[This is a journal in three sections. I didn’t start reading a new section until I’d finished writing about the one before, so I didn’t know how any of it would turn out until I got to the end.]
9 December 2015
Parts 1 and 2 (of five)
This is the French novel that achieved a brief notoriety when its planned date of publication turned out to be the day of the shootings at Charlie Hebdo in Paris in January of this year. The notoriety derives from Houellebecq’s satirical premise that within less than a decade, Muslims in France might gain enough political power to form a coalition government with more traditional parties. At the point I’ve reached, the university where the narrator works, along with all the others in France, has decided to close temporarily. Myriam, his would-be young lover, is packed and ready to leave for Israel with her parents and siblings. Nevertheless, she is trying to be optimistic about the future in France. It’s early days – the Muslim Brotherhood is still in negotiations with other parties – but Francois, the narrator, can see no grounds for optimism at all.
It feels exactly like a Michel Houellebecq novel. The first-person narrator speaks in that unapologetically male voice that seems completely familiar, for instance describing in neutral tones the history of his relationships with women – invariably students of his, invariably lasting for exactly one academic year – that he finds somehow both convenient and unfulfilling. The sex scenes are described, as you would expect, in forensic detail – but they are much rarer than Francois would like. He has reached his 44th birthday before the end of Part 2, and things haven’t been going so well with him lately. He makes confident pronouncements about the way sex is always superseded by fine food amongst the French middle classes, and he wonders whether it will be so for him. (Houellebecq’s satirical take on this is that Francois’s meals consist of inviting-looking gourmet microwave meals, typically ‘rubbery but acceptable’.)
Is Francois a mess? Or is he just worn-out, not fit for purpose, pointless? He’s almost reached this conclusion for himself, and Houellebecq seems to expect us to agree that his narrator is a living personification of what is wrong with the West in the early 21st Century. At one point, Francois goes through a familiar critique of the self-perpetuating nature of academia: people who are good at literature, like him, find they can’t do much with it and end up becoming, like him, professors of literature. His own specialism is Huysmans, a minor novelist who reached his peak half-way through his life with a series of novels focusing on his own conversion to Catholicism. This isn’t going to happen to Francois, or anybody else in the centre-left liberal world he identifies himself with and satirises at the same time.
And that’s the point. Or one of the points. Francois can see, all the time, exactly what is wrong, and wryly critiques it at every opportunity. But – and, it seems, he’s like everybody else in this – he can do nothing about any of it. Developments in the political sphere are taking place that he is powerless to change, given an electoral system developed under very different circumstances. The tone is both satirical and despairing at the same time, and feels familiar. The results of elections often feel arbitrary where I come from too, and Houellebecq only has to take a small step from what elections feel like now in order to make political gains by the Muslim Brotherhood seem highly plausible.
This is happening in the elections taking place in 2022, when the novel is set, and it is taking most people by surprise. But not everybody. Francois, who admits to being as vague about current affairs as most people, knows about the different parties and has heard of most of the factions. But he has no idea that some people are taking some of these, that he considers marginal, very seriously indeed. A young university colleague, who had briefly been linked to a right-wing ‘nativist’ faction, suddenly seems to be quite an important figure. Myriam’s sudden flight to Israel is something that would have been inconceivable until this moment…. But Houellebecq makes it seem plausible that any Jew in France would be well advised, in such circumstances, to follow suit.
The political development that has brought this on is the tipping of the balance in parliamentary elections. The Socialists and the Muslim Brotherhood are neck-and-neck in second place behind the National Front – Houellebecq makes Marie Le Pen’s media-friendly image a few years from now seem perfectly feasible – and then, crucially, the Islamist party pulls slightly ahead. Its leader is quietly charismatic and, although he is insisting that any coalition partner would need to accept quite radical changes, he seems to be getting his way. Poorly reported protests seem to be taking place on the streets, shots are heard, and Francois’s colleague congratulates him on living in Chinatown, where the neighbours are unlikely to resent his presence. The world Francois has grown up in, with all its easy certainties, suddenly seems a very different place.
Hokum? A Western paranoid fantasy masquerading as a serious cautionary tale? Whatever, it’s time to read on.
Parts 3 and 4
This novel is as much a farce as a warning of a possible near future. We aren’t expected to believe that the swift collapse of the dominoes of French democracy as in any way plausible, and Francois suffers plenty of indignities as he becomes more and more the hapless victim of his own vanity and appetites. There are even throwaway jokes in there…
…so we don’t need to come down too hard on Houellebecq for the convenient little twists and coincidences, to say nothing of the unstoppable rise, against all the odds, of the charismatic Ben Abbas and his vision of a new pan-European empire. Within a year or two, France is effectively an Islamist state and the European Union is growing to include Turkey and several North African countries. By the time the old Left has woken up, these new realities seem to be a fait accompli. Take it or leave it.
We take it, because it’s enjoyable. For most of Part 3, Houellebecq does that thing where he takes the protagonist away from the main action for a while, presumably so that he doesn’t have to go into too much detail of the logistics of a swift takeover by the Islamists. Francois is driving through what briefly seems to be an almost post-apocalyptic France as the run-off elections take place (if that’s what is happening – I’m sometimes even more vague than Francois on the details of French electoral procedure). The roads are deserted, and he happens upon the aftermath of some lawlessness at a service station where the receptionist and two men are lying in pools of blood. The hotel he’s headed for seems deserted, and when the receptionist arrives she seems hostile…
…but then she isn’t, and very soon the threat of jeopardy recedes almost to nothing. So that’s all right. By coincidence, a woman colleague of his arrives with her husband. Luckily for Houellebecq and the reader, he’s just been given early retirement from the French secret service – you couldn’t make it up – and he is able to fill Francois in on all the hidden little factors that have culminated in the unexpected result: the Islamists were winning ‘by a landslide’ on the very day he was driving south.
Ben Abbes, this man tells Francois, is no fanatic. He lets the extremists blow off a little steam if necessary, and a little fear never goes amiss, but his vision is for the Arab-led future of civilisation. He knows his history, sees the place of Arabic culture as central to the development of Europe in the Middle Ages, but blithely speaks of a future world in which all the great religions have a part to play. That’s the rhetoric anyway, even if nobody really believes it. The little local difficulty of relations of the Arab nations with Judaism – and it’s the Arab nations who are sponsoring him – means that the Jews are undoubtedly right to leave the country. And, as these sections of the novel go on, it’s clear who is really in charge. Soon every public institution has a Muslim in charge, and big industrial corporations are being replaced by a culture of small, family-based businesses.
But I’m jumping the gun – and anyway, the rise of Islam is really only the background story. Houellebecq’s narrator is an educated white Everyman, so the main topic of his narrative is himself. He is Western man in all his glory, cosseted beyond the dreams of princes of past ages… and he has almost nothing to show for it. His drive south is to take him to the monastery where his beloved Huysmans spent time following a life of what he called ‘debauchery’, eventually being converted to the Catholic faith. The reader doesn’t expect that this will work for Francois, and neither does he. He isn’t looking for such an outcome on this first visit, and on a more focused second visit in Part 4 he lasts about three days before he scurries back to Paris
The problem for Francois is that he is inveterately self-centred. He knows he’s insignificant, pointless – all the things he described for us in Parts 1 and 2. But what can he do? During his first visit, which lasts for weeks – the university is closed until further notice, remember – he waits for emails from Myriam, now clearly making a new life for herself in Israel. In his heart – not that his heart is the part of him that misses her most – he knows she won’t be coming back. But he has nothing else to hold on to.
The rest of Parts 3 and 4 confirm this. By the time he goes back to Paris the first time, he discovers a letter informing him that he is now retired, on full pension. He discovers that his university is one of those that is fully Muslim, but that he would have been welcome to retain his job if the authorities had been able to contact him. Houellebecq doesn’t need to remind the reader that Francois has had Internet access the whole time. Steve, the young colleague that Francois is sarcastic about before the political upheavals, is staying on – at a salary three times what he was getting before. And yes, his Saudi paymasters have no problem with him teaching the same course on Rimbaud. Sure, the implications of the poet’s conversion to Islam will need to be an additional element, but he’s ok with that. Who wouldn’t be, on a salary of €120,000?
In other words Francois is as cynical about the university, representative of Western culture, as he is about himself. No surprise there… but it’s himself he’s really interested in. What’s a man to do? He’s in his prime, he tells us, is maybe only half-way through his life, and – and what? And nothing. He contemplates writing, but realises that nothing holds any interest for him. There’s always Huysmans, but so? Who is interested in Huysmans now, apart from Francois himself? He continues to comfort himself with re-readings of the familiar works, wonders about that conversion to Catholicism, travels back to the monastery to see what might happen. But no. His narrative is mainly concerned with his complaints about the conditions and noise from the passing express trains. He likes his comforts too much. The best thing about his first stay had been the meal cooked by his former colleague and her ex-spy husband’s collection of wine and port. With Francois it’s always been about the satisfaction of appetites.
In Paris… nothing. He tries online dating, then top-of-the-range prostitutes. He has one almost transcendentally fulfilling experience with a pair of prostitutes – Houellebecq always seems to include at least one lovingly described sex scene like this – and manages to convince himself, briefly, that one of the women really feels something for him. She doesn’t, obviously, as he finds out the next time.
And that’s it. He has no friends and knows he will never have the kind of mutually comforting married relationship Huysmans used to advocate, and that he has seen, sort of, in the marriage of his ex-colleague and the ex-spy. The best kind of woman, for Huysmans, was a whore who could become a ‘little cook’. Francois’s life experiences have been too narrow for him ever to have moved on from this theory, and talking to Steve, the ex-colleague, hasn’t helped. He has married one of his students by the time Francois is back from his first trip and, just to show how far he’s embracing Arab culture, he’s about to find himself another. Francois’s father dies some time during Part 4, and his almost estranged son discovers that after his second marriage to a much younger woman he began a new life of hunting and high living. Francois looks at the widow contemplatively as they make polite conversation and, as so often, he wonders about how life could have passed him by so completely. (What was I saying earlier on about Houellebecq and the male vision? Does even he realise how sordid it all sounds? Is that the point?)
None of this is doing Francois any good at all. He isn’t as young as he was – Houellebecq, in his late fifties, will know all about the little failures of the earthly body as the years pass by – and his half-hearted attempt to reach a spiritual epiphany at the shrine of the Black Virgin has come to nothing. There isn’t even the small consolation of looking at ‘women’s nice little arses’, now that standard dress for women is a short skirt over trousers. At least if he had now been teaching about Huysmans’ conversion to Islam he would still be in contact with women other than prostitutes and supermarket cashiers.
Poor Francois. He has contemplated suicide, but I can’t remember why he rejects the idea. Too melodramatic? Perhaps there’s a tiny corner of himself that believes, in spite of all the evidence, that there’s something in him worth preserving. It seems unlikely. I wonder if he’ll come up with anything viable for himself in Part 5.
Part 5 – to the end
He doesn’t. Find anything viable for himself. But it doesn’t matter, because the new Islamist France – or the old secular France in new clothes – comes to his rescue. The new regime is nothing if not inclusive and, for a small token of a man’s bona fides – or whatever the Arabic for such a term might be – the world is at his feet. As will be at least one nubile young wife, specially selected by matchmakers qualified to look beyond the veil and all the other coverings. The matchmakers are women… and the token of bona fides is conversion to Islam. It’s an insurmountable problem, obviously… except this is a novel by Michel Houellebecq and the unwary reader needs to remember just how cynical he can be. In a final chapter composed entirely in the pluperfect tense, Francois takes us through the steps it ‘would’ take for him to have everything a red-blooded man could ever desire. We have no doubt at all that the tense is a euphemism. There’s no ‘would’ about it. Francois is going jump through whatever hoops he needs to.
It’s worse than I’ve made it sound. It’s clear even before the end of Part 4 that Francois has reached a kind of nadir, and by the beginning of Part 5 he’s having to pretend to himself that a life of reading and whisky will be enough to sustain him. He only admits that it won’t once the first lifeline is thrown to him: will he edit a new edition of Huysmans’ complete works? He’s surprised to be asked, until he realises that this is just an overture to even better things. The Islamist university, staffed mainly by recent converts, is keen to flaunt its intellectual credentials, and it needs people with a track record. The powers that be know that a professorship wouldn’t be alluring in itself, but taken with the editing job his all-important status would rise a long way. The higher the status, the more attractive the young wife, although he doesn’t know that yet.
Quite early in Part 5 comes a long chapter in which the head of the university himself, a convert since 2013, brings out the big guns of his persuasive rhetoric – alongside the fine wine and wonderful snacks made by his little cook 40-something wife, rather than the most recent one – to explain why Islam is the apogee of world culture. It’s absurd to pretend that Marxism or Christianity or Humanism have anything to offer. He tars them all with the same brush of outmoded liberalism, the sort that leads to women’s rights and a precipitous fall in the birth-rate. Islam will win because the high-status men who get the women will father thrusting new generations to outwit all the competition.
Am I exaggerating? Not at all. It becomes cruder as it goes on, as the man Francois presents in the most admiring terms seems to equate success with a kind of Islamist phallocracy. And, of course, Francois is going to buy into it. His prayers having been so comprehensively answered – there will be food in this new heaven as well as all the sex he can eat – he clearly feels there’s a lot to be said for the version of Islam that all these men are selling him. There is a God.
And what do I think of it? It’s nonsense, obviously, but it’s an engaging read. Islam in Houellebecq’s presentation of it is a monolith, only divided by the choice of which oil-rich country you might have as your sponsor. Maybe it’s best to take the whole parable as a satire not of political absurdities but of male fantasies. If men can feed their appetites – and how many times have I used that word while writing this? – they are happy to do absolutely anything. Really, Michel? You don’t say.