The story of a spiritually barren Francois. But, not just. His story is set in what MH sees as near future France: the 2022 national elections are fast approaching. The change in political climate is so rapid that the society’s intellectuals completely miss the key milestones of the transformation this election unleashes.
That a part of this struggle might actually have played out in the latest French elections #2017 is a testimony to MH’s prescience… but more of a good reading of what’s going on in Europe. In ‘Submission’, 2022 elections have two favourites facing off – Marine Le Pen of the Front National and Muhammed Ben Abbes of the nascent Muslim fraternity.
So far, two things in the current reality of the French society concur with the what the story says: The impact of the minorities on the ‘French way of life’, and French votes moving from Left and Left-of-centre to Centre-left (Macron, maybe?) and far-Right, which Le Pen represents.
That Michel Houellebecq has chosen Francois, a professor and an intellectual hit by mid-life crisis as the voice of a rapidly changing French society already says a lot. France, just like Francois, is living an excruciatingly confused reality.
Apparently, Francois’ most important work has been his dissertation on the works of a 19th-century novelist Joris-Karl Huysmans, which he defended in 2007, to get him his professorial job. Completion of his studies at the university gave way to the typically French existential crisis: ‘I would have to see about entering the workforce.’ And, typically so, he explains, “the prospect left me cold.”
Francois is least prepared for a career as a prof of literature, a career he has analysed with these words: the academic study of literature leads basically nowhere, as we all know, unless you happen to be an especially gifted student, in which case it prepares you for a career teaching the academic study of literature – it is, in other words, a rather farcical system that exists solely to replicate itself and yet manages to fail more than 95 per cent of the time.
As with academics, so with personal life. String of girlfriends, nights spent at one’s place or the other’s, and then within a year it is over, usually before the start of a new academic year. A lot of these women happened to be his students, especially now that he was no longer young. The book has the required French staples – the use of sex to define dark longings for a “connection”, the expected laundry list of ‘ennui’-causing acts but those which are also a staple because well, without it, how to keep going?
And then, the elections are just three weeks away. Although, Francois’ comments on democracy are interesting: “Western nations took a strange pride in this system, though it amounted to little more than a power-sharing deal between two rival gangs, and they would even go to war to impose it on nations that failed to share their enthusiasm.”
Francois sees but unsees the signs of change enveloping his reality. The election is crowded with Marine Le Pen, the socialists and the Muslim Brotherhood. She loses. The other two come up with power sharing agreement, with Muslim Brotherhood having the upper hand.
That’s when things change drastically, for both France and Francois. In a way that was previously only talked about by Marine Le Pen and her coterie.
Francois ponders how women in the Western societies had it rough: Hidden all day in impenetrable black burkas, rich Saudi women transformed themselves by night into birds of paradise with their corsets, their see-through bras, their G-strings with multicoloured lace and rhinestones. They were exactly the opposite of Western women, who spent their days dressed up and looking sexy to maintain their social status, then collapsed in exhaustion once they got home, abandoning all hope of seduction in favour of clothes that were loose and shapeless. If Francois seems to be making women and their sexuality a cornerstone of his understanding and comment of social landscape while being a liberal intellectual, this is certainly not a coincidence.
Finally, it happened. Muslim Brotherhood calling the shots meant the transformation of Francois’ university into an Islamic-style institution, as the society itself started responding to the new political landscape appropriately. Francois loses his job. His Jewish on-again off-again girlfriend leaves for Israel for good. Francois hits the road to trace his literary hero Huysmans’ journey, alone and lonely. A few restless months here and there and Francois finds himself being courted by his peers back at the college who have completely modified their lifestyle to suit the demands of their current masters, finding that they were actually flourishing like never before.
Women in workforce had been replaced by men. So, more jobs around made men happy. Those who wanted power, converted. Francois was alarmed to see his former colleagues and seniors who had more than one wives, some of whom were half their age. They had breathtaking houses, money, and of course this.
If you are anything like me, you’ll find the biggest surprise the author deals us is to see Francois tempted.
Read Submission for a scathing comment on the present state of liberal thought and priorities.