Fifty Shades of Michel Houellebecq

houellebecqWednesday evening, on the cusp of a snowstorm, a coterie of Francophiles and French expatriates gathered at Albertine bookstore on New York’s Upper East Side, just a few blocks from the French Embassy — and in front of our computers, for the event was also live-streamed — to discuss Michel Houellebecq, who is now perhaps the most controversial novelist in the world. On the docket was Houellebecq’s Soumission (Submission), a wildly divisive, highly speculative novel about the rise of Mohammed Ben Abbes, who, representing the Muslim Fraternity, becomes France’s president in the year 2022.

If you were not familiar with Houellebecq’s name before January 7th of the this year, when masked gunmen shot and killed 11 people at French newspaper Charlie Hebdo, you almost certainly were about to be. Soumission’s controversial subject matter, along with its author’s propensity to provoke outrage, got him placed on the fateful cover of Charlie Hebdo that was in circulation when its staff members were killed. Since the shootings, Houellebecq, who is no stranger to seclusion, has gone into hiding.

The attack on Charlie Hebdo propelled Soumission to the top of Albertine’s bestseller list within three weeks. “Keep in mind,” said Deputy Director Tom Roberge, “that [Patrick] Modiano just won the Nobel Prize.”

The immense popularity of a book that has not yet been translated into English is not altogether surprising; certainly Houellebecq sells a lot of books, and it’s rare that a novel is tied so closely to national tragedy and political turmoil. But Soumission’s popularity in New York also points to an intense future debate — one that will come in September, when the book is released by FSG — about sex, religion, money, gender, and political representation. It will be, in short, a more inflamed version of the reaction to every novel that Houellebecq has published in his career.

“But what about the literary value of Houellebecq’s novel?” asked French novelist Catherine Cusset, who hosted last night’s “Public Discussion” of Houellebecq with Roberge. “What about discussing Houellebecq as a writer and not an…”

“Ideologue?” Roberge answered.

“Yes. I want to ask the question: Is he a good writer?”

“I’m a huge fan.” Roberge responded. “My comments will be biased.”

The pair, perched in front of French and American flags, seemed mostly to agree that Houellebecq deserves his reputation, having dealt so persistently with major themes. In particular, Cusset set sex and money as “the parameters” of every Houellebecq novel, from Whatever to Soumission, where the protagonists apparently has multiple wives.

“His novels are all about sex and money,” said Cusset. “Even though Soumission is not a novel, but a series of monologues. As a novel it is not very good. But I’ve never read anything more subversive.”

“It’s much more subversive than these cartoons on the Charlie Hebdo cover,” said an audience member.

“It’s about accepting whatever power is above you,” a second audience member chimed in. “The hero wants to have four wives and plenty of money. He’s not very noble, but you look at the numbers, and you look at the book, and you know it’s happening.”

“Should we’d believe what Houellebecq says he’s trying to do?” asked a third audience member. “It seems clear that he’s in love with irony.”

“In a way it doesn’t matter what he says outside the novel,” Cusset nodded.

“It’s all straight from St. Augustine and The Story of O!” someone else declared. “He’s aiming to write about… the idea of submission!”

Everyone seemed to agree, especially Roberge, who made mention of Houellebecq’s belief that “the artist is someone who is submitted.” It seemed, in fact, that entire room was slowly submitting to Michel Houellebecq, converting to his singular vision of the world. Old complaints began to fall by the wayside.

“I don’t see misogyny,” said a man in the audience. “I don’t see that Houellebecq is admiring man or male. I think it’s the same in the other books as well.”

But what will we fight about in September? If Houellebecq, the artist, submits to us, and if we, the readers, submit to him, isn’t that just love?

“Love may no longer exist?” Houellebecq was once asked in an interview.

“That’s the question of the moment,” he said.