Monday, November 2, 2015


After reading two novels by Michel Houellebecq I didn't feel that I quite had a handle on him, but now, with a third, I think I do. Submission ostensibly studies the intersection of the life of Joris-Karl Huysmans (1848-1907), the minor French writer, with the life of François, a fictional professor at the Sorbonne who specializes in Huysmans, against the backdrop of dramatic political changes in France of the year 2022. Houellebecq has variously been called a provocateur, a pornographer, a misogynist and a great novelist. I would now just label him as an imaginative French novelist and leave it at that.

The arc of Huysmans's life and career started with naturalism, like that of Émile Zola, evolved into decadence, like that of Oscar Wilde, and ended with a return to the traditions of the Roman Catholic Church. François's life seems to be following a similar trajectory. He is a middle-aged man who has been serially dating students half his age and becomes dejected after the most recent one dumps him. Most of his relationships last for only one year, the academic year, and his primary interest in them seems to be sex. In a bizarre but theoretically possible turn of events, a charismatic, moderate Muslim with immense political skills becomes the head of the French government, and radical changes immediately follow. The Sorbonne becomes an Islamic university funded by Saudi Arabia, in which all professors are required to convert to Islam and adopt Muslim practices such as polygamy. Women are no longer allowed to work. For most of this short novel it looks as if François is going to follow Huysmans's arc along with his country and become born again, only into a different Abrahamic religion, which will have the effect of providing him with a new meaning to his life.

Never one for tight narratives, Houellebecq has François balk a little toward the end as he begins to question Huysmans for the first time:
It had been a mistake to give too much importance to Huysmans's glib talk about "debauches" and "dissipation." That was just a Naturalistic tic, a contemporary cliché, part of the need to scandalize, to shock the bourgeoisie. In the end, it was a career move; and the opposition he set up between carnal appetite and the rigors of monastic life was equally beside the point. Chastity wasn't a problem and never had been, not for Huysmans or anyone else....In reality this had never posed the least difficulty for monks, and in my own case, as the Islamic regime pushed women's clothing in the direction of decency, I had felt my own sexual impulses gradually diminish.
François goes on to pick apart several of Huysmans's ideas, and at the same time Islam itself doesn't appear to offer solutions to any of his life problems. Nevertheless, after a long discussion in which the new university president attempts to recruit him, without any noticeable soul-searching he finally decides to convert to Islam for no compelling reasons other than vague financial ones; he is already technically retired from his academic position and is not under any real pressure.

The novel is disappointing from a conceptual standpoint in the sense that François merely goes with the flow, adapting as necessary, and principles never factor into the process. He stands little to lose by following the patriarchal model of Islam: he will have ample income from an unspecified sinecure if he elects to stay on with the university, along with three attractive young wives. He never gives the conversion much thought, and he never has to. If you compare this to Czeslaw Milosz's musing in The Captive Mind, François has taken the Murti-Bing pill and buried any reservations that might lead to his rejection of Islam. I suppose this is a predictable outcome, and it is easy to imagine someone like Houellebecq making the same decision himself under similar circumstances.

Along the way there is some good and bad writing. The pornographic sections are really too much for me to read, as I can only take so much discussion of orifices. Sex doesn't add anything to the novel and only shows that Houellebecq is consciously counting prurient male consumers as part of his base readership. Alternatively, this kind of writing may be viewed as passé in Western Europe, where Elfriede Jelinek was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature for smuttier work. As with sex, Houellebecq uses other kinds of contemporary fillers that even show up in American novels. One that I'm already tired of is the listing of food and drink. Novelists these days must spend half their time copying menus at high-end restaurants only to insert the items throughout their work. The other half must be spent taking notes at various tourist attractions so that they can place them somewhere in their novels. Besides these standard tricks, Houellebecq arranges to have both of François's divorced parents die during the course of the novel, though François has never kept up with either of them and is completely indifferent to their deaths. In The Map and the Territory the protagonist's father also dies, but he is portrayed with greater sympathy; there is also no sex in that novel, and I surmise that Houellebecq intentionally cleaned up his act in order to obtain greater critical approval: it worked and he was awarded the Prix Goncourt, so now he can return to his old habits. If you took out all of the nonsense from most novels, they'd probably be only ten pages long.

On the good side, Houellebecq occasionally makes astute observations:
Many men take an interest in politics and war, but these diversions never appealed to me. I was about as political as a bath towel. No doubt it was my loss. To be fair, when I was young, the elections could not have been less interesting; the mediocrity of the "political offerings" was almost surprising. A center-left candidate would be elected, serve either one or two terms, depending how charismatic he was, then for obscure reasons he would fail to complete a third. When people got tired of that candidate, and the center-left in general, we'd witness the phenomenon of democratic change, and the voters would install a candidate of the center-right, also for one or two terms, depending on his personal appeal. Western nations took a strange pride in this system, though it amounted to little more than a power-sharing deal between two rival gangs, and they would even go to war to impose it on nations that failed to share their enthusiasm.
He can also be quite funny in a deadpan, self-deprecating way:
I had no plan, no exact destination, just a vague sense that I ought to head southwest–that if a civil war should break out in France, it would take a while to reach the southwest. I knew next to nothing about the southwest, really, only that it was a region where they ate duck confit, and duck confit struck me as incompatible with civil war. Though, of course, I could be wrong.  

Whether you want to read this book or not is obviously up to you. I think I've summarized the main points adequately, and I doubt that it will get much press in the U.S. In the unlikely event that France goes Islamic in the future, Houellebecq may be considered prophetic. For me, he touches on some of the larger human questions, but in a manner that is primarily superficial, so if I read any more of his work it will be mainly as a diversion. Even so, he probably writes at a higher level than any American author I've ever read, and that is to his credit, to say the least.


  1. I've tried three or four of his novels but managed only to finish his first--Whatever it was called in English.

    On a related note, the American writer currently getting a lot of favorable publicity is one Mary Gaitskill. I've never read anything by her and given the venues the articles championing her are appearing in it's highly unlikely I ever will, but at least one of the readers of your blog would be interested in your take on her work and her admirers, if you happen to be familiar with her work.


    1. I've seen the name but have never read anything by her. You're probably right - I wouldn't like her either - but I'm not exactly strapped for time and may look into her anyway as part of my investigation into the mediocrity of American writers.

      Regarding Houellebecq, his later novels are probably better than his earliest novels. "The Map and the Territory" works as a satire of the art world and lacks the porn of the others.

  2. Lord would it suck if she actually turned out to be worth reading.

    1. After doing some research I decided to read "Bad Behavior," which was published in 1988. Judging from what I've read about her, her work may have gone downhill ever since. She apparently had a rough background, so at least her early work should be different. The problem is that she became part of the academic creative writing establishment, which squelches criticism here. The trick, I find, is to locate reviews written outside the U.S., where the cartel has less influence. As Glinda, the Good Witch of the North, says to the Wicked Witch of the West in "The Wizard of Oz," "You have no power here - begone...."


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