Ten years ago I was living just off the Boulevard Saint-Germain in Paris’s fashionable Seventh arrondissement. Late one Friday afternoon I decided to go for a walk. I left the building and turned right into the Rue de Grenelle. For the past week or more the riot police had been preventing demonstrators from entering the narrow streets near to the Prime Minister’s residence, about a five-minute walk away, but today things were different. There was a strange smell in the air. It came from a succession of burnt-out cars, left smouldering in the side streets. As I neared the golden dome beneath which lies the tomb of the Emperor Napoleon I saw that all the parked cars — hundreds of them — had had their windows smashed. By now the demonstrators had been corralled onto the Esplanade des Invalides, the police waiting for the cold of night to disperse the assembled mob, but later, when I watched the evening news on television, it was as if the country had descended had descended into near civil war. Trains were not running because demonstrators had blocked the tracks; schools and universities across the country were closed; and Paris’s infamous banlieues had become a no-go zone for the forces of law and order. The cause of all this mayhem was a government proposal to introduce nothing more than a minor change in employment legislation.
Over the past decade things have hardly changed. In recent weeks France’s doctors have been on strike against proposed reforms to the health system. Two senior directors of Air France were mobbed by employees protesting against possible job losses (one having unceremoniously to climb a wire fence to escape his attackers). In Paris rubbish piles up on the pavements as the city’s éboueurs — dustmen to you and me — strike about promotion criteria. Their union wants everyone to be promoted.
And of course France’s hapless President Hollande continues to preside over an economy that stubbornly refuses to grow or to provide any new jobs. This after all is a country where a majority of the young dream of either emigration (preferably to London) or to become government functionaries with guaranteed employment for life.
But it was those scenes of urban unrest ten years ago that came to mind as I read Michel Houellebecq’s controversial and deeply unpleasant novel Submission, now out in translation (Heinemann, £18.99). The novel’s narrator, François, is a university lecturer at the Sorbonne. We first meet him as he labours to complete his doctoral dissertation on the 19th-century Belgian writer Joris-Karl Huysmans, author of À Rebours, a book that gave us as its hero the exotic aesthete the Duc Jean Floressas des Esseintes. François’s life is utterly dreary and cheerless. He lives, we are told, off the last remnants of a dying welfare state: scholarships, free health care and cheap meals in student cafeteria. His many girlfriends are seen as no more than interns, serving a form of sexual apprenticeship. Of the only one he seems to care about, the Jewish Myriam, her greatest attraction is the quality of her blow jobs. “Any single one of them,” François confides, “would have been enough to justify a man’s existence.”
Nothing much changes after François secures a tenured academic position. Not only did he not have the slightest vocation for teaching but nor did he have any liking for young people. The transmission of knowledge, he believes, is generally impossible. To make sure that everything is still in working order he watches videos on YouPorn. Pornographic scenarios involving two women of varied race reassure him that all is well.
But the background to this sordid existence is an evolving political situation characterised by the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood in France. By his own admission, François was about as “political as a bath towel”, but even he has noticed that politics has descended into nothing more than power sharing between two rival gangs. Things get worse after the re-election of Hollande as President in 2017. “The widening gap”, François observes, “between the people and those who claimed to speak for them, the politicians and journalists, would necessarily lead to something chaotic, violent and unpredictable”. France is steadily drifting towards civil war.
And so, as the presidential election of 2022 approaches, Marine Le Pen’s Front National and the fictional Muslim Brotherhood find themselves neck-and-neck in the polls, with violence escalating between rogue jihadists and far-right militants. To “clearly audible laughter”, the President stands on the steps of the Élysée Palace and calls for the restoration of republican order, but by then the fighting has really started. Watching the TV, François records, “You could make out groups of masked men roaming around with assault rifles and automatic weapons. Windows had been broken, here and there cars were on fire”.
Beaten into third place, the Socialists do a deal with the Muslim Brotherhood — “a broad republican front” to keep Marine Le Pen out of power — with the result that Mohammed Ben Abbas, leader of the Brotherhood, becomes President and the “utter moron” François Bayrou, the very embodiment of today’s vacuous and careerist politicians, finds himself as Prime Minister. The crisis is over.
The son of a grocer, Ben Abbas is portrayed as a shrewd politician eager to extend his vote beyond strictly observant Muslims. He pursues a moderate line and maintains good relations with the Jewish religious authorities. But changes are not slow in coming. François notices that certain shops close (although not those selling sexy lingerie) and that women now wear trousers. “The contemplation of women’s arses,” François observes, “has also become impossible.” Sharia law is imposed almost without protest. Unemployment is dramatically reduced by encouraging women to work at home in exchange for large financial payments. Education is privatised, with mandatory education ended at the age of 12. Vocational training is encouraged. Subsidies to big companies are stopped and small businesses receive funding. Crime is dramatically reduced, especially in what had previously been the most troubled neighbourhoods. Ben Abbas also pushes for the EU to incorporate Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia, to widespread approval restoring the prominence of the French language in Europe’s political institutions. As one of the novel’s characters observes, the real enemy of the Muslim Brotherhood is not Catholicism but secularism, laicism and atheist materialism. By now Myriam and her family have emigrated to Israel.
Is any of this remotely credible? One would like to think not — there is as yet no successful Islamist political party in France and little sign of one — although it might be worth recalling that on the day that Submission was published in France, gunmen stormed the offices of Charlie Hebdo, murdering 12 people. Among the victims was one of Houellebecq’s close friends. But something does ring true in this unlikely tale and it is this that makes it profoundly discomforting.
Early on in the novel François meets an old friend and colleague called Steve. Steve, we are told, is an expert on Rimbaud, “a sham topic if ever there was one”. His conversation always revolves around academic appointments and promotions and, as a man who could see the way the academic wind was blowing, he was not above endorsing a boycott on academic exchanges with Israeli scholars. Steve reappears at the end of the novel. By this time the Sorbonne has been renamed the Islamic University of Paris, is awash with petro-dollars and staffed exclusively by Muslims. As a man of the Left, Steve, of course, has converted to Islam, is teaching Rimbaud (whose conversion has to be placed beyond dispute) and is only too happy to accept his increased salary. Just as attractively, the university has found him a young wife, with another one on the way. It is almost touching, François comments, that some people still believe in the power of the intellectual elite, to the point that they are prepared to buy them off.
François’s initial response to his own dismissal is to seek to escape. He heads for the south-west of France. It was, François confides, “a region where they ate duck confit, and duck confit struck me as incompatible with civil war”. Having tried to fill his car with petrol and found the cashier lying dead in a pool of blood he arrives first at Martel, named after Charles Martel, victor over the Moorish invaders in 732. Deeper into the Dordogne, he reaches Rocamadour, home to the holy site of the Black Madonna. There, with his mind full of Huysmans and Charles Péguy, he contemplates the statue of the Virgin Mary waiting “in the shadows, calm and timeless”. Although moved to something like a spiritual revelation, he feels the Madonna distancing herself from him little by little over space and the centuries, leaving behind only his “damaged, perishable body”.
Upon his return to Paris, François renews his whoring ways, indulging his taste for sodomy, first with a girl of Tunisian extraction and then with a regular participant in gang bangs called Slutty Babeth. Later he visits the abbey at Ligugé where Huysmans, having converted to Catholicism, lived with the religious community. For all his attempts at religious devotion, François concludes that the “old queer Nietzsche” was right: “Christianity was, at the end of the day, a feminine religion.”
Where then can he turn? The answer comes in the form of Robert Rediger, new president of the Sorbonne and naturally a Muslim convert, who not only flatters his intelligence but plies him with fine wine, introduces him to his new 15-year-old wife and, in the process, convinces him that Europe had committed suicide in a matter of decades. For Rediger the proof lies in the closure of a magnificent art-nouveau bar in Brussels. For François it came with the shutting of a Paris brothel and the loss of certain sexual practices from human memory. But the facts were plain: “Europe had reached a point of such putrid decomposition that it could no longer save itself, any more than fifth-century Rome could have done.” By converting to Islam, François concludes, he would have nothing to mourn. He would accept that the summit of human happiness resided in the most absolute submission.
Where Houellebecq stands in all this is almost impossible to say. He denies that he is simply an agent provocateur but it is hard not to conclude that he is throwing as many bombs at the French cultural and political establishment as he possibly can. It is as if he is saying that a corrupt and materialist France is so beyond reform, so beyond redemption, that it deserves whatever it gets, even if that amounts to political or religious extremism. More than that, Submission reads as a sustained piece of authorial self-loathing. But does Houellebecq offer any more than a retreat into misogynist bile? Is Submission a work of prophecy? Does it have a political message? If so, it is a message that few could take comfort from, as it would challenge our very understanding of human liberty and human dignity. Rather, Houellebecq seems to want to ask a more fundamental question: upon what spiritual foundation will those who come after us live? As he has Rediger remark, without Christianity the nations of Europe have become “bodies without souls — zombies”.
And this is why Houellebecq’s constant reference to Huymans is more than a playful literary allusion. À Rebours ends with a damning critique of the imbecility and depravity of a decayed nobility and is no less sneering in its denunciation of a bourgeoisie whose rise to power has meant “the suppression of all intelligence, the negation of all honesty, the destruction of all true art”. Could it be, Des Esseintes asks, that “this slime would go on spreading until it covered with its pestilential filth this old world where now only seeds of iniquity sprang up and only harvests of shame were gathered?” “Lord,” he concludes, “take pity on the Christian who doubts, on the unbeliever who would fain believe, on the galley-slave of life who puts out to sea alone, in the night, beneath a firmament no longer lit by the consoling beacon-fires of the ancient hope.” Is this dark vision of France, “the eldest daughter of the Church”, finally becoming reality?