A brilliant idea for a novel dissipated by a maverick of a skilled wordsmith into satirical sexual fantasy

This is my review of Submission by Michel Houellebecq.

My initial prejudice against Houellebecq, fed by critical reviews accusing him of vulgarity, obscenity, misogyny, even racism and islamophobia, was rapidly dispelled by his expressive, fluid prose and the wry sense of humour he applies not only to French society but also to himself in a self-deprecating way.

There is huge potential in his idea of a Muslim president gaining power in the France of 2022 as the unintended consequence of a misalliance between the left and right intended to keep out the National Front. I was disappointed to find that this theme was not developed in any depth or breadth. Although the book’s coincidental publication on the day of the Charlie Hebdo massacre and the author’s suggestion of the suppression of civil unrest in an upmarket Parisian square chime with recent real events, the course of events seems much gentler, milder and more “soft-centred” than that which France is suffering in November 2015 (the time of writing this).

The imagined Saudi-backed “Islamisation” of France serves only as a backdrop to the mid-life crisis of a forty-something Parisian academic who appears to be a parody of Houellebecq himself.

François is self-absorbed, verging on alcoholism in his isolation without close friends, unable to sustain a sexual relationship so forced to resort to pornography and kinky exploits with female escorts – all somewhat repellent and tedious for many readers, including me, and of interest only to extend if not exactly improve one’s French. François shows an appalling lack of concern over news of his estranged mother’s death and burial in a “pauper’s grave”, and it turns out that Houellebecq has very fraught dealings with his own mother who abandoned him to the care of others when he was very young, apparently causing him long-lasting emotional damage.

The narrator François lives off the reputation of his student thesis on the late C19 writer Huysmans with whose satirical wit and erudition both he and it would seem Houellebecq identify strongly. At one point, François suspects that his atheist hero Huysmans joined a Trappist order in later life for the material comforts this would bring, and in similar vein he “collaborates” with the authoritarian and corrupt new Islamic university system because it will provide him with the chance to choose three nubile young submissive student brides.

Switching continually between intellectualism and porn, the book is filled with digressions into the lives of long-dead writers like Bloy and Guénon about whom I learned for the first time, which combine with the ivory-tower nature of François’ existence to weaken the dramatic pace of the novel. There are fascinating little snippets of information, like the description of the Gallo-Roman “Arène de Lutèce” hidden away in the Latin Quarter. In the sometimes disconcerting blend of fiction and fact, Houellebecq tends to set scenes in identifiable buildings, and refers in often bordering on libellous turns to modern-day politicians alongside his imaginary creations.

The “submission” of the title applies to that of women, which is in turn compared to that required of Muslims to Allah. I suspect the novel will offend many Muslims as a cynical distortion of their faith, in fact it is likely to prove an unsettling read for most people. I trust it is intended to be tongue-in cheek and not largely a chauvinistic male sexual fantasy.

⭐⭐⭐ 3 Stars

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