Michel Houellebecq: France’s literary provocateur

Michel Houellebecq’s novel imagining his country under Islamic rule featured on the cover of Charlie Hebdo. But it’s not the satire you’d expect.

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When Isaiah Berlin distinguished between positive liberty – freedom to do – and negative liberty – freedom from chains – he omitted to describe a related phenomenon, not quite one or the other though containing elements of both. This is meta-liberty, the freedom that occasions so much pride and fervour that it stops being a right and becomes a duty. Everyone who believes in secular values insists that free speech is a good thing but, in doing so with such constancy, we risk obscuring its function and converting a means into an end.

Among other things, the western insistence on free speech constitutes a failure to understand what it might be like to live in a society where such freedoms are restricted as a matter of course. In the early 17th century, it was felt that heliocentrism must not be represented in any shape or form. Galileo Galilei didn’t disobey this stricture just to see how badly it might go down with the Roman Inquisition. He wasn’t Jeremy Clarkson. But it is possible to imagine a present-day scenario in which Galileo would be urged to present a theory of heliocentrism even if it were known to be rubbish on the grounds that it would expose the intolerance of the Catholic Church.

The occasional act of suppression has exacerbated this tendency, further removing the emphasis from speech and placing it instead on response. There’s a striking moment in Salman Rushdie’s sublimely silly third-person memoir, Joseph Anton, when, during an argument over dinner, Rushdie tells Isabel Fonseca to “fuck off”. He apologises but only after ascertaining that she wasn’t offended. The depiction of Muhammad in The Satanic Verses prompted no such apology. Why? Because it had violated a religious law he didn’t like and not a rule of etiquette he accepted.

Also, The Satanic Verses was “literature”, a work of the imagination. Rushdie used to say that he hadn’t expected to cause offence but since the Rushdie affair put literature at the heart of the debate there has been a far greater likelihood of a writer not only expecting but actively intending to offend sensibilities, as a self-fulfilling exercise.

In this transaction, literature is surely the loser. The sort of novelist inclined to exploit freedom of speech or to test its limits in a society where virtually anything can be said without reprisal is less likely to be some descendant of James Joyce, who made “open war” against the genuinely repressive Catholic Church, than a provocateur, a figure defined by the French novelist Michel Houellebecq as “anyone . . . who calculates his words, his attitude, to provoke maximum annoyance or discomfiture”. It’s a description that many would apply to Houellebecq. As he says elsewhere in the same letter to Bernard-Henri Lévy – collected in the book of correspondence Public Enemies – “I have been known to resort to provocation”. His description of Islam as “the stupidest religion” landed him in both the criminal and civil courts. (He was acquitted of a hate speech charge on the grounds of free expression.) But he insists that this sort of behaviour is “not in my innermost nature” and instead lays claim to “a form of perverse sincerity”.

Houellebecq has given careful thought to the literary harnessing of negative emotion. He writes to Lévy that “the greatest danger” is “misanthropic apathy . . . that bleating, sterile sulkiness that makes one hole up in a corner constantly muttering, ‘Arseholes, the lot of them,’ and, quite literally, do nothing else”. In his first book, a study of the science-fiction writer H P Lovecraft, Houellebecq expresses similar worries about “disdain” and praises instead the virtues of “hatred, disgust and fear”. In Houellebecq’s view, Lovecraft’s stories achieve a negativism so potent that it becomes a positive project, based around developing an “alternative to life”.

Houellebecq has been trying something similar – rejecting apathy, embracing anti­pathy and developing a system of thought that denies the supposed consolations of metaphysics and egalitarianism in favour of an honestly self-interested engagement with the labour market and the sex industry. At his most persuasive, he seems like the product of a deranged philosophico-literary experiment: Žižek cross-bred with Coetzee.

If Houellebecq is sincere, if he believes this stuff, surely he is also insane – because he believes this stuff? Maybe so, but he appears to be getting saner and calmer by the day. His new novel, Soumission (“submission”), which was published by Flammarion in France on the day of the attack on the Charlie Hebdo office, follows The Map and the Territory, an art-world satire that won the Prix Goncourt, in suggesting that he has turned some kind of corner.

Because Houellebecq was featured on the cover of Charlie Hebdo that week – a swollen-nosed caricature announces, “In 2015, I lose my teeth . . . In 2022, I do Ramadan!” under the headline “The predictions of Wizard Houellebecq” – and because of his well-known views on Islam, there were rumours that Soumission might be Houellebecq’s high-five to the Le Pens. But even the closest-reading Islamist would struggle to find evidence of outright prejudice, as distinct from points of divergence. Meanwhile, the nativist contingent will be appalled to discover not a scurrilous satire or a panic-stricken caution but rather a diligent, even-tempered novel of ideas that takes almost boring pains to show how the Front National, having won the election in 2017, might lose control of France to a coalition government in which the senior party is the Muslim Brotherhood. We are given the opinion polls, the televised debate, the hashing-out of a deal. And Muslim France, when it arrives, is not a cartoon dictatorship but an eco-friendly, crime-free, economically stable republic whose treatment of women and Jews reveals itself gradually.

Houellebecq hasn’t exactly “mellowed” – the word that attaches itself to enfants terribles who make the mistake of turning 50. But most of his swipes are aimed at the society displaced by the Muslim government. Lovecraft’s foam-flecked notation of the “Italico-Semitico-Mongoloids” in 1920s New York finds a parallel in the mongrel smoothies (“There were over a dozen”) available at Fast-Juice: “coconut-passion fruit-guava”, “mango-lychee-guarana”.

The novel, which takes place in 2022, concerns François, a literary scholar specialising in J K Huysmans, and his political education at the hands of three men: a young colleague who belongs to a post-identitaire nativist group; a retired spy expert on Islamic groups; and the new president of his university, a Muslim convert. François’s tutorials alternate with a series of pilgrimages to parts of France and Belgium, sometimes but not always associated with Huysmans. Soumission is likely to become Houellebecq’s Islam novel but it is more notable as an attempt, sincerely questing and open-minded, to identify the stakes of human – and specifically European – existence in which Islam appears alongside Catholicism, romantic love alongside porn and prostitution, Huysmans alongside rival literary figures promoted by his political mentors: Léon Bloy, Charles Péguy, René Guénon.

A fantasy about political coalitions, the book is also more broadly concerned with ideas that straddle the old left-right dichotomy. The Muslim faction and the Islamophobic far right have similar feelings about Jews and the threat of decadence to family values. And when the Muslim Brotherhood gangs up with the socialists, the only subject on which they butt heads is education.

Houellebecq’s characters are also keen to identify areas of overlap between Islam and the political systems of the past. The Muslim president, rather than seeking a return to medieval times or sending France hurtling towards the Apocalypse, is compared to Augustus, on account of his imperial ambitions, and also to Cardinal Richelieu, for his interest in the spread of French. Islam is welcomed as a force as good as any for stopping the European rot that set in with the First World War – or perhaps earlier with the Franco-Prussian war, to which François dates “nihilism, anarchism and all that crap”. Even the idea of submission is given a spin, providing a basis of comparison between Islam’s view of human nature and the vision of ideal female sexuality offered in Pauline Réage’s Story of O.

While Houellebecq has not entirely lost his appetite for mockery, every ideological position has an eloquent proponent – and Islam in particular. And though optimism is outlawed, the novel ends in a tentative, uncertain mood, which may not be the shrug that Houellebecq has always resisted but nor is it the head-shake on which he has so long relied. 

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 16 January 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Jihadis Among Us