“Submission” – Best Novel of 2015

Best seller in France and other literate countries

Best seller in France and other literate countries

Submission” by Michel Houllebecq is a triumph. It’s maybe the best novel he will ever write – with his familiar middle-aged male anti-hero finding redemption in the arms of Islam, rather than the destructive spiral down evident in his previous works. The plot has been much talked about in the wake of Charlie Hebdo and subsequently Paris. A middle-aged French academic, Francois, witnesses the Muslim Brotherhood ascend to power after the 2022 Presidential election, and the subsequent Islamization of France, including the Sorbonne where he teaches. The media have used the word “controversial” to describe the book, because they lazily assumed it was a critique of Islam. It is nothing of the sort, it’s a critique of modern consumer society, just like his other books. The depiction of Islam seems to be quite neutral and accurate – a patriarchal, illiberal cult with a political mission to control society via an exclusively male elite. I’m not clear what’s “controversial” about that. The reception to the book has been mixed. There are two camps – those who have read it (very positive reviews) and those who haven’t (he’s an Islamaphobe). In fact the book doesn’t cast any judgement on Islam – it’s just a scenario. A scenario that may suit some (middle aged sexually frustrated blokes) and not others (feminists, jews, gays, people with an education), but could lead to a more stable society, somewhat at peace with itself. Personally I don’t like the idea, but my opinion won’t matter. In the end ‘submission’ might be the easy option, which is exactly Houllebecq’s point.

Says it all

Says it all

Some critics have also poured scorn on Houllebecq’s predictive power, seemingly unaware that by deriding his imagined future, they are implicitly making predictions themselves. As far as I can see his portrayal of a gradual Muslim takeover via the current political process, given a hopelessly divided France, is the only way Islam can succeed. Terrorist attacks certainly help cow the population and encourage division, but the ultimate route to power is through co-opting the existing ruling class, not via violent revolution. The so-called ‘moderate’ Muslims in France, the UK and elsewhere realize that. Only last week Mr Establishment himself, Catholic UK Labour MP Keith Vaz, said that the reintroduction of blasphemy laws would be fine with him. How the mask slips! Houllebecq also has decent form on imagining society’s future. His 2001 novel “Platform” culminated in a Islamist terrorist attack on western tourists in Thailand. That prospect would have been considered far-fetched in mid-2001, ahead of 9/11 and ofcourse the Bali bombs in October 2002.

As with previous Houllebecq classics like “Whatever”, “Platform” and “Atomised”, the main character is a cynical, lecherous hedonist whose life is crumbling around him as he enters middle-age. His satire of modern French society, and modern academia is as savage, accurate and funny as ever. As an expert on nineteenth century French author Joris-Karl Huysmans, Francois retraces some of Huysman’s steps towards his (Huysman’s) eventual embrace of Catholicism, mirroring Francois’s own spiritual journey from despondency and nihilism, towards Islam. Francois comes to realize that the reinstatement of a patriarchal society will actually give men like him social status, and renewed purpose, through continued access to the the only thing that motivates him, sex with young women – via polygamist marriage.

The novel is definitely one to re-read, and somehow I found it uplifting. Well-written, poignant, funny, and a clear warning that simultaneous handwringing over terrorist attacks, while appeasing the nonsensities of “moderate” Islam will only yield one result. I would also recommend his earlier works, especially “Atomised” and “Platform”.
This very good interview with Houllebecq in the Paris Review is also worth checking out.

Sweet Caress: The Many Lives of Amory Clay

Judge the book by its cover- underwhelming.

Judge the book by its cover – underwhelming.

Sweet Caress” is one of those most disappointing of things; a bad book by a favorite author. I’ve read everything (fiction-wise) that William Boyd has ever written and as soon as I heard about this I knew I would buy it.

The book is a fictional set of memoirs by a character called Amory Clay whose life spans most of the 20th century. Boyd’s used this same technique before in his most acclaimed novel “Any Human Heart“, so I had no doubt he could pull it off. He’s also successfully written females as the main character – in his clever thriller “Restless“. The sad reality is though it doesn’t work in this case. Boyd still writes beautifully and the novel starts well….but the character doesn’t develop for me. Her love interests, which are central to the book just feel random. A selfish american bloke, a fat french clown, a shell-shocked English soldier (supposed to evoke her Dad) and tedious descriptions of each man’s penis (Big, small, bendy..who cares!)

The 1930s Berlin section just doesn’t evoke the place, and her reaction to fairly cataclysmic events is pretty much indifference as far as I can tell, all the way through the book. Even some of the research just seems below par versus previous Boyd books. The Vietnam section appears to be drawn from watching “Platoon” – cliched beyond belief. I get the impression the publisher wanted this, and Boyd did the best job he could even though he must of known it wasn’t working. Just a very average book interspersed with dull, grainy photographs. I finished it out of loyalty to Boyd but if I was on Amazon I’d give this 2 stars maximum. Bizarrely it has some positive reviews, but as I’m learning, doing book reviews is difficult, whether you like the book or not, and I think some of the reviewers maybe have gone on reputation.

Amory Clay’s family has a fun way of describing people & things to each other through the book – using four words only. A neat idea I think. For “Sweet Caress” I would choose: Boring, pretentious, flat, arduous.