“France is not Michel Houellebecq . . . it’s not intolerance, hatred, fear.” So declared French prime minister Michael Valls before the publication of Houellebecq’s latest novel Submission. No doubt Valls, like many others on learning of the book’s subject matter, assumed it was going to be a caustically Islamophobic read.
Submission imagines a France of the near future under Islamic rule, following the election of a Muslim president, backed by the Socialists in order to keep Marine Le Pen’s National Front out of power. Incredibly, the novel was published in France on the same day in January that Islamic extremists launched a murderous attack on the offices of Charlie Hebdo in the heart of Paris. This apparent coincidence, like the prime minister’s denunciatory comment, underscored what has long been apparent: in terms of relevance, prescience, divisiveness, and his uncanny knack for writing himself into the eye of the storm, Houellebecq is simply peerless as a contemporary novelist.
This is not the first time controversy has flared up between Houellebecq and Islam. Platform, his fourth novel, almost earned him a fatwa. Ending with a horrific jihadi attack on a beach resort frequented by western tourists, that novel was published just a few days before September 11th, 2001. Later atrocities at Bali and Tunisia could have been lifted straight from its pages.
Admittedly, Houellebecq did not have much good to say about Islam. “Muslims on the whole aren’t up to much,” muses its narrator, Michel. By the end, embittered and alone in Bangkok, he feels “a quiver of enthusiasm” every time he hears of a Palestinian child or pregnant woman being gunned down in the Gaza Strip, gratified “at the thought of one less Muslim”.
Houellebecq has never been one to take the obvious ideological angle, however, and the provocation in his new book assumes a surprising form. Far from envisioning a brutal, Islamic State-style caliphate swarming across France, Submission suggests that yielding to the rule of Islam, with its reassuring social and sexual hierarchies, might be a good option for an otherwise terminal Europe. Atheist materialism and the harshness of the sexual free market offer only sorrow and lack of meaning, whereas political Islam delivers purpose, stability, truckloads of Saudi and Qatari money, multiple wives for the men, and lives of fulfilling submission for the women. What’s not to love?
From the first page of Submission we are unmistakably on planet Houellebecq. We have the casually sweeping reference to “the remaining western social democracies”, the bold sociological observations, the insistence on exhaustion and decline (“I realised that part of my life, probably the best part, was behind me”).
Francois is an academic in early middle age, an expert on Joris-Karl Huysmans, author of the unnerving decadent novel Á rebours. He teaches at the Sorbonne, and his life is comfortable but empty. Sceptical about love, he engages in a series of low-energy, year-long affairs with his students, stirred from listlessness by their short skirts and nubile bodies. Alcoholic and a smoker, he observes with melancholy the declining frequency of his erections, and notes the similar despair of his female counterparts at the university (“the sagging of her flesh . . . condemned her to a lasting solitude”).
In other words, Francois is the emblematic Houellebecqian male. On the brink of a “stupefying and radical solitude”, he can conceive of nothing better in life than sex, but does not believe that it can ever make him happy. “In the end,” he says, “all I had was my cock.” He describes himself as “almost completely lacking in spiritual fibre”. Though he is close to suicide, even that act is contemplated not out of any passion or agony, but “simply from the degradation of the set of functions that resist death”.
Francois is bored by politics. The rise of the far right livens things up a little, bringing to the debates “a long-lost frisson of fascism”. But it is only when tensions between the National Front and the Muslim Brotherhood, with its shrewd and moderate leader, Mohammed Ben Abbes, bring France to the brink of civil war, that Francois fears “political history” might impinge on his life, adding discomfort on his “waiting to die”.
Ben Abbes is elected president. The changes effected by his new Islamic regime are swift, but far from catastrophic. Nonetheless, with his position in the university under threat and danger in the air, Francois goes to ground for a while in the southwestern countryside.
In an extract from an interview for The Paris Review Houellebecq explains what led him to write a book that has already created a scandal in France, even before its publication.
Why did you do it?
For several reasons, I’d say. First of all, I think, it’s my job, though I don’t care for that word. I noticed some big changes when I moved back to France, though these changes are not specifically French, but rather Western.
Is this a satirical novel?
No. Maybe a small part of the book satirizes political journalists—politicians a little bit, too, to be honest. But the main characters are not satirical.
Where did you get the idea for a presidential election, in 2022, that came down to Marine Le Pen and the leader of a Muslim party?
Well, Marine Le Pen strikes me as a realistic candidate for 2022—even for 2017 … The Muslim party is more … That’s the heart of the matter, really. I tried to put myself in the place of a Muslim.
You could also say that what really interests those people is going to Syria, rather than converting.
I disagree. I think there is a real need for God and that the return of religion is not a slogan but a reality, and that it is very much on the rise.
That hypothesis is central to the book, but we know that it has been discredited for many years by numerous researchers, who have shown that we are actually witnessing a progressive secularization of Islam, and that violence and radicalism should be understood as the death throes of Islamism.
This is not what I have observed, although in North and South America, Islam has benefited less than the evangelicals. This is not a French phenomenon, it’s almost global. I don’t know about Asia, but the case of Africa is interesting because there you have the two great religious powers on the rise—evangelical Christianity and Islam. I remain in many ways a Comtean, and I don’t believe that a society can survive without religion.
But why did you decide to tell these things in such a dramatically exaggerated way when even you acknowledge that the idea of a Muslim president in 2022 is unrealistic?
That must be my mass market side, my “thriller” side.
But doesn’t your book pander to the politics of fear?
Yes, perhaps. Yes, the book has a scary side. I use scare tactics.
You don’t think it will help reinforce the image of France that I just described, in which Islam hangs overhead like the sword of Damocles, like the most frightening thing of all?
In any case, that’s pretty much all the media talks about, they couldn’t talk about it more. It would be impossible to talk about it more than they already do, so my book won’t have any effect.
You remark in your novel that French intellectuals tend to avoid feeling any responsibility, but have you asked yourself about your own responsibilities as a writer?
But I am not an intellectual. I don’t take sides, I defend no regime. I deny all responsibility, I claim utter irresponsibility—except when I discuss literature in my novels, then I am engaged as a literary critic. But essays are what change the world.
Islamophobia serves as a screen for a kind of racism that can no longer be expressed because it’s against the law.
I think that’s just false. I don’t agree.
You rely on another dubious dichotomy, the opposition between anti-Semitism and racism, when actually we can point to many moments in history when those two things have gone hand in hand.
I think anti-Semitism has nothing to do with racism. I’ve spent time trying to understand anti-Semitism, as it happens. One’s first impulse is to connect it with racism. But what kind of racism is it when a person can’t say whether somebody is Jewish or not Jewish, because the difference can’t be seen? Racism is more elementary than that, it’s a different skin color …
No, because cultural racism has been with us for a long time.
But now you’re asking words to mean something they don’t. Racism is simply when you don’t like somebody because he belongs to another race, because he hasn’t got the same color skin that you do, or the same features, et cetera. You can’t stretch the word to give it some higher meaning.
But since, from a biological point of view, “races” don’t exist, racism is necessarily cultural.
But racism exists, apparently, all around us. Obviously it has existed from the moment when races first began mixing … Be honest, Sylvain! You know very well that a racist is someone who doesn’t like somebody else because he has black skin or because he has an Arab face. That’s what racism is.
In Soumission, isn’t there a conspiracy theory—the idea that a “great replacement,” to use the words of Renaud Camus, is underway, that Muslims are seizing power?
I don’t know much about this “grand replacement” theory, but I gather it has to do with race. Whereas in my book, there is no mention of immigration. That’s not the subject.
It’s not necessarily racial, it can be religious. In this case, your book describes the replacement of the Catholic religion by Islam.
No. My book describes the destruction of the philosophy handed down by the Enlightenment, which no longer makes sense to anyone, or to very few people. Catholicism, by contrast, is doing rather well. I would maintain that an alliance between Catholics and Muslims is possible. We’ve seen it happen before, it could happen again.
Why did you choose to set your novel in the world of academia? Because it embodies the Enlightenment?
Is it all right to say I don’t know? Because really, I don’t think I do. The truth is that I wanted there to be a long subplot dealing with Huysmans, that’s where I got the idea of making my character an academic.
In writing this book did you feel you were a Cassandra, a prophet of doom?
You can’t really describe this book as a pessimistic prediction. At the end of the day, things don’t go all that badly, really.
What is the place of humor in this book?
There are comic characters here and there. I would guess that it’s about the same as usual, really, with the same number of ridiculous characters.
We haven’t spoken much about women. Once again you will attract criticism on that front.
Certainly a feminist is not likely to love this book. But I can’t do anything about that.
This book is not meant as a provocation?
I accelerate history, but no, 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.
Translated from French by Lorin Stein.