In a near-future France, François, a middle-aged academic, is watching his life slowly dwindle to nothing. His sex drive is diminished, his parents are dead, and his lifelong obsession--the ideas and works of the novelist Joris-Karl Huysmans--has led him nowhere. In a late-capitalist society where consumerism has become the new religion, François is spiritually barren, but seeking to fill the vacuum of his existence. And he is not alone. As the 2022 Presidential election approaches, two candidates emerge as favorites: Marine Le Pen of the Front National, and Muhammed Ben Abbes of the nascent Muslim Fraternity. Forming a controversial alliance with the mainstream parties, Ben Abbes sweeps to power, and overnight the country is transformed. Islamic law comes into force: women are veiled, polygamy is encouraged and, for François, life is set on a new course.
Francois, the narrator, is a professor of literature at the Sorbonne, specialising in Huysmans, best known for Against the Grain, published in 1884, about the decadent life of the wealthy, aristocratic Des Esseintes, who was based partly on the infamous Robert de Montesquiou, who was also a model for Proust's Baron Charlus. Huysmans is a recurring theme in Submission. Francois compares the decadence of contemporary French society to the decadence of Huysmans' time, and the imposition of Islamic religion and culture to Huysmans eventually embracing the Catholic church. In order to keep his job at the Sorbonne, Francois would have to convert to Islam.
This is a comedy, but I gasped before I laughed. Francois is depressed and alienated, and cares for no-one. He is utterly neutral, taking no ethical stand whatsoever, guided only by his own self-interest, but his only interests are eating, drinking, smoking, sex and Huysmans. His colleagues are no better. French culture disappears as every man looks after himself.
Submission is a hugely entertaining and thought-provoking book. Read it.
The entirely reasonable Brotherhood only make one real demand - to reform the education system. All teachers must convert to Islam, and teaching to be undertaken under Islamic auspices. For Francois, Houllebecq's empty, purposeless and soulless academic narrator, this means the end of his teaching career, something that causes him no great upset, other than to cut off the supply of second year students as potential girlfriends / mistresses. Francois has spent most of his adult in contemplation of Huysmans, a minor 19th century writer. He is an expert on Huysmans, but on little else.
Francois is a perfect example of lonely, atomised, individualist, decadent Western culture. He is the symptom of what Houellebecq sees as the decline of Western civilisation. He has few relationships - his mother and father die without him seeming to notice, literally in the case of his mother. His dealings with women consist of either preying on star struck students, or making appointments with escorts, but he is jaded even with this
By contrasts, his colleagues who convert to Islam to retain their jobs, are rewarded with large pay increases, and the dubious charms of polygamy. For someone like Francois who, like his beloved Huysmans, is really only interested in women as whores or cooks, this all looks quite appealing and slowly he is drawn towards submission
You can't deny that the book is well written, at times pretty funny, and that some of the scenarios that he puts forward don't require too much suspension of disbelief. They are possible, if not probable or likely. And yet there is something ultimately unsatisfying about it. The idea that consumer culture and individualism have reached the end of their cultural cycle, and that people are being increasingly pulled to some form of belief, has some currency. But it seems to me that Houellebecq seemed to be suggesting that men will ultimately be happy with any system or form of belief, that facilitates their continuing domination of women. Indeed Francois himself suggests, early in the book, that historically weakening the primacy of the male has been a bad idea - an idea that has his girlfriend Myriam, stomping out of the house - and later, the Muslim convert who runs the University expresses the idea that you can't really change men, but you can teach women to believe in anything as they are more intellectually "supple"
Overall an interesting book, that I read in one session, with some provocative ideas, that I mostly disagree with and indeed find barren and disagreeable. But interesting
This wasn't the dystopia I had expected. Scandalous -- such was the domestic response to this alleged fragmentation grenade. Set a few years in the future, the
I've read one other book by Houllebecq, I can't remember which, and I didn't like it at all. I intended never to read another book by him. Then this one came out, and the premise was interesting. This was easy to read, although it is not a novel of plot or character development. I didn't find it compelling. I'm afraid Houellebecq identifies too much with characters like Francois.
2 1/2 stars
Bottom-line: Too bad Houellebecq seems to be more concerned about his decrepit cock and women's tits and pussies than everything else (namely good writing). Most people take him seriously, and read him in the first degree. But he is not only twisted, he is also highly perverse. He simply recognises and writes to prejudices that people will not speak out themselves. People who are considered intellectuals are afraid of not liking his work, 'ordinary' people do not buy his books. The novel's conceit is frankly implausible, and the leading character unusually cardboardy, even for Houellebecq. Plus, he seems to have lost his sense of humour. Frankly, I fear he's lost it, and it'd be surprising if he wasn't at his age, considering the amount of fags and booze he's reportedly got through. Houellebecq is beginning to share the fate of his distant cousin, Danny Houellebecq: that of being overrated by French philosophers desperate to revive a once proud intellectual tradition. It reminds me of the adulation accorded Jean Paul Sartre - who evidently lived on amphetamine for over 25 years and also did not feel responsible to anyone but his own "truth" a truth which changed at least 5 times during his career - one wonders why in France an author can get into such a position of intellectual power - what is going on with other people's critical facilities? Maybe because the working class are ruled by the baton, the middle class are ruled by culture, and the ruling class are ruled by the fear of being either of them. I think this is intellectual power as compensation for lack of self-responsibility. This man is a jumble of compulsions clumped together by others as "chic" and "challenging." In a nutshell, I don't know what he's frigging around with, neither here or there. But I guess I don't blame him, he's a bit worried. We are witnessing the death of art. Even the irreverent South Park has been silenced. It doesn't bode well either way. When so much of the arts, indeed so much of public life, is dominated by cowardly mediocrities, all congratulating each other for challenging the injustices and social conventions of the world as it was circa 1950, it is refreshing indeed to have a genuinely nutty writer such as Mr Houellebecq. I just wish Houellebecq would be able to write anything worthwhile! Saying he's got balls is not enough. On the other hand, I believe Houellebecq's true inspiration for this novel (my interpretation) is being overlooked in many reviews: he is staging the nightmare peddled by European far right movements. He does it openly, referencing people like Renaud Camus and Bat Ye'Or. The novel is about their nightmare becoming reality, like the "Turner Diaries" were about the far right US fantasy becoming real - and I think that some reviewers are illustrating that he aimed in the right direction. He does mercilessly attack the French elite, with one glaring exception: Marine Le Pen. He actually even says that she is "beautiful", which is indeed a sign of great admiration, for a man who goes out of his way to say as often as possible, in books and interviews, that any woman beyond the age of 22 is decrepit and sexually repulsive... Wot?
It definitely would help if I were French, since I'm sure that I am missing a lot. It might also help if I was European and/or raised Catholic. The characters speak with great respect of the wonders of the Medieval World, but it leaves me rather cold. It is difficult to reflect on the wonders of everyone being united in faith, when one overlooks the penalties for failing to participate in church, and the burning of heretics Some of my relatives spent a lot of time mourning "the good old days," and I took the dog for a lot of long walks when they got going. That is one of my problems with modern arts - I am not sufficiently angst-ridden, anxious, and alienated. Perhaps a better way to put that is to say that I am not delusional about the past. A woman was delivering a tedious lecture at a social gathering about how awful modern youth are, as compared to ourselves when we were their age. She works at a college and knows more about people that age than I do. Perhaps they are as awful as she says - but we were not as wonderful as she likes to think.
The first, and more boring part, is about François, a respected literature professor at the Sorbonne whose specialty is J. K. Huysman. He is boring, fussy, misogynistic, disinterested in public affairs, and obsessed with his unhappy sex life. His affairs never last more than an academic year. It's amazing to me that they have ever lasted as long as a month. (The sex gets quite graphic at times - it doesn't improve François or the book.) He is also very negative - he will have a good experience and them himself that it can never happen again. Neither he nor book are improved by details of his take-out dinners, and broken microwave, or his idiosyncratic declarations on things that he probably doesn't know a great deal about. Of course, I could imagine the self-centered François droning on about the trivia in his life as his listeners desperately attempt to change the subject or think of an excuse to leave.
There is a scene that is very poignant for François, but not this reader, in which he reflects sadly on all the people in Paris who live alone. Of course, he was just telling us a little while before that he could never live with someone in a one-bedroom apartment because it would kill all sexual desire. I would think that he and whoever he could get to move in, could rent two bedrooms on their combined salaries, but that would be risky for François, as I think that his lover would at some point run screaming for the door, leaving him with the rent.
In the hypothetical 2022 election, the National Front is expected to win, and gets a plurality, but is defeated when the Socialists combine with the Islamic party led by its charismatic leader, Ben Abbas. Ben Abbas has been calling for education that teaches values and plans a four-part educational system. The three Abrahamic religions will each get a system of parochial schools. Anyone else will be taught in poorly funded public schools, which will end when the pupils are twelve, at which time they will be encouraged to go to trade schools. Saudi Arabia is ready to pour huge sums of money into the Islamic schools.
François's university closes almost immediately until the next academic year, although salaries continue to be paid. François travels around France and comes back to find that the university will become Islamic, with only Muslim teachers, and his is offered a very generous pension to retire quietly, which he takes. He meets with a former member of the National Front, Rediger, who has converted to Islam, and is very impressed that he has two wives, a fifteen-year-old for sex, and a forty-year-old to cook. (Of course, a good Muslim man treats all of his wives equally, including sexually, so François may have a problem with that.) He will also be rehired at the university at triple his previous salary.
Polygyny, of course, means that some men can never marry, but Rediger thinks that such losers, presumably those people in the trades, shouldn't be breeding anyway. Since Ben Abbas is cutting back on social benefits in favor of relying on the warmth of the family, this could become difficult.
The book ends with François's touching meditations on his happy conversion, which gives him a second chance at life. However, since he is still François, I don't imagine that will last. I have known people, one of whom was aptly described as being like a dripping faucet, who always manage to find something to be miserable about, and whether its famine in the Sahel or new zoning laws in a city they don't even live in, everything is equally tragic.
I wonder how they are going to find enough Muslim girls for all the new converts - import them? What is François going to do when his fifteen-year-old ages out at, say, twenty-five. Is she going to study cooking intensively while he acquires a new child-bride? Rediger estimates that he can afford three wives, so since François is about forty-years-old and has previously announced that people over sixty have no interest in sex (they'd surprise him), maybe two teenage brides will suffice. If not, perhaps his older wives can have a cooking contest to sue who gets divorced.
I wonder what Houellebecq makes of his character. Of course, perhaps he is only setting up a thought experiment and the character isn't important.