“Il n’y a pas d’Israël pour moi”
By Michel Houellebecq
For the last 22 years, Britain’s Literary Review has given out an annual “Bad Sex in Fiction Award” to some poor schlump of a novelist. In 2014 it went to Ben Okri’s The Age of Magic, which beat out nominees like Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North and Haruki Murakami’s Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage. I’m not one for odds-making, but it seems pretty clear to me that the smart money for next year’s award is on a certain French novelist who may even merit consideration for the next “Lifetime Achievement” award in this field that the Literary Review gave to John Updike in 2008. This is someone who has taken “bad sex” to an entirely new level; not only are these scenes written in the usual manner of the laureates (badly, in the sense of being trite and unimpressive at the level of form), but the sex itself is unfolding in a way that echoes this formal tendency (badly, in the sense of being degrading and alienating and just depressing as hell).
I speak, of course, of the peerless Michel Houellebecq, and specifically of his most recent novel Soumission. My rough translation here can hardly do it justice:
At the end of an hour I hadn’t come, and she pointed out to me that I was really restrained; in fact, this time as well, even though my erection hadn’t weakened at all, I didn’t at any time feel the least bit of pleasure. She asked me if I could come on her breasts; I did so. As I spread sperm all over her chest, she told me that she really liked being covered in it; she regularly participated in gang bangs, most often in swingers’ clubs, sometimes in public places like parking lots.
I’m tempted to think he’d even be happy for passages like that to lead to such an award, but as you can see here, there’s not a lot of evidence in the Houellebecq oeuvre to support the argument that he’s capable of feeling happiness.
Houellebecq’s reputation in Anglophonia derives in large part from the furor surrounding his 2001 novel Platforme (translated into English in 2002). Platforme is about an utterly miserable French accountant named Michel (of course) who goes into the tourist brothel business in Thailand with the girlfriend he met while on holiday there. It also has a subplot about Muslim terrorists who kill Western tourists. In the French version, the material about both sex tourism and Islamist violence is in English, largely because for Houellebecq they are basically the same: soul-killingly plastic in a semi-American, cult-of-consumerism kind of way. In France Houellebecq was actually brought up on charges of “Inciting Religious and Racial Hatred,” although they went nowhere.
That legal melodrama obscured the degree to which Platforme didn’t so much “Incite Religious and Racial Hatred” towards Muslims specifically as “Incite Mind-Blowingly Misanthropic Loathing” towards just about everyone. It is not a great novel; it feels like it was written by a really unhappy barfly who has nevertheless managed to maintain his subscription to Le Monde Diplomatique, which he skims for the anti-American parts. To my mind, the best assessment came from The Guardian’s James Buchan, who pointed out that Platforme’s representation of Western culture remind him of Saudi newspapers in the 1980s. Buchan concludes his review by saying simply “Michel is the Muslims’ friend.”
Now, in a far more charged environment in France, we have a chance to test that hypothesis about being a friend to Muslims. On 7 January 2015: the Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris. On 8 January 2015: the publication of Houellebecq’s Soumission, wherein an Islamicist party (“La Fraternité musulmane”) wins the French presidential elections of 2022 and proceeds to govern. From that bare description it sounds paranoid and Islamophobic along the lines of “They’re taking over! Europe won’t be Europe anymore!”
I won’t deny that there’s an element of such xenophobia chez Houellebecq, but it’s definitely not the book’s only argument, and it’s definitely not the most important one. Instead, Soumission’s title, which invokes a key element of Islamic theology — namely, the submission to God’s will — also refers to how little changes in contemporary France once the Islamists take over, because the culture itself has long since collapsed thanks to France’s sniveling elites. This is how one of Soumission’s characters, explaining the appeal of the Fraternité musulmane, describes the two big French parties, the neo-Gaullist Union pour un mouvement populaire (Nicolas Sarkozy’s party) and the Parti socialiste (François Hollande’s party, currently running France):
The real agenda of the UMP, like that of the PS, is the disappearance of France, its integration into a federal European assembly. Their voters, apparently, didn’t approve of this objective; but the chiefs had managed, for many years, to keep that matter quiet.
At first, Houellebecq evokes this context in a reasonable enough way, explaining how it wasn’t all that hard for the Socialists to muster their support for the Fraternité musulmane once the presidential election became a contest between them and the far-right Front national. “Negotiations between the Socialist party and the Fraternité musulmane were a lot less difficult than expected,” Houellebecq writes:
There was no divergence on the economy, nor on fiscal policy; even less so on security – they had secured, contrary to their Socialist partners, the means of bringing order to the cities. Sure there were a few disagreements on foreign policy; they wanted from France a slightly stronger condemnation of Israel, but the left gave them that with no problem. The real difficulty, the stumbling block in negotiations, was the education system.
The education system is the perspective through which we see all of the novel’s action. Our narrator, François, is a literature professor at Université de Paris 3 – Sorbonne nouvelle. He’s a product of the French university system through and through, although he cares very little about teaching. He also feels spun out on his long-term research interest, the writing of Joris-Karl Huysmans, a Catholic philosopher, poet and novelist whom he does seem to still enjoy talking about. Mostly, though, François fills his days with tedious pedagogy, frozen dinners, and joyless sex.
Once the Fraternité musulmane takes over the schools and changes “Université de Paris 3 – Sorbonne nouvelle” into “Université Islamique de Paris – Sorbonne” he, along with the profs who won’t convert to Islam, is offered an early retirement buyout at full salary, all funded by Saudi money. He takes it, and continues pretty much as before with the frozen dinners and joyless sex, all rendered in the kind of neo-pornographic detail that we’ve already seen. (Warning to people who, rather than wait for the English editions due out in September, choose to tackle this novel with their high-school French, which is by and large adequate for Houellebecq’s prose: print dictionaries only! Do not Google the tough words, at least not from work. Here’s a description of un gang-bang, a term that Soumission always has in English, Platforme-style:
At first things went like they usually did, that is to say for the most part fine: the women rented a pretty studio next to Place Monge [a leafy and funky neighbourhood near a well-known street market], they set incense burning and put on soft whale-song music, I penetrated them and fucked them up the ass one at a time, without fatigue and without pleasure.
And that’s a sex scene where, unlike the one I quoted above, François actually feels a flash of possibility that, if he saw one of the young women called Rachida again, he might experience “un sentiment amoureux.”)The novel is a dystopia, for sure, but the dystopia on display is one that the secular French have made for themselves. In Houellebecq’s view of the world, the French are, in essence, time-markers, believing in nothing beyond the most banal of gratifications: deeper loyalties — to nations, to religions, to professions, even to families — are totally absent. The continual references to Huysmans, and the occasional ones Houellebecq makes to Charles Péguy (a poet, a tortured Catholic, a strong cultural conservative, an uncompromising socialist, a Dreyfusard, a French nationalist of near-spiritual intensity), summon a memory of another France divided by religious questions, about the separation between esprit and état. Those earlier arguments took the cultural significance of Catholicism for granted, but they also assumed that the struggle for laïcité – that strange French word that doesn’t quite mean “secular” (French has a word for that: séculaire) but something closer to “not acting like the clergy” – was a full-blown struggle that required winning hearts and minds. And if there are two things in short supply in Houellebecq’s France, they are (1) hearts and (2) minds.
And here, worryingly, is where I start to agree with some of Houellebecq’s analysis of our present condition, and I say “our” because this situation is in no way limited to France. The reason we don’t struggle with these problems anymore isn’t that large numbers of people have consciously committed to an open view of national distinctiveness, or because large numbers of people have decided that religion is too serious a matter to be tethered to an earthly project like national identity. It’s that large numbers of people simply don’t give two shakes about either religious sentiment or national identity, let alone about the connection between the two. They’re not for it, they’re not against it, it all just seems very esoteric and demanding. (This indifferent attitude is much more evident in countries like France or my home of Canada than it is in the United States, but that place is, as ever, exceptional.)
I suppose that no longer being divided by religion- or nationalism-fuelled discord could be seen as progress, but it is progress brought about by disengagement, atomisation, and complete acquiescence to the centrality of consumer capitalism in everyday life. It is progress of the soumission variety, the progress of zombies. That’s an image that Houellebecq deploys late in the novel; François, sipping strong coffee with a friend , suddenly declares, “I got back all my lucidity” (strong coffee is always a magical cure-all in French cinema and literature). Then he starts to rant about the death of French culture:
Fascist movements always seemed to me something of a ghostly effort, nightmarish and giving a kind of false life to dead nations; without Christianity, European nations were no longer anything more than bodies without a soul – zombies.
That is, basically, the limits of François’s moral imagination; he can find nothing between the dead culture of fascism and the undead culture of consumerism. It doesn’t take long for the reader of Soumission to conclude that this is also more or less the limit of Houellebecq’s ability to imagine the complexity of modern life.
In the wake of the Charlie Hebdo killings, one aspect of the novel’s narrative that seems downright eerie is the decision François’ girlfriend Myriam makes early in the novel to emigrate to Israel. In the wake of the attack, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu famously tweeted that “To all the Jews of France, all the Jews of Europe, Israel is not just the place in whose direction you pray, the state of Israel is your home.” It’s a country where it’s impossible to avoid these kinds of arguments about esprit and état, regardless of whether you are a highly observant immigrant from Ethiopia or a super-secular sabra: there, indifference is not really an option. And Houellebecq’s description of Myriam’s departure is one of the most genuinely touching in the novel:
“And you, what are you going to do at the Uni? What do you think is going to happen there, at the Uni?”
I had accompanied her to the doorway; in fact, I realised that I didn’t have the slightest idea; and I also realised that I didn’t give a shit. I kissed her gently on her lips before responding: “There’s no Israel for me.” A stupid thought, but an exact one. Then she vanished in the elevator.
Il n’y a pas d’Israël pour moi is an exact thought for sure, possibly the most exact thought in the book. Houellebecq’s François is not simply longing for escape. He is longing for a place that (to paraphrase an Israeli Prime Minister whom I find genuinely distasteful) is not just somewhere you pray to but is also your home. It’s not just that France doesn’t have that sense for François anymore. It’s that such a place doesn’t exist at all, anywhere. Not for him, and not for the kind of French person that he represents.
That feeling of dislocation doesn’t, finally, have much to do with an imagined Islamic takeover of Europe. Rather, Houellebecq suggests that Islamists, like French Catholic intellectuals of a previous period, are animated by something higher (and thus noble) but also possessed of a despotically puritanical streak (and thus sinister). The irreconcilability of these tendencies is the source of Houellebecq’s pseudo-tragic analysis of European culture. We were (and are) probably right to leave behind the superstitious, backward authoritarians, he seems to say. But hélas, once you get rid of them, we are left only with our most banal desires: sex, money, stuff. In parts of Soumission you sense that for Houellebecq, the Islamist government is almost a relief from the kind of dreary satisfaction that defines the France of the 21st century. My wife has a very funny way of describing the Israeli sensibility: “they’re not big on small talk, but you get the sense they’d take a bullet for you.” Houellebecq’s France is consumed by small talk: you get the impression that he almost longs for the bullets to start flying.
More so than current strains in Muslim thought (Tariq Ramadan, for instance, is mentioned only once, and in passing) it’s Catholic writers that we find all over this novel, and not just mainstays of French Catholic thought like Huysmans or Péguy. When François goes to his friends Marie-Françoise and Alain’s house, he is surprised to hear them defending the Fraternité musulmane. “So in short, you think that Catholics have nothing to fear?” he asks Alain. “Not only do they have nothing to fear,” he responds, “they have a lot to look forward to!” A number of commentators have pointed out that far from being a version of Afghanistan under the Taliban, France under the Fraternité musulmane looks a lot like England under G.K. Chesterton.
Adam Gopnik has noticed the Chestertonian quality of all this, but I’m not sure he quite hit the mark in his otherwise great piece on the book in the New Yorker. He writes that for him, Soumission is part of
a revival of the old ideology of the far right, back before it disgraced itself– the ideology of conservative anti-capitalism in the form it took a century ago, more or less benignly in Chesterton and Belloc, and decidedly less benignly in the likes of Charles Maurras, the theorist of the monarchical (and ultimately pro-Vichy) Action Française movement.
Chesterton is actually in the novel itself, although I have to say, I’m not sure that Houellebecq understands his importance to these proceedings any more than Gopnik does. About two thirds of the way through Soumission, there is a page-long explanation of “le distributivisme,” which, Houellebecq tells us, “was an economic philosophy that appeared in England at the beginning of the 20th century, spurred on by the thinkers Gilbert Keith Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc”:
Distributionism, as Ben Abbes [the Islamist president of France] had to clarify later on, was perfectly compatible with the teachings of Islam. The clarification wasn’t for nothing, Chesterton and Belloc being primarily known during their lives for their intense activity as Catholic polemicists. It quickly became clear that, despite the anti-capitalism attached to the doctrine Brussels had nothing to fear from this sensibility. The principles adopted by the new government were on the one hand part of the total suppression of state subsidy to industrial groups – measures that Brussels had fought for a long time as an offense to the principle of free trade – and on the other hand the adoption of financial management principles that were very favourable to artisans and entrepreneurs.
That’s all true enough as far as it goes, but to focus on that aspect of Chesterton is to ignore the literary and genuinely philosophical work in favour of his dryer, more materialist and almost creepily corporatist economics. It is to assume that the only really important thing to talk about is economics and material comfort, and that tendency, of course, is the exact thing that Houellebecq is investing all of his excruciatingly pornographic energy into critiquing.
The Chesterton that’s most relevant here is, instead, the Chesterton who loved small countries, little corners of distinctiveness whose citizens fought, against any rational arguments, to preserve them. In his 1904 novel The Napoleon of Notting Hill, he imagined a dystopically bland future (it’s set in 1984) wherein a small independent country emerged in that neighbourhood of London, a state that stood against the idea of homogenisation of difference in the name of efficiency. The president of Nicaragua makes an appearance at one point, and bellows that
Nicaragua has been conquered like Athens. Nicaragua has been annexed like Jerusalem.… The Yankee and the German and the brute powers of modernity have trampled it with the hoofs of oxen. But Nicaragua is not dead. Nicaragua is an idea.
It’s an idea that Houellebecq — if he weren’t so determined to make abject misery flow from every page — should be able to get behind. Houellebecq is showing us, basically, that France has been annexed like Los Angeles, that the Yankee and the Eurocrat and the brute powers of modernity have trampled on it. The key difference, of course, is that for Houellebecq, France is indeed dead. I can’t even tell if he ever thought it was much of an idea in the first place.
The Chesterton-Houellebecq difference is most painfully clear in Chesterton’s 1919 travelogue Irish Impressions, written after Chesterton made a tour through Ireland as a British army recruiter. God only knows how he got that job, because he was strongly sympathetic to Irish nationalism, a movement that was every bit as scary and demonised in that period as Islamism is in our own. Irish Impressions is a book of remarkable good humour and openness to contradiction, as a guy who is really happy to be English explains why it’s just as reasonable to feel really good about being Irish, and why full independence from the United Kingdom is the thing that quite naturally follows from that good stuff. Deflating the idea that Ireland could be both respected but not independent, Chesterton writes at one point that “the English Home Rulers do not know what the Irish mean by home.” Irish Impressions, like The Napoleon of Notting Hill, is a short, near-forgotten book written by an Englishman really trying to see how we might create and defend home.
Soumission, on the other hand, is an absurdly high-profile book (the last week of January I tried to buy a copy at numerous Montreal bookstores, only to be told time and time again that it was sold out) written by a Frenchman who is angry to the point of numbness about how most secular Europeans simply don’t have a home anymore. Far from being a rallying cry to defend European values against barbarian fifth columns, Soumission’s use of an Islamist government as a semi-villain only shows how little Houellebecq’s secular Europe has left to lose. The Islamists in the novel are fairly right-of-centre on economics, more or less in the manner of Christian Democrats who don’t want to hear it either from the corporate sector or the welfare state. In terms of culture, the French elite show themselves all-too-willing to become nominal Muslims in the manner in which so many of them had been nominal Catholics. In this case, though, some of them get to adopt polygamy too, as the new president Université Islamique de Paris – Sorbonne takes an additional, 15-year-old wife, and tries to sell François on the benefits of going along to get along.
As you can see in all this, Houellebecq’s politics are as desperately vulgar as his theology, and both are as desperately vulgar as his prose. It’s seductive, seeing Soumission as an intervention into the serious spiritual and existential problems of modernity. But in the final analysis that’s not a good idea. The harshest critique I can summon of our modernity-inflected world literature is to say that in Houellebecq, we’ve found the Chesterton we deserve.
Jerry White is Canada Research Chair in European Studies at Dalhousie University and the co-editor of the Canadian Journal of Film Studies. All translations from Soumission are his own.