The Elegant Bigotry of Michel Houellebecq

His new novel treats Islam, and women, so badly that it’s hard not to wonder where the character’s views end and the author’s begin.

Illustration by MK Reed.

Illustration by MK Reed

Michel Houellebecq’s new novel Submission, which describes an Islamicized France of the near future, has been described variously as “melancholic” (Adam Gopnik), “melancholy” (Adam Shatz), and “extraordinarily sad” (Sylvain Bourmeau). It is a “tragedy” (Mark Lilla), one that ends on a “bone-chilling” note (also Lilla)—the total capitulation of a decadent academic French elite to a pious and paternalistic Islamic regime. Melancholy is in the eye of the beholder. To people for whom the idea of “Europe,” or more specifically “France,” looms large—with its spirited republican politics, its sectarian Christian warfare, its zesty laïcité, its Zola and Huysmans, its Drumont and Rimbaud and Corbière and Paulhan and Bloy—Submission may indeed be a pre-emptive bit of cultural mourning.

Houellebecq is known for his eccentric novels, his desolate, sexually dysfunctional male protagonists, and his provocative pronouncements—that he “admired Stalin,” for example, or that Islam is “stupid” (he went to court over the latter remark). He is a writer who reliably issues his own brand of home truths. One of these is that women, as he once told an interviewer, “have always been more interested in jam and curtains,” whereas men are motivated ultimately by “little asses.” These remarks have not kept him from the highest laurels; he won the Prix Goncourt in 2010.

Houellebecq’s status as a provocateur is so established it has become a kind of shorthand in talking about his work. Profiles and reviews often make passing reference to Houellebecq’s reputation as a misogynist; lately, they don’t seem to linger over it (Gopnik, Shatz, and Lilla don’t mention the subject at all—I went back to 2012, to the redoubtable James Wood, who pointed out that “in Houellebecq’s world, the unexplored vagina is not worth having.”)

Often, Houellebecq sets up a clear divide between his nearly uniformly awful narrators and himself. Take, for example, Bruno—the racist, misogynist protagonist of his 1998 novel The Elementary Particles—who drugs his squalling baby so that he can go carousing:

As Bruno picked himself up from the living room floor, the screaming grew loud and shrill with rage. He crushed two Lexomil, mashed them into a spoonful of jam and headed toward Victor’s room. The child had crapped itself. Where the fuck was Anne? These jungle-bunny literacy classes were ending later and later. He took off the soiled diaper and threw it on the floor; the stench was atrocious. The child swallowed the mixture on the spoon easily and his body stiffened as though he’d been struck.

Bruno is obviously a monster here. But elsewhere in Houellebecq’s writing there is more slippage between author and character. There are moments of narrative authority in Particles that urge us to take a statement as a true thing, a celebrated Houellebecq home truth: “Without beauty a girl is unhappy because she has missed her chance to be loved … it as if she were invisible—no eyes follow her as she walks.” Or here, a description of a classroom of young women, “their faces already betraying a hint of dumb female resignation.”

In Submission, Islam and Christianity find a way to compromise; as long as the members of the traditional French elite and state apparatus take the small step of converting to Islam, they may enjoy all the benefits thereof (the benefits as they have been enshrined in European fantasies, that is). It is the prospect of polygamy with very young women that eventually motivates the narrator François—a middle-age scholar of the novelist J.K. Huysmans—to finally convert. In this new political configuration, women leave the workforce to cook and keep house. The older ones tend the hearth; the younger ones enliven the bedroom.

This arrangement fits right in with François’ pre-existing view of the order of things. Of one colleague, he marvels early in the novel: “I realized she had once been a woman—that she still was a woman, in a sense—and that once upon a time a man had felt desire for this squat, stumpy, almost froglike little thing.” Of a former consort he observes, “Her body had been damaged beyond repair. Her buttocks and breasts were no more than sacks of emaciated flesh, shrunken, flabby, and pendulous. She could no longer—she could never again—be considered an object of desire.” Of another: “Sandra, who was plumper and jollier than Aurélie, hadn’t let herself go to the same degree. She was sad, very sad, and I knew her sorrow would overwhelm her in the end; like Aurélie, she was nothing but a bird in an oil slick; but she had retained, if I can put it this way, a superior ability to flap her wings.” It can always be argued that it’s just the narrator, and not the author, who isn’t a great guy; but the Evo-Psych 101 correlation of women’s worth with their sexual viability that overwhelms in Submission pervades Houellebecq’s work.

In an earlier interview with the Paris Review about Elementary Particles, Houellebecq and his interlocutor discuss a “heartbreaking” moment in the novel. This is not one of the several examples of wrenching child abuse, but the death of a protagonist’s girlfriend from uterine cancer. The character tries to get pregnant at 40, discovers the cancer, has a total hysterectomy, and eventually succumbs to the illness. Woman loses woman plumbing, misses out on evolutionary purpose, perishes. It was about as subtle as a rubber chicken. “The death of Michel’s girlfriend was very moving, I think. I really wanted to get those kinds of scene right above all,” Houellebecq told the interviewer.

Submission’s François is a sad sack of a figure, but Houellebecq cedes him the courtesy of intellectual curiosity, a body of work, a body of knowledge. Yes, he trades his French cultural patrimony—something that presumably matters to Houellebecq, for all his purported disdain for the fruits of the Enlightenment—for the promise of a stable of wives. But Houellebecq doesn’t much seem to blame him for this choice. Houellebecq is certainly not some Ayaan Hirsi Ali, hammering Islam for its treatment of women.

About Submission, Houellebecq told the Paris Review, “Certainly a feminist is not likely to love this book. But I can’t do anything about that.” This is a Houellebecq home truth, but a stale, ungenerous one—one that does not extend the same consideration that many women have undoubtedly extended his work. Houellebecq’s intelligence, his gnarled little sense of humor, and his style mitigate against a number of sins; there is something very interesting about his narrative experiments, something vigorous in his ostensibly monotone and unornamented writing (which is beautifully translated by Lorin Stein in Submission). There is also something decisive about his social observations. Upon seeing his father with a flashy new vehicle, François observes, “The whole thing left me profoundly shaken, since my father had always—at least, as long as I knew anything about him—been so rigidly, almost affectedly bourgeois in his good taste.” Houellebecq can also be very funny. “In the end,” François quite seriously laments, “my dick was all I had.”

Author Michel Houellebecq.
Author Michel Houellebecq.

Photo by Philippe Matsas/Flammarion

That said, Submission might have been a more meaningful—if no less provocative—thought exercise had it engaged with Islam as something beyond a sterile surface upon which to project the twisted visage of France, or more accurately, of a few short but crowded centuries of French intellectual history. Houellebecq is quoted in a number of outlets as having begun the novel as a Catholic conversion tale; while the religion of revelation has changed, the preoccupations remain limited to the narrow confines of its narrator’s worldview, limited to the cultural growing pains and death struggles of European philosophical and religious movements. Ben Abbes, the friendly Islamic politician who ushers in France’s Islamic era, is revealed late in the book to favor an economic model called distributism—an idea developed by English Catholic intellectuals at the turn of the century. The question of how Islam exists as its own cultural force that might figure into the sweep of history is limited here, essentially, to a clunky piece of exposition about Charles Martel and the Battle of Poitiers, which, along with the conquest of Constantinople and the attempted conquest of Vienna, is often trotted out as evidence of a long-standing clash of civilizations between the edifice of Islam and the edifice of the West.

The substrate of France’s economy and culture and political climate is its colonial past, and Houellebecq’s books are full of Arab prostitutes, Tunisian grocers, hummus and couscous and sambousek and package tours to Tunisia and Benin and what his narrator calls “French Africa.” The colonial past is alive in his work—Houellebecq was born on subaltern soil, for god’s sake—and I think he often winks at his crappy narrators enjoying the lingering fruits of empire. But these winks don’t really enter into his assessment of French Islam, which is a shame, because they might have made the book’s Islam less flat.

When the capital-C Culture outlets review Submission and say nothing about its breathtaking misogyny—when Houellebecq’s misogyny is denoted by critics with a passing reference—it seems to say: “We know, we know—his gender politics are not great. But he has written a book that must be examined seriously against the backdrop of contemporary geopolitics, because he is a bold and irreverent social critic.” The generous response to this elision is that there were other things to draw critics’ attention. Just after Submission was released in France, the attacks by terrorists on the Charlie Hebdo office in Paris killed 12 people; this was the backdrop for the critical reception that followed the novel’s initial release. The reviews I quoted above labored long over whether Houellebecq is Islamophobic—typically alighting on “no.” But what happened the week that I read Submission, in English, was that a little boy washed up on a beach after drowning with his brother and his mother on their way to Europe from Syria.

Like the phrase “Je suis Charlie,” the image of the boy’s small body on the shore will stay with people for a very long time. Houellebecq can pretend that his treatment of Islam is laudatory—Islam as a protector of the cozy, bourgeois comfort that is missing in the life of today’s male French intellectual. But his reviewers haven’t read it as such—they’ve called it “melancholy” and “bone-chilling.” And that reading props up the idea of cultural contamination—the nativist hysteria that would keep overloaded refugee boats out at sea, that would leave families choking to death in abandoned trucks, that would kick the feet of small children out from under them, and pepper-spray them, and consign them to misery and death, because above all else the purported hegemony of European culture must be preserved against the ravening Muslim hordes.

I think Houellebecq is smarter, and even kinder, than to harbor these views. But if we’re going to talk about Charlie Hebdo, we must also talk about Aylan Kurdi. There is a way in which Submission is not, strictly speaking, Islamophobic. But it does Aylan Kurdi no favors.

I’m a woman, so a collection of protuberances with a moldering hole between my legs. It’s womanlike to mention the dead baby, to open the door for blame or conscience in art. I didn’t expect to sit down to write this feeling quite so much rage. Oddly enough, I enjoyed Submission—which is elegantly written and thought-provoking and often strangely mesmerizing. Many people must constantly navigate the strange territory of engaging with art that hates them; there is a point, though, at which the avenues of connection close. What stayed with me about this novel was not Houellebecq’s good style or his erudition, but his Orientalism, not just of Muslims, but of women en masse: “A woman is human, obviously, but she represents a slightly different kind of humanity. She gives life a certain perfume of exoticism.”

Houellebecq concluded Elementary Particles on a solemn note: “As the last members of this race are extinguished. … It is necessary that this tribute be made, if only once. This book is dedicated to mankind.” Submission, too, is dedicated to mankind, a small piece of it. And if this mankind undergoes a little reshuffling in its cultural referents, I found myself asking, in a manner befitting a Houellebecq hero, not “What is to be done?” but “Who cares?”

Submission by Michel Houellebecq, Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

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