Michel Houllebecq's Soumission is provocative but treads familiar territory
Byron might have earned the epithet “mad, bad and dangerous to know”, but it is the French much more than us who have venerated the sulphurous, bourgeois-baiting writer. A hugger of outrage from the start, Michel Houellebecq has spent as much energy winding up the public in his interviews as in his writing. The cover of Charlie Hebdo that was on the newsstands when its editorial staff were massacred featured a cartoon guying Houellebecq (if that’s possible).
Houellebecq has become a national and an international figure in a way that no French writer has since Sartre or Camus. Modiano and Le Clézio have got the Nobel, but they just don’t rate the attention. Because Houellebecq is a type of sociologist manqué, he has a status as a soothsayer, a grungy prophet, sucking cigarettes in the true Gallic style.
He has also spread himself very wide. It’s not just the novels. He does poetry. Not great poetry, but better than many. He has recorded “songs”. Not great songs, but better than much of the work produced by many music professionals. He’s an actor. He has played himself in a film, The Kidnapping of Michel Houellebecq, and he wasn’t the weakest thespian therein. The scene where he learns to cage-fight will stay with me till the day I die.
He has amassed wealth and renown, all the while dressed and coiffured like a distressed tramp. It’s the revenge of the nerd to the power of ten. But for all his prickliness and outsider history he is, at heart, as we shall see, Rive Gauche through and through, a Pléiade-loving Deux Magots intello.
Soumission (Submission), his latest novel, has generated chatter and clatter because of its central gimmick of an Islamic regime running France in 2022. But this is a Houellebecq novel, so the explosive blurb aside, the narrator, a literature lecturer, is a familiar figure for readers of his earlier work: a man with a keen eye for human suffering and disappointment, emotional disfigurement and the stillbirth of aspiration. The narrator is also a man who inevitably encounters women in stockings and suspenders who give extraordinary blowjobs, for free or for recompense.
Islam might provide enormous publicity for the novel, but the French writer Joris-Karl Huysmans (the narrator’s speciality) is actually the main subject. This is heavy Rive Gauche stuff, in that much of the action is about French Literature. The narrator’s obsession with Huysmans reflects, I suspect, Houellebecq’s affinity with him (pessimism, misogyny). There are a few in the Anglo-Saxon world who will have read Huysman’s Satanist classic Là-bas (Down There) or perhaps the aesthete’s manual À rebours (Against the Grain) but Huysmans had a much larger oeuvre which has never travelled and which is largely forgotten back home.
I can’t go along with Houellebecq’s championing of Huysmans, but I did enjoy his trashing of the Rimbaud crew. However, a lot of the wit will be wasted on anyone without a grounding in writers like Léon Bloy, Jean Lorrain and Guénon. And similarly you need to know something about French politics to get full value. I didn’t entirely understand the significance of Huysmans, unless he was meant as a symbol of spiritual searching. The famous comment after the publication of À rebours was that the author’s only choice was between the muzzle of a pistol or the foot of the Cross. Houellebecq seems to be mellowing towards religion, or perhaps mellowing, full stop.
Bearing in mind Houellebecq’s previous attacks on Islam, you would expect a scathing portrait of a Muslim France, but that’s not quite what you get. The Saudis own the Sorbonne but triple the salaries of the academics, and you can’t escape the feeling Houellebecq has some time for a religion that allows you to take a 15-year-old girl as a second wife (this isn’t a read for feminists). The end of the book will surprise many readers and will cause furious arguments over what Houellebecq “means” (one assumes his intention).
Houellebecq has a taut style so you rarely get bored in Soumission, but it is a novel with little event and a lot of reflection and debate: characters sit down with a drink and talk about Nietzsche for pages. As a novel, this won’t add much to Houellebecq’s reputation, but it might do a lot for Huysmans.