Strange indeed, the story of Michel Houellebecq's latest novel, Soumission (Flammarion 2015), which appeared just before the attack on Charlie Hebdo that left 12 people dead, like an advance echo of the terrible events that have plunged France into mourning, and scaring stiff not only the author's friends but Houellebecq himself, who saw fit to issue, through his agent, a communiqué unique in the history of literature, in which he announced that, because of the events, he would "suspend ... the promotion of his novel."
But what is the real nature of this "collision"? Is it really a new episode of the long, Oscar Wilde-like story of reality catching up with fiction and imitating it?
There are, I believe, two misunderstandings, two errors, two forms of nonsense that we must dispose of before trying to understand what has happened and, in the manner of Sainte-Beuve and Valéry, grasp "the situation of Michel Houellebecq."
There is the nonsense from the left. Houellebecq is a bastard. A fascist. An enemy of the human race and human rights. An antimodernist. One who believes that the lights have gone out of the Enlightenment and is glad of it. An incurable Islamophobe who refuses to recognize in his phobia a form of racism. A chic Éric Zemmour. An Alain Finkielkraut of art. Even the way he refers in his novel to "the Muslims" is odious. Fearsome, the mishmash he makes of the good and the bad, the obscurantists and the enlightened, those who believe in heaven and those who believe in hell, those who believe, period, and those who no longer do. And criminal, the intrigue in which the followers of a Koran that turns out to be "less dumb" than the author proclaimed it to be 10 years ago are pawing at the doors of power, waiting only for a political crisis to pull ahead of their twins in the National Front. Not to mention women -- or, rather, Houellebecq's hate, his panicky fear of women as anything more than purveyors of brief, furtive, and dreary pleasures, ideally not shared.
His novel is not a novel but a tract, goes the argument from the left. And that tract is an unexpected boon to France's worst nativists, who in it see validation of their themes, obsessions, and phobias. Is this an example of French suicide, to echo the title of Zemmour's book? No, it's the suicide of a French writer, literary enfant terrible, and professional provocateur, who now, with this novel, by taking Huysmans hostage and Robert Redeker as a witness to immorality, has finally gone too far. Goodbye, Houellebecq. You provoked the worst of the Islamists and played into the hands of the National Front.
Then there is the nonsense from the right. Houellebecq is a hero, a herald. He calls things by their right names and grants those names their just measure of vengeance and venom. He says out loud what the French people have been thinking but have been cowed by political correctness from expressing. He is a valiant knight and a prophet, the first novelist to have dared create literature out of the much-ballyhooed grand remplacement -- the great replacement of Christianity by Islam -- the tragedy of which Houellebecq has finally described with surgical precision. He is the first to have the courage to confront what politically correct thinking has hidden from itself, stripping it of its progressive illusions and of the antiracist fairy tales that, as everyone knows, are no more than the other side of a barbarism that has refused to speak its name but that here, in this exercise of truthful fiction, finds it. To depict what he has, namely the fight to the death between the Republic and Islam, between those who are French by descent and those French only on paper, is that not a sacred task from which our lily-livered writers have too long shrunk?
What a pleasure to finally see our pathetic human-rightists lampooned, say those on the right. What a refreshing portrait of the grotesque Bayrou, prepared to make any alliance, issue any retraction, make any conversion to obtain his presidential mantle. And how true to life is the author's depiction of the lightening progress, from Picsou magazine to the University of Paris Diderot, from the Super-U Passy shopping center to the headquarters of the French domestic intelligence service, of a "Eurabia" for which the useful idiots of radical Islam have quietly paved the way.
In the eyes of the right, Soumission is the revenge of Renaud Camus, the triumphal return of Céline from his censure by conventional thinkers. It is the novel that Philippe Muray might have written had he been able to shake off his residual humanistic scruples.
A symptom? No, a conclusion. The death, with pomp, of the received wisdom that has straitjacketed the French elite for half a century. Thank you, Houellebecq. If we had listened to you earlier, we would have chased out of France the awful Kouachi brothers, the monstrous Amedy Coulibaly, and the many others of their ilk.
Knowing the author somewhat and holding the slight but not negligible advantage over both sides of having written a book with him, Public Enemies (Random House, 2011), in which our visions of the world went head to head, I do not believe I am wrong in saying that the same error is being made on the left and right, a common one with regard to novelists: that of confusing the writer with his characters, attributing their views to him, transforming into positions the hypotheses, fictions, and situations that he creates. To put it plainly, does anyone really believe that the vaporous left that hopes, as a smooth talker with a socialist face was recently suggesting, to save its skin by sacrificing Israel in favor of a "community" that is electorally more profitable, was invented out of whole cloth by Michel Houellebecq? Is it so unthinkable that a center-right UMP, the party of Nicolas Sarkozy, might favor an alliance with the National Front by a margin of 85 percent? The idea of a spoiled, flabby, out-of-breath France populated by political zombies that sees in fascism of one stripe or another the elusive last hope of restoring life to a dead nation -- doesn't that ring a bell? And all this excitement today around the National Front, the way in which a segment of the political class (both left and right) wants to welcome Marine Le Pen into the emerging "national union" -- isn't that precisely what the novel was depicting, foreshadowing, heralding?
A novel is an invention, not a reality. More precisely, reality is not the result of the novel but its context or matrix, the substance with which it works while deploying, concentrating, or accelerating its virtualities. Houellebecq's Soumission, in other words, is a fable, a cruel and gritty tale, a satire whose outrageousness and falsity are equaled and exceeded only by various items in today's news: Club Med bought by the Chinese, Qatar at every level, those phantom ships that ply our coastlines with their human cargo despite our earnest efforts to ignore them, and now a suddenly plague-ridden France in which we must deploy superhuman efforts to prevent a confrontation between the neopopulists and their Islamist twins.
Not to understand that is to understand nothing of the economy of the strange land of the novel, where, as Kundera said, moral judgment is suspended. And to identify Houellebecq with his Des Esseintes in Chinatown, to attribute to him some dark influence over the unfolding of the current tragedy, is absurd and repellent, succeeding as it does only in transforming the commentators and critics concerned into characters from the novel.
That Michel Houellebecq "sensed" some of what is happening in the country, that he sniffed out, before the rest of us, the chaos into which we are falling, that he identified, blindly but fairly accurately, the general tendencies of the actors -- all that is true, and it is that which makes him the very great novelist that he has once again proven himself to be.
Translated by Steven B. Kennedy