At Public Books, Judith Surkis reviews Michel Houellebecq’s newly translated novel Submission. Rather than a shrewd social critic, as some have called him, Houellebecq is dull and unprofound according to Surkis, especially when it comes to his simpleminded criticism of Islam. Here’s an excerpt from the review:
As with Houellebecq’s earlier works, Submission is principally concerned with Western “Man’s” sexual decadence. The novel, like its narrator, displays little interest in documenting or imagining Muslim French existence, past, present, or future. Submission’s obsession with French decline has led commentators like Mark Lilla and Adam Gopnik to conclude that “the charge that Houellebecq is Islamophobic seems misplaced. He’s not Islamophobic. He’s Francophobic.” But these two tendencies are neither mutually exclusive nor easy to distinguish. As historians of xenophobia in France have amply shown, national self-loathing does not contradict a hatred of foreign others. It produces it. The novelist Louis-Ferdinand Céline offers a spectacular example of how fears of French bodily decay give rise to sexual fantasies of foreign invasion. Such highly ambivalent attitudes have been a hallmark of far-right thinking in France from the Dreyfus Affair to the 1930s and Vichy, from the era of decolonization to today.
Houellebecq identifies himself as a transgressive “public enemy.” But as a writer he in no way resembles Céline, whose transgressions were as brilliant stylistically as they were reprehensible politically. Submission’s fantasies, whatever their satirical intention, are ultimately and unfortunately banal. The novel’s welter of literary references insufficiently veil its naked core: a clichéd reduction of Islam to male sexual domination and female sexual pliancy. No matter how positively and playfully represented, this figure of “Muslim” polygamy is politically and socially stigmatizing, based on debilitating stereotypes not just of Muslims but also of women. This is not to say that Submission should not be read. It may not be a great a novel on its literary merits, but it is a revealing document that shows disturbing political currents in France’s past and present, albeit in the guise of predicting the future.
Image of Michel Houellebecq via mediapart.fr.