By RACHEL DONADIO
OCT. 12, 2015
PARIS — Michel Houellebecq was seated with his legs crossed in a chair in his publishers’ office here, chain-smoking and flicking away criticism that his latest novel, “Submission,” is Islamophobic, or at least critical of Islam. “I really couldn’t care less, to be honest,” said Mr. Houellebecq, France’s best-known world-weary bad-boy novelist, letting out a little laugh that interrupted his usual deadpan delivery.
Islam itself doesn’t interest him, he continued during a recent interview before the novel’s release in the United States next Tuesday by Farrar, Straus & Giroux. “What interests me is the fear that it creates, not the contents,” he said.
“Submission,” which is set in 2022 and imagines France under its first Muslim president, was published in France on Jan. 7, the day jihadists killed 12 people at the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo, whose cover that week featured Mr. Houellebecq (pronounced WELL-beck) in a magician’s hat, as if predicting the future.
Since then, he has been under 24-hour police protection, a fate that, he dryly said, “could be worse.” Among those killed was his friend the economist Bernard Maris. “It’s the first time someone I knew died for political reasons,” he added. Of the attack on the publication, he said, “I was sad, but I wasn’t surprised.”
A best seller across Europe, “Submission” hit a nerve in France, where it has sold an impressive 650,000 copies. Literary critics praised it. Feminists condemned its depiction of women (supine, in all senses of the word, including in not standing up to the imposition of Shariah law). The right called it prescient. The left called it a gift to the right-wing National Front. Prime Minister Manuel Valls denounced it, saying: “France isn’t Michel Houellebecq. It isn’t intolerance, hate, fear.” In August, France’s establishment dailies, Le Figaro and Le Monde, published five- and six-part series on him.
Such intense attention is probably not likely in the United States, where literary fiction and talk-radio politics rarely overlap, and where the blows of terrorism — the Sept. 11 attacks, the beheadings of Americans in the Middle East by the Islamic State — are not as fresh as the Charlie Hebdo massacre, nor as close to home.
In the United States, “Submission” may be considered more as what it is: satirical fiction. Because of all the polemics in France, “the French have not yet been able to see the book as a work of literature,” said Mark Lilla, a professor of history at Columbia, who reviewed the French edition of the novel in The New York Review of Books in April. “I’m curious to see how Anglophone audiences respond to it simply as a novel.”
“Islamophobia is a defensive reaction, one of fear, which is justified,” says Mr. Houellebecq, author of “Submission.”
Beyond his tangles with Islam, Mr. Houellebecq is best known for his affectless demeanor, his exploration of the collateral damage of the narcissism of the 1960s, and his scathing depiction of contemporary French anomie. During a three-hour interview in French that covered religion, politics, literature and sex, he often seemed to be playing a parody of himself, as in the 2014 French pseudo-documentary “The Kidnapping of Michel Houellebecq.” He alternated between Silk Cut cigarettes, biting into them below the filter, and drags on electronic cigarettes. At one point, an assistant asked if he wanted a beer, but he declined. (Most interviews with this author involve several bottles of alcohol.)
Asked what posed the greatest threat in France today, radical Islam, Islamophobia or anti-Semitism, all of which are thriving, Mr. Houellebecq said, “It depends for whom.”
“Anti-Semitism is a derivation of Islamic radicalism,” he said, and it’s mostly the Islamic radicals who are on the attack. “Islamophobia is a defensive reaction, one of fear, which is justified.”
Assertions like this have made Mr. Houellebecq a darling of the French right, but “Submission” is less a call to arms or a prophecy than a subtle excoriation of French middle-class conformism. “It’s not reality; it’s the French view of reality,” said the novelist Marc Weitzmann, who, as literary editor of an influential French weekly, helped make Mr. Houellebecq’s career in the 1990s. “His real subject is how the French think.”
In “Submission,” the head of a fictional Muslim Brotherhood party allies with the Socialists to defeat the National Front, led in the novel — as in reality — by Marine Le Pen. Crime drops, the economy improves, Shariah law arrives, polygamy becomes legal, and women have to wear the veil and are encouraged to stay home and make babies. The protagonist’s Jewish girlfriend emigrates to Israel.
The book’s title is a play on the literal meaning of the word Islam, and also suggests the docility with which France in 2022 accepts the new order. “Submission” is a novel of ideas, the ideas being that France and Europe are in decline, and that Roman Catholicism is dying, if not already dead, but Islam is alive; in the book’s view, since the Cold War, no one in France — besides Muslims — has found any larger political ideals to believe in.
In his review, Professor Lilla called the book a “dystopian conversion novel.” At a crucial moment, François, the novel’s protagonist and a Sorbonne professor, visits a Catholic shrine hoping to have a conversion experience like that of Joris-Karl Huysmans, the 19th-century French novelist who is the subject of his research, only to find himself unmoved.
“Islam is easier,” Mr. Houellebecq said in the interview. “Looking at a church, a Romanesque church in particular, and looking attentively at the statues, we don’t understand. We don’t understand what the nature of this faith was. It’s very exotic. It seems more exotic to us than Islam.” As the novel ends, François is poised to convert to Islam, although Mr. Houellebecq said he had left ambiguous whether he does.
“Submission” seems to ask whether Islam is compatible with France’s republican values. Does Mr. Houellebecq think that it is? “Catholicism isn’t compatible with France’s republican values,” he said. “Catholicism lost against the republican idea of France.” Today, he said, Islam has more of a chance to take hold in society.
And he doesn’t distinguish between political Islam and Islam in general. “There’s no difference,” he said. “Islam is political because it describes the way in which society should be organized.”
Islam has long been a preoccupation for Mr. Houellebecq. His novel “Platform,” published in France in 2001, is about the clash between sex tourism and radical Islam in Thailand. He was sued for defamation by four French Islamic organizations, including a prominent Paris mosque, for a 2001 interview in which he called Islam “the dumbest religion.” Heeventually won. In the interview, Mr. Houellebecq said he didn’t regret his earlier choice of words: “Fundamentally, I haven’t changed my mind.”
Mr. Houellebecq rose to international prominence with “The Elementary Particles” (which appeared in the United States in 2000), about two half-brothers whose spirited mother parks them with their grandparents and moves on. The book, which draws on Mr. Houellebecq’s own life, was seen as an indictment of the ’60s generation. (Offended by the book, his mother wrote a memoir in response.)
In spite of the news media attention generated by his books and his provocations, Mr. Houellebecq has been an outsider in France’s cozy, mandarin literary world. He nonetheless won the country’s highest literary prize, the Goncourt, in 2010, for his novel “The Map and the Territory,” which is about an artist and has a clever plot device in which Mr. Houellebecq becomes a character.
In “Submission” and his other novels, Mr. Houellebecq’s protagonists are numb men who long for feeling, nonbelievers who crave belief. There’s graphic, joyless sex. Most women are lovers or mothers. Often they die, providing the desultory main character an opportunity to experience true feeling, until the feeling passes. In a scathing review of “Submission” in Le Monde, the novelist Christine Angot wrote of her offense at the author’s depictions of women and their “vaginal dryness.”
Put bluntly, the women in his novels are in bed — and then they die. “Yes,” Mr. Houellebecq said, pausing slightly for comic effect, “like all of us.” Was this his view of women, or that of his characters? “It’s the way my characters see women,” said Mr. Houellebecq, who is twice divorced. “I don’t get too involved.”
Then he glided into provocation. “Prostitution is a good idea,” he said. For whom? “Everyone.” But isn’t it a form of exploitation of women? “All work is exploitation,” he answered. Isn’t that a bit too easy? “But it’s true,” he said. So does he himself frequent prostitutes? “That’s none of your business.” Surely the police escort must complicate things? “No, no,” he said. Prostitution, he added, “is one of the foundations of Western civilization — it’s a corrective to monogamy.”
With the ever-present threat of terrorism, Mr. Houellebecq said he had never lived through a more troubling moment in France. “The situation is getting worse,” he said.
He didn’t seem too concerned. It was a lovely Paris evening. Two plainclothes officers walked him from the publishers’ office onto the street. He slung a backpack over one shoulder. Is he working on another novel? “No,” he said, “I’m tired.” All afternoon, he had played the role of Michel Houellebecq to perfection.