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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


Michel Houellebecq

general information | review summaries | our review | links | about the author

To purchase Submission

Title: Submission
Author: Michel Houellebecq
Genre: Novel
Written: 2015 (Eng. 2015)
Length: 239 pages
Original in: French
Availability: Submission - US
Submission - UK
Submission - Canada
Soumission - Canada
Submission - India
Soumission - France
Unterwerfung - Deutschland
Sottomissione - Italia
Sumisión - España
  • French title: Soumission
  • Translated by Lorin Stein

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Our Assessment:

B+ : oddly entertaining wallow in the comeuppance of decadent and failed Western society

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Age . 19/9/2015 Andrew Riemer
The Economist . 10/1/2015 .
Financial Times . 11/9/2015 Malise Ruthven
FAZ A 8/1/2015 Jürg Altwegg
The Guardian . 8/9/2015 Alex Preston
The Independent . 6/8/2015 Arifa Akbar
The Independent . 19/9/2015 Lucy Popescu
London Rev. of Books . 9/4/2015 Adam Shatz
Le Monde . 6/1/2015 Raphaëlle Leyris
The New Criterion . 2/2015 Anthony Daniels
The NY Rev. of Books . 2/4/2015 Mark Lilla
The NY Times . 4/11/2015 Michiko Kakutani
The NY Times Book Rev. . 8/11/2015 K.O. Knausgaard
The New Yorker . 26/1/2015 Adam Gopnik
San Francisco Chronicle . 22/10/2015 Michael Magras
The Spectator A+ 17/1/2015 David Sexton
TLS . 13/2/2015 Russell Williams
Die Zeit . 8/1/2015 Jens Jessen

  From the Reviews:
  • "It is difficult to know what to think -- and that, in a way, is the strength of this novel. (...) For all its being bedded in the minutiae of contemporary French culture -- and therefore more than a little opaque for us -- Submission is a terrific read: funny, frightening and, as always with Houellebecq, unerringly taking the mickey out of a truckload of sacred cows." - Andrew Riemer, The Age

  • "Mr Houellebecq says his book is a "vision", based on the collapse of Enlightenment ideas in the face of the quest for religious meaning in a decadent society. The submission of the title is to God, as much as France to Islam, or secular politicians to religious accommodation, or women (who, as ever in a Houellebecq novel, are reduced to flat extras) to a new patriarchy. Subtle discussion of such ideas is inaudible above the political rumpus that Mr Houellebecq has wrought, wittingly or otherwise." - The Economist

  • "While the characters often seem two-dimensional, mere vehicles for intellectual arguments, the writing can be witty and deft (.....) In general, Lorin Stein’s translation is pleasant to read and unfussily captures the rhythms of Houellebecq’s sentences. (...) Such quibbles aside, this is an important novel." - Malise Ruthven, Financial Times

  • "Es ist ein phänomenales, genaues Porträt der französischen Gesellschaft, vor allem ihrer Medien und der politischen Klasse, deren Personal unfreiwillig und ungefragt in Nebenrollen auftritt, wobei der Autor vor herrlichen Überzeichnungen nicht zurückschreckt. Rücksichtslos beschreibt er in eher platten Sätzen die französischen Realitäten, Tabus, Albträume und Obsessionen. Es ist ein heilsames, ein blasphemisches Buch" - Jürg Altwegg, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung

  • "Submission is both a more subtle and less immediately scandalous satire than the brouhaha surrounding it might suggest. (...) Huysmans’s work, and particularly his crepuscular masterpiece À Rebours, sits palimpsest-like behind Submission, marshalling its obsessions and providing a satisfying extra layer to an already complex novel." - Alex Preston, The Guardian

  • "Submission is polemical and comic by turns, and is best appreciated in the latter register. There are great tracts of political theory and philosophy that are barely digested in the fiction and appear as stodgy conversation. Its comedy is better, and sharper. What the novel is not is a dystopia about Muslim invasion. Its fear and doubt is angled at the end-point of France's englightenment values." - Arifa Akbar, The Independent

  • "Submission, expertly translated by Lorin Stein, can be read on a number of levels. As much as it is about Islamic and political tensions in France, Houellebecq also explores the inner world of his chauvinistic antihero who struggles to find meaning in his life and seeks solace in sex." - Lucy Popescu, The Independent

  • "(A) melancholy tribute to the pleasure of surrender. (...) Soumission is too ambiguous to be read as satire -- or, for that matter, as nightmare. There are strong indications, both in the novel and in interviews, that Houellebecq sees Islam as a solution, if not the solution, to the crisis of French civilisation." - Adam Shatz, London Review of Books

  • "Livre piégé politiquement, Soumission est un livre moyen littérairement, par la faute notamment de sa recherche de neutralité : elle consiste à déléguer de très longs passages aux monologues des interlocuteurs de François (lequel, bien sûr, ne dit pas grand-chose), qui, s’ils peuvent être brillants ou intéressants – pas tous –, trahissent une certaine lassitude de l’auteur à l’égard des exigences de la fiction, du travail de construction et de précision qu’elle requiert." - Raphaëlle Leyris, Le Monde

  • "The subtlety of Houellebecq’s book consists of demonstrating that the spiritual need of the protagonist can be made to coincide with his material interest. (...) This novel is far from a crude anti-Islamic polemic, however, as many might have supposed it to be from its pre-publication publicity (Houellebecq has expressed himself very unfavorably on Islam elsewhere). It is rather a meditation, admittedly using all the author’s habitual tropes which fortunately, or perhaps unfortunately, are susceptible to an infinite number of bitterly amusing variations, on the state of Western civilization and what makes that civilization vulnerable to attack from so intellectually nugatory a force as Islamism which, by all reasonable standards, has nothing of any value whatever to say to the inhabitants of the twenty-first century." - Anthony Daniels, The New Criterion

  • "(I)t will take a long time for the French to read and appreciate Soumission for the strange and surprising thing that it is. Michel Houellebecq has created a new genre -- the dystopian conversion tale. (...) There is no doubt that Houellebecq wants us to see the collapse of modern Europe and the rise of a Muslim one as a tragedy. (...) Islam is not the target of Soumission, whatever Houellebecq thinks of it. It serves as a device to express a very persistent European worry that the single-minded pursuit of freedom -- freedom from tradition and authority, freedom to pursue one’s own ends -- must inevitably lead to disaster." - Mark Lilla, The New York Review of Books

  • "Mr. Houellebecq’s mockery of French academics -- as craven self-promoters -- and an arthritic political system can be amusing at times, but in the end, it’s all done with an extremely heavy hand." - Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times

  • "What does it mean to be a human being without faith ? This is in many ways the question posed by the novel." - Karl Ove Knausgaard, The New York Times Book Review

  • "Houellebecq is, simply, a satirist. He likes to take what’s happening now and imagine what would happen if it kept on happening. (...) Even if, sentence by sentence, Houellebecq is not a writer to envy, certainly he does have a voice of his own, one of slightly resigned sociological detachment. (...) The charge that Houellebecq is Islamophobic seems misplaced. He’s not Islamophobic. He’s Francophobic." - Adam Gopnik, The New Yorker

  • "(T)renchant if obvious (.....) The characters are often mouthpieces for political arguments rather than three-dimensional creations, but Houellebecq’s work is nonetheless a challenging satire that, at its best, is subtler than its author’s reputation might lead you to expect." - Michael Magras, San Francisco Chronicle

  • "Soumission is a fine, deeply literary work, not a prank. (...) (I)t’s profoundly inter-textual — even, in its way, a campus novel, you could say. (...) It is genuinely more admiring than critical of Islam, which is the background, not the foreground, here. (...) (I)t’s electrifying; no recent English-language novel compares." - David Sexton, The Spectator

  • "Though by no means the author’s best book, its subject and the context of its publication will ensure it too assumes an unfortunate place in French literary history. (...) For the most part, Soumission creates the odd impression that the author is trying to be provocative while at the same time attempting to not go too far. (...) François, though repellent, is compelling and his travails within French academia and the comparisons drawn between his conversion and Huysmans's own, to Catholicism, are neatly evoked. (...) Soumission, though, is less satisfying than Houellebecq’s previous novels. There is a lack of stylistic texture; missing is the trademark blend of flat prose with more lyrical, poetic passages which give his writing a broad spectrum of emotion, moving the reader indeterminately between alienated neutrality, humour and pathos." - Russell Williams, Times Literary Supplement

  • "Erzählstoff ist das nicht wirklich; das Buch ist aber auch gar kein Roman, sondern ein Denkexperiment, dem ein bisserl Handlung, Sexleben und Depression des Helden nur zur Tarnung beigegeben wurden, um die Ausrede der Fiktion zu haben -- und, wesentlicher noch, der Erzählperspektive etwas Fragwürdiges, Gebrochenes zu verleihen." - Jens Jessen, Die Zeit

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Submission is narrated by François, and the book opens with him describing finishing his studies in 2007. After defending his dissertation, on French author Joris-Karl Huysmans:

I realized that part of my life, probably the best part, was behind me.
       He doesn't look forward to the transition to adulthood and taking up some traditional form of employment -- since: "The academic study of literature leads basically nowhere, as we know" -- but as it turns out, and somewhat to his own surprise, his dissertation is good enough that: "Suddenly, a tenured position as a senior lecturer was within my reach, if I wanted it". Despite admitting to having not the slightest vocation for teaching, such a position is too cushy not to grab, and so he winds up a lecturer and later full professor at Paris 3 (Sorbonne-Nouvelle) -- a slight step down from Paris 4 (the good old Sorbonne), where he took his degree, but good enough. Instead of moving on, he essentially stays in place; instead of leaving behind Huysmans -- his companion: "Throughout all the years of my sad youth" -- he continues to cling to the decadent author. And beyond publishing a book he can barely point to any real accomplishments in his life after that: that and completing his dissertation were the early and only summits of his life, intellectual and otherwise. Only years later, his life disrupted by the reverberations of a national shake-up, would he be forced to reconsider and reëvaluate his path.
       François' account is from some fifteen years later, from a very changed France. The closing pages see him preparing to embrace a new life in this new world; interestingly, his account ends before he actually makes the transition, and the novel that had been entirely retrospective, describing what had happened, after the fact, becomes, in a grammatical shift, prospective, describing what lies ahead -- the promise of the future -- but not actually taking the reader along there. So also the conclusion is entirely prospective, the future as he imagines and expects it, and hopes for -- down to the claim: "I would have nothing to mourn for".
       In his dissertation -- a nearly 800-page work -- François had: "interpreted Huysmans's work in light of his future conversion" (the decadent author eventually embracing Catholicism). His account follows a similar personal trajectory, as it also leads to religious conversion. His is a 'submission' to Islam -- yet it is less an embrace of the religious than a reaction to circumstances, and hence also strategic and opportunistic. Not that François lacks conviction -- but his decision is entirely personal and, in a sense, anti-social; he has written off traditional Western/European society and sees this as his way to remain comfortably afloat.
       François is a typical Houellebecqian protagonist, an aging male (just reaching his mid-forties as he recounts this story) who does not engage in any meaningful way with many other people and can barely be bothered to maintain a relationship; "rather cultured, rather sad, without much in the way of distractions". He cycles through girlfriends at a steady rate of one student every academic year; the one he briefly thought might perhaps linger or return, Myriam ("the summit of my love life"), is Jewish and follows her parents to Israel as the French situation becomes more worrisome; in the distance she quickly fades from his life, leaving him essentially entirely alone. (His parents also die in quick succession, but they hardly seem to have ever figured in any significant way in his life after childhood.) Eventually, he finds:
I had to admit, I was going to die if I kept that up -- I was going to die fast, unhappy and alone. And did I really want to die fast, unhappy and alone ? In the end, only kind of.
       (That perfect: "only kind of" is quintessential Houellebecq -- both the sentiment itself, and François' forthrightness in admitting to it.)
       Submission is a novel in which there is a fundamental political and social change in France, the 2022 presidential elections seeing Mohammed Ben Abbes, leader of the French Muslim Brotherhood, win the runoff (which he just squeaked into) "by a landslide" and taking France down a very different path. As with so much else, François has largely been indifferent to politics most of his life. He admits: "I was about as political as a bath towel" and, Parisian through and through, also: "I didn't actually know much about France" (beyond Paris); even once the Islamic government has settled into power he has to admit: "Really, it wasn't a religion I knew much about". Yet for all his ignorance and lack of interest, he has no doubts about the decline of the West (and France in particular) as well as some of the reasons behind it and the ascendance of Islam.
       Sex is important to François -- "sources of pleasure were hard to come by. In the end, my dick was all I had" -- but for him sex is entirely divorced from its ostensible purpose, procreation. (As is the case with most Houellebecq protagonists, fatherhood is almost inconceivable to him.) As such, he is a representative of the decadent Western type, who fails at the fundamental and is in it just for pleasure -- and he recognizes his failure, and that of the society around him, a Europe at a point of: "putrid decomposition".
       François is not necessarily nostalgic for patriarchy, but argues for its worth:
     You know I'm not for anything, but at least patriarchy existed. I mean, as a social system it was able to perpetuate itself. There were families with children, and most of them had children. In other words, it worked, whereas now there aren't enough children, so we're finished.
       Meanwhile, as someone explains to him, the Muslim Brotherhood doesn't care much about most political issues but:
What they care about is the birthrate and education. To them it's simple -- whichever segment of the population has the highest birthrate, and does the best job of transmitting its values, wins. If you control the children, you control the future.
       Blindsided -- "We're so used to the politics of right versus left that we can't see another way for things to be" -- the Muslim Brotherhood sweeps to power by also playing to traditionalism, toning down the Islamic spin on religion and selling their programme as one of 'family values'. So also then in changes they institute, such as in the educational system -- mandatory education only through elementary school, vocational training after that encouraged, all secondary and higher education privatized, all as part of an effort to: "restore the centrality, the dignity, of the family as the building block of society". Women leave the workforce and resume their traditional roles in the home, and among the ideas that are embraced is that:
The transition to a salaried workforce had doomed the nuclear family and led to the complete atomization of society, and that society could only be rebuilt if industry was based on a small-business model.
       Houellebecq shows a France and Europe that has been completely outflanked and is helpless against the new order. Almost effortlessly, and seeming like a benign force, the Islamic influence spreads, with the European Union soon to welcome traditionally Islamic states which will then soon be in the majority (once again: it's all about the headcount; in Houellebecq's very simplistic worldview numbers win).
       The Sorbonne is essentially bought by the Saudis and reinvented as the Islamic University of Paris-Sorbonne -- a change that also means François can't continue working there: adherence to the religion is mandatory. Typically, however, there's little pain involved in this transition: the retirement-package they offer is more than generous, and François could very comfortably while away the rest of his days without any worries. He does, for a while, but the emptiness of his life (which, let's face it, had already been pretty damn empty) gets to him. An offer to to edit a two-volume Bibliothèque de la Pléiade edition of Huysmans (yes, amazingly he's not part of the series yet) perks him up -- but even more tempting is the offer of reinstatement at the university. The only catch is the original one: he has to convert.
       Robert Rediger, the new man in charge, tries to seduce him. Inviting François to his new digs -- the house at 5 rue des Arènes which used to be Jean Paulhan's -- and having François run into his new, fifteen-year-old wife (he kept the old one, too, however) certainly help in showing some of the appeal of conversion. Rediger's bestselling Ten Questions on Islam helps clear up some of François' concerns too; he's not that interested in the religious details and skips straight ahead to chapter seven, "Why Polygamy ?". Shallow, sex-obsessed as he is, it's a major selling point for him -- especially when Rediger suggests: "I think you could have three wives without too much trouble".
       As Rediger notes about the ideological issues:
     The fact is, most people live their lives without worrying too much about these supposedly philosophical questions. They think about them only when they're facing some kind of tragedy -- a serious illness, the death of a loved one. At least, that's how it is in the West, because in the rest of the world people die and kill in the name of these very questions, they wage bloody wars over them, and they have since the dawn of time.
       It's the rare hint that maybe Western decadence isn't on the wrong track after all, but neither Rediger nor François follow up on the implications.
       Rediger himself is a convert from Christianity. He believed:
Without Christianity, the European nations had become bodies without souls -- zombies.
       But he despaired of a Christian revival -- and found Islam instead. Spiritually vacuous François is even easier to convince -- the promise of a lifestyle, rather than a meaningful life pretty much enough to win him over.
       Houellebecq’s vision of post-2022 France is all the more unsettlingly dystopian for seeming so benign. Yes, the women disappear in the shadows -- but then women rarely figure very prominently in his novels anyway, his concern for them as anything other than sexual objects so limited that their disappearance from public barely even registers; it's necessary that François specifically points it out for readers to become aware of it. There are also indications that the change will accelerate -- beginning with the EU expansion, and with Belgium already falling into Muslim line -- but little overt sense of menace.
       In many ways Islam merely seems to be a vehicle for Houellebecq: this is not a book of warning about what will or might happen, but rather one reflecting on a dissolution -- of a culture and society -- already completed. Fin de siècle, end of days: the self-destruction of Western culture is a done deal and there is no more hope for it.
       Islam doesn't represent hope, here, either; it's the briefly flowering false idol of a stability based on an untenable social order; so too the suggested new economic system based on "distributism". Houellebecq doesn't even strain too much to suggest France's turn to Islam as plausible, in the short or long term; it is simply a convenient sign of the times: just as Huysmans looked towards Christianity just as Christianity's day was done, so too Houellebecq allows François to turn towards a Mecca in (violent, self-immolating) eclipse, that greater Islam beyond François' so limited gaze which, tellingly, Houellebecq doesn't even have to bother mentioning, leaving it for the reader to fill in.
       Indeed, as noted, Houellebecq can't even bring himself to see François' conversion through: the novel concludes prospectively, François imagining what will be. Submission can be misperceived as a thought-experiment, positing what-if (Muslim domination came to pass), but here is yet another indication that it isn't, Houellebecq uninterested in looking beyond the ruins of contemporary French and Western society.
       Submission is a typical Houellebecq novel, for better and worse. With its sad-sack protagonist, condemnation of (and yet also wallow in) contemporary Western society at its most decadent, and largely despairing worldview, it offers all the usual Houellebecq-pleasures, quite nicely served up. Intellectually, it's problematic -- Houellebecq's theorizing and his imagined world are shallow and don't withstand much scrutiny -- but he throws enough in to be intriguingly provocative. The literary foundations help: he understands his Huysmans considerably better than Islam (but then he's more interested in individuals than systems), and even when it's lazy his writing is strong enough (and he knows enough tricks) to engage the reader fully. Exasperating though it can be, in so many ways, Submission is also a lot fun to read.
       Touching, too, is his belief that literature can endure:
It was amazing, even, to think that the only thing left to people in their despair was reading.
       With its big themes, and in apparently taking on such a major issue of the day -- the 'rise' and increasing influence of Islam in France -- Submission sounds considerably more provocative than it is. In fact, it's (agreeably) old school and (unsurprisingly) reactionary, a fin de siècle novel casting its gaze over what's been lost. Houellebecq dazzles -- but a lot of it is tricks and mirrors, with neither the ideas nor the writing standing up to closer scrutiny. But it is fun dazzle, and there is a lot of it to keep readers entertained.

- M.A.Orthofer, 11 July 2015

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Submission: Reviews: Michel Houellebecq: Other books by Michel Houellebecq under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • See also the Index of French literature at the complete review

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About the Author:

       French author Michel Houellebecq was born in 1958.

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© 2015-2021 the complete review

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