Tuesday, January 03, 2017

Michel Houellebecq’s ‘Submission’

"Dar al-Islam, or house/abode of Submission, is also known and referred to as Dar al-Salam, or house/abode of Peace. The term appears in the Quran in 10.25 and 6.127 as a name of Paradise."
... from Wikipedia.

Amazon link

I particularly liked Karl Ove Knausgård's NYT review of 2015.
"Before I begin this review, I have to make a small confession. I have never read Michel Houellebecq’s books. This is odd, I concede, since Houellebecq is considered a great contemporary author, and one cannot be said to be keeping abreast of contemporary literature without reading his work.

His books have been recommended to me ever since 1998, most often “The Elementary Particles,” by one friend in particular, who says the same thing every time I see him. You have to read “The Elementary Particles,” he tells me, it’s awesome, the best book I’ve ever read. Several times I’ve been on the verge of heeding his advice, plucking “The Elementary Particles” from its place on my shelf and considering it for a while, though always returning it unread.

The resistance to starting a book by Houellebecq is too great. I’m not entirely sure where it comes from, though I do have a suspicion, because the same thing goes for the films of Lars von Trier: When “Antichrist” came out I couldn’t bring myself to see it, neither in the cinema nor at home on the DVD I eventually bought, which remains in its box unwatched. They’re simply too good.

What prevents me from reading Houellebecq and watching von Trier is a kind of envy — not that I begrudge them success, but by reading the books and watching the films I would be reminded of how excellent a work of art can be, and of how far beneath that level my own work is. Such a reminder, which can be crushing, is something I shield myself from by ignoring Houellebecq’s books and von Trier’s films.

That may sound strange, and yet it can hardly be unusual. If you’re a carpenter, for instance, and you keep hearing about the amazing work of another carpenter, you’re not necessarily going to seek it out, because what would be the good of having it confirmed that there is a level of excellence to which you may never aspire? Better to close your eyes and carry on with your own work, pretending the master carpenter doesn’t exist."
The book, which is quite short, works on two levels. The first person narrator is a jaded literary academic, burnt out and rootless.
"François is in his mid-40s, a professor at the Sorbonne, he lives alone, eats microwave dinners in front of the TV in the evenings, his romantic relationships are fleeting, a year at most, usually with one of his female students.

As the narrative commences, in the spring of 2022, he resumes a sexually intense, albeit uncommitted relationship to a student called Myriam. Everything he does is tinged with a pessimism that escalates when Myriam leaves him and moves to Israel, and first his mother, then his father, die shortly afterward.

He has no friends, no interests apart from 19th-century French literature, he browses porn on the Internet, visits a few prostitutes, at one point he says he’s nearing suicide, elsewhere he notes that suddenly, during the night, he was overwhelmed by unexpected, uncontrollable tears.

Presented thus, as a detached list of facts, it seems apparent we are dealing with loneliness, lovelessness, the meaningless void.
But events, dear boy, events.
"During a reception given by a journal of 19th-century literature to which François regularly contributes, shots and explosions are suddenly heard in the streets outside, and when later he walks through the city he sees the Place de Clichy in flames, a wreckage of burned-out cars, the skeleton of a bus, but not a single human being, no sound other than a screaming siren.

No one knows what’s going to happen, whether all-out civil war will erupt or not. And yet in François’s circles weakness prevails, and if this is meant to be satirical, a depiction of a class of people helplessly enclosed within its own bubble, without the faintest idea what’s going on outside or why, a bit like the aristocracy before the revolution, ... "
It's the 2022 Presidential election, and momentous changes are afoot.
"The election is won by a Muslim party with which the left collaborates in order to keep the National Front from power, and France as a result becomes a Muslim state. But maybe that isn’t so bad? Maybe it doesn’t matter that much? Aren’t people just people, regardless of what they believe in, and of how they choose to organize their societies?

It is these questions that the novel leads up to, since this entire seamless revolution is seen through the eyes of François, a man who believes in nothing and who consequently is bound by nothing other than himself and his own needs."
"Submission" has become notorious for several reasons.
"As is now well known, “Submission” was first published on the same day as the attack on the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, in which 12 innocent people were killed.

Houellebecq himself was featured on the magazine’s front page that week, and since he had once said in an interview that Islam was the stupidest of religions, and since Islam supposedly played such a prominent role in his latest book, his name immediately became associated with the massacre.

The French prime minister announced that France was not Michel Houellebecq, was not a country of intolerance and hatred. Houellebecq was held up as a symbol of everything France was not, a symbol, indeed, of everything undesirable, and this in a situation in which human beings had been killed — one of Houellebecq’s own friends among them, we later learned — so that it soon became impossible not to think of him and the killings together.

He was, by virtue of having written a novel, connected with the murders, and this was affirmed by the highest level of authority."
Truly against stupidity there is no defence. In fact Houellebecq had modified his views on Islam, following a detailed reading of the Koran. "Submission" contains a well-argued defence of Islam against soulless neoliberalism. The novel is satirical - everything in it salted with irony.

People complain about the sex scenes - François is addicted to fine food, wine and sex - and descriptions of each are detailed and unrestrained. Still, we know it when we see it, apparently, and this is not it. Best to comprehend a detailed, non-judgemental, analytic study of middle-class anomie and resist bowdlerisation. It's still not a novel one would care to read aloud to one's wife or servants.

I still remember the old debates: do you have to be a Marxist, or an anti-Marxist, to write objectively about Marxism? Or Buddhism, or Catholicism?

Does only the famed Martian Anthropologist not speak to an ideology encompassing this or that vested interest group?

Neoliberal reviewers (step up London Review of Books) frame the novel through their "isms". It's not hard to deploy the usual labels: reactionary, misogynistic, patriarchal, 'Islamophobic'. If you can put the bubble to one side (I know it can be hard) then Michel Houellebecq chronicles the clash between a too-repressed human nature and the bloodless imperatives of a decadent euro-ideology.

Oops! Serious there for a minute.
"Indeed, “Submission” is, in long stretches, a comic novel, a comedy, its protagonist François teetering always on the brink of caricature, his thoughts and dialogue often witty, as for instance in this passage, where Myriam, his young mistress, asks if he is bothered by her just having referred to him as macho: “ ‘I don’t know, I guess I must be kind of macho. I’ve never really been convinced that it was a good idea for women to get the vote, study the same things as men, go into the same professions, et cetera. I mean, we’re used to it now — but was it really a good idea?’

Her eyes narrowed in surprise. For a few seconds she actually seemed to be thinking it over, and suddenly I was, too, for a moment. Then I realized I had no answer, to this question or any other.”
All quotes from Karl Ove Knausgård's excellent review.

You may be interested in this follow-up post.

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