Houellebecq's Submission

Adam Shatz reviews Michel Houellebecq's Soumission in the London Review of Books.

Soumission derives its name from the original meaning of the Arabic ‘al-Islam’ – voluntary submission, or surrender, to the will of God. In that sense, the novel is a faithful rendering of Islam’s meaning. François is under no compulsion to convert, other than the usual inducements of professional ambition and sex, the typical motors of the French novel. Ben Abbes’s arrival is greeted with relief, the war between theidentitaires and the jihadists is brought to an end, and Islamisation proceeds not so much by conquest as by persuasion. The national patrimony – the Sorbonne, the Paulhan hôtel particulier – now belongs to the Gulf sheikhdoms, and on campus the miniskirt has given way to the burqa, but otherwise France is unchanged. In fact it’s even a bit better off. As Houellebecq says, the entire novel unfolds in an ‘ambience of resignation’.
Is Houellebecq condemning the French for capitulating to Islam, or worse, accusing them of ‘collaboration’? His critics have pointed out that the structure of Soumissionresembles narratives about Vichy: a confused period of civil unrest; an exodus to the countryside; and accommodation to the new regime. But really, far from damning the French for embracing Ben Abbes, Houellebecq is suggesting that they could do much worse: indeed, that they are already doing much worse. And, as Houellebecq reminds us, ‘moderate Muslims are not Nazis.’
Perhaps this is all just a Swiftian stunt. Perhaps Houellebecq is saying that France has sunk so low that even Islam would be preferable to the state religion of laïcité. But I don’t think so. Soumission is too ambiguous to be read as satire – or, for that matter, as nightmare. There are strong indications, both in the novel and in interviews, that Houellebecq sees Islam as a solution, if not the solution, to the crisis of French civilisation. Yes, civilisation, that word evocative of the longue durée, religion, tradition, shared values and, not least, clashes with civilisational rivals. But the word is unavoidable. What has always made his writing so perverse is the way it jumps between microsociology and the aerial view of history. (His novels almost always take place at some point in the future, allowing the present to be depicted as a just vanished past.) Houellebecq has an unerring, Balzacian flair for detail, and his novels provide an acute, disenchanted anatomy of French middle-class life: TV dinners, petty intrigues at the workplace, tourism, sex. But since his characters are never more than sociological types, without much of an interior life, he needs to find another narrative for them: hence the role played by history. For Houellebecq, history is the story of the rise and fall of civilisations. The only lasting civilisations, as he sees it, rest on a solid foundation of shared religious values. Once those values disintegrate, a civilisation slides into inexorable decline, and becomes susceptible to what, in Atomised (1998), he called a ‘metaphysical mutation’, a sudden and decisive transformation of its values. These metaphysical mutations are the engine of history. Politics and economics – the stuff materialists get worked up about – are of secondary importance. (By any objective measure, France isn’t doing so badly: people work less and make more, and have a higher life expectancy than the OECD average. The ‘crisis’ of the French model is partly phantasmagorical.)

I'm reading this book now. It has some entertaining bits, some nice phrase assassines on French academia, politics and media. But generally it disappoints, mostly because of how much it repeats familiar themes and scenes. Once again there is the morose view of a culture corroded by individualism, materialism and humanism. Once again explicit, porn-like sex scenes meant to convey the opposite of intimacy. Houellebecq seems to have reached the point in his career where his style is becoming a pastiche of itself. As Shatz notes, "At the beginning of Soumission, Houellebecq says that while the style of a novel matters and ‘the musicality of phrases have their importance,’ ‘an author is above all a human being, present in his books.’ He is distressingly present in Soumission."

Because Soumission came out the day before the Charlie Hebdo attack (the magazine featured Houellebecq on its cover) it has been treated as not only relevant -- the author is certainly gifted at hitting on nerves -- but somehow prescient. But the scenario it unfolds is political science fiction. This is not a book about Islam or Muslims at all; it is a book about a decades-long French malaise and, as usual, about Michel Houellebecq himself. 

Ursula Lindsey

Ursula Lindsey is the managing editor of the Arabist blog. She writes about culture, education and politics in the Arab world. She lived in Cairo from 2002 to 2013 and got her start at the ground-breaking independent magazine Cairo Times. She was the culture editor of Cairo magazine in 2005-2006 and served as special projects editor at the independent news site Mada Masr in 2013-2014. She is the Chronicle of Higher Education's Middle East correspondent. She contributes to the BBC-PRI radio program The World, and has written for Newsweek, The New York Times, The New Yorker online, Bookforum and the blog of the London Review of Books.