Three possibilities for approaching Michel Houellebecq’s daring novel, Submission: First, a dystopian narrative of France’s future in a few more years, when Muslims gain enough political power to win elections, form coalitions, and—finally—take over the country. Second, man’s denial of God but eventual admission that He exists, i.e., from atheism to conversion. Third, an incredibly hilarious spoof of academic life by a clever writer who states in the acknowledgements at the end of the story that he “did not attend university, and everything I know about academic life I learned from Agathe Novak-Lechevalier, maître de conferences at the University of Paris X-Nanterre.” So take your choice or a combination of these three possibilities.
Let’s begin with the latter. The main character, named François, teaches literature at the New Sorbonne University, in Paris. He’s single, middle-aged, and an expert on the nineteenth-century decadent writer, J. -K. Huysmans. He sleeps with his students, isn’t interested in politics (“I was about as political as a bath towel”), and doesn’t really care much for teaching except for the sexual access it provides him to his graduate students. These relations generally last throughout the academic year, and then, when the classes end, so do his affairs. When the students are away, he visits prostitutes and watches porn. He’s honest about his teaching—at least with himself, “I’ve never felt the slightest vocation for teaching,” and doesn’t have much affection or excitement for the students he seduces, one of whom he describes as a sad “bird in an oil slick.”
But he’s got the profession down pat, right to a T. “The academic study of literature leads basically nowhere, as we all know, unless you happen to be an especially gifted student, in which case it prepares you for a career teaching the academic study of literature—it is, in other words a rather farcical system that exists solely to replicate itself and yet manages to fail more than 95 percent of the time. Still, it’s harmless, and can even have a certain marginal value. A young woman applying for a sales job at Céline or Hermès should naturally attend to her appearance above all; but a degree in literature can constitute a secondary asset, since it guarantees the employer, in the absence of any useful skills, a certain intellectual agility that could lead to professional development—besides which, literature has always carried positive connotations in the world of luxury goods.” Phew!
Then there’s the issue of Islam’s march across Europe. Starting with an election in France in 2017, the Muslim Brotherhood begins increasing its ranking among the country’s political parties. (Shades, obviously, of LePen in France, the Kurds in Turkey, and so on—except that Submission was published before some of these results were known.) With the 2017 election, the Brotherhood insists that the only part of the government it wants as its portfolio is education—not finance, not foreign policy, etc. It’s a particularly astute move because educational control turns the tide for them. As a colleague tells François, “They want every French child to have the option of a Muslim education, at every level of schooling.” That means no co-education. Women can study only certain topics, mainly Home Ec. Most women will not acquire higher learning. And here’s the clincher: all teachers must be Muslim. “Schools would observe Muslim dietary laws and the five daily prayers; above all, the curriculum itself would have to reflect the teachings of the Koran.” During the subsequent years, after a temporary period of chaos, the Muslim Brotherhood becomes the dominant party.
Before that, the universities are closed and François is forced into retirement. An election is rigged. There are riots in many parts of the country, but—amazingly—not much of a backlash once the Muslim Brotherhood assumes total power, in 2022. Significantly, some of the changes are positive. There was “a dramatic drop in crime: in the most troubled neighborhoods it was down 90 percent.” Welfare was virtually eliminated. Unemployment plummeted, mostly because women were no longer in the work force. With France’s increasing stability as a model, other European countries began considering Islam; and several North African countries seek entry into the European Union.
Finally, there’s religion in the sense of conversion, submission. François is offered an important professorship at the Sorbonne, with the status he has never had before. The kicker is that he will need to convert to Islam. (One tantalizing benefit, a colleague tells him, is that he’ll be able to have several wives. That colleague has just taken a second wife, who is fifteen years old; thus there’s a hint that what was forbidden before regarding sexuality with young girls is suddenly made legitimate by Islam.) But conversion also means acceptance of God for the life-long atheist. Surprisingly, that’s worked out fairly easily since the renegade Huysmans, his idol, also converted (to Catholicism) late in life. Thus our colorless professor of literature who has seldom felt a commitment to anything, or even an excitement for life, finds himself at a major turning point when options appear that he has never had before. That’s when credibility is tossed out the window.
And the plot? I didn’t believe a word of it. But with Lorin Stein’s accomplished translation, you’ll certainly have a good laugh or two.
Michel Houellebecq: Submission
Trans. By Lorin Stein
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 246 pp., $25