What a Difference a Would Makes

Events surrounding the release of Michel Houellebecq’s last novel surpassed what anyone could have imagined. The publication date for Soumission fell on the same day as the Charlie Hebdo massacre, and the two events quickly became conflated in many people’s minds. His close friend Bernard Maris was killed in the attack and Houellebecq cancelled the promotion of his book to withdraw to the country, but that didn’t stop a firestorm of angry commentary in France.

Soumission has largely been viewed as a political novel. Set in 2022, it’s election year and the Socialists have aligned themselves with Ben Abbes, a charismatic Islamic leader we never meet in the novel. We get the lowdown we need from articulate academics who’ve been seduced by goodies he confers like des gourmandises.

des gourmandises

Islam is winning an insidious war with perks far more tantalizing than tenure.

There are plenty of reasons to dislike François, the main character in Soumission. The lecturer at La Sorbonne is a first-class whiner. At 44, he is beset by migraines and noxious skin conditions, toothaches and hemorrhoids. The only organ that hasn’t failed him is his bite, which he describes as being modeste mais robuste.

The literature professor sleeps indiscriminately with a revolving door of students who have little or no lasting impact. The sole exception is Miriam, but when she flees France for Israel, he is left more or less where he begins, in passionate lockstep with J.K. Huysmans, his 19th-century spiritual doppelgänger and Decadent author. The two disdain the age they live in and long to retreat into a higher monastic world, all the while enjoying the pleasures of the flesh. It’s no wonder that the perks offered by Robert Rediger, head of the Sorbonne and an advocate of the advantages that Islam (and Ben Abbes) has to offer, have François salivating by the end of the novel.

An opportunity to reissue an edition of La Pléiade, a group of seven 16th-century writers, is dangled before our hero. This is catnip professionally speaking, but equally tempting is the assurance that multiple wives would be part of the package, should he accept the offer to return to the newly reopened Sorbonne, where conversion to Islam is a must with the new regime. But here is where things get tricky for François… and for reviewers who have significantly misread the ending of this novel.

If you’ve ever wondered why grammar is important, reading Houellebecq will make you a convert. In a key conversation on page 249, François asks Rediger the following question: “Vous pensez … Vous pensez que je suis quelqu’un qui pourrait se convertir à l’islam?” So far François is only musing. The use of the conditional tense reveals what’s going on in the narrator’s head, and maybe Houellebecq’s, as we speed toward the conclusion of Soumission.

The conditional tense becomes even more impactful in the final chapter, as François envisions the conversion ceremony itself. In just a few pages, he imagines his future and the happy fallout from the decision to take the plunge, should he take the plunge. The short, hallucinatory scenes speculate about events that would take place if he converted, a substantial inflection that is easy to miss. Et puis, ce serait fini; je serais, dorénavant, un musulman. Think about how differently that sentence would read with serai instead of serais. The fact is that François does not actually convert here, though you would believe otherwise after reading certain prominent reviews. Critics should revisit the final chapter of this brilliant, irritating novel to remind themselves that there is a space between an imagined future versus one that is real. Even though the many appeals of conversion and a return to the Sorbonne, among them an intoxicating supply of shy, veiled students, seem impossible for François to turn down, there’s an outside chance he might say no. Conjugaison has never mattered more.

Linda

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