Friday, 23 September 2016

Book Review: Submission by Michel Houellebecq

2016 review of a book written
by an author whose family name starts with the letter

With refugees from Muslim countries streaming to Europe without end and too often without permission too, we’re living turbulent times that put politics and even democracy altogether to a hard test. Moreover, recurring terrorist attacks kindle increasingly negative feelings towards our Muslim neighbours, be they foreigners or citizens. Calls of the extreme right not to allow in any more foreigners (and even to throw out those who are here already) are growing louder every day and the number of people sharing their opinion is likewise growing as prove the results of their parties in elections virtually everywhere around. However, the times of ethnically homogeneous nations – if they ever existed at all! – are long over. Muslims are part of European society and begin to take responsibility on a political level too. With a professor of French literature as a protagonist, the 2015 novel Submission by Michel Houellebecq shows where the development could lead by 2022.

Michel Houellebecq was born Michel Thomas in Saint-Pierre, Réunion Island, France, in February 1956 (1958 according to himself). As from 1961 he was raised by his paternal grandmother whose maiden name Houellebecq he later adopted as pen name. During his agronomics studies in Paris, he founded the literary journal Karamazov where he published first poems and he turned a film. After graduation in 1978, he set out to study photography, but never finished. Between 1983 to 1996 he worked as computer programmer and finally found the peace of mind to write. His first books – a poetry collection and the biographical essay H. P. Lovecraft. Against the World, Against Life (H.P. Lovecraft. Contre le monde, contre la vie) – appeared in 1991, three years before he made his successful debut as a novelist with Whatever (Extension du domaine de la lutte) in 1994. The author has brought out six other novels since, i.e. Atomised (Les Particules élémentaires: 1998; also published as The Elementary Particles), Platform (Plateforme: 2001), The Possibility of an Island (La Possibilité d'une île: 2005), The Map and the Territory (La Carte et le Territoire: 2010), and Submission (Soumission: 2015). After residing in Ireland and Andalusia for some time, Michel Houllebecq now lives in Paris, France.

Set in Paris, France, in 2022, Submission is the story of the first-person narrator called François, a professor of nineteenth-century French literature at the university Sorbonne-Paris III. He never felt a vocation for his profession (nor for any other), but just ended up with it accepting the job that the university offered him after presenting a brilliant doctoral thesis on the work of Joris-Karl Huysmans. The political situation in France is increasingly unstable because of the growing Muslim influence in French society. The results of the first round of the presidential elections prove that the country actually is deeply divided. The candidates of the established parties – conservatives and socialists – failed to get to the second round that will be decided between Marine Le Pen of the extremely rightist Front National and Mohammed Ben Abbes of the Muslim Brotherhood. In the second round they are generally expected to come out neck and neck, so everything depends on which of the two will succeed in joining forces with one of the old powers. Given the circumstances, the far-sighted and better-informed of the population begin to prepare for the worst, including civil war. François, who is in his mid-forties, has never been particularly interested in politics, but even he feels that fundamental change is under way. Talking with colleagues from the faculty and with the husband of one of them who works for a French secret service confirms his impression and he makes a few arrangements to be on the safe side. The family of his twenty-year-old lover Myriam, a former student of his, even decides to immigrate to Israel because they are Jewish and fear a Muslim government. On the morning of the elections, François leaves Paris heading south-west and soon realises that something must be wrong. The roads are deserted, he can catch no signal from any radio station, his mobile phone is without reception, there's no internet connection…

Depending on the reader’s point of view Submission might be labelled as anything between an independent women’s dystopian and a chauvinistic men’s utopian novel. Of course, for me it’s rather the first although I must admit that the described female dress code would at least aesthetically mean a certain improvement considering how many much overnourished women in miniskirts or tight trousers I see out in the streets every day. Joking apart, the author expertly paints a picture of a future that is alarmingly close to French and, more generally, to Western European reality today, and yet, I don’t believe that his vision is very plausible. Above all, I doubt that women would submit to the described changes towards a strictly patriarchal Muslim society without protest. After all, we have been fighting for equal rights for more than a hundred years! Moreover, I’m sure that even Muslim women (bareheaded or veiled) would revolt because not all of them are as compliant as they are generally believed to be. The lonely, desperate and opportunistic protagonist doesn’t really convince me either. For me he definitely lacks psychological depth and feels somehow unfinished, sort of stuck in puberty not knowing who he is or wants to be. That in the course of events he sort of follows in the footsteps of his “idol” Joris-Karl Huysmans doesn’t really help to understand him.

Although Submission by Michel Houellebecq certainly is an interesting, in a way even a visionary work, I could only half enjoy it because being a first-person narrative its perspective is necessarily limited to the protagonist’s and I sometimes found it difficult to relate to him at all – despite being a bit of a recluse myself. In addition, I feel that the author rushed events too much and dealt too superficially with the political changes to show the deep impact that they must have on society overall and on individuals other than the protagonist. Nonetheless, I think that this is an important book, notably because it’s controversial and thought-provoking. I also recommend it for the subtle irony that runs through it.

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This review is a contribution to
(image linked to my reading list):


  1. This novel caused an uproar amongst critics and readers alike in the United States. Your review helps me understand both the book and the uproar. Actually this year's election is showing that my country is also more divided than we thought. Thanks to you, I am putting this on my list.

    1. I think that with Submission the author wished to provoke. Admittedly, I haven't read anything about this book beforehand, but knowing it I would be surprised if it hadn't caused an uproar! Of course, in my summary I had to limit myself to the most essential, but there is a lot more, notably concerning the role of media - that keep silent about many events as if they never happened. It's a book that makes think - and have a closer look on the current situation.


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