Submission by Michel Houellebecq

houellebecq

One of 2015’s most controversial books was undoubtedly Michel Houellebecq’s Submission. The year is 2022 and our protagonist is a middle-aged university professor with little regard for anything besides sex with female students and his work on Huysmans. Nevertheless, from his position as a renowned literature professor in Paris, he is drawn into the events surrounding the presidential election and the political discussions of religion and the consequences an Islamic government could have for France and abroad. This book sparked a hefty debate following its release which coincidently was the same day as the Charlie Hebdo attack in Paris.

While reading Submission, I thought of several similarities to Albert Camus’s L’Etranger (The Stranger), most notably the similarities between the two main characters in both family life and attitude to life in general. Camus’s novel famously explores our relationship to the world and ourselves around the central plot of his characters ‘accidently’ shooting and killing an Arab on the beach. Houellebecq’s main character, François, is also in a sense a stranger. He knows no one except for a couple of his colleagues and female students, most of whom he does not really like anyway. He is a misogynistic and careless s*** for the most part but he has a dry sense of humour which helped down-playing that part a bit, and reminding me once again of Camus’s absurdity and satire. From his secure spot away from the fighting yet close enough for insider connections, he muses and sulks over his life and whether he has wasted it or not. Everything that happens in France surrounding the presidential election seems to take him off-guard but does not make him that interested anyway. He is not an active person; going on the barricades and protesting or supporting one thing or the other. His apathy is at times palpable through the pages.

Another similarity to Camus’s novel is the sudden deaths of their mothers (and father in Submission) and how the main characters deal with this. It would not be difficult to just switch the two characters and the respective novels would still unfold the way they did. There is however, Myriam, the Jewish student having an affair with François before moving to Israel as the Islamic government comes to power. She is the only one, besides Huysmans, who can bring a sense of life and passion to the novel. It is notable that it is when she leaves that François seems to deteriorate completely, much more so than when he had to quit his university job. Following Myriam leaving France,  François seems for the first time to do something. He initially just attempts to leave Paris in order to be safe from riots despite not really being that happy to be alive at all. His lack of faith and belief in something makes this trip seem completely irrational, and his only steady point in life is the life of Huysmans thus generating a soul-searching trip to the same monastery where Huysmans settled. Or it could have been a soul-searching journey, an odyssey even, if not for his disinterest in life and beyond, at least beyond sex, alcohol, and cigarettes.

This apathy however is also what makes the novel work so well in my opinion. It makes it more relatable for the average Joe suddenly thrust into history-making events. The event itself still seems a bit too far-fetched for me, at least in how quickly it would come to pass and how much such an event could change in so little time; especially economically I have my doubts despite the possible Oil-states’ money pouring in. But these things are minor compared to the book’s project. I will not deny that I would hate it if this were to be the exact way society would be under an Islamic government, but I will also say that this book is not a critique of Muslims and a ‘right-winged’ propaganda item. Like The Stranger, it deals with how people cope with life, change, and the absurdity of politics and morals. However, if you cannot see besides misogynist and patriarchal attitudes and comments (from both ‘French’ and ‘Muslim’ characters) then this probably is not for you, but it could be an interesting exercise in reading opposing points of view, and I can only say that I thoroughly enjoyed reading it.


DANSK:

Sidste års nok mest kontroversielle bog var uden tvivl franske Michel Houellebecqs Underkastelse, både på grund af dens indhold men også på grund af den tragiske tilfældighed at den blev udgivet samme dag som Charlie Hebdo-angrebet i Paris.

Bogen begynder i en nær fremtid, 2022, op til det franske presidentvalg og vi følger de politiske spændinger mellem højrefløjen og den muslimske kandidat gennem den ikke så tiltalende men alligevel humoristiske, midaldrende litteraturprofessor, Francois. Hele bogen igennem så jeg små paralleller til Albert Camus’ klassisker Den fremmede. Den ironiske distance hovedpersonerne har til livet, forældres død, elskerinder som forlader dem, og i det hele taget en tragikomisk måde at beskrive sig selv og de forskellige situationer på. Vi følger ham på en lille rejse i fodsporene på hans store helt, den franske forfatter Huysmans, efter hans jødiske elskerinde er rejst til Israel og som i enhver anden historie kunne blive den store dannelsesrejse med katarsis og pathos, men det sker ikke her. Den slutter pludseligt – fordi Francois ikke kan ryge i klostercellen! Det er dog tro mod hovedpersonen og hans manglende følelse af mening, ligesom i Den fremmede, og fremhæver egentlig meget godt de grunde til at han til slut vælger som han gør.

Det er tydeligt, at flere ting i Underkastelse fra starten, og uden Charlie Hebdo, ville være kontroversielle for bogen tvinger læseren til at overveje samfundet og det politiske system. Dog er der visse ting, som jeg personligt synes er lidt for overdrevet, specielt tidsforløbet, de økonomiske incitamenter og det at ingen feministiske protester bliver nævnt som sådan. Selv i Frankrig har jeg svært ved at tro på, at det ville gå så stille af og så hurtigt. Der er dog en ironisk distance, som netop fremhæver satiren. For det er mest en satire over et politisk system, som giver fortabt og over et menneske, som langt hen ad vejen er ligeglad med andet og andre end ham selv og hvordan han så forholder sig til en ny verden. Bogen er meget maskulin og der var flere steder hvor jeg følte trang til at fnyse over synet på kvinder og sex, men trods det havde jeg lige så mange steder hvor jeg morede mig over det absurde og de spidsfindige beskrivelser af folk.

 

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About Ann-Cathrine 38 Articles
Established 1987 in Aarhus, Denmark. MA degree in English and Art History from Aarhus University, Denmark. Loves books, art, writing, coffee, dandelions, paper dolls, and haute couture.