Translation 50. Michel Houellebecq. Soumission. Background to the Triple Publication of his latest Novel
Soumission, published by Flammarion, 7 January 2015. (250,000 copies printed)
Sottomissione, published by Bompiani, 15 January 2015.
(Translator: V.Vega) 200,000 sales claimed in first week.
Unterwerfung, published by DUMONT Buchverlag, 16 January 2015.
(2 translators: Norma Cassau and Bernd Wilczek) (250,000 copies printed)
An English translation, Submission, is announced for September 2015.
Having read and enjoyed this latest (futuristic) novel by bestselling and perennially polemical French author Michel Houellebecq, I understand why hundreds of thousands of readers of the French original and the German and Italian translations have purchased the novel in the past month. In view of the flood of vigorous media attention (literary and journalistic) devoted to the novel, inevitably magnified by the tragic coincidence of the publication date with the Charlie Hebdo massacre, and also in view of the distant date given for the English translation, I have selected a small range of articles (mainly in English) which chronicle the novel’s first month of sales. (In view of the embarras du choix, I have tried to avoid the work of hacks and “churnalists” (journalists who do not consider a careful and fair reading of the novel as a sine qua non for robust reporting on literary works of this kind).
The articles are all linked for direct reading, but, for those who do not have time, I have added short quotations in order to present many of the aspects of Houellebecq’s work which have been discussed by critics and other commentators.
Background reading on Michel Houellebecq and Soumission
For background information on Houellebecq’s life, ideas and previous work, see The Fall 2010 issue of The Paris Review for the interview, ‘Michel Houellebecq. The Art of Fiction, No. 206’, by Susannah Hunnewell.
A few snippets.
“Michel Houellebecq was born on the French island of La Réunion, near Madagascar, in 1958. As his official Web site states, his bohemian parents, an anesthesiologist and a mountain guide, “soon lost all interest in his existence.” He has no pictures of himself as a child. After a brief stay with his maternal grandparents in Algeria, he was raised from the age of six by his paternal grandmother in northern France.”
“The Elementary Particles is also the novel that made critics focus on your biography because the characters seem to have many points in common with you. But it seems you find it irritating, that people reduce everything to biography. ”
“Yes, it’s annoying because it denies what is the essential trait of fiction writing, namely, that the characters develop by themselves. In other words, you start with a few real facts and then you let the thing roll with its own momentum. And the further along you get, the more likely you are to leave reality behind altogether. You can’t tell your own story in fact. You can use elements of it ̶ but don’t imagine that you can control what a character is going to do a hundred pages later. The only thing you can do is, for example, give the character your literary tastes.”
“What about your critics? Can you just sum up briefly what you hold against the French press?”
“First of all, they hate me more than I hate them. What I do reproach them for isn’t bad reviews. It is that they talk about things having nothing to do with my books my mother or my tax exile ̶ and that they caricature me so that I’ve become a symbol of so many unpleasant things ̶ cynicism, nihilism, misogyny. People have stopped reading my books because they’ve already got their idea about me. To some degree of course, that’s true for everyone. After two or three novels, a writer can’t expect to be read. The critics have made up their minds.”
“Like the comedian, you compulsively take the politically sensitive subjects of the moment and then are irreverent to the point of insult. And it’s funny. It makes you laugh out of shock.”
“You laugh because the insult claims merely to state the obvious. This may be unusual in literature but it isn’t in private life.”
“I want to be loved despite my faults. It isn’t exactly true that I’m a provocateur. A real provocateur is someone who says things he doesn’t think, just to shock. I try to say what I think. And when I sense that what I think is going to cause displeasure, I rush to say it with real enthusiasm. And deep down, I want to be loved despite that.”
On Soumission, see the 2 January 2015 Paris Review Interview by Sylvain Bourmeau (translated by Lorin Stein): Scare Tactics: Michel Houellebecq Defends His Controversial New Book.
“I don’t think we are witnessing a French suicide. I think we are seeing practically the opposite. Europe is committing suicide and, in the middle of Europe, France is struggling desperately to survive. It is almost the only country that is fighting to survive, the only country whose demographics allow it to survive.”
” My book describes the destruction of the philosophy handed down by the Enlightenment, which no longer makes sense to anyone, or to very few people. Catholicism, by contrast, is doing rather well. I would maintain that an alliance between Catholics and Muslims is possible. We’ve seen it happen before, it could happen again.”
The Tragedy of Book Launch Day, 7 January 2015
Given Houellebecq’s fame and reputation as well as the advance publicity from the publishers of the three versions of Soumission, and the intense media interest which had already been in evidence for two weeks, huge sales had been expected and were prepared for by the publication of about 250,000 copies in each of the three countries. Normally, therefore, the Charlie Hebdo coverage (a caricature of Michel Houellebecq and a caustic remark on the Cover and satirical remarks on the novel) would have been a tiny part of the media contributions (with a modest but influential audience). However, the massacre at the Charlie Hebdo offices on the morning of 7 January and the shockwaves around Europe and other parts of the world dealt Houellebecq a devastating blow (and a close personal one as well, since one of his friends had been executed by the terrorists).
One of the journalists present at the fateful Charlie Hebdo staff meeting was Philippe Lançon. This journalist, along with many others, had published a satirical and teasing (but good-natured) a review of Soumission in the left-wing newspaper Libération in the pre-publication days.
“Ceci est un roman, plutôt comique : comme toujours avec Houellebecq, mais peut-être plus encore qu’à l’ordinaire, l’humour est la politesse ̶ ou l’impolitesse, comme on voudra ̶ du désespoir. Avec un goût de potache froid. Soumission n’est donc ni un essai sur Huysmans, ni un discours sur la montée de l’islam en France et en Europe, ni un rapport sur l’université déclinante, […] même si ces sujets de causerie occupent le livre, le font dériver avec une légèreté, une perversité et une ambiguïté assez efficaces pour permettre à tous de faire ce dont chacun raffole dès qu’il s’agit de Houellebecq : répandre son avis sur lui à propos de n’importe quoi.”
[… to allow readers to do what they are longing to do whenever Houellebecq’s name crops up: to spread their opinions about him on absolutely any topic.]
” Son style est là: neutralité féroce, phrases nettes, coups de pattes, sens du dialogue et de ’absurde, dégagements philosophiques, italiques à l’ironie sociologique, points virgule à la presque Flaubert.”
(See also John Vinocur’s useful comment below.)
Five days later, Lançon, who also works for the satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo, was present at the massacre and was extremely lucky to survive, albeit with serious injuries. On 13 January, he dictated his account of the atrocity from his hospital bed.
“Journaliste à Libération et chroniqueur à Charlie Hebdo, Philippe Lançon a réchappé au massacre, mercredi 7 janvier. Blessé, il entame une longue guérison. ”
“Chers amis de Charlie et Libération, […]
[He reflects on why he is a writer, and gives an idea of the lively but friendly debates with his colleagues, some now murdered.]
“… j’y pensais en regardant le corps le plus proche, celui de mon ami et ce jour-là voisin de tablée Bernard Maris, qui n’a jamais laissé ses fonctions limiter l’expression de ses enthousiasmes et de ses curiosités. Il venait de parler du roman de Michel Houellebecq, que nous aimons, et je l’avais engueulé… pour ce qu’il avait écrit du traitement de Libération. Puis nous nous étions aussitôt réconciliés sur les passages de Soumission qui, bien entendu, nous avaient fait rire. […] Et nous étions tous là parce que nous étions libres, ou voulions l’être le plus possible, parce qu’on voulait rire et nous affronter sur tout, à propos de tout, une petite équipe homérique et carnassière, et c’est justement cela que les hommes en noir, ces sinistres ninjas, ont voulu tuer. ”
Selected reviews of Soumission in English (with sample quotations)
John Vinocur, The Wall Street Journal (USA), 5 January
‘A Novel Approach to France’s Future, and Present’
“In Soumission, the author goes after French lethargy, observing through the eyes of a 44-year-old professor the country’s contempt for its existing political parties. Their rejection in 2022 leads to a coalition, headed by the Muslim Fraternity party, against Marine Le Pen’s nativists; the election of a slick Muslim president; and, soon enough, his soft-sell version of Shariah law.”
“My goodness. The sky is falling. Heart rates quicken.
At least Libération’s literary critic, Philippe Lançon [see above], appearing in the same edition as his boss, took a deep breath. In his review of Soumission he said the writer handled his “rather comic” novel “[w]ith a lightness of touch, perversity, and ambiguity sufficiently effective to allow everybody to do what they love to when it comes to Houellebecq: state their opinion on him regardless. Encouraging discussion is, after all, a social virtue of a good novelist.”
“The fact is, the Houellebecq hullabaloo demonstrates the distance in France ̶ perhaps greater than in any other European democracy ̶ between the political correctness of the left, the bigotry and discrimination of the extreme right, and any kind of reasonable discussion of how France can be accommodated (not just vice versa) by its six to eight million Arab Muslims.”
Naben Ruthnum, National Post (Canada), 4 February.
“Michel Houellebecq ̶ the French novelist caricatured on the January 7th cover of Charlie Hebdo as a drunken, smoking Nostradamus ̶ wrote a novel doomed, both by its capsule summary and the author’s notorious reputation, to be viewed by those who haven’t read it as a racist, fear-mongering text.” [italics added]
“In interviews spanning his long career, Houellebecq has referred to nationalists as “primates,” a sentiment that rings through the pages of Soumission: the “identitaires,” (nativist, France-for-French nationalists) are buffoons or aristocratically rich schemers […]”
“Soumission’s narrator, François, is a middle-aged academic, and the book begins as a slow reflection on his most significant relationship: that with the subject of his long-finished dissertation, J.K. Huysmans. This friendship, with the long-dead, decadent author of Against Nature and a whole series of novels detailing, among other things, the turn of their author toward Catholicism, suggest both the isolated, disengaged loneliness of François, and the narrative that will come to unfold for him: like Huysmans, his is a story of conversion.”
Steven Poole, The Guardian, 9 January
‘Soumission by Michel Houellebecq: Much more than a satire on Islamism’
“But is France’s most celebrated controversialist offering a splenetic vision of the Muslim threat to Europe or a spineless “submission” to gradual Islamic takeover? Actually, neither. It’s much more interesting than that.”
“Those riffling impatiently through the opening for controversy will be disappointed, as we are introduced slowly to the narrator, François, a middle-aged literary academic who teaches at the Sorbonne. He is an expert on Huysmans, the cultish 19th-century anatomist of decadence, and he sleeps hungrily with his students. But he is bored. The narration is enjoyably sardonic, a pungent mixture of deadpan jokes about sexual politics and close reading.”
Gaby Wood, Daily Telegraph, 15 January
‘Michel Houellebecq’s Soumission: More prescient than provocative’
“The narrator of Soumission (or “Submission”), François, continues the tradition of the Houellebecquian hero made infamous by previous novels such as Atomised and Platform. He’s solipsistic, disillusioned, excruciatingly cruel. The rhythm of his sentences is almost incantatory in its distaste for life, and his comic timing is irresistibly gloomy […]”
“François is dismissive of everything […]”
“He teaches 19th-century French literature at the Sorbonne and his specialism is JK Huysmans, a writer who changed tack halfway through his career – from naturalism to decadence, then from decadence to monasticism. Huysmans’s most famous work might as well be the title of all of Houellebecq’s: A rebours (“Against the Grain”).”
Gilles Rozier, Haaretz (Israel) 22 January
“The French language has even been enriched thanks to a new adjective, “houellebecquian” – a privilege granted to few authors, some French, such as Rabelais and Balzac […].
“But it seems that this adjective refers to the awakening from illusions in an ultra-liberal world, which celebrates the victory of money as the object of desire, and presents consumerism as an answer to frustration of whatever kind. The houellebecqian novel describes a world from which love is absent, where the males are reduced to satisfying their urges via prostitution […]”
“Soumission is a houellebecqian novel in every sense of the term. All of the author’s preferred topics are here: a person suffering from ennui, a criticism of liberalism, of the god of wealth, of the objectification of women.”
David Sexton, The Spectator, 17 January
‘The Really Shocking Thing about Michel Houellebecq’s Soumission: He rather likes Islam’
“Soumission will be published in translation here by Heinemann, but not until the autumn at the earliest. A pity ̶ it’s electrifying; no recent English-language novel compares. Early on François explains why Huysmans, as a representative of literature, the major art of the West, matters to him so much:
“Only literature can give you this sensation of contact with another human mind, with the whole of this mind, its weaknesses and grandeurs, its limitations, its pettinesses, its fixed ideas, its beliefs; with all that moves it, interests it, excites it or repels it… A book that one loves is above all a book whose author one loves…
There it is, j’adore Michel, myself.”
Christopher de Bellaigue, The Guardian, 6 February
‘Soumission by Michel Houellebecq. Review – France in 2022’
“Houellebecq is France’s best-known writer internationally, his stock-in-trade being satires on various distortions in contemporary life seen through bibulous, chauvinistic, highly sexed men – men like François, the Sorbonne literature professor whose flirtation with the new Islamic regime is the main narrative thread in Soumission.”
“Here, from Europe’s premier literary misanthrope, is an enthralling, stunningly pessimistic view of human nature, which argues that when ideologies are being weighed it is the perks that tip the scales […].”
“Houellebecq’s plot seems totally unrealisable, and yet there is truth in his moral tableau.”
On 12 January the outspoken independent commentator Mark Steyn reminded us on his website that he had suggested a similar general 2020s scenario for France in 2006
“I saw someone on Twitter ̶ was it Mehdi Hasan? ̶ fretting that this sounded like a mere literary gloss on a Mark Steyn polemic. He doesn’t know the half of it. From page 119 of my 2006 book, America Alone:
“Picture a French election circa 2020: the Islamic Republican Coalition wins the most seats in the National Assembly. The Chiraquiste crowd give a fatalistic shrug and M de Villepin starts including crowd-pleasing suras from the Koran at his poetry recitals. But would Jean-Marie Le Pen or (by then) his daughter take it so well?”
Reviews of the Italian and German translations: Sottomissione and Unterwerfung.
If full translations are needed, this is surely an excellent chance to check the present quality of Google Translate and Microsoft Translate (BING).
(More on that subject in my next Translation blog, perhaps.)
Davide Barile, Cronache Internazionale, 7 February.
Michel Houellebecq, ‘Sottomissione’
Nessuna islamofobia nel nuovo romanzo di Houellebecq, che invece si interroga sui destini di una Francia (ed un’Europa) incapace di gestire la propria libertà.
No Islamophobia in the new novel by Houellebecq, who instead is pondering the destinies of France (and Europe), unable to manage their own freedom.
“In conclusione, col suo nuovo romanzo Houellebecq denuncia in realtà la mancanza di prospettive della cultura europea e, se l’immagine che ci dà dell’islam può essere opinabile per la superficialità che a tratti la caratterizza, non si può certo dire che essa sia negativa.”
(Google Translate, with light Post Editing of Machine Translation: PEMT)
In conclusion, with his new novel, Houellebecq is really complaining about the lack of prospects of European culture and, although the image of Islam that is presented may be debatable for the superficiality that sometimes characterizes it, you certainly cannot say that it is negative.
Christoph Vormweg, Deutschlandfunk, 18 January.
‘Rezension von Unterwerfung‘
An interesting 2,000 word essay. (2 excerpts, with a hybrid English version from Google Translate, Microsoft Translate, and some personal PEMT)
“Provozieren ist und bleibt Michel Houellebecqs liebster Sport. Er pfeift auf jede Form der “political correctness”. Aber um es gleich vorweg zu sagen: Sein Roman “Unterwerfung” schildert zwar die Machtübernahme eines muslimischen Präsidenten in Frankreich. Doch verbirgt sich hinter seiner aufstörenden Zukunftsvision keine Attacke gegen die islamische Religion oder ihre Gläubigen. Mit keiner Zeile liefert Michel Houellebecq den extremen Rechten antiislamische Argumente oder gar Parolen. Der Goncourt-Preisträger von 2010 imaginiert lediglich, wie sich ein solcher Wandel in Frankreich vollziehen könnte. Und deshalb ist der Roman “Unterwerfung” vor allem eine herbe Abrechnung mit der heute herrschenden politischen Kaste – Fernsehmedien inklusive.”
Provocation is and remains Michel Houellebecq’s favorite sport. He does not care about any form of “political correctness”. But to come straight to the point: Although his novel Submission describes the takeover of power by a Muslim President in France, behind his “aufstörenden” vision of the future there is no hidden attack against the Islamic religion and its adherents. In no line does Michel Houellebecq provide the extreme right with anti-Islamic arguments or even slogans. The Goncourt Prize winner in 2010 imagined just how such a change could take place in France. And that is why the novel Submission is mainly a bitter reckoning with the prevailing political caste – TV media included.
“Literatur ist nicht die Wirklichkeit. Aber sie erlaubt es, Versuchsanordnungen mit Blick auf die Zukunft durchzuspielen. Michel Houellebecq bleibt in diesem Sinne ein Aufstörer, ein Querdenker. Und das ist gut so.”
Literature is not reality. But it makes it possible to play with experimental arrangements with a view to the future. Michel Houellebecq is in this sense a troublemaker [? stirrer], a lateral thinker. And that’s a good thing.
Michel Houellebecq, Soumission, Submission, Unterwerfung, Sottomissione, French futuristic fiction, Islam in Europe, Translation from French into German, Italian and English, Flammarion, Bompiani, Dumont Buchverlag, V.Vega (translator), Norma Cassau (translator), Bernd Wilczek (translator), Mark Steyn, The Paris Review, Charlie Hebdo,