The author is a French novelist, poet, and literary critic, which says much.
Submission is set in 2022 Paris during election season. The narrator, Francois, teaches at the Sorbonne IV, not as prestigious as III, but still the Sorbonne, and still a good place to meet young female students, with whom he has relationships that generally last one academic year. He has no connection to his parents, lives alone, dabbles in writing articles about the subject of his doctoral dissertation, a 19th-century author, but has given up a serious research agenda. His sexual drive is waning, as is his appetite for nearly everything in life.
Life in 2022 seems much like life in 2017 until page 21, when Francois first mentions the Muslim Brotherhood. From that point forward, Francois’ struggles with his midlife ennui alternate with academic rivalries and French political troubles. These political troubles see nativists allying with a new Islamic party led by a charismatic Parisian Muslim and an election in which the socialists and the new Islamic party ally to oust the sitting party.
The novel is satirical, but it is difficult in the age of Trump to read, particularly as a middle-aged female academic. When the Islamic party comes to power, they take over the Sorbonne and release all of the female academics. They reform education, step one being to eliminate coeducation and move to limit girls’ education to domestic arts and to move them out of the system just before puberty. Male academics who can be bought with three times the salary and promises of young wives (up to three based on their newly inflated salaries) readily sell out their female colleagues and the cultural ideals they presumably upheld. Partisan politics disappear as the charismatic new leader moves to unite Europe and move its center back to the south, not in a renewed caliphate, but in a revived and expanded Roman Empire. Medieval Europe, again frighteningly non-satirical given recent debates in medievalist circles about the field’s implications in white supremacist movements, is upheld as a time of European strength brought down by the rise of secularism and the belief in the value of the individual stemming from Christianity’s insistence on the incarnation.
The novel is bleak, but in today’s political environment, not outlandish. Satire, to be safe enough to garner a laugh or at least a smile, needs to be at least in part unlikely. In the time between 2015, the novel’s first publication, and 2017, Submission may have lost its ability to be counted as satire. I found reading it uncomfortable to the point of nearly stopping at several points. I persisted because I was curious to see if Houellebecq would give western culture a win. I persist in reading the news each day for the same reasons.