(by Michel Houellebecq) (2015) (translated by Lorin Stein)
Submission is a good idea for a novel, which terminates just when it seems to be building a head of steam. A ‘Lower’ Sorbonne Professor of Literature, specialising in J. K. Huysmans and an unenthusiastic promoter of ‘A’s for lays,’ finds himself on the academic outer when a version of the Muslim Brotherhood wins the French general elections. The professor skips town, ultimately decides to return and collect his redundancy payment and pension, only to be seduced by the new paradigm into converting to Islam and returning to academe, now deloused and free of those dead-weighted trappings of western enlightenment. The anticipated, or dreaded, new theocratic age is thus heralded, but hardly explained.
There’s lots of gratuitous depictions of sex and fine dining. There are some asides on the fin-de-siècle Parisian novelists, to no really great effect. I’d not heard a character call Mitterrand ‘crafty’ before – he was about as crafty as Theresa May. Lesley will say that Houellebecq’s violently-praised The Map and the Territory was a poor book, but in this one, some valuable things peep through the otherwise prosaic prose:
“Once I was made a professor, my reduced course load meant I could get all my teaching done on Wednesdays.”
“Over the next few weeks a strange, oppressive mood settled over France, a kind of suffocating despair, all-encompassing but shot through with glints of insurrection.”
“She’d been working all day and was exhausted, plus she’d been watching too many reruns of Come Dine With Me on channel M6 and had planned a menu that was much too ambitious.”
“Here was a normal – almost cartoonishly normal – woman, and yet she’d seen something in my father, something my mother and I never saw. And I don’t think it was only, or even mainly, a question of money. She made plenty herself; that much was clear from her clothes, her hair, the way she talked. In that ordinary old man she, and she alone, had found something to love.”
Submission is very readable, curiously static, slightly irritating and, like a French Indo-Chinese meal, vaguely lacking some vital ingredient. It’s fun – it might lead to a meatier sequel – but better to read Huysman’s À Rebours or Là-Bas instead.