by Michel Houellebecq.
Paris: Flammarion, 2015.
Hardcover, 300 pages, $50.

When Joris-Karl Huysmans published À rebours in 1884, a novel that would come to be known as “la bible de la décadence,” the writer and literary critic Barbey d’Aurevilly weighed in with a portentous prediction. The day would come, d’Aurevilly wrote, when Huysmans would have to choose between either “the mouth of a pistol or the foot of the cross.” In the event, Huysmans chose the latter. In his new book Soumission, the celebrated novelist and semi-pornographer Michel Houellebecq begins with an epigraph from En route, a later autobiographical novel by Huysmans that describes this change of heart.

In Houellebecq’s novel, the epigraph foreshadows the eventual conversion of the protagonist François, a professor of nineteenth-century French literature at Paris IV-Sorbonne, who writes his 788-page dissertation on Huysmans and is portrayed as the leading scholar in the field. But instead of embracing Catholicism, here François converts to Islam. The theme of religious conversion is not the only parallel between Huysmans and Soumission, which in all likelihood will be translated as Submission, when it appears in English later this year. Like Duc Jean des Esseintes, the anemic protagonist of À rebours, François suffers from persistent maladies. In the case of des Esseintes, these involve various neuroses and digestive disorders; in the case of François, recurring and painful bouts of eczema, among other ailments. François also considers suicide. “I was incapable of living for myself, and whom else would I live for?” Both characters lead dissolute and promiscuous lives.

Given Houellebecq’s provocative title in combination with the novel’s ultimate dénouement, most commentary has focused on the emerging tension between Islam and traditional Europe and what this may portend. By shocking coincidence, the book was published on the same day that Islamic terrorists attacked the offices of the weekly magazine Charlie Hebdo in Paris. One of the journalists killed in the attack was a close friend of Houellebecq. But the novel is also very much concerned with the past, as underscored by the strong connection to Huysmans and many other historical references. Frequent allusions to real-life figures and popular culture also make it clear that the novel is intended as a commentary on contemporary France, and arguably the West more generally. Lastly, several key references to Émile Zola and nineteenth-century naturalism create the strong impression that Houellebecq has purposely chosen to write within this literary tradition, describing the world as it actually exists, in all its lurid detail.

The novel begins in the spring of 2022 on the cusp of the upcoming presidential election, although that is not immediately mentioned. Houellebecq uses the first chapters to introduce many of the main characters, starting arguably with Huysmans himself, whose biography is the main topic of the first (un-numbered) chapter. Soon after, François describes some of his day-to-day activities at the university, followed by a brief synopsis of his love life, which consists mostly of short-term romances, often with students such as Myriam, his current paramour. In the first and relatively tame pornographic reference, we learn that he used to be “be able to get a hard-on for any reason” but now demands a body that is “firm, supple, and flawless.” At lunch at a Moroccan restaurant, a female colleague tells him that the president of Paris III-Sorbonne, a professor of “gender studies” (written in English), will soon be replaced by Robert Rediger. Excusing himself to go to the men’s room, he consults his smartphone and learns that Rediger is best known for leading a boycott of Israeli universities. The upcoming elections, all of a sudden, start to become much more interesting.

A month after the 2017 results, improbably won by the Socialists, we are told that a new party was formed in France, la Fraternité Musulmane, by Mohammed Ben Abbes. Thanks to some adroit maneuvers borrowed from the old French communists, this party has now become a substantial political force. According to pre-election polls, they trail the Socialists by only two percentage points with the National Front in the lead. Under the French system, if they overtake the Socialists, they will advance to the second and final round. In the meantime, riots are breaking out, although who is causing them remains unclear. Some blame the Muslims; others, nativist forces known in French as identitaires, who in fact exist. François, who had been apolitical, begins to get caught up in the intrigue, and the novel begins to take on the feel of a pulp fiction thriller.

First we meet a young male professor, wearing mascara, whose specialty is Léon Bloy, a contemporary of Huysmans. He tells François that he used to be involved in identitaire politics. Vague plans of a coup d’état are mentioned. Then with François staying up late to watch the results, we learn that the Muslim Party has beaten out the Socialists by less than a percentage point. They will now face off against the National Front. Soon after, we meet a counter-intelligence officer, who is married to the colleague who informed François about the upcoming appointment of Rediger. From him, we learn that the Muslim Party is engaged in secret negotiations with the Socialists in the hope of gaining their endorsement. The Muslims want control of education, but everything else is open for discussion. “Républicain” or same-sex marriage will be preserved, apparently; polygamy will be introduced more slowly. The counter-intelligence officer also tells François to open a foreign bank account and prepare to flee Paris. He follows this advice. In the meantime, Myriam, who is Jewish, says that her parents are leaving France for Israel. From this point events flash by until, quite amazingly, a consensus results and the Muslim Party wins by a wide margin.

Before returning to Paris, François decides to visit the ancient town of Rocamadour, where every day he goes to the chapel of Notre Dame to contemplate the statue known as the black Virgin. Saints and kings have made pilgrimages here for more than a thousand years. He is transfixed but ultimately unmoved. On his return to Paris, he notes that much has changed under the new regime. The kosher counter at the supermarket is gone. But so are the racaille or riff-raff. Women dress much more modestly. In the mail that has accumulated, he learns that his mother has died. Because no one claimed her body, she was buried in Potter’s Field. The universityis closed, although his paycheck is still being deposited in his banking account. Not long after, he learns that his father has died as well. Myriam, it gradually and then definitely becomes clear, will not return.

Interestingly, we learn that escort services continue to operate openly on the Internet. Pornographic passages follow, with a strong emphasis on various forms of sodomy, as it used to be called. At this point, adrift in life, François decides to return to the monastery, where Huysmans had lived as an oblate or layman after his conversion, and which François has earlier visited while working on his dissertation. He is forty-four years old, the same age as Huysmans when he accepted Catholicism. As it turns out, François does not find spiritual renewal. The TGV runs only two hundred meters from his window; smoking is prohibited. Taking leave of the monks, he returns to Paris.

The climactic episode of the novel occurs, when, after some subtle diplomacy, François agrees to visit the home of Robert Rediger on the Rue des Arènes, named after the sand-filled amphitheater and Roman ruin where gladiators used to fight. We are told that the home had also been owned by the author of the submissive novel The Story of O. Rediger is now head of the Sorbonne, which has reopened as an Islamic University. The purpose of the meeting is to lure François back to the college, whose reputation has suffered during this period of transition. The only impediment is that he will have to convert to Islam.

Rediger is happy to make the pitch, and, once again, Huysmans comes into play. “As a reader of Huysmans,” Rediger says, “you were certainly irritated like me by this entrenched pessimism, the repeated imprecations against the mediocrities of his time. And this during an era, when European nations at their apogee, the head of immense colonial empires, dominated the world … from a technological point of view … from an artistic point of view.…” Perversely, François is reminded of certain sexual practices from that era that have since disappeared. He thinks to himself, “How in effect could you not adhere to the idea of European decadence?” Rediger continues, “This Europe that represented the summit of human civilization proceeded to commit suicide in the space of several decades.” The implication is that this alleged pessimism was in fact justified.

To better appreciate what Houellebecq is almost certainly doing here, a detour back to the original and most famous novel by Huysmans is helpful. À rebours is typically translated as Against Nature, presumably a nod avant la lettre to Oscar Wilde, who was greatly influenced by its dandyism and celebration of artifice. Alternatively, it has sometimes been translated as Against the Grain. Neither is quite adequate. Perhaps the best way to understand the term is to note that the French expression for countdown is le compte à rebours. The title, in effect, is a vague way of saying that something is backwards. While celebrated mostly for its florid literary style and ornate vocabulary, the novel also has undeniable political significance, which makes it the perfect foil for Houellebecq.

In one chapter, des Esseintes recounts an ill-intentioned social experiment involving a youth with a cigarette, who approaches him one evening, asking for a light. On a whim, des Esseintes escorts the youth to a local bordello, where he treats him to a complimentary session with “la belle juive,” who, we are informed, also has a hook nose. He tells the Madame that his guest can return every two weeks for a period of three months. Afterwards, he says, the payments will stop. The hope, he explains, is that the youth will then turn to burglary to make the payments himself. “Looking on the bright side of things,” des Esseintes says, “I hope that one fine day, he’ll kill the gentleman, who turns up just as he is breaking open the desk.”Politically, he explains, he is simply trying to show the folly of universal education that exposes the poor to desires they cannot attain.

Along with this brief foray into anti-Semitism, a variety of racial comments crop up as well. Not coincidentally, this was the 1880s, when ideas about freedom and dignity that had contributed to global emancipation two decades earlier were now giving way to the rise of Social Darwinism. At a dinner party, which the invitation “described as a funeral banquet in memory of the host’s virility,” the guests are served “by naked negresses wearing only slippers and stockings made of silver cloth.” One flower imported from South America is said to have “long black stalks crisscrossed with scars like the limbs of a negro slave.” The following sentence: “Des Esseintes could scarcely contain himself for joy.” In France, the Dreyfus Affair is one decade away; in the United States, “separate but equal” only two years after that.

Other themes would take longer to become matters of public debate. Watching a group of young boys roughhousing, we are told that “he could not help feeling sorry for them and thinking it would have been better for them if their mothers had never borne them.” Continuing: “What madness it was to beget children, reflected des Esseintes. And to think that the priests, who had taken a vow of sterility, would carry inconsistency to the point of canonizing St. Vincent de Paul, because he saved innocents for useless torments … in virtue of an absurd theological code.” Elaborating: “children abandoned by their mothers were given homes instead of being left to die without knowing what was happening.” And then, “in short, society regarded as a crime the act of killing a creature endowed with life; and yet expelling a foetus simply meant destroying an animal that was less developed, less alive, certainly less intelligent and less prepossessing, than a dog or a cat, which could be strangled at birth with impunity.”

A strange fascination with mental illness is another distinctive theme. “Baudelaire had gone further,” des Esseintes says. “He had descended to the bottom of the inexhaustible mine, had picked his way along abandoned or unexplored galleries, and had finally reached those districts of the soul where the monstrous vegetations of the sick mind flourish.” Continuing, “He had laid bare the morbid psychology of the mind that has reached the October of its sensations, and had listed the symptoms of souls visited by sorrow, singled out by spleen.” Solicitude for the mentally ill does not seem to be the main reason for his literary interest.

Lastly, des Esseintes raises the issue of sexual desire across the generational divide, which, given the ongoing effort to demonize the Boy Scouts as well as the occasional, well-placed op-ed, may become an additional front in the culture war. Thinking back on an earlier liaison, des Esseintes says, “even the corrupt graces of depraved children appeared tame in comparison, and he came to feel such contempt for their monotonous grimaces that he could not bring himself to tolerate them any longer.” He then describes a school boy, who had stopped him on the street asking for directions to Rue de Babylone. “They gazed at each other for a moment; then the young man dropped his eyes and came closer, brushing his companion’s arm with his own.” Continuing: “never had he submitted to more delightful or more stringent exploitation, never had he run such risks, yet never had he known such satisfaction mingled with distress.”

This is the character, then, that the older and penitent Joris-Karl Huysmans seeks to disavow. What will François do? At the end of their meeting on the Rue des Arènes, Rediger has given him a copy of his best-selling book Ten Questions on Islam and suggests that he read it. Quickly leafing through the first chapters on such subjects as religious duties, the pillars of Islam, and fasting, François soon alights on chapter VII, “Why Polygamy?” The answer is pure Darwinism. “Inequality among men—if some are allowed to enjoy several women, others necessarily must be deprived of them—should not be considered a perverse effect of polygamy but rather its true goal.”

After tracking down other material written by Rediger, which rejects humanism, extols economic inequality, and mocks equal rights for women, he reflects on intellectuals, surprised that none of this has been reported in the media. “But perhaps I was mistaken. So many intellectuals in the course of the twentieth century had supported Stalin, Mao, or Pol Pot without ever being really reproached for it; the intellectual in France does not have to be responsible, it’s not in his nature.”

But that is just one François. There is another. “Getting older, I myself had grown closer to Nietzsche.… Jesus liked people too much, that was the problem. Letting himself be crucified for them demonstrated a lack of taste, as the old bitch would have said,” by which he means Nietzsche. On stoning an adulteress: “It’s not very complicated, all you have to do is ask a seven-year-old; he would have thrown it, the first stone, a fucking kid.”

Soon after, François attends a cocktail party at the Sorbonne, where he hopes to talk with a former colleague who is teaching again and by implication has converted to Islam. As he remembers him, he has long hair, dirty and gray; his clothes barely hygienic. “How had Rediger succeeded in convincing him,” he wonders. When François sees his former colleague, his hair is still dirty, but this time, almost combed. His clothes are cleaner. It turns out that he “has taken the leap,” as he says, or more specifically, a wife has been found for him—a second-year college student. Rediger is also there. He is now a cabinet minister. At first the two discuss politics, but then François brings up the issue of polygamy, somewhat stunned that his former colleague would be provided with a wife. No, Rediger explains, professors figure among the dominant males in society. “How many women would I have a right to?” François asks. “In your case, I think that you could have three wives without difficulty, but, of course, you are in no way obliged.” When he asks whether he can be sure that they will be pretty, Rediger says, “I can guarantee that you won’t have anything to complain about.” The sale is made.

As noted, there are several references in the novel to Émile Zola and nineteenth-century naturalism. For obvious reasons, À rebours was seen as a rejection of this literary tradition. Zola’s novel Germinal, for example, depicts the harsh and dangerous conditions of life in the coal mines. Most famously he wrote “J’accuse” during the Dreyfus affair. But is this literary dichotomy so clear? That is the question that Houellebecq seems to be asking. Soumission is both a political novel and a literary one. Perhaps the best way to think about what he is doing is to be reminded of Nana, another novel by Zola, which was published five years before À rebours and was like Soumission a huge commercial success. Until the last chapter, most of that novel reads as little more than the sultry tale of a successful courtesan. But then as she lays dying at the Grand Hôtel, in a fashionable section of Paris, out in the streets we hear the surging crowds—“to Berlin, to Berlin, to Berlin” they shout—at which point it becomes clear that she is more than just a literary character. She is also a symbol of the Second Empire, about to collapse, as France marches off to war. No doubt Houellebecq names his protagonist François for a reason. The novel he has written is both vulgar and dyspeptic. But presumably he has done so on purpose because he believes that it correctly describes contemporary France—or arguably any other liberal, capitalist democracy in the West. Is he wrong?  

Eamon Moynihan, a financial consultant, lives in New York City.