This really isn’t the sort of book that lends itself to worries about “spoilers,” but you should know that I do clearly state the novel’s ending in the second-to-last paragraph. Please avoid this paragraph if you would like to be surprised.
The last time I posted on this novel, my jury was very much still out. I was intrigued by the premise (though no more or less so than I was after reading the book jacket) but not at all impressed by the plot or characters. That has changed. This is a fantastic novel in spite of its slow start – and since the last time I posted I’ve learned from a more experienced Houellebecq reader that this is his usual formula: slow start, lots of emphasis on the mundane, lots of not-especially-good sex, some disquisitions on beauty, then the sudden introduction of some really fascinating and charismatic secondary characters, one of whom gives a super-inspiring monologue on all of history, and then the end. Which is what happens in Submission, and I was thoroughly charmed.
Before the election that propels the Muslim Brotherhood into power, protagonist François decides to take a trip outside of Paris. He has never left Paris since he moved there as a young adult (!), but he does have a car. He suspects that violence may be about to break out in Paris, so he heads for the countryside. Along the way, he stops for gas and finds all of the gas station employees murdered and the pumps drained of gas. This profoundly upsets him – though not so much that he doesn’t step over the cashier’s bleeding body in order to steal some stuff. At this point, I was worried that the novel was going to devolve into a stereotypical pasty-white-man-having-gun-battle-with-jihadis plot line, but – to Houellebecq’s credit – this is the last violent incident in the novel. Later, at a hotel, François learns that there were coordinated episodes of violence throughout France, targeting polling places. The government reschedules the election for another day a week later and sends the military to supervise the election and maintain voter safety. Watching TV in his hotel later that night, François muses that “the idea that political history could play any part in my own life was still disconcerting, and slightly repellant. All the same, I realized – I’d known for years – that the widening gap, now a chasm, between the people and those who claimed to speak for them, the politicians and journalists, would necessarily lead to a situation that was chaotic, violent, and unpredictable. For a long time France, like all of the other countries in Western Europe, had been drifting toward civil war. That much was obvious. But until a few days before, I was still convinced that the vast majority of French people would always be resigned and apathetic – no doubt because I was more or less resigned and apathetic myself. I’d been wrong” (92).
In other words, to quote Trotsky, “You may not be interested in war – but war is interested in you.”
François waits this part of the novel out at a hotel in a small town called Martel that is also the site of a medieval Catholic shrine that was important to Joris-Karl Huysmans, the 19th-century author on whom François is an expert. Having never visited the shrine before (Houellebecq makes it clear that we should see this as an indictment of François’s nonexistent curiosity), François is captivated by it, as was I. As medieval Christian art is wont to do, the shrine at Martel prompts François to think about suffering and redemption. He both inhabits the spiritual awakening Huysmans went through at this shrine and (sort of) has a spiritual awakening of his own. “When all the prophecies had been fulfilled and Christ had come again,” he muses, “it was the entire Christian people who rose together from the tomb, resurrected in one glorious body, to make their way to paradise. Moral judgment, individual judgment, individuality itself, were not clear ideas in the mind of Romanesque man, and I felt my own individuality dissolving the longer I sat in my reverie before the Virgin of Rocamadour” (134). In other words, François is starting to feel a sense of submission – important both because it’s the title of the book and also because it is the usual English translation of the word “Islam.” We’re not told, but I get the impression that this is the first time François has felt anything like this erasing of distinctions between self and other.
François runs into some acquaintances at the shrine, and they remind one another of the history of the town, which was named after Charles Martel, who defeated the Arabs at Poitiers in 732, ending Muslim expansion into Europe. After a variety of skirmishes throughout the region, the Arabs finally left nine years later, and Martel erected the shrine to thank God for the hard-won victory.
This episode makes a few things clear: the first and most valuable (at least for a new reader of this author’s work) is that everything important that happens in this novel happens through dialogue. On his own, François drifts in his own inertia; however, he is surprisingly susceptible to the grand pronouncements of others. The novel never says, but in light of this susceptibility, along with the fact that François seems to care very little about his academic career, I wonder if François entered academia because he loves listening to really smart people talk. I have some experience in this area, since my own interest in going back to grad school is motivated by a similar tendency to romanticize the pleasures of sharing meals and faculty-room debates with smart, passionate people. I sympathized with François’ excitement when his smart, well-informed colleagues and friends entered the scene. I don’t think François wants to be alone with himself any more than I want to spend too much time in his head as a reader.
This scene is also important for the way it begins the process of integrating the historical, political, religious, and personal elements of this novel. The second half of this novel seems determined to find a “theory of everything,” and I pinpoint this scene as the place where this intellectual questing (Houellebacq’s and the reader’s, not François’) begins. François’ friend Tanneur begins the subtle transition that makes this an intellectual narrative (all transitions in this novel are subtle) by referring to Europe’s history of fighting Muslims in the Crusades and by quoting Napoleon’s statement that “war is human nature” (120). None of this is earth-shattering – but again, the transition is subtle, and this moment prefigures the fact that Submission is very quickly becoming a novel of ideas.
Similarly subtle is the transition to Muslim rule. A man named Mohammed Ben Abbes is the new prime minister, and he is suave, charismatic, and – on the surface, anyway – inclusive. The scene in the gas station seemed to suggest that the novel would devolve into door-to-door warfare, and I am so grateful to Houellebecq for not going in that direction (I will trust him more next time). The election of Ben Abbes precipitated the arrival of a veritable army of Saudi millionaires, who are placed almost immediately into the highest positions in Parisian life (most importantly for François, in the administration of the Sorbonne, where he works). These men are cultured and sophisticated, though they are often followed around by their teenaged wives. François receives notice from the university that he will be required either to convert to Islam or retire with his full pension. At first he chooses to retire. Soon, a publishing company asks him to edit a new edition of Huysmans’ work, and François thinks he has found a perfect way to remain active in academia without being forced to convert. In a fury of intellect he writes an essay on Huysmans that represents the best work of his life. However, he soon learns that the editor who asked him to edit the series is a friend of Rediger, the university’s new president, and the two academics have been scheming to seduce François back into the university. Rediger is profoundly charismatic and persuasive; François is intrigued by him, and they have several conversations. It soon becomes clear that Rediger’s aim is to convert François to Islam.
One of the most important conclusions I drew from this part of the novel is something that is never mentioned on the page. How did all these Saudi oil barons get to Paris so quickly? By the time François returns from his trip, these men are all well-ensconced in their new roles. The answer I came to was a little chilling: they likely had been preparing for this relocation for a long time. Much of made of the fact that Ben Annas is a political genius, and he must have had all of these men waiting in the wings – possibly for years – to assume their new positions. This is plausible but also a little scary. In a way, just as we know that countries and nations have learned to weaponize chemicals and biological agents and economic systems and airlines and the internet, Ben Abbas seems to have weaponized democracy. When I studied martial arts, we were always taught to “use our environment” in a conflict situation; in a democratic nation, it makes sense for someone looking to stage a takeover to use democracy to achieve his ends. Of course, in weaponizing democracy in this way, the fictional Ben Abbas echoes the strategy of another figure whose name is never mentioned on the page: Adolf Hitler. Let me be clear: I am NOT comparing Muslims to Hitler in any way at all besides the fact that the historical Hitler and the fictional Ben Abbas came to power in the same way. I do think it’s important to mention Hitler in connection with this book because, of course, the Nazi occupation of France is such a painful part of that country’s recent history and is highly relevant to this novel. I thought about it nonstop, and I think Houellebecq counts on his readers to do so. Very close to the end of the novel, the word “collaboration” is used in italics – “Many people still considered it slightly shameful to bow down to the new Saudi regime, as if it were an act of collaboration” (235) – and of course this particular word, in italics in a French novel, means only one thing.
The last quarter of the book consists of the development of several patterns. First, François feels very little pain at the loss of his most frequent sex partner, Myriam, who moved with her family to Tel Aviv along with many/most of France’s Jews as soon as the election of Ben Abbas became imminent. Second, Francois becomes more and more intrigued by the possibility of having multiple wives. Third, Rediger begins actively proselytizing, and he and François have some fascinating conversations about Nietzsche and science and how the unfathomable size of the universe is a sign of man’s insignificance that should compel us to humble ourselves and submit before God. At the same time, François finds himself thinking more and more about polygamy, noting crassly that Muslim women are “trained” in the domestic and sexual arts (he gets this information from Rediger, who happily encourages him to think about the pleasures of polygamy) and imagining a future free of take-out. The justification Rediger provides for polygamy involves natural selection and is, honestly, pretty damn convincing. François never clearly states the reason for his final decision to convert – the infinite sublime of creation vs. the possibility of some fifteen year-old pussy – but in this ending I do see why Houellebecq felt the need to dilate on François’ pre-conversion lifestyle so extensively at the beginning. I also think the fact that the one of the possible reasons for the protagonist’s conversion is so lofty and intellectual while the other is so crass is essential to the complexity and brilliance of the novel. We are our bodies, minds, and spirits, and neither holds sway over the others, at least for long.
If it is true that Houellebecq’s novels always follow the formula that I related above, it is possible that I will lose some respect for him over time. I don’t have much use for formulaic writing, even if it yields good work. However, for now I am a fan. This novel engaged me on a variety of levels, posing an entire spectrum of questions and answering only a few of them.