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Is Michel Houellebecq's 'Submission' Really So Controversial?

His novel—published the day of the Charlie Hebdo attack—is finally available in English.

Lionel Bonaventure / AFP / Getty

As a public intellectual in France, if not as a novelist, Michel Houellebecq boasts all the qualifications of a successful provocateur: debated in the national dailies, denounced by the Prime Minister, even brought to trial, in 2002, after a mild remark in a magazine interview was accused of “inciting racial hatred.” It is of course difficult for us to imagine an American author commanding a comparable degree of influence over the popular imagination. But for one morning early this year his writing was at the center of a tragedy that was followed closely in news—and much debated—all around the world. On January 7th, Said and Cherif Kouachi marched into the offices of the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo and killed eleven people. On the cover of that day’s week’s issue was a caricature of Houellebecq—whose novel was to be published that day.

That new novel was Submission, which arrives in English at long last this month in translation by Lorin Stein, the editor of The Paris Review. Set in Paris in the year 2022, its narrator and hero François is, a 44-year-old professor of literature at the Sorbonne Nouvelle and the country's foremost expert in the study of 19th-century novelist Joris-Karl Huysmans. He has few friends, little money, and only a “damp, cold, utterly cheerless room” in the Sixth Arrondissement to his name. François whiles away middle age writing articles for the venerable Journal of Nineteenth-Century Studies and indulging in the decidedly less academic reveries of YouPorn. The latter is about all he can manage these days, sexually. “My erections were rare and less dependable,” he laments, “and required bodies that were firm, supple, and flawless.” Most real women won’t do.

François is a typical Houellebecqian male: isolated, cerebral and sometimes loathsome. But the book has aroused controversy not for this disagreeable lout but for the quasi-dystopian future Houellebecq has furnished around him. In the novel a “Muslim Brotherhood”, an Islamic political party founded in response to the election of a leftist president in 2017, has narrowly won the national elections after forming a coalition with a “broad republican front” consisting of the Socialists and center-right powers. Once installed, the Muslim Brotherhood swiftly fashions France in the image of something like post-revolutionary Iran: women are obligated by law to wear veils, co-education is abolished, polygamy is legalized. The welfare budget is reduced by 85 percent. Public education is all but totally defunded. And in keeping with the deference implied by the title, hardly anyone in France seems to mind that it’s happening.

There are a number of advantages to an Islamic state, Houellebecq concedes. To begin with, families in which women retreat from the workforce to the home receive a subsidy, which restores a sort of antiquated order to family life that many conservative voters find appealing. The mass retirement of women creates millions of job vacancies overnight, virtually eliminating unemployment, which in turn lowers the crime rate nationwide. These gains are enjoyed at the expense of certain personal freedoms, true—in particular the freedoms of women. But François is happy to accept the compromise. For him the most distinctive feature of life under an Islamic regime is sartorial: no more tight pants or short skirts. “The contemplation of women’s asses,” he considers gravely, “had also become impossible.”

Scarcely, by the way, do our narrator’s thoughts rise much above this level: “With her broad shoulders, her gray crew cut, and her courses in ‘gender studies’, Chantal Delouze… had always struck me as a dyed-in-the-wool lesbian.” “Conversation between men… not quite buggery, or duel, but something in between.” “I got a hard-on, too, sitting in front of my twenty-seven inch iMac, and all was well.” “It was the first time, in all the ten years I’d known her, that I realized… that once upon a time a man had felt desire for this squat, stumpy, almost froglike little thing.” One can hardly make it through a page without occasion to groan. 

The broader effects of the new Islamic state on women, meanwhile, are to our hero’s liking. “I’ve never really been convinced,” François explains to a female colleague, “that it was a good idea for women to get the vote, study the same things as men, go into the same professions, etcetera.” The Muslim Brotherhood agrees. Houellebecq, one would like to think, does not. François himself is as much the presumptive target of the novel’s satirical assault as the strictures of radical Islam or the docility of public opinion; he’s the same breed of predatory intellectual male skewered in Franzen’s Purity, to take the most recent of a great many examples. His thoughts on such subjects as lesbians and “vaginal dryness” invite a rolled eye rather than a yawp of moral outrage.

Despite the lifestyle adjustments thrust upon François, very little actually happens in his life. And thus very little happens in Submission. There are the elections, passively observed, and the social changes briskly implemented once the Muslim Brotherhood comes to power, but neither command a good deal of real estate. The narrative arc for François, such as it is, begins with indifference (he is steadfastly apolitical) and concludes with shrugging acceptance (when Islam comes he doesn’t resist). He mainly passes the time drinking fine wines, eating rich food, and listening impatiently as male colleagues hold forth on various intellectual issues. His 22-year-old Jewish girlfriend, Myriam, at one point abandons France for Israel, fearing prejudice. Later in the novel his father passes away. Both events are dispatched coolly in not much more than a page. 

No less hastily drawn is Houellebecq’s speculative conceit. There’s nothing in this grand political vision to get upset over—or excited about. Submission seems to imagine a future in which the word of Islam governs France, weakening its hard-won liberty while strengthening its traditional moral character. But we have only the vaguest sense of the consequences. The country’s women, one gathers, adopt the new limitations without complaint: how do they feel about any of this—about the veil, or about no longer working, or about being assigned to be one of a man’s many wives? The only glimpse we’re afforded is through François’s incurious eyes: “Under an Islamic regime,” he observes of two happy young consorts, “women—at least the ones pretty enough to attract a husband—were able to remain children nearly their entire lives.”

François, mind you, isn’t exactly an authority on the subject of Islam. “To be honest,” he admits, “it wasn’t a religion I knew much about.” This revelation arrives on page 199 of 246—and he doesn’t learn much more after that. This, one wonders, is what provoked such widespread furor and indignation? This paltry disquisition on the subject of male narcissism? It’s amazing that anyone could be bothered. (It should be pointed out that no one, besides a few reviewers receiving advance copies, had actually had a chance to read the novel yet when the Charlie Hebdo offices were attacked.) François, plainly, is interested more in debasing his female students than in the mechanics of the Muslim faith. He ultimately converts to Islam, when he is promised three agreeable brides, vetted and arranged by the university. The questions posed by France’s submission to Islamic rule—however plausible one finds that scenario—are quite worthy of thought. Unfortunately Houellebecq is more interested in François than in the epoch he finds himself so intriguingly swept up in.