What If It Doesn’t Work Out Like That?

a review by Mark Gullick (October 2015)

No stronger retrograde force [than Islam] exists in the world.
– Winston Churchill, The River War

Islam is a religion of peace.
– David Cameron, from a statement following the beheading by Islamists of a British aid worker


by Michel Houellebecq
Farrar, Straus and Giroux (October 20, 2015)
256 pp.


On the subject of Islam, Michel Houellebecq (long in the tooth still to be called France’s novelistic enfant terrible) has transgressed before, referring to it as ‘the stupidest religion’, and opining that reading the Koran was ‘appalling’, comments which led to the usual pearl-clutching shrieks of liberal dismay as the magazine carrying the offending interview was sued by some of the many Muslim ‘organisations’ in France. In Houellebecq’s previous novels, Islam is a presence if never a theme, and critics were waiting to pounce on Submission. The wait may have been in vain.

Released in France as Soumission on the same day as the Charlie Hebdo massacre, the book’s very title seemed mischievous. ‘Islam’ does not, as our political leaders bleat, mean ‘peace’, but something closer to ‘submission’, a central tenet of the Islamic faith. The submission practiced in Houellebecq’s near-future scenario, however, is not forced, but resignedly welcomed by the academic drifters who are the central characters.

The novel’s anti-hero is by now a stock Houellebecq figure. François is a middle-aged academic whose life’s work is the French novelist Huysmans. For the non-Francophone reader who may not know Huysmans, Houellebecq may well be playing on perhaps his most famous novel, À Rebours, usually translated into English as Against Nature. The question of what the natural state of Man might be gradually comes to light in Submission, and is one of its most successful sub-texts.

Graduality is, in fact, the strength of Submission. Beginning as it does with familiar Houellebecquian existential lassitude and sexual disgust and failure, the first moment of focus is when François sees some adolescent Salafist Muslims hanging around a lecture theatre at his university. The young, fit men appear, and the prose style shifts in a way reminiscent of Camus’s L’étranger. There, at the notorious point where Mersault goes back to the beach to shoot the Arab, the prose explodes into a display of kinetic verbs, used sparely throughout the rest of the book. Here, Houellebecq is not presenting Islam as a threat so much as a tonic, a much-needed effervescence.

One by one, the dominoes of an exhausted French culture fall, to be replaced by Islamic pillars. The university closes. When it reopens, it will be with an Islamic curriculum which, although it will permit non-Koranic studies, will have final arbitration. François is barred from all but secular universities and pensioned off. His old faculty buildings are decorated with Koranic verses and staffed by veiled secretaries. A married colleague talks of ‘getting another wife next month’. François laments the closing of the beautiful art deco Bar Metropole in Brussels, believing that ‘Europe had already committed suicide’.

Contemporary events constellating around the West’s Islamic problem are all present in Submission. There is the undercurrent of sectarian conflict within Islam itself we are seeing today, yet which is ignored by the media. There is the new Jewish diaspora, as François’s casual girlfriend Miryam’s parents fly back to Tel Aviv as Ben Abbes’s electoral prospects rise. ‘They’re not even waiting for the run-offs,’ she says. There is the paradox of Islamic Conservatism.

The structure of the novel does have a tendency to lapse into the didactic, as though a neo-classical dialogue had been pasted into place against a background of standard Houellebecqian existential nausea and bad sex, but it is the creeping set of François’s small epiphanies which is so disturbingly familiar for those of us living in our current interesting times:

‘When I went in to teach my class, I finally felt that something might happen, that the political system I’d grown up with, which had been showing cracks for so long, might suddenly explode.’

In the end, submission implies a prior revelation, the realisation that there is something to which it is necessary to submit, and revelation requires, as in the Bible, gnosis, or received knowledge leading to wisdom. François may be an expert on an obscure novelist, but he has failed to see that which has been right in front of him:

‘I had some idea that Islam prohibited drinking alcohol, at least that’s what I’d heard. To be honest, it wasn’t a religion I knew much about.’

Whether or not Submission is a prescient novel is not, of course, in the gift of the present to know. Those Progressivists eager to dismember Houellebecq will be strangely disappointed with the book’s lack of animus against Islam, while those who fear the worst will be reminded of a passage from Mark Steyn’s near-decade-old America Alone, in which the Canadian journalist muses on an Islamic future for Europe:

‘But what if it doesn’t work out like that?’



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