This is the first of several recommendations I will be making in the coming weeks. It is the French author Michel Houellebecq’s Soumission (Submission) which was published in 2015, by chance on the day of the Charlie Hebdo attack in Paris. I didn’t get round to reading it till last summer but the current debate raging over the burka, a proxy for the modern battle for values in the West, brought it to front of mind.
If you have read Douglas Murray’s The Strange Death of Europe: Immigration, Identity, Islam, this novel is in a sense its dramatised version, as experienced through the eyes of a jaded, libertarian French academic at the Sorbonne. Far from envisaging ‘the West going down fighting in face of an attack on our civilisation that must be recognised, not evaded’, Houellebecq shows just how easily people can succumb.
It is more prescient than provocative as Gaby Wood argues. But the quasi-democratic process Houellebeqc describes, alongside dismaying toleration of aggressive campus disruptions and bullying, is no less dystopian for that.
The picture he paints of the likely acquiescence of the intellectual class is not in face of the threat of terror but rather to Islam’s sheer strength of confidence, its patriarchal model; the social order it offers as an antidote to the increasingly unhappy, value-free and atomised life of the 21st century.
Soumission is set in a near future in which the rise of the far Right has brought back that ‘forgotten frisson of fascism’. The Muslim Brotherhood party, formerly allied with the Front National thanks to their shared anti-Semitism, has adopted a more moderate position. It is now biding its time to achieve greater power. Following an indecisive election, in which the F N gets the highest number of votes, but not enough to claim office on its own, the Socialist Party unites with the Muslim Brotherhood to save France from the far Right.
Think Corbyn and his Arabist and Muslim political penchant, and it becomes a scenario that feels possible here too.
Set against this is our ‘hero’, Francois, a man of our decadent and anomic Western times – porn-addicted, solipsistic, disillusioned, and rather cruel – a teacher at the Sorbonne. The centre-Left versus centre-Right dynamic that has dominated the Republic through the post-war period is shattered, and sees Jews fleeing for Israel in fear, including Francois’s Jewish girlfriend.
The subject of Francois’s award-winning literary research is J K Huysmans, a writer who through his career went from naturalism to decadence, then from decadence to monasticism. This is the allegorical background to Francois’s own final descent into intellectual self-betrayal.
As soon as the Muslim President comes to power, Francois receives a letter from the Ministry of Education forcefully requesting his early retirement. Frightened by the prospect of losing his economic security, he is tempted by the blandishments of a male colleague singing the virtues of the Muslim-Left alliance to return to the now Islamic Sorbonne. He can have his job back but only if he converts to Islam. He has already witnessed the cultural revolution in the university, the women all dressed discreetly in headscarves and coverings and separated from the men. He does not dislike it.
Attracted by the ‘reward’ of a young and submissive wife – and the possibility of more – plus the quiet calm of his colleague’s book-lined and patriarchally run home where women are seen but not heard, it does not take long for him to forgo his remnant enlightenment principles. Offered this extension of his sexual fantasies, when he’s given a book called Ten Questions About Islam, he skips straight to chapter seven: ‘Why polygamy?’
Like too many people in the West he believes in nothing – and therein lies both the ease of his submission to Islam and the strength of its threat to the West. It is a persuasively drawn picture.