The Next Thing
Michel Houellebecq’s Francophobic satire
BY ADAM GOPNIK
JANUARY 26, 2015
The French writer Michel Houellebecq has become a literary “case” to be reprimanded as much as an author to be read, and his new novel, “Soumission,” or “Submission,” shows why. The book, which will be published in English by Farrar, Straus & Giroux, is shaped by a simple idea. In France in the very near future, the respectable republican parties fragment the vote in a multiparty election, and the two top vote-getters are Marine Le Pen, of the extreme right, and one Mohammed Ben Abbes, the fictive leader of a French Muslim Brotherhood. In the runoff, the French left backs the Muslim, preferring the devil it doesn’t know to the one it does. Ben Abbes’s government soon imposes a kind of relaxed Sharia law throughout France and—this is the book’s central joke and point—the French élite are cravenly eager to collaborate with the new regime, delighted not only to convert but to submit to a bracing and self-assured authoritarianism. Like the oversophisticated Hellenists in Cavafy’s poem, they have been secretly waiting for the barbarians all their lives.
Houellebecq is one of those writers who cause critics to panic, since placing him is tricky. He is probably the most famous French novelist of his generation. An immediately recognizable caricature of Houellebecq as a wannabe Nostradamus was the image on the last issue of Charlie Hebdo before the attack on its staff. But he is not a particularly graceful stylist, and it exasperates French writers who are to see him made so much of outside France, not to mention within it. Though he began as a poet, he doesn’t have much poetic grip, nor are his choices and phrases of a kind that make other writers envious. (One well-known French critic has pointed out, tartly, that no good writer would ever confuse, as Houellebecq does in the new novel, the French word for “vineyard” with the French word for “vintage.”) Yet it is a mistake to think of him as a provocateur, in the manner of authors who purposefully set out to goad and annoy as many people as they can with each new book, like Gore Vidal, or, for that matter, Céline.
Houellebecq is, simply, a satirist. He likes to take what’s happening now and imagine what would happen if it kept on happening. That’s what satirists do. Jonathan Swift saw that the English were treating the Irish as animals; what if they took the next natural step and ate their babies? Orwell, with less humor, imagined what would happen if life in Britain remained, for forty years, at the depressed level of the BBC cafeteria as it was in 1948, and added some Stalinist accessories. Huxley, in “Brave New World,” took the logic of a hedonistic and scientific society to its farthest outcome, a place where pleasure would be all and passion unknown. This kind of satire impresses us most when the imaginative extrapolation intersects an unexpected example—when it suddenly comes close enough to fit. (As when Arnold Schwarzenegger appeared as living proof of Philip K. Dick’s prescience about the merger of American politics and the wilder shores of its entertainments, achieved by people with funny names.)
In the novel that made Houellebecq famous, “Les Particules Élémentaires” (1998), he proposed that a society with an unchecked devotion to economic liberalism and erotic libertinism would come to a daylong oscillation between fucking and finance, where bankers would literally break their backs in the act of having sex for the hundredth time that day. The satire seemed ridiculously heavy-handed and overwrought—and then came Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the head of the International Monetary Fund, who, in the brief time before dining with his daughter and boarding a plane, turned out to have budgeted fifteen minutes for sex (coerced or not) with a total stranger. D.S.K. was a character only Houellebecq could have imagined, and already had.
Houellebecq is not merely a satirist but—more unusually—a sincere satirist, genuinely saddened by the absurdities of history and the madnesses of mankind. He doesn’t “delight in depicting our follies,” as reviewers like to say; he’s made miserable by them. French reviews and American previews of “Submission” might leave one with the impression of a sardonic, teeth-baring polemic about the evils of Islam, the absurdities of feminism, the terrible demoralization of French life. In truth, the tone of the book is melancholic rather than polemical. Life makes Houellebecq blue. “The totality of animals, the crushing majority of men, live without ever finding the least need for justification,” his narrator, a literature professor at the Sorbonne, reflects. “They live because they live, and that’s all, and that’s how they reason—and then I suppose they die because they die, and this, in their eyes, ends the analysis.” That’s Houellebecq’s typical tone; the book’s virtues lie in his mordant, disabused eye for depressing details of French life.
Even if, sentence by sentence, Houellebecq is not a writer to envy, certainly he does have a voice of his own, one of slightly resigned sociological detachment. In the very first pages of the new book, he remarks, apropos the uses of a university degree in literature, that “a young woman applying for a job as a saleswoman at Céline or Hermès will, in the first place, have to take care of her appearance, but a literature degree could constitute a secondary attribute pleasing to the employer, suggesting a certain intellectual agility that might indicate a potential evolution of her career—literature, in place of useful skills, still has a positive connotation in the domain of the luxury industry.” You master Proust to become a better salesgirl, and what else would you expect? The commodification of the world and the art and the people in it leaves Houellebecq unexcited.
This flattened tone seems, at first, like an affectation. But, reading “Public Enemies,” a collection of confessional letters exchanged by Houellebecq and the philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy, one realizes that it’s not an affectation at all. It’s an affect. It tells a truth about Houellebecq’s own disconcerted sense of detachment from human relations. He is, after all, a man whose mother wrote a bitter memoir about him, insisting that her son should say, “I am a liar, I am an impostor, I was a parasite, all I’ve done in my life is harm the people around me. And I ask forgiveness”—and it seems fair to say that, when your mom writes the bitter memoir, something really has gone screwy in your emotional life. His heroes always seem truly puzzled by the emotional rewards that other men claim to get from children and work and family and even sex.
Anhedonic in the extreme, Houellebecq finds the conventional pleasure-seeking surface of French life entirely absurd, which is one reason he satirizes it so effectively. He can be very funny about the details of modern sex—his protagonists find the objective, clinical details underwhelming—and is fearless in admitting to his own inspection of them, as in this description from a moment of Internet porn: “The penis passed from one mouth to the other, the tongues crossing like flights of swallows, lightly troubled, in the somber sky . . . when they are ready to leave Europe for their winter pilgrimage.” The parodic note, neither contemptuous nor indignant but preternaturally calm, is distinctively Houellebecq’s.
The other striking thing about Houellebecq is how literary he is—the first hundred or so pages of “Submission” depend on a complicated analysis of the work of the nineteenth-century writer J. K. Huysmans, best known as a novelist of Decadence and the Church, and for his influence on other French writers. This is, at least, an inadvertent compliment to the continued literary culture of France: no American satiric novelist, not Tom Wolfe or Christopher Buckley, could hope to hold a mass audience with hundreds of pages on the follies typically encountered in the university study of Hart Crane, or on how best to conceptualize his relationship with Wallace Stevens.
The literary obsessions are important, since it turns out that the principal target of the satire is not French Islam—which is really a bystander that gets, at most, winged—but the spinelessness of the French intellectual class, including the Huysmans-loving narrator. The jokes are all about how quickly the professors find excuses to do what’s asked of them by the Islamic regime, and how often they refer to the literature they study to give them license to do it. The new Islamic administration at the University of Paris allows a professor of Rimbaud studies to carry on, but on the condition that he teach Rimbaud’s conjectured conversion to Islam as an established fact. The professor is happy to do it. Huysmans’s actual conversion to Catholicism makes the narrator contemplate the convenient possibility of crossing over: for all his supposed decadence, Huysmans might have welcomed the new religious regime.
The charge that Houellebecq is Islamophobic seems misplaced. He’s not Islamophobic. He’s Francophobic. The portrait of the Islamic regime is quite fond; he likes the fundamentalists’ suavity and sureness. Ben Abbes’s reform of the educational system is wholesome, and his ambitions to rebuild France are almost a form of neo-Gaullism. (He succeeds in integrating Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, and Turkey into the European Union, creating a power bloc greater than the American one.) The reform of education, the reinforcement of the family, even the re-domestication of women are all held up for admiration. It’s the shrugging admiration of satire, of course, but neither Ben Abbes nor his government seems meant to be seen as contemptible, the way the French who assist them certainly are. One of the few objects of real scorn in the book is François Bayrou, the (actual) French centrist politician whose dancing between left and right in electoral politics is legend, and who becomes Ben Abbes’s chief apologist and mouthpiece.
All the most eloquent spokesmen in the book are religious-minded and in favor of theocracy. Another collaborationist professor at the Sorbonne—which is soon funded solely by a Saudi prince, with all women veiled—eventually offers to let the narrator achieve his dream of editing the Pléiade edition of Huysmans, in exchange for converting to Islam. The struggle of the twentieth century was between two failed humanisms, the other professor explains—between the “hard” humanism of Communism and the “soft” humanism of liberal capitalism, each in its way “horribly reductive.” Both have failed, and some form of faith must take their place. Without faith, any idea of a French or a European revival is impossible. Why not Islam, whose deity is properly remote—and thus right for a cosmos that science has shown us to be immense—rather than provincially incarnate and local, like the Christian Messiah? The narrator converts.
Like most satirists worth reading, Houellebecq is a conservative. “I show the disasters produced by the liberalization of values,” he has said. Satire depends on comparing the crazy place we’re going to with the implicitly sane place we left behind. That’s why satirists are often nostalgists, like Tom Wolfe, who longs for the wild and crazy American past, or Evelyn Waugh, with his ascendant American vulgarians and his idealized lost Catholic aristocracy. Houellebecq despises contemporary consumer society, and though he is not an enthusiast, merely a fatalist, about its possible Islamic replacement, he thinks that this is the apocalypse we’ve been asking for. What he truly hates is Enlightenment ideas and practices, and here his satire intersects with a fast-moving current of French reactionary thought, exemplified by “The Suicide of France,” a surprise best-seller by the television journalist Éric Zemmour.
Zemmour’s is one of those polemical books, like Allan Bloom’s “The Closing of the American Mind,” which carry everything before them, because they run right over every obstacle. For honest, thorough scrutiny of the opposition’s authors and actions, Zemmour makes Bloom look like John Stuart Mill: his argument depends on his never dealing with a specific instance. Everything flows by in a torrent of hysterical rhetoric. He hates feminism, but there is no extended treatment of feminist authors, or any attempt to discriminate between French feminism and the American kind; shrieking harpies dethroned the father, and now everything sucks. He hates ecologists, but there is no argument about why the world would be cleaner or pleasanter had environmentalism not happened. American universities, he says, have become playpens for empty legacies of the rich; there is no recognition that the historical trend has run in the opposite direction.
In a weird but representative diatribe, he pines for the day when European football teams and players were happily rooted in their places. Never mind that pre-“liberal” soccer was notable for the almost unbelievable level of violence that the players, and their supporters, endured. (Before liberalism ruined football, thirty-eight fans were crushed to death at a Eurocup final.) The result of the new free market in football is that French footballers, like Thierry Henry and Arsène Wenger, have become heroes in North and West London, their exploits heralded, their pictures hung in giant murals high on the stadium façade. This leaves a lot of English footballers unemployed, I suppose, but in what way can having its actors idolized abroad be a loss for French prestige?
And when was the better time from which France has fallen? Hardly the forties! Not the thirties, which led to them. It can’t be the twenties, when France was barely recovering from the disaster of the teens, with a million and a half dead, and not the aughts, when the Dreyfus case tore the country apart on savagely “communitarian” grounds. In the back of Zemmour’s mind, it seems, is an oddly singular and specific place to long for—the Gaullist France of the booming sixties, when Zemmour was a kid. Society held together, authority was firm and essentially benevolent, each man had a role, each woman could choose to stay home if she wanted, and Catherine Deneuve was in every other movie. This is a nostalgia that Houellebecq, who was also a kid then, shares. For him, too, this was the happier time: Pif Gadget, a charming French children’s magazine quietly run by the Communist Party, is one of the few things recalled with tender regard in Houellebecq’s work.
Zemmour’s politics, though he is often accused of being a fellow-traveller with the National Front, are really those of an unreconstructed Gaullist, purer than the political kind of Gaullist still in existence, because the political kind had to become impure to survive. Houellebecq is innocent of the uglier schemes that this nostalgia produces and that are part of Zemmour’s program—the urge to return to that era by expelling Muslims from France or keeping them highly straitened within it.
But the two writers do converge, inasmuch as their real sympathies lie outside contemporary political choices, in a revival of the old ideology of the far right, back before it disgraced itself—the ideology of conservative anti-capitalism in the form it took a century ago, more or less benignly in Chesterton and Belloc, and decidedly less benignly in the likes of Charles Maurras, the theorist of the monarchical (and ultimately pro-Vichy) Action Française movement. The tenets of the faith are simple: liberalism, cosmopolitanism, and international finance are the source of all evil. Liberal capitalism is a conspiracy against folk authenticity on behalf of the “internationalists,” the rootless cosmopolitans. The nation is everything, and internationalism is its nemesis. The bankers cosset us with narcotics of their civilization even as they strip us of our culture.
Chesterton and Belloc and their ideas appear in “Submission” as a kind of secondary sound, a Greek chorus. Houellebecq takes very seriously the enterprise, in which Huysmans is also implicated, of rejecting Enlightenment modernity in favor of some kind of mystical-spiritual nation reëstablished on a foundation of faith. There is a passage in “Submission”—by Houellebecq’s own account the key scene in the book—in which the narrator goes south to contemplate the Black Madonna of Rocamadour and has a moment of blissful vision, one that he wishes to sustain but can’t. Islam rushes in to fill the absence. Houellebecq makes the entente of Islam and Catholicism attractive. “My book describes the destruction of the philosophy handed down by the Enlightenment, which no longer makes sense to anyone, or to very few people,” he said in an interview. “Catholicism, by contrast, is doing rather well. I would maintain that an alliance between Catholics and Muslims is possible.”
While anti-Semitism has always been the active, evil form of extreme traditionalist ideology—get them out of here and we’ll be pure—Houellebecq’s half-infatuated fascination with Islam has always been the more fatalist form. If Judaism represents the corrupting, cosmopolitan alternative to the European nation, an Islamic invasion represents its apocalyptic end, the conqueror at the gate. The idea of an overnight Muslim takeover, where suddenly the University of Paris becomes the Islamic University of Paris, perches at the back of the European apocalyptic imagination, perhaps because it once really happened. On the morning of May 28, 1453, Constantinople was still a Christian city. The next day, it wasn’t. The great churches were turned into great mosques, and the Sultan’s flag flew over the conquered city. (The conquest never would have taken place had the Byzantines not first been fatally weakened by the fraternal Christian sack of the Fourth Crusade.) The notion that you wake up and there’s the Eiffel Tower with a crescent moon and star upon it haunts the Western imagination of catastrophe.
The spectre of an Islamic re-reconquest is therefore mixed with admiration for its discipline and purpose. The Muslim warriors are taken to be antimaterialists inspired by an austere ideal—the very idea of submission to authority that we have lost. In the back-and-forth of fantasies of conquest and submission between panicked Catholics and renascent Muslims, Islam plays an ambiguous role, as both the feared besieger and the admirable Other. Charles Maurras feared Islam, and prophesied, in the twenties, that a mosque built in Paris would be an opening for the infidel. His brand of religious nationalism helped inspire the Turkish poet Necip Fazıl Kısakürek, who studied in Paris, to shape his dreams of a reborn authoritarian Islamic-nationalist state at home—a mirror image of Maurras’s idealized France, and both, naturally, hostile to Jews. For where the Jews in the European reactionary imagination are insidious termites, eating silently away at the foundations, the Muslims are outsized conquerors, arriving to take over when you’re weakened. Chesterton, suspicious of Jews, was terrified of Muslims: “A void is made in the heart of Islam which has to be filled up again and again by a mere repetition of the revolution that founded it. There are no sacraments; the only thing that can happen is a sort of apocalypse, as unique as the end of the world; so the apocalypse can only be repeated and the world end again and again.” The Jews are the poison of modernity, but Islam is the zombie state at its end.
In “Submission,” the Islamic authority, with the author’s felt approval, turns toward Chestertonian distributism, with large enterprises denied subsidy and small artisanal ones encouraged. But all these wise things come too late for the indigenous French, arriving at the hands of a conqueror rather than at the pleasure of the nation. We left it too long to be salvaged; now we can be only slaves.
All this belongs, of course, to the world of fervid fantasy and café millennialism. The real reasons for the French obsession with decline are no doubt simpler. French was once far ahead of English as a world language; now it’s not. (That’s one reason Houellebecq is resented at home; he’s one of the few writers who get translated. Even the Nobel Prize winner Patrick Modiano had a very patchy English résumé.) Meanwhile, the successive political failures of French governments have demoralized all political sides. The mood in Britain in the seventies was not very different. Then came Thatcherism, which, however its long-term record is scored, was certainly perceived as successful by its adherents, and gave a sense of efficacy to politics, one inherited by New Labour in its early euphoric days. (A small cultural sign: the benevolently imagined New Labour Prime Minister that Hugh Grant plays in “Love Actually” is unimaginable in a French film. No politician would be allowed that much heart, or good intentions.) The French Presidents Chirac and Sarkozy and Hollande have all been seen as failures, and their failure infects the social tone of the nation’s popular literature. For all this apocalyptic nihilism, there may be nothing here that five years of economic growth and a popular Presidency won’t cure.
Imagining that what’s happening now will keep on happening is what satirists do. It is also what simpletons do. Every huckster on television tries to sell gold by pointing to an ascending price line and insisting that it can go only ever upward. In the real world, a vector never keeps going in a straight line. It meets a countervailing force or splits in two. We never got to 1984, or to boiling Irish babies. Other forces intervened.
In France, countervailing forces seem sure to intervene, too. Enlightenment values are hardly as empty as Houellebecq pretends; there is surely more fight left in the light than people want to admit. The vast rally in Paris on January 11th may help revive the Fifth Republic. But, in any case, the great majority of Muslim kids will do what kids everywhere do: pursue their own interests by taking advantage of the system, which, for all its failings, is still meritocratic at heart. Sharia law is the last thing they want; it costs too much. What liberal values have going for them is liberty and value. In the recent horror, the two Muslim victims of the two Islamic terrorists were a cop and a copy editor, and this immersion in upwardly mobile ordinariness is likely to be more typical of the Muslim future than the apocalyptic fantasy of a fundamentalist triumph.
Certainly, when French Muslims write about French Muslim experience, you get nothing like the calm triumphalism of Houellebecq’s imagination. Instead, there’s the usual human mixture of self-indictment, self-criticism, extreme resentment, and hope. In Kamel Daoud’s recent “Meursault, Counter-Investigation” (due out later this year, from Other Press), a tour-de-force reimagining of Camus’s “The Stranger,” from the point of view of the mute Arab victims, the author seeks not to re-indict the colonizing French but to relate all the disappointments that the dream of free Algeria has produced for the “natives,” particularly their degradation by political Islam. Sabri Louatah’s immense, and immensely popular, multivolume novel, titled, with deliberate irony, “Les Sauvages,” tells of the rise toward the French Presidency of a Muslim politician named Idder Chaouch—a rather more credibly fleshed-out figure than Houellebecq’s shadowy Ben Abbes—and shows a Franco-Algerian family in the provincial city of Saint-Étienne split several ways in pursuit of power, glamour, spiritual authority, and so on. Inspired less by Houellebecq’s high-literary French tradition than by American showrunners like David Chase, David Simon, and Vince Gilligan—Louatah claims to have seen the entire run of “The Sopranos” right through, three times—the work makes the point that French Arabs are just as divided, from violent fundamentalists to secular republicans, and just as open to the world’s influences, as everybody else. Common sense, and the book’s popularity, suggests that this view is largely credible. Louatah certainly shows that you can plausibly imagine a Muslim President of France in a non-hysterical, not to mention anti-apocalyptic, manner.
This is not to say that Islam in France won’t continue to be problematic or that the extreme right won’t continue its rise or that the respectable republicans won’t be as fatuously self-destructive as Houellebecq imagines them to be. The next thing is just never likely to be the same thing. The fun of satire is to think what would happen if nothing happens to stop what is happening. But that’s not what happens.