Sadly, Michel Houellebecq and his Islamophobic new novel Soumission (Submission) look to be among the all-too-predictable beneficiaries of the Charlie Hebdo attack – alongside anti-Islamic hate groups and far-right politicians everywhere. The Bookseller has already felt the need to run a statement from Houellebecq’s UK soon-to-be-publisher, stating that plans to publish the book in the UK in September are unaltered.
The ever so slightly insensitive promobabble pitch from publisher Jason Arthur quoted by The Bookseller describes Submission as: “a breathtakingly audacious and daring novel that’s certain to turn heads and raise eyebrows … It is a work of grand ambition, razor-sharp wit, and real heart – a tour-de-force from one of Europe’s most exciting writers. Submission is a novel we are proud and pleased to be publishing here at William Heinemann.”
Meanwhile, French literary circles appear to be almost as exercised about the fact that Soumission was reportedly the first-ever literary work from a major French publisher to be pirated as an ebook ahead of its launch – when ebook versions based on advance press copies of the book were apparently circulated via Torrent sites and file sharing networks free of charge. And I for one find it hard to regret any lost sales for Houellebecq on that score.
Some French commentators complained that the pirating was simply feeding a buzz for the book, noting that the book and the drama around it are “a carefully calculated provocation” and that Houellebecq himself is “the king of provocation.” Other journalists and media apparently boycotted the download and even discussion of it.
However, one French intellectual went further. In an open letter to Houellebecq written at the end of 2014, Nicolas Gary, founder of the literary magazine ActuaLitté, accused the author of producing “badly concealed incitements to hatred and fear,” and complained that he felt “soiled” by Houellebecq’s writing. “If your book was pirated, it was what it deserved,” Gary continued, blaming Houellebecq for “sinking so low” as to “casually stir up subjects that foster xenophobia.”
Houellebecq himself talks blithely about: “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.” Obviously, he must have conveniently forgotten the 2001 interview with Lire, which Gary quotes, where he said:
Islam is a dangerous religion, and has been since its appearance. Luckily, it is doomed. On the one hand, because God does not exist, and even if you are stupid, you realize that in the end. in the long run, the truth will out. On the other hand, Islam is being undermined from within by capitalism. All we can hope is that it triumphs quickly. Materialism is a lesser evil. Its values are despicable, but still less destructive, less cruel than those of Islam.
Obviously, Houellebecq’s thinking has moved on a bit since then – in his atheism at least, but not in his attitude towards Islam.
One more time, just in case anyone missed out on why I’m so riled about this: Michel Houellebecq’s novel, and all his own comments about it, are direct, explicit assaults on the Western traditions of tolerance, freedom of belief, freedom of expression and enquiry, and open-mindedness that the journalists of Charlie Hebdo died for. All in the name of authority, obscurantism, and confessional conformism. Al-Qaeda and ISIS couldn’t hope for a better Western intellectual fellow traveler – or useful idiot.