Book Review: Michel Houellebecq – ‘Submission’

[*SPOILER WARNING* I will not protect you from spoilers at all here. I strongly recommend you read the book before reading this review.]

Book Review

Michel Houellebecq:

Submission

Oh god… where to start.

My reading of this book has been a long time coming. The work of Monsieur Houellebecq was first brought to my attention by the inclusion of his novel, Atomised, on a module I took during the second year of my bachelor’s degree in English entitled ‘The Ethics of Reading’. My lecturer at the time, a literary critic whose opinion I greatly respect, described Submission to the class as ‘possibly the next Nineteen Eighty-Four‘. High praise indeed, and a comparison that Wikipedia informs me was also made by French novelist, Emmanuel Carrère. The module was designed to test our ability to remain detached in analysing great pieces of fiction which broached difficult or uncomfortable subjects, often in that exquisite, skin-crawling manner that only skilfully crafted prose can induce. It included such disquieting works as American Psycho, Lolita, and Never Let Me Go. To tell the truth, I skipped reading Atomised at the time out of sheer laziness and have still not read it to this day, however after absorbing Submission over the course of the last week or so I certainly will make time for it and Houellebecq’s other novels. I can say unequivocally that it was an uncomfortable read… in a good way… I think.

Hilarious at times, portentous and eschatological at others, sarcastic and nihilistic in what I can only describe as a quintessentially French semantic concoction leaving a delicate aftertaste on the consciousness of the reader that takes a little time to properly appreciate, this book perfectly captures both the apathy soaked malaise of the modern European man and the multiplicitous ironies surrounding the downfall of European civilisation itself. In between the compulsive consumption of interchangeably fast and gourmet food, fine wine, and classy cigarettes, soulless sexual encounters with various prostitutes, and even more unfulfilling intellectual run-ins with the intelligentsia of France’s prestigious universities, our protagonist disinterestedly observes the changing face of European culture and politics as it is slowly but surely subsumed and assimilated by the infinitely more self-assured and inter-connected world of Islam.

Published in 2015 during the time of the European immigration crisis and rising racial, cultural, political and religious tensions in France and elsewhere, the novel plays with these themes in what I would describe as a cunningly understated manner. I suppose it could be described as part of a zeitgeist concerning clashing civilisations alongside such popular English texts as Douglas Murray’s non-fiction The Strange Death of Europe, and various French novels which I have not read but are listed on Submission‘s Wikipedia page as its cultural contemporaries such as La Mémoire de Clara by Patrick Besson, and Les Événements by Jean Rolin. I know, the depth of my research is staggering, isn’t it?

I describe the book’s themes as understated since François almost never questions the wide-scale events that are taking place around him. He is entirely focused on material pleasures, wallowing in the throes of his own terminal depression, and the decline of his intellectual pursuits, more or less taking it as a given that his native culture is being supplanted at every turn, hardly batting an eyelid when bombs go off or he is forced to step over a corpse in order to fill his car with gas, even when his Jewish girlfriend flees the country and he and all his female colleagues lose their jobs at the now ‘Islamic Paris-Sorbonne University’. In this way he mirrors the supine and pacific manner in which Europe as a whole within the novel bows down and accepts these imported changes without any meaningful sort of struggle or resistance. Paralysed by old grudges and fears, the existing geriatric political organisations flounder and tarry and fail to reach a consensus with right-wing nationalist outfits who hold the largest sway of votes, and the Islamic parties simply sweep the field.

Houellebecq has himself described the book in the following manner:

‘I can’t say that the book is a provocation — if that means saying things I consider fundamentally untrue just to get on people’s nerves. I condense an evolution that is, in my opinion, realistic.’

I include this so as not to risk misrepresenting the author’s intentions considering the subject matter is most contentious indeed and many would happily assume that he wrote the book in order to make political waves or to piss off the real world people off whom he wants pissed. I, however, believe that he is genuinely attempting to speculate on a potential future, and whatever arguments may be had about its predictive efficacy it would be unfair to suggest without proof that the novel’s vision of the future is a disingenuous or duplicitous one. With that said, it is also not my intention to evaluate his prediction, knowing fuck all as I do about the Franco-European political landscape. I will therefore be analysing it purely on its literary and/or polemic merits.

As a literary work, it is clear, concise, witty, and extremely morish – a page-turner indeed – as well as giving a culturally rich perspective of French academic life encompassing literary figures, influential artists, architectural styles and more. I am somewhat reminded by the casual and often very informal writing style of the sly comedy of Ian McEwan, or the matter-of-fact descriptions of the fantastical in Kurt Vonnegut’s less spacey novels. Houellebecq manages to entertain the reader even when describing the piteous deaths of the protagonist’s parents, his sordid and depressing sexual encounters, and his many dry academic discussions by a constant juxtaposition with the surreal political atmosphere which permeates the same environment. Whatever you may believe about the book’s prejudices, it seems to me that the quality of its writing is beyond reproach.

It is true that a seemingly very unfavourable picture is painted throughout the book of the Islamic religion and its effect on French society, however as many have pointed out the true target of the satire contained within seems to me to be the pathetic, desperate, weak, and capitulatory caricature of Western man presented to us in the characters of François and his academic acquaintances. Islam is portrayed mostly through the persona of politician, Muhammed Ben Abbes, who is consistently praised throughout the book by multiple characters for his political genius, his impressive ambition, and his genuine, heartfelt egalitarianism towards the existing structures of Europe. Islam within the novel is simply the conqueror by default. It is not at all that the Muslim world is an invading force, rather that the suicidal West, racked with the decline of Christianity and the ultimate failure of materialistic secularism, is asking to be dominated, literally begging for someone to whom it can offer its submission.

In one of the most obviously drastic changes to society that is portrayed within the book, all of François’ university colleagues are bribed and bought off incredibly easily into unquestioning acquiescence to the new regime by being supplied simply with Saudi oil money or with multiple young brides via arranged marriage. François himself converts in the final pages of the novel, returns to his teaching position, and instantly begins sizing up the female students to decide which one/s he will take as wives in his newfound life of purpose. This is a grotesque exaggeration, and nobody comes off well by it, but I would argue that the ultimate target of the joke (and I do think it’s used largely to comic effect within the novel) is the West, Europe, France, and the individuals therein whose lack of spine and moral conviction allows them to accept these terrible conditions without resistance.

If anything, Islam is portrayed as strong, purposeful, pragmatic, adaptive, and longevitous, although contrasted at times with the barbarism of suicide bombing attacks, child brides, polygamy, and the degradation of women, atheists, and homosexuals in general. These negative qualities, however, are always in the background. They are shown to be totally irrelevant to the much more concrete reality of political power-shifts, and this in large part is the source of the book’s ironic poignancy – whatever might be said about the two deeply flawed civilisations presented to us, Islam wins, and that’s all that matters. It is not put forward as a moral question, but a power game.

The work has been accused of intentional reductivism, however I would disagree. It is not a moral or ethical treatise after all, it is a relatively short novel that aims to entertain. Within this framework, it manages to be incredibly intellectually rich, referencing theories and arguments as far-reaching as Nietzschean philosophy, the fin de siècle, Christian theology, debates between nativism/nationalism, atheistic materialism, communism, and political Islam/Islamism, and by no means privileges any one perspective over another. It is a narrative exploration, not a guided tour.

Despite the controversial subject matter I thoroughly enjoyed the reading, I disagree with certain critics that it contains anything that can reasonably be described as hateful, and I will certainly be engaging with Michel Houellebecq’s other novels. I think I’ll Read Whatever next. I can’t resist that title as it promises another dose of that limp-dicked intellectual nihilism which proved so funny to me here.

Thank you for reading, and I am giving this novel a contextual score of 7/10.

Written – May 2020

Published – May 2020

Photo by David Rodrigo on Unsplash

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