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Michel Houellebecq: Soumission (Submission)

Since reading Les particules élémentaires (UK: Atomised; US: The Elementary Particles), I have kept away from Michel Houellebecq, feeling that he was more concerned with self-promotion than writing great works of literature. However, having read a lot about this work in the French literary press, I could not resist reading it. Houellebecq is controversial and likes antagonising people. He manages to be both in this book, to some considerable degree. Muslims, all the political parties in France, women, students, academics, particularly those specialising in literature, young people, the Chinese and the French government are all victims of his intemperate cynicism in this book. Indeed, I almost feel offended that, apart from the usual dig at the weather, England and the English seem to come off unscathed.

The story is narrated by François. As far as I can tell, his surname is not given. He is a great lover of the works of J-K Huysmans, a decadent French writer of the late nineteenth century. He wrote his thesis on Huysmans and it was so well received that it got him a job as an academic in the University of Paris III. (Les études universitaires dans le domaine des lettres ne conduisent comme on le sait à peu près à rien, sinon pour les étudiants les plus doués à une carrière d’enseignement universitaire dans le domaine des lettres [As we know, university studies in literature lead to virtually nothing, except for students who are gifted enough to make a career teaching literature at university].) He has since written a book and several articles on Huysmans. He now teaches nineteenth century literature and has become a professor. (Je n’avais jamais eu la moindre vocation pour l’enseignement — et, quinze ans plus tard, ma carrière n’avait fait que confirmer cette absence de vocation initiale. [I had never had the slightest vocation for teaching and, fifteen years later, my career had only confirmed this lack of initial vocation.]) This is accentuated by his admission that he does not like young people and has never liked them, except, perhaps, for sex. While a student, his sex life had consisted of getting to know a woman at the beginning of the year, with the relationship ending at the end of the year, usually at her instigation. Since he has become a professional academic, this has changed only in that it is he who now ends the relationship. However, things have changed slightly, as he seems particularly attracted to Myriam. After breaking it off with her, he regrets it and invites her to his flat, only to ruin his chances by making a couple of sexist remarks, including suggesting that women should not be allowed to vote or do jobs traditionally reserved for men. Indeed, he admits that, Myriam apart, he finds online pornography a suitable substitute.

As he tells us, academics have just two topics of conversation – university politics and gossip about who is sleeping with whom. However, there is now a new issue. This novel is set in 2022. In the 2017 election, the extreme right had substantially increased their vote and there was no doubt that people were more and more leaning to the right. Despite this, the Socialist party had again won the presidential elections. (Given the poll ratings of François Hollande, the incumbent Socialist president, this seems highly unlikely.) As a result, the Muslims, worried about the rise of the extreme right, had formed their own party, called the Muslim Fraternity. This party initially had extreme views but realised, for electoral success, they must tone down and they did. They made alliances with Jewish groups and, while critical of Israel, they were not too strident in their criticism. With the voters turned off by both the two main parties, the centre-right and centre-left, opinion polls showed the extreme right leading, followed by the Muslims behind, on level pegging with the left. There had been various outbreaks of violence in the Paris region but the media and government had kept quiet about them. (François considers that it it was done so as not to upset the moderate Muslims.) François had even witnessed one such outbreak. He tried to watch the presidential debates on television but an accident with his microwave limited that but he did eagerly watch the results of election night. To his surprise, at the last minute, the Muslims took second place, behind the extreme-right. (French presidential elections normally take two rounds.) He is somewhat concerned about his future as an academic but his colleagues assume that it will not be an issue. Walking home the next day, he bumps into a colleague and raises this issue. She invites him to meet her husband, Alain Tanneur, who works for the French government Internal Security Service. There seems to be some agreement afoot between the Socialists and the Muslims. However, while the Muslims are willing to concede finance and foreign affairs to the Socialists, they are adamant that they should be in charge of education, on the basis that if you educate the children they will turn out as you wish them to turn out. It seems that their policy will be to create Muslim schools which will follow strict Muslim teaching (same sex schools only, girls mainly taught domestic science and trained to be wives and mothers, very limited higher education for women, regular prayer and Koran-based instruction). Non-Muslim schools will exist but they will get much less funding, so that they will soon deteriorate and all middle-class parents will want to send their children to the Muslim schools. They will also allow polygamy.

Eventually a deal is made between the Muslim party and the main older French political parties so that the Muslim party wins the election. Before the second round election, we follow the life of François. It becomes apparent that, at least for now, the university is to be closed. François decides to flee Paris, fearing a civil war. He decides to head South-West, not really sure of where he is going and admitting that he is remarkably ignorant of his own country. He finds the roads deserted. Running out of petrol, he finally finds a garage but finds the cashier dead – shot – as well as two dead, armed Muslims. What happened? Eventually, he arrives at the village of Martel, apparently named after Charles Martel, who defeated the Arabs at Tours in 732. He bumps into Alain Tanneur, who has a house there. Both he and his wife have been made redundant. He goes to dinner with them, where Tanneur gives a lot more speculation on the possible future of the country and tells him how the attacks on the garage and similar attacks at election booths are being kept out of the media. However, when the Muslims do win the elections, things seem to calm down. After that, things change very rapidly and, in my view, very unconvincingly. Women are sent back to the Middle Ages, wearing only modest clothing. They seem to be squeezed out of many jobs. François, for example, goes to a cocktail party at the university later on and is surprised that there is not a single woman there. Polygamy is adopted and accepted (by both sexes). Crime drops. The new president, Mohammed Ben Abbes, is very astute at not antagonising too many people.

We continue to follow François’ life. He has returned to Paris but been sent a redundancy notice, albeit with a generous pension. His sex life, with Myriam, like many other Jews, having emigrated to Israel, and his normal supply of students no longer available, involves using prostitutes. Contrary to his (and our expectations), things seem very calm. He then meets the new pro-Islam but French head of the university, who offers him a job – provided he converts to Islam.

In an interview with Houellebecq on the book, he said that he had been an atheist but become more of an agnostic. He also considers that religion is very much on the rise. (This is one of the many areas where I am inclined to disagree with him.) There is no doubt that religion is key to this book and to the success of the Muslim Fraternity. He seems to feel that there is a strong bond between the religions of the Book, i.e. Christianity, Islam and Judaism and it is this bond that enables the Muslim Fraternity to gain electoral success. However, in the interview, he does admit that a Muslim government in 2022 is not very likely. I find this aspect of the book most improbable. France has the largest Muslim population of any Western European country but it is still only 7.5% of the population. Not only would I consider it unlikely that a large amount of non-Muslims would vote for a Muslim party, even to keep out the extreme right, he does not take into account the fact that Muslims, like Christians, Jews and atheists, are not homogeneous in their political outlook and many Muslims would disagree with the Muslim Fraternity. Later in the book, we see the rise of Muslim parties in other Western European countries, something I consider most unlikely, except on a very small scale. Currently, in France as elsewhere, Muslims have joined and been elected for office as part of the major parties, sometimes those of the centre-right and sometimes those of the centre-left. I am well aware that, for the French, France is the centre of Europe, if not the centre of the world, but does he really believe that countries like Germany, Italy, Spain and the UK would casually let Morocco, Tunisia, Egypt and Algeria join the EU? This book gives the impression that the decision is entirely France’s, as though the other twenty-seven EU member countries had no say. I could criticise other aspects of his approach but will leave it to those more qualified than I to do so. Despite these failings, this is certainly an interesting book and one that is going to be controversial and very much debated, particularly once it is translated, as it will be, into other languages. Houellebecq says that one of the reasons he wrote this book is because it was his job, to point out what is happening in France. However, he also mentions another factor – my mass market side, my “thriller” side. In other words, he knew that it would be controversial, would be discussed and criticised and that, as a result, he would make lots of money out of it. There is nothing wrong with that but, I suspect, that may have been his main motivation, Michel Houellebecq, the naughty boy of French literature but the one who makes the cash.

Publishing history

First published in French 2015 by Flammarion
First published in English in 2015 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Translated by Lorin Stein