Michel Houllebecq’s new novel, published in French in January, due to appear in English in September, closes with the main character’s imminent conversion to Islam, his return to teaching at an Islamic Sorbonne, his selection as editor of the Pléaide edition of Joris-Karl Huysmans’ works and the prospect of three wives of his choosing—in short, a new world, if not an especially brave one, a second chance in an existence that has so far been emotionally and spiritually empty. The book ends with the sentence, “Je n’aurais rien à regretter”—“I would have nothing to mourn.” It is printed on the back of the last leaf, so you literally turn the page to read it, as François figuratively turns the page in his life.
On the surface, it would seem that this passage will indeed bring François much that he has desired. But he would not express that final sentiment if the thought of mourning had not occurred to him, and the thought has definitely occurred to Houllebecq. He noted in a recent interview for the Paris Review, that one could end the book feeling that François has two things to mourn, Myriam—the one woman who has loved him–and the Black Madonna of Rocamadour. But, he added, François “happens not to mourn them.”
“Happens not to.” A unusual statement whose casual tone is at odds with the gravity of loss which we think of when we speak of mourning. What might that statement mean? What happens at Rocamadour?
François does not go on his own initiative, as he later flees to the Abbey de Ligugé in the wake of a personal crisis. Alain Tanneur, a native of the area whom he knows from Paris, recommends Rocamadour as a measure of the greatness of medieval Christendom, and the idea comes to him as he is praising the greatness of the Roman empire and the vision of the newly-elected Islamic President Mohammed Ben Abbes who intends to replicate it.
Tanneur’s details are significant. Kings and saints of the Christian era—Henry Plantagenet, Saint Bernard, Saint Louis, Philippe le Bel—“knelt” at the feet of the Black Madonna. They mounted the many stairs to the sanctuary on their knees. This is a form of submission, and, what is more, submission to a feminine divinity, for as Tanneur adds, the heart of medieval devotion was neither the Father, nor the Son, but the Virgin Mary. He does not complement this awareness by mentioning important female pilgrims to Rocamadour, such as Eleanor of Acquitaine and Blanche of Castile.
François spends over a month there and every day, sits before the Madonna (rather than kneeling at her feet). The description of the statue itself is quite literal. Its serenity and power inspire fear more than anything, and he says that gradually his individuality begins to dissolve. But neither the serenity nor the dissolution is evoked and felt.
This is a striking contrast with the appreciation of delicious food and of a range of wines, liqueurs and other drinks that lace the story, and with the way that certain political and philosophical ideas are brought alive: the realignment of political parties or the death of atheistic humanism, for example. And it would almost go without saying that François’ daily vigils are not treated with the attention lavished on the sex scenes either, except that this contrast is terribly consistent with the tired old bifurcation of the female into Madonna vs. whore—or if certain prefer, sexual object—a cliché which is implicit from the beginning of the book and tips heavily in favour of the second alternative.
Before François returns to Paris there are two more brief scenes involving the Madonna. The first takes place during his last evening, as an actor recites lines by the Catholic poet Charles Pierre Péguy. The Madonna seems to rise in the air and grow larger, the child on her knee seems to grow in power, François feels the grandeur of the sacred and seems ready to surrender to it. But then he thinks that maybe this effect is simply due to having forgotten to eat, and that it would be better to go feast on roast duck than to fall victim to “mystic hypoglycemia.”
The power of this experience does draw him back to the chapel the next morning, but now the statue seems to fade away in time and space. Houllebecq has called this last visit the key scene of the book. It is could have been, but as in the previous one, the writing slips over the surface of the subject. François has not ventured far enough along the road to faith, which is a form of surrender, to run away from it, and Hollebecq has not ventured far enough into the desire for faith to examine the fears and hesitations that hold one back. The entire interlude in Rocamadour is underdeveloped. François walks back down to his car in sadness. But he seems too anesthetized to feel deep regret.
It is the prospect of civil conflict that drives François from Paris and also the departure of Myriam with her family for Israel. But Myriam reappears, both in his thoughts and via e-mail, and he does mourn her. He even surprises her by calling her in Israel and blows kisses into the phone, a practice which he has always hated.
By the time the novel ends, though, there has been a shift. His last thought of her is framed by images of his upcoming conversion to Islam. It does not receive a sentence unto itself, and it is put in the conditional: “I would certainly have, before delivering my speech, a final thought for Myriam.” The thought is actually three thoughts: She was going to pursue her own life in much more difficult conditions than François. He hopes that she will happy. However he seriously doubts that that will be the case.
The negative ending and the relegation of this final thought to his anticipation of the important public speech which will mark his new existence make this last mention sound dismissive with a condescending charity at best. The thought is “for” Myriam, not “of” her. Is there even a hint of punishment? Myriam, the only woman in François’ life of serial monogamy who has loved him, has left him, and not just geographically.
Finally, she, like the series of female students François has bedded with academic year regularity for years, has met someone. The expression is always put in italics, and when François describes the phenomenon early in the book, he asserts that he, too, is someone, as though he suspects deep down that not one of his previous girlfriends ever said this to her ex upon meeting him. His declaration is indignant, tinged with sorrow and breaks through the detached ennui that characterizes his voice through 95% of the book—something to mourn?
But perhaps he is able to click off at the end, because even the woman whom he comes the closest to loving—or to feeling an attachment which is often equated with love—remains something of an accessory. In his loneliness in Quercy, when she is often on his mind, his thoughts are characteristically of himself and her, but seldom of “we”. Myriam is someone to François insofar as that seems possible for him, but it remains limited.
This limitation is exposed as the very first scene between them winds down. Referring to François’ uncompromising stance on matters in general, she says that even if he is right about patriarchy, she is educated and considers herself as capable of reflection as a man. So, what now? she asks. “Je suis bonne à jeter?” (“I’m disposable?” (“Jeter” literally means “to throw away”.)) François thinks that the right answer is probably “yes,” but keeps it to himself.
In his new existence, he will not have to worry that any one of his three wives, meticulously chosen to his specifications by a female inspector who examines them nude, will meet someone. The new system of polygamy is, of course, an air-tight insurance against that possibility.
Individual personal comfort—sex when you want it, a cushy salary and a cool pad—are given as much attention as the discipline, reinforcement of family life and public order brought by the new system. Islamic religious beliefs get short shrift. When he is given Ten Questions about Islam to read, François skips the chapters on the pillars of Islam and fasting and heads straight for the one on polygamy. That’s the only one he discusses with its author too.
The aversion to European humanism, the receptivity to Islam, the justification of polygamy, it is all personally grounded as well as rationally argued, and this grounding colors the entire book. Is that why the final paragraphs are written in the conditional tense? have the character of a fantasy in which François imagines a flawless upcoming conversion ceremony?—the beauty of the hammam mosaics, the water pouring over his skin, the cocktail following the speeches—sensual still. The penultimate paragraph anticipates the new academic year with “pretty, veiled, timid” students, happy and proud to be chosen by him, honored to share his bed, whom he will “come to love”. Even as he speaks for the first time of loving another, the narrator is still focused on his own pleasures. The meaning of the conversion itself receives one paragraph sandwiched between fantasies of being served by submissive women.
François is simply exchanging atheistic materialism for a secular and materialistic Islam. That is why he might have mourned the Black Madonna. This Islamic order even permits alcohol, good alcohol. So who is submitting to what? Houllebecq is right about the emptiness of consumer society, and the widespread return to religion, and he has clearly thought carefully about political re-alignments in Europe. But he has not thought with any care about women, and their subjugation is a major aspect of Ben Abbes’s reforms.
When Houllebecq is asked about this in interviews he replies that he is simply describing a phenomenon: feminism, like other Western ideologies, is demographically doomed. But he likes this prospect. That is the meaning of housing the Rector of the new Islamic Sorbonne, who speaks for the absent Ben Abbes, as well as for the very present author, in the mansion where the History of O was written. It is the reason for attributing to him a parallel between the absolute submission of woman to man in that novel, and the absolute submission of man to God. The second, however, receives nothing more than lip service, and it is the first that Houllebecq dramatizes with relish.
The roots of this imbalance surface in a Paris-bound TGV where François watches two young wives of an Arabic businessman giggling over magazines, and muses that women in an Islamic regime can remain eternal children, exchanging children’s games for sex games as they reach puberty. And then, he thinks of his father, who had his mother, “this neurotic whore” and shivers at the idea. Given such beginnings, it is understandable that a man would feel more comfortable with playthings.
Francois’ concern with how women can serve his own well-being is reflected in another remark made by Houllebecq in the Paris Review interview: “We can make arrangements [with Islam]. The feminists will not be able to, if we’re being completely honest. But I and lots of other people will.” ‘Bonne à jeter?’
This strain of fantasy, together with Ben Abbes’ reforms, which progress with unrealistic smoothness and rapidity, as Houllebecq himself recognizes, disqualifies the novel as satire. The book can be said to indict media hype, the spinelessness of French intellectuals and the self-serving rhetoric of French politicians, but that is as far as its social criticism goes.
Submission is not really political fiction either, as its author suggests. The death of Enlightenment philosophy, of capitalism, the demographic defeat of atheists, the clever and often amusing ridicule of consumer society, all this notwithstanding, the deep existential void of the first person narrator haunts the book. And at a subtler level so does the question of whether submission, as it is understood here, is consistent with retaining human dignity. These questions are never directly confronted. The second is never even raised, the first can perhaps can only be glanced at out of the corner of the eye. The final sentence can therefore be given multiple readings, literal, wishful, ironic—in a personal as well as social sense—whatever the author may have intended.