The front page of today's Book Review features a review of Michel Houellbecq's "Submission" by some a-hole from Norway named Karl Ove Knausgaard, dude who looks like Brad Pitt playing a Norwegian a-hole best selling author adored by people like NPR.
I started reading this review in the Times and I swear to God this awful drowning sensation came over me, like I was suffocating. Okay it's true I can't breathe through my god damned right nostril right now and the benadryl hasn't kicked in yet (this is why I'm awake at 7am on a Sunday), but the nonsense of nothingness that oozed forth from this Knausgard's review of this bad ass book felt like quicksand for the mind, like my brain was being glued shut. This asshole drones on and on and on in absolute pointless narcissistic prose - he obviously loves the sound of his own writing - you can practically hear the Silvers and the Goulds and the Sulzbergers behind the velvet curtain snickering with approval.
Meanwhile, in reality-land, Sailer gives us a biting review published in Takimag that is so incredibly honest, informative, and memorable, that he delivers more take-home messages in the first 20 lines than Brad Pitt Knoseguard does in the entirety of his "On The Brink" (the title of his article on "Submission"). For example : regular readers of COTT and sites like Takimag will have heard of Michel Houellebecq, but probably have never heard his name pronounced. Sailer makes it easy and memorable :
"Perhaps continental Europe’s most talked-about novelist this century, Houellebecq (a complicated-looking name pronounced, simply enough, “WELL-beck”) is representative of the rise of the right as a cultural force."Germany became about six million shades browner practically overnight thanks to the disgusting scum at the New York Times who prey on guileless SWPL, and they give us an absolutely spineless spin on a book that as Sailer suggests, could possibly be the most important book of the century.
I can't print these two articles side by side, so I'll start with the one by Brad Pittgaaard on top :
Before I begin this review, I have to make a small confession. I have never read Michel Houellebecq’s books. This is odd, I concede, since Houellebecq is considered a great contemporary author, and one cannot be said to be keeping abreast of contemporary literature without reading his work. His books have been recommended to me ever since 1998, most often “The Elementary Particles,” by one friend in particular, who says the same thing every time I see him. You have to read “The Elementary Particles,” he tells me, it’s awesome, the best book I’ve ever read. Several times I’ve been on the verge of heeding his advice, plucking “The Elementary Particles” from its place on my shelf and considering it for a while, though always returning it unread. The resistance to starting a book by Houellebecq is too great. I’m not entirely sure where it comes from, though I do have a suspicion, because the same thing goes for the films of Lars von Trier: When “Antichrist” came out I couldn’t bring myself to see it, neither in the cinema nor at home on the DVD I eventually bought, which remains in its box unwatched. They’re simply too good. What prevents me from reading Houellebecq and watching von Trier is a kind of envy — not that I begrudge them success, but by reading the books and watching the films I would be reminded of how excellent a work of art can be, and of how far beneath that level my own work is. Such a reminder, which can be crushing, is something I shield myself from by ignoring Houellebecq’s books and von Trier’s films. That may sound strange, and yet it can hardly be unusual. If you’re a carpenter, for instance, and you keep hearing about the amazing work of another carpenter, you’re not necessarily going to seek it out, because what would be the good of having it confirmed that there is a level of excellence to which you may never aspire? Better to close your eyes and carry on with your own work, pretending the master carpenter doesn’t exist.
Houellebecq’s name is so rich with associations — it has become one of those names in the arts that are replete with meaning; everyone knows who he is and what he writes about — that you may quite easily conduct a conversation with people about Houellebecq, even members of the literati, without anyone suspecting that you have never read a word he has written. In such conversations I have, for instance, said that I have “skimmed” Houellebecq, or else I have praised him for his courage, and in that way given the impression that of course I have read his work, without actually having to lie about it.
This was one reason I agreed to review Houellebecq’s latest novel, “Submission,” since then there would be no two ways about it, I’d have to force myself to read him. Another reason was the book’s reception. As is now well known, “Submission” was first published on the same day as the attack on the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, in which 12 innocent people were killed. Houellebecq himself was featured on the magazine’s front page that week, and since he had once said in an interview that Islam was the stupidest of religions, and since Islam supposedly played such a prominent role in his latest book, his name immediately became associated with the massacre. The French prime minister announced that France was not Michel Houellebecq, was not a country of intolerance and hatred. Houellebecq was held up as a symbol of everything France was not, a symbol, indeed, of everything undesirable, and this in a situation in which human beings had been killed — one of Houellebecq’s own friends among them, we later learned — so that it soon became impossible not to think of him and the killings together. He was, by virtue of having written a novel, connected with the murders, and this was affirmed by the highest level of authority. First of all I wondered how this must feel for him, to be made a symbol of baseness and evil at a time of such crisis, not only in France but all over the world, for Houellebecq is presumably just an ordinary guy who happens to spend his time writing novels as well as he can. What inhuman pressure he must be under, I thought to myself during those days. Or were his critics right in claiming that he was a cynical bastard seeking out the areas in which he knew he could cause most damage, in order to aggrandize his own name? The answer would lie in the novel, since you can’t hide in a novel. Second, I wondered what exactly had taken place in France in the years since 1968, when Sartre was arrested during the May riots and President de Gaulle pardoned him with the declaration that “you don’t arrest Voltaire.” Conceptions of the writer’s, the artist’s, the intellectual’s role in society, and of the value and function of free speech, must have altered radically during those 47 years. For surely Houellebecq’s novel could not be so full of hatred and intolerance that it deserved to be excluded from the prime minister’s vision of France as a tolerant society? Surely France could tolerate a novel?
All of these issues, from the slightly pathetic private ones to those of greater political and global dimension, seemed to converge in this book, “Submission,” that had been sent to me in the mail, and that I now picked up and opened as I leaned back in my chair under the bright light of the lamp, lit a cigarette, poured myself a coffee and began to read.
“Through all the years of my sad youth Huysmans remained a companion, a faithful friend; never once did I doubt him, never once was I tempted to drop him or take up another subject; then, one afternoon in June 2007, after waiting and putting it off as long as I could, even slightly longer than was allowed, I defended my dissertation, ‘Joris-Karl Huysmans: Out of the Tunnel,’ before the jury of the University of Paris IV-Sorbonne.”
So ran my first Houellebecq sentence, the beginning of the novel “Submission.” What kind of a sentence is it? It is not in any way spectacular, more distinctly literary, certainly not the opening of a blockbuster — and not just because it concerns a man whose youth was dismal and his relationship to what the vast majority of people would consider a highly obscure author of the 19th century, but also because the sentence in itself (at least as I read it in the Norwegian rendering, which I sense perhaps is closer in style to Houellebecq’s original than Lorin Stein’s graceful English translation) is anything but impressive, rather it is strikingly ordinary, sauntering in a way, slightly disharmonious and irregular in rhythm, untidy even, as if the author lacks full mastery of the language or is unused to writing.
What does this mean? It means that from the outset, the novel establishes a human presence, a particular individual, a rather faltering and yet sincere character about whom we already know something: His youth was unhappy and endured by the reading of novels, which became so important to him he felt compelled to study literature, in a sheltered environment in which he wished to remain for as long as possible, the environment in which literature is read and written about. Not just any literature, but Huysmans, the novels of that well-known figure of French Decadence.
At this point I’m afraid I have another confession to make. I haven’t read Huysmans’s novels either, although they too have kept their place on my shelf for many years, and despite the fact that one of my own lecturers back when I studied literature, Per Buvik, also happened to be an expert on Huysmans, and like Houellebecq’s protagonist had written a doctoral thesis on his oeuvre. The reason for this omission, however, was not envy but rather that I never felt reading him to be wholly necessary, knowing a bit about fin-de-siècle literature as I did, and most likely believing myself thereby to have some grasp of Huysmans too, at least enough to be able to talk about him without being caught out in the 15 or 20 seconds needed to turn the conversation toward something else instead. Huysmans, I thought to myself, and imagined a pasty young man hastening through the autumnal gloom of a Paris shrouded in fog, on the brink of suicide, the way every face he passed seemed to him coarse and vulgar, and the roars of laughter as he scuttled by a drinking establishment shuddered through his very soul.
I could probably have read “Submission” with that image in mind, and then looked up Huysmans on Wikipedia before embarking on this review, but something about Houellebecq’s use of Huysmans struck me as fundamental to the novel, it seemed almost as if the ambition, in a way, was to rewrite Huysmans, to test out his conflicts in our day and age, to create a sounding board of the kind only novels can create, and so I took Huysmans’s best-known book, “Against the Grain,” with me to my daughter’s gymnastics practice and sat on the benches, drinking coffee from a plastic cup and reading while she somersaulted about on the mats below along with perhaps a score of other 10-year-old girls, in a harsh and glaring light as one hit song after another blared out of the public address system.
It turned out that “Against the Grain” is about a nobleman who shuts himself away in a house, weary of people, weary of society, weary of the age, a man who finds everyday life insufferably banal and who, alone in contemplation, endeavors to establish a completely artificial life, through books, paintings, art and music, but also through grand, performance-like happenings in which he recreates the world outside by stimulating individual senses — smell, sight, taste, hearing — in systems as closed as they are unsettling. Moreover, he is obsessed by decay, obsessed by all that unravels, crumbles away, weakens, dies.
The depiction of Jean Des Esseintes (Huysmans’s protagonist) probably seemed just as astonishing and aberrant to the reader when the book came out in 1884 as it does today, whereas the conception it represented, of the connection between refinement and decline, which flourished in the arts toward the end of that century, would most likely no longer seem as clear-cut. Presumably, World War II put an end to it; before that, it was a view that dominated European thought, not only in Decadent literature and art but also in the novels of a writer like Thomas Mann, and not least in philosophy, by way of Oswald Spengler’s once unprecedentedly influential work “The Decline of the West,” published starting in 1918, which construed civilizations as organic entities passing through clearly defined life cycles of a thousand years, in which culture’s pinnacle, its summer, also contained the very seed of its decline, for at that point it was consummate, and then stagnated, withered, turned in on itself, questioning its ownraison d’être, a path that inexorably led to nihilism and decadence, the autumn of civilization — whereas winter marked the return of faith, when religiosity once more descended upon it.
Huysmans’s literary life was like Spengler’s system in miniature: He began as a naturalist, continued as a fin-de-siècle nihilist and perhaps the foremost exponent of the Decadent movement, before eventually turning religious and converting to Catholicism, an evolution he spent his final books putting into words.
All of this resonates in Houellebecq’s novel, in the simplest of ways, through the protagonist François’s absorption in Huysmans’s books, his identification with his life — Huysmans is “a faithful friend,” he writes. François finds modern life to be quite as intolerable as Des Esseintes before him, as empty and as hollow, but “Submission,” unlike “Against the Grain,” is a realistic novel, and the life it depicts is a perfectly ordinary French middle-class life. François is in his mid-40s, a professor at the Sorbonne, he lives alone, eats microwave dinners in front of the TV in the evenings, his romantic relationships are fleeting, a year at most, usually with one of his female students. As the narrative commences, in the spring of 2022, he resumes a sexually intense, albeit uncommitted relationship to a student called Myriam. Everything he does is tinged with a pessimism that escalates when Myriam leaves him and moves to Israel, and first his mother, then his father, die shortly afterward. He has no friends, no interests apart from 19th-century French literature, he browses porn on the Internet, visits a few prostitutes, at one point he says he’s nearing suicide, elsewhere he notes that suddenly, during the night, he was overwhelmed by unexpected, uncontrollable tears. Presented thus, as a detached list of facts, it seems apparent we are dealing with loneliness, lovelessness, the meaningless void. In the context of the novel itself, however, this doesn’t seem to be the case at all, for François never writes about his feelings, losing his parents is a matter hardly touched on, and his perspective is in every instance cynical and disillusioned, and since the cynical, disillusioned perspective generally is characterized by distance, it overlooks, or ignores, or does not believe in or recognize emotional intimacy. The disillusioned perspective distinguishes continually between faith and reality, between life as we want it to be and life as it actually is — for it is faith that joins us together with our undertakings and with the world, faith that accords them value. Without faith, no value. That’s why so many people find the disillusioned perspective so provoking: It lacks faith, sees only the phenomenon itself, while faith, which in a sense is always also illusion, for most people is the very point, the profoundest meaning. To the disillusioned, morals, for instance, are not so much a question of right or wrong as of fear. But try telling that to the moral individual. When François at the beginning of the novel writes that the great majority in Western societies are blinded by avarice and consumerist lust, even more so by the desire to assert themselves, inspired by their idols, athletes, actors and models, unable to see their own lives as they are, utterly devoid of meaning, what he is describing is the function of faith in modern society. The fact that he himself does not possess such faith, that he exists outside of it, within the meaningless, as it were, he explains as follows: “For various psychological reasons that I have neither the skill nor the desire to analyze, I wasn’t that way at all.”
This is the only place in the novel that opens up for the idea that the emptiness and ennui that François feels is not just universal, a kind of existential condition applicable to us all and which most people hide away behind walls of illusion, it may also have individual causes. That is somewhere he doesn’t want to go, and thus a vast and interesting field of tension is set up in the novel, since the narrator is a person who is unable to bond with others, feels no closeness to anyone, not even himself, and moreover understands solitude existentially, that is from a distance, as something general, a universal condition, or as something determined by society, typical of our age, at the same time as he tells us his parents never wanted anything to do with him, that he hardly had any contact with them, and that their deaths are little more than insignificant incidents in his life. Such an understanding, that the ennui and emptiness he feels so strongly are related to his incapacity to feel emotion or establish closeness to others, and that it is difficult, indeed impossible, not to see this as having to do with lifelong rejection, is extraneous to the novel’s universe, since nothing would be remoter to François’s worldview, an intimate model of explanation would be impossible for him to accept, a mere addition to the list of things in which he doesn’t believe: love, politics, psychology, religion.
Such a disillusioned protagonist allows, too, for a comic perspective, insofar as the comic presupposes distance, shuns identification and is nourished by the outrageous. Indeed, “Submission” is, in long stretches, a comic novel, a comedy, its protagonist François teetering always on the brink of caricature, his thoughts and dialogue often witty, as for instance in this passage, where Myriam, his young mistress, asks if he is bothered by her just having referred to him as macho: “ ‘I don’t know, I guess I must be kind of macho. I’ve never really been convinced that it was a good idea for women to get the vote, study the same things as men, go into the same professions, et cetera. I mean, we’re used to it now — but was it really a good idea?’ Her eyes narrowed in surprise. For a few seconds she actually seemed to be thinking it over, and suddenly I was, too, for a moment. Then I realized I had no answer, to this question or any other.”
The main reason François’s ennui never really seems significant, at least not compared with the status ennui is accorded in Huysmans’s “Against the Grain,” even if it is consistently present in nearly all the novel’s scenes, is, however, neither abhorrence of emotional closeness nor the remoteness with which its comic passages are infused, but rather the fact that it coincides with the massive political upheaval France is undergoing in front of his very eyes. An election is coming up, and the mood across the country is tense, there are armed street battles and riots in several towns, right-wing radicals clash with various ethnic groups, and yet the media avoid writing about it, the problem is played down, and people seem weary and resigned.
It is this theme that lends the novel its narrative thrust and which of course is the reason for all the attention it has received, for anything that has to do with immigration, the nation state, multiculturalism, ethnicity and religion is explosive stuff in Europe these days. Many of its elements are recognizable, like the newspapers omitting to mention, or mentioning only with caution, conflicts arising out of ethnic differences, or the political left’s anti-racism overriding its feminism, making it wary of criticizing patriarchal structures within immigrant communities, say, but in this novel all is brought to a head, taken to its most extreme conclusion, in a scenario of the future that realistically is less than likely, and yet entirely possible. What’s crucial for the novel is that the political events it portrays are psychologically as persuasive as they are credible, for this is what the novel is about, an entire culture’s enormous loss of meaning, its lack of, or highly depleted, faith, a culture in which the ties of community are dissolving and which, for want of resilience more than anything else, gives up on its most important values and submits to religious government.
In this, “Submission” is strongly satirical, and its satire is directed toward the intellectual classes, among whom no trace is found of idealism, and not a shadow of will to defend any set of values, only pragmatism pure and simple. François sums up the mood among his own as: “What has to happen will happen,” comparing this passivity with that which made it possible for Hitler to come to power in 1933, when people lulled themselves into believing that eventually he would come to his senses and conform.
During a reception given by a journal of 19th-century literature to which François regularly contributes, shots and explosions are suddenly heard in the streets outside, and when later he walks through the city he sees the Place de Clichy in flames, a wreckage of burned-out cars, the skeleton of a bus, but not a single human being, no sound other than a screaming siren. No one knows what’s going to happen, whether all-out civil war will erupt or not. And yet in François’s circles weakness prevails, and if this is meant to be satirical, a depiction of a class of people helplessly enclosed within its own bubble, without the faintest idea what’s going on outside or why, a bit like the aristocracy before the revolution, it is also realistic, because when a person has grown up in a certain culture, within a certain societal system, it is largely unthinkable that that culture, that system, might be changed so radically, since everything in life — the beliefs instilled in us as children at home and at school, the vocations we are trained in and to which we later devote our labor, the programs we watch on TV and listen to on the radio, the words we read in newspapers, magazines and books, the images we see in films and advertising — occurs within the same framework, confirming and sustaining it, and this is so completely pervasive that to all intents and purposes it is the world, it is society, it is who we are. Minor modifications and adjustments take place all the time, of a political nature, too — sometimes the right is in charge, sometimes the left, and the greens may win a percentage of ground — but total upheaval isn’t even a faint possibility, it is simply unimaginable, and therefore does not exist.
And yet society’s total upheaval is what “Submission” depicts. The election is won by a Muslim party with which the left collaborates in order to keep the National Front from power, and France as a result becomes a Muslim state. But maybe that isn’t so bad? Maybe it doesn’t matter that much? Aren’t people just people, regardless of what they believe in, and of how they choose to organize their societies? It is these questions that the novel leads up to, since this entire seamless revolution is seen through the eyes of François, a man who believes in nothing and who consequently is bound by nothing other than himself and his own needs. The novel closes with him looking forward in time, to the conversion ceremony of his own submission to Islam, a travesty of Huysmans’s conversion to Catholicism, not because François becomes a Muslim rather than a Catholic, but because his submission is pragmatic, without flame, superficial, whereas Huysmans’s was impassioned, anguished, a matter of life and death.
This lack of attachment, this indifference, is as I see it the novel’s fundamental theme and issue, much more so than the Islamization of France, which in the logic of the book is merely a consequence. What does it mean to be a human being without faith? This is in many ways the question posed by the novel. François shares Huysmans’s misanthropy and disillusionment, but fails to grasp the religious route of his deliverance. He does, however, try, traveling to Rocamadour to see the Black Virgin, perhaps the most famous religious icon of the Middle Ages, sitting before her every day for more than a month, and for increasingly longer periods of time, but while intellectually he is fully aware of what she represents, something superhuman, from a period of Christianity in which the individual was as yet undeveloped and both faith and judgment were collective in nature, and although in the hours he spends in her presence he feels his ego dissolving, he ends up departing in a state of resignation, “fully deserted by the Spirit,” as he puts it.
In this part of the novel, which is brief yet significant, there is no trace of satire. The description of the statue’s unearthliness, its dignity and severity, its almost disturbingly powerful aura, is exquisite in a novel that otherwise seems to shun beauty or not to know it at all. And the attempt to approach its mystery is genuine:
“What this severe statue expressed was not attachment to a homeland, to a country; not some celebration of the soldier’s manly courage; not even a child’s desire for his mother. It was something mysterious, priestly and royal that surpassed Péguy’s understanding, to say nothing of Huysmans’s.”
This is probably the only instance in which François rather than diminishing what he sees actually adds to it instead. What he describes here is nothing other than the Sacred.
So what is the Sacred in this novel?
What François seems to be looking for, in a sudden mood of gravity, is faith in its purest form, that which is unconcerned with human needs like safety, comfort or belonging, but which is directed beyond the human to the divine, the truly sacred. This is the only thing that cannot be impinged on by the perspective of disillusionment, because it veils nothing, conceals nothing, is nothing other than itself.
To François’s mind, Huysmans’s conversion was nothing but a cultish yearning, a transparent attempt to lend meaning to the meaningless, possible only through self-delusion, that is by allowing illusion to trump disillusion.
Faith that has no foundation but itself, this is the religion of Kierkegaard, the absurd and, in relation to human life, meaningless act, which may be conceived as the commencement of that period in Western history of which Huysmans and François are a part, where faith is not a natural element of life but something that may be attained only by particular endeavor, a leap undertaken alone.
It is from the Virgin of Rocamadour that François returns to Paris, to the comedy, eventually converting to Islam in order to continue teaching at the Sorbonne, now a Muslim seat of learning. Before doing so, however, he writes a 40-page foreword to a Pléiade edition of Huysmans, as if in a fever, having now finally understood him better than he ever understood himself, as he writes:
“Husymans’s true subject had been bourgeois happiness, a happiness painfully out of reach for a bachelor. . . . His idea of happiness was to have his artist friends over for a pot-au-feu with horseradish sauce, accompanied by an ‘honest’ wine and followed by plum brandy and tobacco, with everyone sitting by the stove while the winter winds battered the towers of Saint-Sulpice. These simple pleasures had been denied him.”
Was all this refinement, all this decadence, this misanthropy and disillusionment, were all these religious agonies and scruples merely the sublimation of a longing for the sedate pleasures of a bourgeois life? Was Huysmans’s entire body of work the result of a grandiose self-delusion?
François appears to believe so, and the idea is far from improbable, in fact I find it quite plausible. The disillusioned gaze sees through everything, sees all the lies and the pretenses we concoct to give life meaning, the only thing it doesn’t see is its own origin, its own driving force. But what does that matter as long as it creates great literature, quivering with ambivalence, full of longing for meaning, which, if none is found, it creates itself?
By Michel Houellebecq
Translated by Lorin Stein
246 pp. Farrar, Straus & Giroux. $25.
Steve Sailer's much more intelligent and honest review from Takimag :