23 October 2015

Michel Houellebecq’s ‘Submission’

Before you read any further, I humbly suggest that if you are searching for enlightenment about Michel Houellebecq’s novel, Submission (Soumission), you might well spend your time better with, just for example, Adam Gopnik’s The Next Thing in the New Yorker, or Marco Roth’s Among the Believers in Harper’s Magazine, or Adam Shatz’s Colombey-les-deux-Mosquées in the London Review of Books. Not to mention the series of five interviews Houellebecq gave to Le Figaro magazine in the summer of 2015. But if you’re prepared to go on, perhaps some of the links may prove useful, if little else … 

(Page x refers to the UK edition above left, page y to the French above right) 

Michel Houellebecq’s five-part novel, Submission (Soumission), is set in France, mostly in Paris, in 2022 and 2023 during the months of the presidential election campaign and its aftermath. In Part I we learn that the narrator, François, is a professor of literature at the Université Sorbonne Nouvelle – Paris 3, whose speciality from his doctorate onwards has been the work of the fin de siècle French novelist Joris-Karl Huysmans. François is in his early 40s, unmarried after numerous successive affairs with his students, and is unhappy with his situation and his prospects, although he feels that his academic articles about Huysman are “clear, incisive and brilliant” (Page 37).

In Part II the approaching election begins to concern François. The first round is on Sunday, 15 May – the format used for successive chapter titles from then until the end of the month. Although “as political as a bath towel” (Page 39), François is well aware that after the Socialist François Hollande had been re-elected in 2017, the political scene in France had begun to change. An Islamic party, the Muslim Brotherhood, under a charismatic leader, Ben Abbes, a graduate of the École Polytechnique and the École Nationale d’Administration (Page 88), has become increasingly popular. François learns more about what might happen during conversations with Lempereur, a young academic with right-wing connections, and with Alain Tanneur, the husband of another colleague, who works for the DGSI, similar to the UK’s Security Service. After encountering an ugly scene on the streets of Paris, François decides that “it would be prudent to come up with an evacuation plan, in case things took a sudden turn for the worse” (Page 58) and opens an account with an English bank in Paris. His most recent girlfriend, Myriam, who is Jewish and in love with him, as he recognises (Page 83), decides that she should leave for Israel with her family.

Part III opens on Sunday, 29 May with the second round of the election and François up early and taking the A10 autoroute, at first intending to head to the south west but then deciding Spain would be better. Running low on fuel he turns off at a service station to find the pumps turned off and the bodies of the cashier and two young banlieu types. He decides to leave the A10 and head for Martel in the Lot department, where he stays until the middle of July. The second round of the election is cancelled after attacks on polling stations and a third round is to be held a week later. François has another long conversation with Tanneur, who comes from Martel, and, having been compelled to leave the DGSI, is about to retire there. Ben Abbes, backed by the centre right and the Socialists, wins by a landslide. François makes repeated visits to the Chapel of Our Lady at nearby Rocamadour but fails to make the connection with religion that Huysman had achieved.

At the start of Part IV, François has returned to Paris. Far from close to his long-separated parents, he discovers that his mother has died. Soon afterwards he learns that he is to be pensioned off* by what has become the Islamic University of Paris-Sorbonne. Then he hears that his father has died. Isolated and with no role, by early 2023 François has become very depressed. He decides to return to the abbey near Poitiers where Huysman had taken his monastic vows and which François had visited when preparing his dissertation. After three days he leaves.

Part V begins with François on the TGV back to Paris, observing with interest one of his fellow passengers, an Arab with two of his wives. On returning home he finds a letter inviting him to edit Huysman’s work for the prestigious Éditions de Pléiade. Things look up further for François when he is invited to a reception for the reopening of the Sorbonne. He meets Robert Rediger, its new president. Rediger invites François to his splendid house and proposes that he rejoin the faculty on the basis that he is neither Catholic nor atheist and prepared to convert. François takes away a copy of Rediger’s middle-brow best-seller, Ten Questions on Islam, and “Like most men, probably, I skipped the chapters on religious duties, the pillars of wisdom and child-rearing, and went straight to chapter seven: ‘Why Polygamy?’ (Page 224). By the end of the book, François has become a Muslim and takes “the chance at a second life, with very little connection to the old one. I would have nothing to mourn.” (Page 250).

François is a sharp observer with a mordant view of life, (doubtless not dissimilar to Houellebecqq’s – after all, we are warned that Huysmans uses
… a tried and true strategy: he adopts a main character, an authorial stand-in … (Page 38) )
and we are exposed to it early on when Francois, having defined literature as … the major art form of a Western civilisation now ending before our very eyes (Page 6),  soon after explains that:
The academic study of literature leads basically nowhere, as we all know, unless you happen to be an especially gifted student, in which case it prepares you for a career teaching the academic study of literature - it is, in other words, a rather farcical system that exists solely to replicate itself and yet manages to fail more than 95 per cent of the time. Still, it's harmless, and can even have a certain marginal value. A young woman applying for a sales job at Céline or Hermès should naturally attend to her appearance above all; but a degree in literature can constitute a secondary asset, since it guarantees the employer, in the absence of any useful skills, a certain intellectual agility that could lead to professional development - besides which, literature has always carried positive connotations in the world of luxury goods. (Page 10)
François’ views about teaching and women are similarly acerbic and in Part II, he moves on to politics:
History is full of such blindness [to the significance of violence and riots]: we see it among the intellectuals, politicians and journalists of the 1930s, all of whom were convinced that Hitler would ‘come to see reason’. It may well be impossible for people who have lived and prospered under a given social system to imagine the point of view of those who feel it offers them nothing, and who can contemplate its destruction without any particular dismay. (Page 44)
For all his knowingness, François can be surprisingly gauche (in its English usage), for example when he first meets Lempereur:
Alice watched us with the affectionate, slightly mocking look that women get when they witness a conversation between two men – that odd ritual, that is neither buggery or a duel, but something inbetween. (Page 46) 
… As an intellectual of the right, I was thinking, he was seductive enough. He’d stand out in the department, in a minor way. You can let people talk for a long time, they’re always interested in what they have to say, but every now and then you’re supposed to contribute. … ‘You’re what,’ I asked, ‘Catholic? Fascist? A little of both?’ It just popped out. I was out of practice with intellectuals of the right – I couldn’t remember how to behave. All at once in the distance we heard a kind of sustained crackling. (Page47/48)
He likes to disguise his misogynistic views in a cloak of realism:
… I benefited from that basic inequality between men, whose erotic potential diminishes very slowly as they age, and women, for whom the collapse comes with shocking brutality from year to year, or even from month to month. (Page 15) 
… I thought about Annelise's life - and the life of every Western woman. In the morning she probably blow-dried her hair, then she thought about what to wear, as befitted her professional status, whether 'stylish' or 'sexy', most likely 'stylish' in her case. Either way, it was a complex calculation, and it must have taken her a while to get ready before dropping the kids off at day care , then she spent the day e-mailing, on the phone, in various meetings, and once she got home, around nine, exhausted (Bruno was the one who picked the kids up, who made them dinner - he had the hours of a civil servant), she'd collapse, get into a sweatshirt and tracksuit trousers, and that's how she'd greet her lord and master, and some part of him must have known - had to have known - that he was fucked, and some part of her must have known that she was fucked, and that things wouldn't get better over the years. The children would get bigger, the demands at work would increase, as if automatically, not to mention the sagging of the flesh. (Page 76)
Certainly Houellebecq’s male characters are more interesting than the female ones, Tanneur particularly, although the reader is left wondering what happened to the smooth young Lempereur. Rediger, who is rising fast under the new regime, gives François his card:
In the metro I examined the business card that my new acquaintance had given me. It was elegant and tasteful, at least I thought so. Rediger provided his personal phone number, two office numbers, two fax numbers (one personal, one office), three email addresses, ill-defined, two mobile numbers (one French, the other British) and a Skype handle. This was a man who let you know how to get in touch (Page 201)
Although the book is set in the near future it is firmly rooted in the present, notwithstanding the author’s reference to “these inventions of mine” in the Acknowledgements (Page 251). Not just Sarkozy, Hollande, the Le Pens and Copé, but many of the other public personalities mentioned, less well-known outside France, can be found on Wikipédia, for example Pujadas, Barbier, Dély, Thréard, Mégret, (Laurent) Wauquiez, (Renaud) Camus and (Florian) Phillipot. Whether this is a weakness or strength is difficult to say except that, within less than a year, the premises of Submission seem to have been overtaken by more events than might have been expected so soon. The Soumission publication day (7 January 2015) was, of course, that of the attack on the offices of Charlie Hebdo in Paris. The cover of that day’s issue was a caricature of Houellebecq as a wizard making predictions. The long-term consequences of those events remain to be seen but they seem unlikely to strengthen the novel’s key proposition (which is anyway dependent on a personality like that of Ben Abbes having emerged to shape the necessary policies) that after the election of 2017:
In a country gripped by ever more widespread unemployment, the strategy broadened the Brotherhood’s reach far beyond the reach of strictly observant Muslims. Its rise was nothing short of meteoric. After less than five years it was polling [in 2022] just behind the Socialists: at 21 versus 23 per cent. (Page 41)
2015 has also seen the EU having to deal with the migrant crisis and people arriving from Syria and elsewhere. Marine Le Pen seems unlikely now to make this particular mistake:
During the 2017 campaign, the National Front candidate had been persuaded that a woman had to look like Angela Merkel to win the presidency, and she did all she could to match the bristling respectability of the German chancellor, right down to copying the cut of her suits. (Page 89)
And then there are the minor discrepancies, unavoidable with the passage of time, like the UMP changing its name to Les Républicains and the damage to Volkswagen’s reputation from the diesel emission scandal. Fortunately François’ Touareg has a petrol engine (Page 104), unlike the Audi eulogised by its owner in The Map and the Territory.

Everything quoted so far is from Submission, as translated from Soumission by the editor of the New York-based Paris Review, Lorin Stein. Stein seems to have had a US readership in mind and I imagine that he must have asked himself repeatedly what he could reasonably expect them to know about France. So when we read that:
… the Paris Mosque [is] a few blocks from the university. (Page 20)
the original being:
la grande mosquée de Paris, qui était située à quelques rues de la fac. (page 28)
we can assume probably not much – not enough to be able to cope with “a few streets away from”. On the other hand, readers are expected to know what a TGV is (Page 187) and, rather harder, PSG, as on Lempereur’s T-shirt (Page 45) – and would they appreciate the irony of the club being wholly owned by Qatar?

Some things almost defy translation. Marie-Françoise Tanneur explains to François that the advancement of one of their colleagues at the university:
... was due entirely to the fact that he was eating Big Delouze’s pussy. This seemed possible, albeit surprising. … Chantal Delouse, the president of Paris III, had always struck me as a died-in-the-wool lesbian …(Page 20)
the difficult parts of the original being:
il broutait le minou de la mère Delouze… and … une lesbienne 100% brut de béton
Perhaps more literally: “grazes Mother Delouze’s pussy” and “a 100% raw concrete lesbian”. So, apart from “Ma” possibly being better than “Big”, it would not be easy to improve upon Stein’s version, although something still gets lost in translation. (Incidentally, béton brut is the origin of Brutalism in architecture).

Sunday, 29 May sees François
… driving along the hexagonal motorway system at two hundred kilometres per hour … (Page 105)
The original being
traverser, a 200 km/h, le réseau autoroutier hexagonal
Stein is, for sure, aware that the French archly referring to themselves as inhabitants of l’hexagone (look at a map).  But perhaps for most readers this should have been translated as:
... driving along the French motorway network at two hundred kilometres per hour …
assuming they can’t be credited with understanding the word autoroute – on which the speed limit, by the way, is 130 km/h (81 mph).

On Page 60, we find François settling down for election night TV:
The day before, I’d stocked the fridge with two bottles of Rully. As soon as David Pujadas went on the air at 7.50, I knew this election night would be top-notch …
“top-notch” – the original was “un très grand cru” (page 75). Houellebecq, who often mentions Burgundy wines, could be assumed to be aware that there are no Grand Cru wines produced in the Rully commune which only has the lesser Premier Cru, and chose his words for effect - best left intact?

Less interesting are the odd careless mistakes. Page 52 refers correctly to the rue du Cardinal Mercier, but on Page 49 it had been the rue Cardinal Mercier. Page 64 refers to the rue de Santeuil, as does the original on page 79 – but both should have been rue Santeuil. Page 53 mentions YouTube (correct) and RuTube (wrong); on the original’s page 66 it’s the other way round: Youtube (wrong) and Rutube (right). Perhaps more importantly, on Page 58 François tries to find out what’s going on by searching YouTube – in the original it was Rutube (page 72).

Rather more irritating is the reference on Page 56 to “all twenty-two EU member states” – there are currently 28, is Houellebecq forecasting some departures? But no, the original merely refers to “vingt-deux pays de l’union européenne”, the “all” being a gratuitous addition. I was puzzled on Page 96 when the guard of the locked-up university “emerged from the administration building [and] stood in front of the gate” – to do that he would have had to open up, whereupon the impatient crowd outside would have forced an entry in typical Parisian fashion. The original, not surprisingly, is “derrière les grilles” (page 118), Stein having confused his devant and his derrière.

I found Submission to be an odd mixture of a gripping political thriller and an unconvincing futuristic satire. How offensive it would be to a Muslim I can’t say, Islam not being my faith and not having studied theology, any more than I am equipped to judge whether Houellebecq is providing a sensible account of J-K Huysman’s times and works. It is difficult to imagine Soumission’s publication being helpful in France, even without the Charlie Hebdo attack, but the country has its own particular traditions of free speech and satire and is having its own internal debate about the nature of laïcité. As I write, Marine Le Pen is on trial in Lyon on hate speech charges, while earlier in the month it was reported that her National Front party had won the right to create an association at Sciences Po.

Some aspects of Houellebecq’s futurology seem particularly fanciful. The evaporation of the National Front’s support after the first round of the election seems unlikely, but, of course, Houellebecq’s premise is that France acquiesces peaceably in the new order – which is why Lempereur is not seen again. The notion that the EU by 2023 will be in the process of incorporating Algeria, Tunisia, Morocco, Lebanon and Egypt seems improbable too. On page 233 we are told that “the Muslim parties already occupied government seats in Britain …”. Whatever happens in the 2020 UK general election, the outcome will not be that. But Houellebecq never seems particularly interested in or informed about Angleterre (how Britain is referred to in the original, page 278**). The prominence of a senior academic is defined by the way “he was regularly invited to give lectures at Oxford and St Andrews” (Page 238). Oxford, yes but St Andrews?

As usual though, Houellebecq provides food for thought about France – and plenty of food and drink too. François may microwave Chicken Byrianai, Tikka Masala, and Rogan Josh for himself, but he happily eats Marie-Françoise Tanneur’s south west cooking. I was struck by how the need for an evacuation plan occurs to François early on, but there is a long history of times when leaving Paris for France profonde might have been a sensible idea: 1789, 1848, 1871, 1914, 1940, 1968 … 2022 - it’s not just because of the inheritance laws that Parisian families hang on to properties in the country. Of those dates, perhaps 1940 was foremost in Houellebecq’s mind when writing Soumission, together with the accommodations that many Frenchmen would make in the following four years. Part of Le Pen’s current problem may be her use of the occupation word. 

Would I recommend Submission? To anyone with an interest in France who has the time, probably yes, but Houellebecq’s previous novel, The Map and the Territory, (posted about here last month) was better in my view.

 * At 3472 euros per month (page 148). On Page 170 François tells us this is twice the national average. However, in mid-2014 the average gross wage in France was 2480 euros, net 2180. So Francois seems to have been taking a rosy view of his situation, unless wages fall substantially in the next eight years.

** Similarly on page 241, Rediger’s British mobile number is described as “anglais”.


I said above that “the premises of Submission seem to have been overtaken by more events than might have been expected so soon” without any anticipation of something like the attacks in Paris on 13 November. It was at the Sorbonne (Université Paris-Sorbonne, Paris IV) yesterday that President Hollande, surrounded by students, observed the minute’s silence for those who had been killed.

Michael White’s Guardian Politics blog on 16 November discusses Submission after the attacks in his piece, France and Britain: the differences in their struggle with extremism.

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