Wednesday, February 04, 2015

Review: Michel Houellebecq, "Soumission"

Raymond Taras, author most recently of Fear and the Making of Foreign Policy: Europe and Beyond, is currently Visiting Professor at the University of Sussex.

Here he reviews Soumission by Michel Houellebecq:
Sturm und Drang und banality are the hallmarks of a Houellebecq novel and Soumission, released on the day of the Charlie Hebdo attack in Paris, continues in this tradition. Not one to aspire to high literary pretensions, the author seeks to shock and awe through provocative plot and character. Does this novel succeed in provoking and if so whom?

The great issues of the year 2022 have been resolved and Europe is resurgent, thanks to its newfound belief in a return to the Roman Empire that is made possible by energized Muslim leadership in many Western European countries. France has elected a moderate Muslim Brotherhood president with the support of Socialist and conservative parties determined to keep Marine Le Pen of the nationalist Front National out of the Élysée Palace.

François, an undistinguished academic at the Sorbonne who is the main protagonist of the novel, is facing a vexing question. Now that I’ve converted to Islam and can hold onto my job at the Islamic University of Paris – Sorbonne, acquired by Saudi Salafists, how do I choose the several wives I’m entitled to if I can’t check them out from behind their multiple layers of robes and veils? Not a problem, says his Muslim head of school, that’s the job of the marieuse (matchmaker) who scrutinizes naked young women. She has the experience to match the physical attributes of a girl with the social status of her future husband. Just as surely as women have been socialized into being attracted by rich men, so they can be persuaded that university professors possess high erotic value. Fifty-something François returns to teaching students at the Sorbonne and finds he has become the object of attention among pretty, timid, veiled girls. “Each of these girls, however attractive she may be, would feel happy and proud to be chosen by me and honored to share my bed,” he says to himself (p. 299).

Who should feel most provoked by Houellebecq’s characterization of such perverse human ambitions? Muslims? Women? Professors? The French?

If not for upturning stones about the place of Islam in Europe, this sixth novel by France’s best known writer, more passionately discussed than recent Nobel literature laureates Patrick Modiano and Jean-Marie Le Clézio, could on first impression mistakenly be categorized as a racy French campus novel - though it’s hard to imagine the Sorbonne as location of eroticism on campus. To begin with there is little humor in a Houellebecq novel. He has specialized in portraying dull French males who even have trouble enjoying the wild erotic adventures they usually purchase. François’s sexual escapades are not with tedious female PhD students in English lit, as in the Anglo-American campus literary genre, but with professional hookers whether one-on-one or hardcore group sex. Moreover English and American campus novels rarely dwell on the subjects of intellects, ideas, and cerebral activity preferring to mock the mindless patter overheard at academic dinner parties, scholarly conferences, and department meetings. By contrast Houellebecq takes a stab at boring readers through presenting lengthy desultory exegesis of the subject of François’s research – Joris-Karl Huysmans, an exceptionally dull nineteenth-century Christian writer (he worked in the French civil service for thirty years). Through his characters Huysmans painstakingly described the process of submitting to the calling of Christ and making the conversion to Catholic monastic life, as an Oblate.

These extended sections on Huysmans’ intellectual and spiritual experiences are juxtaposed with accounts of François’s boredom with academe, book contracts, travel, escort services, parents, politics. That is why the possibility of polygamy centered around the problem which young Muslim virgins to choose finally animates this atheist converting to Islam.

If this novel needs a disclaimer notice on its cover, then, it would not necessarily be that Muslims, women, academics, and French people might find passages in it disturbing. It would instead warn the reader that she will encounter lengthy sections which inquire into the inner thoughts and feelings of a Promethean Catholic figure about to make the plunge to becoming an Oblate. To be fair, the much briefer erotic passages might just be enough recompense for some readers.

What a reader may find unimaginative is the purported anti-Muslim thrust of the book. Reading about cautious, moderate Islamic politics in France in the year 2022 is as dull and banal as encountering nineteenth-century stories of Christian conversion. Houellebecq set out to write a boring book and in achieving this objective he sought to lower the decibel level in discussions about Islam in France. The irony is that his caricature appearing on the cover of the Charlie Hebdo issue which helped prompt the murderous attack on its editorial and artistic staff was inflammatory and provocative in its own right.
Visit Ray Taras's website. His books include the soon forthcoming Fear and the Making of Foreign Policy: Europe and Beyond (Edinburgh University Press), Xenophobia and Islamophobia in Europe (Edinburgh University Press); and (editor) Challenging multiculturalism: European models of diversity (Edinburgh University Press).

--Marshal Zeringue