With the ongoing hoo-hah I thought I ought to have a go at reading this book which is currently France's number 1 bestseller, as notorious as it is famous. It's my first time reading Houellebecq. He's a controversial author at the best of times because he writes obscene passages. His book, the Periodic Table, les Particules Elémentaires, I'd heard, is particularly graphic.
So, forewarned, I bought a copy of the book from the Kindle store. My impressions?
It's a clever story. The idea is that France, with most of Europe, has lurched politically towards the extreme right. The centre right and left parties are reduced to virtual impotence. Meanwhile a sizeable muslim party has grown, representing the islamic folk of France who identify morally with the right wing, but who are alienated from it by their immigrant status. In the 2022 elections the socialists and the muslim party negotiate a coalition to keep the extreme right out of office and France's first Islamic President is elected. He brings in a wide list of changes:
Legalised polygamy, with a reduced legal age for marriage for women
Women no longer work, thus enabling thousands of men to reenter the workplace
Greatly reduced education of women bringing vast savings to the education budget
Saudi sponsorship of universities, such as the Islamic University of the Sorbonne
Greatly reduced social security budget achieved by encouraging alms-giving and women caring for their extended families
The protagonist is a very unlikeable character who is the world's foremost expert on Huysmans. (Presumably there is in fact someone who really is the world's foremost expert on Huysmans...) Our protagonist is enjoying an affair with one of his ex-students who is of Jewish stock. Pushed by Europe's political trends she emigrates to Israel with her family. To our protagonist she had always been chiefly a source of physical delight, so he turns to prostitutes. These encounters produce two passages which are the most obscene things I have ever read. Not that I am ALL that experienced in reading obscene literature, but I can see why Houellebecq has the reputation he does.
Our protagonist is a lecturer at the Sorbonne, but flees Paris because of the upheavals that follow the elections. He returns to find a letter offering him early retirement on a full index-linked pension. He accepts, but later discovers that those lecturers who stayed in town were contacted and those who converted to Islam and stayed on to teach are rewarded with massive salaries, funded by the Saudis. Meanwhile he is asked to supervise the Pleiades edition of Huysmans works, accepts, then is recruited again to lecture at the Sorbonne and explores the possibility of converting to Islam. The book ends with him contemplating his conversion, his future marriages and his academic career.
Parts of the book are very funny. One passage had me laughing out loud on the bus. Our protagonist (you can tell I have forgotten his name) is being persuaded to convert to Islam and he hears a somewhat Francis Schaeffer style account of how Europe in losing its Christian faith lost its soul and became a zombie civilisation, doomed to collapse. This is demonstrated by appeals to the history of art, literature and music. Our protagonist feels an echo in his own heart as he thinks about an account he read of a turn of the century Paris brothel and the various services offered which nowadays have been so completely forgotten that nobody even knows what the names mean, let alone how to perform the act. Proof positive of a civilisation that has lost its soul. At more than one level.
So much for the book. Meanwhile Houellebecq has been giving interviews saying that he feels that he can no longer hold to the atheism of his former years, because of the evidence of design in creation. He has become at least agnostic. French readers can read about that here.
Well there we are. Houellebecq.