man of Resentment’, and his public persona that of a degenerate clown, doesn’t mean he isn’t a clown bearing an urgent message for us- a message he delivers…ironically.

Did I mention that Submission, unlike Camus’ rather tiresome moralistic tales, is an extraordinarily funny novel? I couldn’t help breaking into a mad jaundiced laugher every few pages. The question remains though: funny at whose expense, exactly? Enjoy.