Reviewed by Jamie Pearce
If, like me, you are interested in what is happening to religious affiliation in the twenty-first century, then consider reading this novel.
The author, Michele Houellebecq, has renounced his former atheism, and now describes himself as agnostic. He says that he is showing the disasters produced by the liberalisation of values, and chronicling the return of religion to contemporary European politics. This novel is clearly a story of that return. It is, however, the story of the triumph of what Houellebecq himself once described as “the stupidest religion” – Islam.
Set in 2022, following a just-plausible scenario, French politics has seen the ascendancy of Marie le Pen’s right-wing party defeated by an alliance of the left with a Muslim Brotherhood party. As a consequence, France has become a Muslim country.
The novel is narrated by an atheist academic, François, an aging roué, disdainful, disillusioned, and depressed. His searing ennui is compounded when he is dismissed from his professorial position by the newly reconstituted Islamic University of Paris Sorbonne.
We follow him through an intellectual, psychological, and just possibly spiritual exploration, revisiting but rejecting his Catholic upbringing to embrace the now established French Islam, and to find in this submission “… the chance of a second life”.
Submission has been described as a satire, satire being the depiction of the logical conclusion of what is happening. The object of that satire is the intellectual elite’s complete lack of ideals or values beyond consumerist resignation. And much of the novel highlights the triviality of much modern – perhaps particularly French – arid academic and general intellectual life, a complete lack of coherent ideology, or of will to defend any solid values.
But the novel begins: “Through all the years of my sad youth Huysmans remained a companion, a faithful friend…”.
Joris-Karl Huysmans (1848-1907) was a successful French novelist whose life is, in many ways, a model for that of François in Submission.
Following the publication of his most successful novel, A rebours, one critic commented that Huysmans would have to “choose between the muzzle of a pistol or the foot of the Cross”. And, as is detailed in Submission, from a life of naturalist decadence and atheism, Huysmans did indeed re-embrace his abandoned Roman Catholicism to become an oblate at the Benedictine Abbey at Liguge in western France.
Huysmans’s life and work is the main focus and specialisation of François’s academic career.
The first two thirds of the novel is a narrative covering both the political events leading up to the establishment of the Islamic state in France and François’s lonely, loveless personal life. And while this includes some highly erotic experiences, there are repeated references back to Huysmans and his seeking after “something mysterious, priestly, royal…”, compared to “an entire culture’s enormous loss of meaning and faith”.
After some days participating in the liturgical life of the monastery at Liguge Abbey where Huysmans had taken his monastic vows, François returns to Paris. The retreat has left him jaded and disappointed by “feminine” Christianity. But Paris is rapidly transforming. Most women are veiled. And there is a letter to François offering him a new position editing the revised and definitive edition of Huysmans’ work.
The last sixty pages continue what critics consider satire as François goes through a process of conversion to Islam. But, to this reviewer, it is also a powerful analysis of what it is to find faith beyond commodification. It can also be seen as prophetic. (The day of the novel’s publication saw the murderous attack on the offices of Charlie Hebdo.)
Now, while Submission is a story of François’s religious conversion and an introduction to the actual conversion of J K Huysmans, along with references to Chesterton and Belloc, it is not recommended for an adjunct to any Bible study group. Hugh MacKay rather kindly, perhaps coyly, mentions Submission’s “aesthetic, almost carnal delight in the Catholic liturgy”. Sure, but the carnality described in some passages goes beyond any normal notion of the aesthetic, and is the reason The Guardian’s review described reading the novel as “discomforting”.
Discomforting, maybe. Prophetic, probably. Challenging, certainly.
Jamie Pearce is a Board member of Social Policy Connections.