25 November, 2015Issue 29.3FictionLiterary CriticismLiterature

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Boredom and Paradise: Houellebecq’s Submission

Oliver Neto






Michel Houellebecq
William Heinemann, 2015
256 pages
ISBN: 978-1785150241

Michel Houellebecq’s latest novel, Submission, imagines a scenario in which a Muslim political party forms a government in France and proceeds to reshape the country’s society and culture. It was first published in French (as Soumission) on 7 January 2015. On the same day, Islamist gunmen burst into the offices of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo and murdered twelve people, including Houellebecq’s friend Bernard Maris. The front cover of that week’s issue of the publication featured a gruesome caricature of Houellebecq proclaiming that in 2022—the year in which Submission is set—he will observe Ramadan.

Sometimes the arrangement of bare facts can evoke what Submission’s jaded narrator-protagonist François calls, in a rare moment of conviction, “the uncanny power of literature.” Before we even begin to read Houellebecq’s novel, the events surrounding its publication have already supplemented its content; they constitute an eerie foreword, an intrusion of the real into the novel’s symbolic terrain. One troubling consequence has been the interpretation of Submission’s improbable premise as a prophecy by the political right; Marine Le Pen, for example, called it “a fiction that could one day become reality”. Since the release of Lorin Stein’s English translation in September, the response in the Anglophone press has largely focused on the extent to which its dystopian content can be called Islamophobic, and whether its author was “irresponsible” to write it. However, far from attempting to offer a realistic projection of the future, Houellebecq’s novel is concerned with the strange indistinction between reality and its representation. An indistinction that was generated, in exaggerated form, by the gruesome context of its own publication. If the novel has a definite political target at all, it is those politicians, opinion formers and (in the case of its narrator) academics who take this indistinction too seriously.

As with many of Houellebecq’s protagonists, François is the lonely, misogynistic, middle-aged son of divorced parents. He is also a literature professor, specialising in the work of the French Decadent writer Joris-Karl Huysmans. The career that François has forged through the study of Huysmans’ work has trapped him in a “boring, predictable life”. Nevertheless, he justifies this monotonous life from the novel’s opening chapter, by comparing it to Huysmans’ own. At the same time, the very presentation of this novelistic identification between Houellebecq’s narrator and the subject of his academic career proves to be unstable. François’s central claim during his paen to Huysmans, that “[t]o love a book is to love its author”, conjures up an image of Houellebecq’s public persona that might in fact suggest the exact opposite. Only a reader capable of feeling “love” for a “[n]ihilist, reactionary, cynic, racist, shameless misogynist”, as Houellebecq once described himself, can trust François’ judgment. This mischievous metatextual operation disturbs the comfortable mode of identification that has sustained François since his days as a young doctoral student: the authority he accords to literature and what he considers to be its ability to “put you in touch with another human spirit, as a whole”. From the opening pages of the novel, it is clear that the protagonist’s idle bovarysme and, by extension, our own, are to be a target for Houellebecq’s particular brand of sardonic scrutiny.

François is almost perversely in thrall to aspects of life that are mediated or enhanced. Firsthand experiences leave him indifferent. When he stops off at an empty service station and finds the cashier murdered, he casually helps himself to a sandwich and a Michelin guide. When an academic function is suspended, as gunfire erupts around the corner, he feels strangely unaffected, somehow “convinced the fighting would go no farther than the boulevard de Clichy”. Death and rioting flicker in François’s peripheral vision. Microwavable meals, on the other hand, open up a profound metaphysical dimension for him: their “colourful, happy packaging” encourages a “sense of participating in a collective experience, disappointing but egalitarian”. As historic events rage outside, the ready meal enhances François’s enjoyment of the filtered spectacle provided by the media. Having missed a major political debate because “I was fucked. Or rather, my microwave was fucked”, the professor goes to great lengths to ensure that he has a generous selection of takeaway food ready on election night. François’s proclivity for ready meals is a comical indicator of the extent to which his most intense experiences are supplementary. They mediate or enhance other experiences that do not necessarily involve him in and of themselves, to the extent that he is”fucked” without them.

Houellebecq’s prose, whose sharpness is preserved in Stein’s translation, is characteristically terse. He elaborates François’s fragmentary thoughts through the paratactic accretion of apparently unrelated details: “Certain phrases of Huysmans about the Middle Ages floated vaguely through my mind. This Armagnac was absolutely delicious. I was about to answer Tanneur when I realized I couldn’t express a coherent thought.” Often, Houellebecq makes a virtue of François’s incoherence. As his smooth right-wing colleague Lempereur holds forth on the French fin-de-siècle, François grows bored and commits a satirical faux-pas: “‘You’re what,’ I asked, ‘Catholic? Fascist? A little bit of both?’ It just popped out. I was out of practice with intellectuals of the right – I didn’t know how to behave.” In essence, though, François’s flashes of disengaged brilliance proceed from his thoroughgoing cynicism, an attitude that pervades much of the novel. Through his faltering intellect and ethical ambivalence, he is presented as a symbol for the general attitude of “free-floating doubt”, upon which the Muslim candidate Mohamed Ben Abbes capitalises during his election campaign.

This is where Submission perhaps differs from Houellebecq’s previous works, in the scope of its social criticism and the depth of its cynicism. “The search for meaning has returned”, the author has declared, “people aren’t content to live without God”; and Submission has in fact been read, in Mark Lilla’s article in the New York Review of Books, as a “dystopian conversion tale”. Yet the novel itself is a kind of conversion, one that was prompted by its author’s failure to write a conversion tale. Houellebecq had originally intended to write Submission as La Conversion, a comparatively straightforward story in which François was to adopt Catholicism in the manner of Huysmans. He failed. Instead, the protagonist abdicates from what Houellebecq calls “the search for meaning” in a typically bathetic scene. Although, during a visit to the statue of the Virgin of Rocamadour, he does in fact experience something like a religious reverie, which he quickly puts down to hypoglycaemia. When he returns the next day on a full stomach, he is unable to repeat the experience: “The virgin waited in the shadows, calm and timeless […] but little by little I felt myself losing touch, I felt her moving away from me in space and across the centuries while I sat there in my pew, shrivelled and puny.” He eventually gets up, slinks off down the stairs and drives back to Paris.

Upon returning to the statue of the Virgin at Rocamadour, François cannot repeat his own experience, let alone Huysmans’s original conversion. This is consistent with his tendency to return to people, places and objects that he has previously considered insignificant, in a series of fruitless efforts to renew his interest in life. After ending his relationship with Myriam, he goes on a disappointing date with his former girlfriend Aurélie, finding that with her bitterness and his disgust at her ageing body, “it seemed tactless, almost unthinkable, to talk about the old days”. He then repeats the experience with another ex-partner, Sandra, before returning to Myriam (twice). His failures to convert the past into a vindication of the present result in the same tedium that he feels when reading the novels Huysmans wrote after his conversion: “In the absence of any real emotional identification, what an atheist slowly comes to feel when confronted with Durtal’s spiritual adventures […] is, unfortunately, boredom.”

“There is a very profound kind of boredom”, T. S. Eliot once remarked, “which is an essential moment in the religious life, the boredom with all living insofar as it has no religious meaning.” The argument that eventually sways François is one that offers to free him from the burden of searching for meaning. According to Rediger, the cynical new director of the university where he works, the Koran “starts with the idea, the basic idea of all poetry, that sound and sense can be made one, and so can speak the world”. Rather than actually taking the trouble to learn Arabic so as to read it, François has only to learn its “rhythms, rhymes, refrains, assonance”. The novel’s dream-like closing section, a kind of anti-narrative in which François indulges a series of brief, disconnected fantasies about how his “new life” will pan out after his conversion, comes to an abrupt end with his ambiguous conclusion: “I would have nothing to mourn.” His ‘submission’ to Islam is as much an act of resignation as one of conversion.

François’s conversion to Islam substitutes itself for and enhances his initial attempt to justify his existence through Catholicism. More broadly, Submission’s hysterical conception of an Islamic French state is a thematic and formal supplement for its own failure to imagine a realistic solution for its chronically bored protagonist. Although Houellebecq’s declaration that “the search for meaning has returned” suggests that his latest novel might attempt to pursue it, Submission ditches this search in favour of a dystopian fantasy of a society in which it is no longer relevant. Therein lies its pessimism and, perhaps, the urgent nature of the political and philosophical concerns that it raises.

Oliver Neto is a PhD candidate at the University of Bristol.