Sunday, January 10, 2016

Michel Houellebecq's "Submission": Book Review Submission: A Novel (9780374271572): Michel Houellebecq ...While the release of this book in its original French will be inevitably tied to the article about its author, Michel Houellebecq, featured in Charlie Hebdo the week of the Parisian murders of its staff and other innocents last January, the novel itself merits attention.

Readers of Houellebecq's previous fiction will recognize familiar elements. The discontent of his early middle-aged, educated, ornery French narrators in Whatever and The Elementary Particles repeats. The unease in {Platform} that lust brings to those with sagging bodies and ebbing desire persists. The longing for an escape from a declining European culture returns after The Possibility of an Island with its utopian fantasy, and aesthetic debates dramatized in The Map and the Territory.

After this newest novel's French publication, critics sought to blame, once again, its satirical author. Inevitably, Soumission entered the bestseller charts in first place. Some on the left regarded its themes as needlessly provocative. Many called them racist, appealing to baser instincts among French nationalists. Taken by English-language audiences at more of a distance, these issues may recede.

If treated as another in a series of Houellebecq's jabs at coddled liberal sensibilities, Submission loses some sting. Houellebecq proves rather, once again, he delights in the novel of ideas. He places his narrators within unbearable situations. We then watch them try to wriggle free. Within a French situation where the thought-police seek to patrol the sensibilities of all who reject secular platitudes as much as they may religious ones, the topics Submission investigates enrich its suggestive title.

Suffering from "andropause," our forty-something narrator encounters the steady decline of literature, values, culture and his libido. The teller of Submission is an expert on J. K. Huysmans, who over a century ago startled an earlier French readership with decadent novels, considered "sodomitical" and Satanic. Like Houellebecq, Huysmans' erudition enhanced his fiction's barbed, bohemian contents. Unlike Houellebecq, Huysmans began a gradual conversion to Catholicism; he eventually lived, if in less than austere style, as a lay oblate attached to a Benedictine monastery. Houellebecq had drafted this novel with a template of a protagonist emulating Huysmans' path; this story becomes in the revised version we have its sub-plot. Meanwhile, the main plot dramatizes French Islamization.

For an acerbic author regarded as unsentimental, Houellebecq begins this novel with a tender, if bitter, homage to the power of literature. It channels for the living the voices of the dead. Directly, by no other means, a reader can enter by a book into the mind of its creator, the spirits of the departed.

The narrator loves this quality. In his dissertation on Huysmans, he sums up an outlook in common with Houellebecq. "Even as he grew to despise the left, he maintained his old aversion to capitalism, money, and anything to do with bourgeois values." The professor avers that "the only thing left to people in their despair was reading," but that solace is chosen by far fewer than in Huysmans' era.

Instead, much of the initial action in this fiction, concerned more with lofty concepts than realism or politics, takes place in languid dialogue or heated exchanges between the narrator and a louche colleague at the University of Paris, Steve. The protagonist spars with him often, in "that odd ritual,. part buggery, part duel" that is "conversation between men." When the teller is jolted enough by the violence breaking out as the far-right spars with Islamic factions during the Presidential primary, the empty rural roadscape he sees, static on the radio, a clerk shot dead at a convenience store, feels less real and more contrived. It is akin to horror as glimpsed in a J.G. Ballard novel, drained of emotions.

After all, Houellebecq detaches himself from his narrator--and through him. He leaves enough of the Huysmans-driven plot to move him along, as he attempts a retreat himself at a Catholic monastery. But this fails. He has no deep contempt for his former "fellow believers" who cling to the Church. Rather, he blames "laicism" and "atheist materialism" for the death rattle of Western European values. This critique carries more weight in France than in the U.S. Despite Lorin Stein's flowing translation, readers of Submission distant from the issues that divided France after the Charlie Hebdo shootings and those limits or liberties of freedom to mock any religion may feel that this novel's impact fades.

What international readers, who may be baffled by the dense if understandable references to French media pundits and political maneuvers, are left with is a more classic contribution to a French model. The narrator who employs satire to comment on his homeland from abroad, reporting from a fabled or foreign land, emerges. As Montesquieu's Persian Letters or Voltaire's fiction transported French concerns to imaginary lands, to sidestep censorship and clerical reaction, so Houellebecq places his nameless narrator within a French polity a few years into the future. In Submission to counter a threat by Marine LePen and National Front, other French parties cast their lot with the Muslims. We hear far too little about what follows in practical terms. This lack weakens the novel's impact. Yet the tale-teller laments, typically, the loss of the ability to admire women, now that so many are veiled.

The indulgence granted such a sly teller of edgy commentary enlivens comparisons between French and Muslim mores. Late in the story, the scholar's supervisor--who has converted to the faith that has bought the Sorbonne with Saudi money and rewarded those faculty who give in--links "woman's shamanism to man, as it is described in The Story of O, and the Islamic idea of man's submission to God." The appeal of bonus brides as recruited from two or three female students from the realm of Islam, who are the few remaining who enroll in literature classes at the University of Paris, beckons the narrator to contemplate joining the favored elite of Muslim converts. Huysmans' path diverges from those 120 years later in this French novel, but Houellebecq and his narrator agree. If he submits to God's call, this dissolute intellectual will find favor in the eyes of the pious, and the well-endowed.

We leave this predicament as the protagonist mulls over his choice. Will he embrace "a chance at a second life with very little connection to the present one?" He admits, "I would have nothing to mourn." Christian France is dying. With the nation under Muslim leadership, in a coalition with the Socialists and a center-right party, such are parliaments in a strange land of the near-future, those who wield power and issue paychecks have changed. At this point, the novel sidles away. Submission chooses to remain chary about the full force of such momentous transitions. It prefers to stay coy, and like the delights of the women hidden behind gowns and veils, it retreats into its own fantasy again. (Amazon US 10-20-15; Spectrum Culture 11-8-15 a few days before the [latest] Parisian massacres.)

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