Subscribe via RSS Feed Connect on Google Plus Connect on Flickr


From left to right: Houellebecq reviewed

Thursday, 19 November, 2015 0 Comments

As we approach the penultimate day of our Submission series, it’s time to take a look at how the book has been received on the left and on the right. First up, Mark Lilla in The New York Review of Books. With a nod to the Bethlehem of Yeats in The Second Coming, his review is titled Slouching Toward Mecca. Lilla is at pains to emphasizes that none of the characters in Houellebecq’s novel expresses “hatred or even contempt of Muslims.” Instead, “It is about a man and a country who through indifference and exhaustion find themselves slouching toward Mecca. There is not even drama here — no clash of spiritual armies, no martyrdom, no final conflagration. Stuff just happens, as in all Houellebecq’s fiction. All one hears at the end is a bone-chilling sigh of collective relief. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. Whatever.”

Submission Douglas Murray takes a more robust approach in Quadrant with A Society Ripe for Submission. Like Lilla, however, he stresses that the novel is not the cartoon that its detractors have claimed it to be: “Of course it is worth stating from the outset — since in these times we seem to have to do such things — that even if Submission were the most anti-Islamic, ‘blasphemous’ and offensive novel ever written Houellebecq would have the right to publish it and do so without being judged by politicians or gunmen who in their different ways fire off over books they don’t read. As it happens, Submission is not a simple provocation. It is a deep, gripping and haunting novel which proves a culmination point of Houellebecq’s work so far and, in my view, a recent high-point for European fiction.”

In his conclusion, Mark Lilla interprets Submission as Houellebecq’s reckoning with a country and a continent that have run out of road in the modern world:

“He appears genuinely to believe that France has, regrettably and irretrievably, lost its sense of self, but not because of immigration or the European Union or globalization. Those are just symptoms of a crisis that was set off two centuries ago when Europeans made a wager on history: that the more they extended human freedom, the happier they would be. For him, that wager has been lost. And so the continent is adrift and susceptible to a much older temptation, to submit to those claiming to speak for God. Who remains as remote and as silent as ever.”

The “Who” there is echoed in the “whose” at the close of Douglas Murray’s assessment of the novel:

“Houellebecq’s career has included several fateful coincidences of timing. But perhaps the most propitious is that his work has come to artistic maturity at just the moment to capture a society tipping from over-ripeness into something else. What precisely? More decadence, barbarism, or salvation? And if salvation, then what kind, and whose?”

Tomorrow, here, we conclude our week of Submission.

Knausgaard reads Houellebecq

Wednesday, 18 November, 2015 0 Comments

It was a brave decision on the part of the New York Times to ask Karl Ove Knausgård to review Submission by Michel Houellebecq. Brave because the Norwegian author is not known for his brevity. Knausgård is the author of Min Kamp (My Struggle), six controversial autobiographical novels that stretch across 3,600 pages.

“Before I begin this review, I have to make a small confession. I have never read Michel Houellebecq’s books,” writes Knausgård, warming up to his task. Eventually, he picks up the novel and opens it: “I leaned back in my chair under the bright light of the lamp, lit a cigarette, poured myself a coffee and began to read.”

Submission Submission is controversial, he finds, because “anything that has to do with immigration, the nation state, multiculturalism, ethnicity and religion is explosive stuff in Europe these days. Many of its elements are recognizable, like the newspapers omitting to mention, or mentioning only with caution, conflicts arising out of ethnic differences, or the political left’s anti-­racism overriding its feminism, making it wary of criticizing patriarchal structures within immigrant communities.”

Houellebecq’s savaging of political correctness prepares the ground for “a scenario of the future that realistically is less than likely, and yet entirely possible,” notes Knausgård. In this scenario, the French general election of 2022 is won by the Muslim Brotherhood with which the left collaborates to keep the National Front from power, and France as a result becomes a Muslim state. Snippet:

“What’s crucial for the novel is that the political events it portrays are psychologically as persuasive as they are credible, for this is what the novel is about, an entire culture’s enormous loss of meaning, its lack of, or highly depleted, faith, a culture in which the ties of community are dissolving and which, for want of resilience more than anything else, gives up on its most important values and submits to religious government.

But maybe that isn’t so bad? Maybe it doesn’t matter that much? Aren’t people just people, regardless of what they believe in, and of how they choose to organize their societies? It is these questions that the novel leads up to, since this entire seamless revolution is seen through the eyes of François, a man who believes in nothing and who consequently is bound by nothing other than himself and his own needs… This lack of attachment, this indifference, is as I see it the novel’s fundamental theme and issue, much more so than the Islamization of France, which in the logic of the book is merely a consequence.”

What does it mean to be a human being without faith? For Knausgård, that’s the key question posed by a novel that closes with the faithless protagonist looking forward in time to his own submission, “to the comedy, eventually converting to Islam in order to continue teaching at the Sorbonne, now a Muslim seat of learning.”

In the end, Knausgård is full of praise for what Houellebecq has written and declares Submission to be a great book: “The disillusioned gaze sees through everything, sees all the lies and the pretenses we concoct to give life meaning, the only thing it doesn’t see is its own origin, its own driving force. But what does that matter as long as it creates great literature, quivering with ambivalence, full of longing for meaning, which, if none is found, it creates itself?”

Reading the plausible and important Houellebec

Monday, 16 November, 2015 0 Comments

In Michel Houellebecq’s latest novel, Submission, the year is 2022 and François is tiring of his career as a lecturer at the Sorbonne. The life of an expert on J.-K. Huysmans, the nineteenth-century author of À rebours, offers decent material rewards but decreasing spiritual benefits and the many hours spent on YouPorn are more satisfying than the day job. In the background, France is preparing for a general election and although François has zero interest in politics, he is vaguely aware that a strategic alliance between the Socialist party and Islamic party may be in the offing. He does notice, however, some subtle and not-so-subtle shifts in the academic atmosphere. Snippet from the excellent translation by the editor of The Paris Review, Lorin Stein:

“When I reached my classroom — today I planned to discuss Jean Lorrain — there were three guys in their twenties, two of them Arab, one of them black, standing in the doorway. They weren’t armed, not that day. They stood there calmly. Nothing about them was overtly menacing. All the same, they were blocking the entrance. I had to say something. I stopped and faced them. They had to be under orders to avoid provocation and to treat the teachers with respect. At least I hoped so.

Submission “I’m a professor here. My class is about to start,” I said in a firm tone, addressing the group. It was the black guy who answered, with a broad smile. “No problem, monsieur, we’re just here to visit our sisters…” and he tilted his head reassuringly towards the classroom. The only sisters he could mean were two North African girls seated together in the back left row, both in black burkas, their eyes protected by mesh. They looked pretty irreproachable to me. “Well, there you have them,” I said, with bonhomie. Then I insisted: “Now you can go.” “No problem, monsieur,” he said with an even broader smile, then he turned on his heel, followed by the other two, neither of whom had said a word. He took three steps, then turned again. “Peace be with you, monsieur,” he said with a small bow. “That went well,” I told myself, closing the classroom door. “This time.” I don’t know just what I’d expected. Supposedly, teachers had been attacked in Mulhouse, Strasbourg, Aix-Marseille and Saint-Denis, but I had never met a colleague who’d been attacked, and I didn’t believe the rumours. According to Steve, an agreement had been struck between the young Salafists and the administration. All of a sudden, two years ago, the hoodlums and dealers had all vanished from the neighbourhood. Supposedly that was the proof. Had this agreement included a clause banning Jewish organizations from campus? Again, there was nothing to substantiate the rumour, but the fact was that, as of last autumn, the Jewish Students Union had no representatives on any Paris campus, while the youth division of the Muslim Brotherhood had opened new branches, here and there, across the city.”

As Melanie McDonagh writes in The Spectator: “Plausible? Sort of. Worrying? Yep. Important? Very.”

A Brief History of Seven Killings

Wednesday, 14 October, 2015 0 Comments

On 3 December 1976 in the violent run up to the Jamaican general election and two days before Bob Marley was to play a free concert in Kingston to ease tensions, seven men stormed his house with machine guns. Marley survived the attack and went on to perform at the concert. A Brief History of Seven Killings, which won Marlon James the Booker Prize last night in London, is an imagined oral history told by witnesses, killers, ghosts, politicians, beauty queens, CIA agents and Keith Richards’ drug dealer. The book is full of crime, cursing, sex, drugs, death, laughs and literary devices. Snippet:


Dead people never stop talking. Maybe because death is not death at all, just a detention after school. You know where you’re coming from and you’re always returning from it. You know where you’re going though you never seem to get there and you’re just dead. Dead. It sounds final but it’s a word missing an ing. You come across men longer dead than you, walking all the time though heading nowhere and you listen to them howl and hiss because we’re all spirits or we think we are all spirits but we’re all just dead. Spirits that slip inside other spirits. Sometimes a woman slips inside a man and wails like the memory of making love. They moan and keen loud but it comes through the window like a whistle or a whisper under the bed, and little children think there’s a monster. The dead love lying under the living for three reasons. (1) We’re lying most of the time. (2) Under the bed looks like the top of a coffin, but (3) There is weight, human weight on top that you can slip into and make heavier, and you listen to the heart beat while you watch it pump and hear the nostrils hiss when their lungs press air and envy even the shortest breath. I have no memory of coffins.

But the dead never stop talking and sometimes the living hear. This is what I wanted to say. When you’re dead speech is nothing but tangents and detours and there’s nothing to do but stray and wander awhile. Well, that’s at least what the others do. My point being that the expired learn from the expired, but that’s tricky. I could listen to myself, still claiming to anybody that would hear that I didn’t fall, I was pushed over the balcony at the Sunset Beach Hotel in Montego Bay. And I can’t say shut your trap, Artie Jennings, because every morning I wake up having to put my pumpkin-smashed head back together. And even as I talk now I can hear how I sounded then, can you dig it, dingledoodies? meaning that the afterlife is just not a happening scene, not a groovy shindig, Daddy-O, see those cool cats on the mat? They could never dig it, and there’s nothing to do but wait for the man that killed me, but he won’t die, he only gets older and older and trades out wives for younger and younger and breeding a whole brood of slow-witted boys and running the country down into the ground.

A Brief History of Seven Killings Dead people never stop talking and sometimes the living hear. Sometimes he talks back if I catch him right as his eyes start to flicker in his sleep, talks until his wife slaps him. But I’d rather listen to the longer dead. I see men in split breeches and bloody longcoats and they talk, but blood comes out of their mouths and good heavens that slave rebellion was such ghastly business and that queen has of course been of bloody awful use ever since the West India Company began their rather shoddy decline compared to the East and why are there so many negroes taking to sleeping so unsoundly wherever they see fit and confound it all I seem to have misplaced the left half of my face. To be dead is to understand that dead is not gone, you’re in the flatness of the deadlands. Time doesn’t stop. You watch it move but you are still, like a painting with a Mona Lisa smile. In this space a three-hundred-year-old slit throat and two-minute-old crib death is the same.

If you don’t watch how you sleep, you’ll find yourself the way the living found you. Me, I’m lying on the floor, my head a smashed pumpkin with my right leg twisted behind the back and my two arms bent in a way that arms aren’t supposed to bend and from high up, from the balcony I look like a dead spider. I am up there and down here and from up there I see myself the way my killer saw me. The dead relive a motion, an action, a scream and they’re there again just like that, the train that never stopped running until it ran off the rails, the ledge from that building sixteen floors up, the car trunk that ran out of air. Rudeboys’ bodies bursting like pricked balloons, fifty-six bullets.

Nobody falls that way without being pushed. I know. And I know how it feels and looks, a body that falls fighting air all the way down, grabbing on to clumps of nothing and begging once, just once, just goddamn once, Jesus, you sniveling son of a mongrel bitch, just once that air gives a grip. And you land in a ditch five feet deep or a marble-tiled floor sixteen feet down, still fighting when the floor rises up and smashes into you because it got tired of waiting for blood. And we’re still dead but we wake up, me a crushed spider, him a burned cockroach. I have no memory of coffins.


Living people wait and see because they fool themselves that they have time. Dead people see and wait. I once asked my Sunday school teacher, if heaven is the place of eternal life, and hell is the opposite of heaven, what does that make hell? A place for dirty little red boys like you, she said. She’s still alive. I see her, at the Eventide Old Folks Home getting too old and too stupid, not knowing her name and talking in so soft a rasp that nobody can hear that she’s scared of nightfall because that’s when the rats come for her good toes. I see more than that. Look hard enough or maybe just to the left and you see a country that was the same as I left it. It never changes, whenever I’m around people they are exactly as I had left them, aging making no difference.

The man who was father of a nation, father to me more than my own, cried like a sudden widow when he heard I had died. You never know when people’s dreams are connected to you before you’re gone and then there’s nothing to do, but watch them die in a different way, slow, limb by limb, system by system. Heart condition, diabetes, slow-killing diseases with slow-sounding names. This is the body going over to death with impatience, one part at a time. He will live to see them make him a national hero and he will die the only person thinking he had failed. That’s what happens when you personify hopes and dreams in one person. He becomes nothing more than a literary device.

Remarque on right and wrong

Saturday, 10 October, 2015 0 Comments

In the fourth installment in the Millennium series, The Girl in the Spider’s Web (original Swedish title: Det som inte dödar oss), author David Lagercrantz quotes Erich Maria Remarque as saying: “It’s always the wrong people who have the guilty conscience. Those who are really responsible for suffering in the world couldn’t care less. It’s the ones fighting for good who are consumed by remorse.”

The graves

Gatsby and the robots

Wednesday, 26 August, 2015 0 Comments

“Belief in ‘the green light, the orgiastic future that year by year recedes before us,’ as F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote in The Great Gatsby, is a characteristic American trait.” So writes the seasoned pundit as he prepares his readers for a think pieces on… robots. Watch now how he deploys Gatsby:

“Is a yet more orgiastic future beckoning? Today’s Gatsbys have no doubt that the answer is yes: humanity stands on the verge of breakthroughs in information technology, robotics, and artificial intelligence that will dwarf what has been achieved in the past two centuries. Human beings will be able to live still more like gods because they are about to create machines like gods: not just strong and swift but also supremely intelligent and even self-creating.”

Gatsby But just in case the tech-optimism gets out of hand, our pundit reaches for Mary Shelley, creator of “the cautionary tale of Frankenstein”. Intelligent machines have a scary side and this could herald “great dangers,” such as “soaring unemployment and inequality.” Is this, then, our destiny? “The answer is no.” Hawking, Musk and Gates may be sounding the alarm bells but, “What we know for the moment is that there is nothing extraordinary in the changes we are now experiencing. We have been here before and on a much larger scale.”

Bottom line: “The future does not have to be a disappointment. But as Gatsby learned, it can all too easily be just that.” All this, and more, can be found in “Same as It Ever Was: Why the Techno-optimists Are Wrong” by Martin Wolf in the July/August issue of Foreign Affairs. The article shows how useful Gatsby can be as an inspiration for, well, anything, including robots. The novel never gets tired.

Tomorrow, here, Jay Gatsby is sent to the front lines of the gender wars. Gays and feminists battle it out as they seek deeper meaning between the sheets, er, pages.

Did James Joyce imagine Snapchat?

Tuesday, 16 June, 2015 0 Comments

Happy Bloomsday! The name is derived from Leopold Bloom, the protagonist of Ulysses by James Joyce. The novel’s characters wander around Dublin on 16 June 1904 and as one of them, Stephen Dedalus, remarks: “Every life is many days, day after day. We walk through ourselves, meeting robbers, ghosts, giants, old men, young men, wives, widows, brothers-in-love. But always meeting ourselves.”

Ulysses is said to be the most written about book ever after the Bible and, like the Good Book, it contains truth and prophecy. In this exchange from Episode 1, Telemachus, Joyce imagines the invention of a mobile messaging app that allows users to capture images that self destruct after a few seconds.

“— Is the brother with you, Malachi?
— Down in Westmeath. With the Bannons.
— Still there? I got a card from Bannon. Says he found a sweet young thing down there. Photo girl he calls her.
— Snapshot, eh? Brief exposure.”

Snapshot, eh? Brief exposure, eh? Isn’t that Snapchat?

I believe in capitals and the occasional comma

Tuesday, 9 June, 2015 0 Comments

“James Joyce is a good model for punctuation. He keeps it to an absolute minimum. There’s no reason to blot the page up with weird little marks.” So said Cormac McCarthy in a rare 2008 interview with Oprah Winfrey.

McCarthy’s combination of declarative sentence and minimalist punctuation can be seen at work in this graphic excerpt from Blood Meridian:

Toward the morning they saw fires on the horizon. Glanton sent the Delawares. Already the dawnstar burned pale in the east. When they returned they squatted with Glanton and the judge and the Brown brothers and spoke and gestured and then all remounted and all rode on.

Five wagons smoldered on the desert floor and the riders dismounted and moved among the bodies of the dead argonauts in silence, those right pilgrims nameless among the stones with their terrible wounds, the viscera spilled from their sides and the naked torsos bristling with arrowshafts. Some by their beards were men but yet wore strange menstrual wounds between their legs and no man’s parts for these had been cut away and hung dark and strange from out their grinning mouths. In their wigs of dried blood they lay gazing up with ape’s eyes at brother sun now rising in the east.

The wagons were no more than embers armatured with the blackened shapes of hoop-iron and tires, the redhot axles quaking deep within the coals. The riders squatted at the fires and boiled water and drank coffee and roasted meat and lay down to sleep among the dead.

Rain: Too much and not nearly enough

Monday, 8 June, 2015 0 Comments

“Do not be angry with the rain; it simply does not know how to fall upwards,” said Vladimir Nabokov. His comment is atypical as rain rarely earns a good punch line. Worse, in a rapidly urbanizing world, rain is regarded as a nuisance and few people have a kind word to say for it. The stuff that fills shoes, wrecks hairdos and allows unscrupulous umbrella sellers to practice a form of surge pricing that would make Uber envious lacks a lobby. But that should change soon thanks to Cynthia Barnett, author of Rain: A Natural and Cultural History. Using humour and science she examines rain’s role through the ages, and what emerges is a unifying force of nature that has nourished our planet for more than four billion years. Snippet:

“Rain brings us together in one of the last untamed encounters with nature that we experience routinely, able to turn the suburbs and even the city wild. Huddled with our fellow humans under construction scaffolding to escape a deluge, we are bound in the memory and mystery of exhilarating, confounding, life-giving rain.” Cynthia Barnett, Rain: A Natural and Cultural History


Dracula Therapy

Tuesday, 26 May, 2015 0 Comments

Dracula On this day in 1897, Dracula, a novel by the Irish author Bram Stoker, was published at a price of six shillings. It had a print run of 3,000 copies and the book was bound in plain yellow cloth with the one-word title in simple red lettering. In time, Dracula would become the supreme example of horror fiction. The critic Maurice Richardson described it as “a kind of incestuous, necrophilious, oral-anal-sadistic all-in wrestling match”. What’s not to like?

“Then she paused, and I could hear the churning sound of her tongue as it licked her teeth and lips, and could feel the hot breath on my neck. Then the skin of my throat began to tingle as one’s flesh does when the hand that is to tickle it approaches nearer — nearer. I could feel the soft, shivering touch of the lips on the supersensitive skin of my throat, and the hard dents of two sharp teeth, just touching and pausing there. I closed my eyes in a languorous ecstasy and waited — waited with beating heart.” — Bram Stoker, Dracula

In his longing for eternity, Dracula developed an insatiable demand for blood and it’s not surprising that one of the hottest treatments in the anti-ageing business right now is the vampirish “Dracula Therapy.” Officially titled Stimulated Self Serum skin therapy, it involves having your face injected with your own blood and it was developed by the London-based French cosmetic specialist, Dr Daniel Sister. A variant of the treatment is popularly called the “vampire facial” and recipients include Kim Kardashian.

A modification of the therapy, called “Rejuvula”, promises the same tightening effect — but not for the face. Irishwoman Claudia McGloin claims that she is the only female medical professional offering the treatment “for Vagina Rejuvenation in Europe.”

“The blood is the life!” — Bram Stoker, Dracula

Houellebecq and the capitulation of cover art

Thursday, 5 March, 2015 0 Comments

“For the purpose of Appreciation and Categorization” is the motto of The Book Cover Archive, and there is much to appreciate and categorize on this World Book Day when it comes to book covers. Think of the art of Roger Kastel for Jaws by Peter Benchley. With Soumission, the latest novel from Michel Houellebecq, however, we’re seeing a different kind of cover art. The art of capitulation.

In his book, Houellebecq paints a picture of an old, ailing Christian nation, France, submitting to a more vigorous ideology: Islam. It is a bitterly funny critique of the tolerance of the intolerant and a terrifying vision of the multicultural endgame. The book is a best-seller in France, Germany and Italy, despite the best efforts of its publishers to neutralize its appearance. The two-tone cover of the original French version is devoid of art; the German version, Unterwerfung, features the head of a bird, and the Italian cover of Sottomissione dispenses with imagery completely. The US publisher, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, is silent about the cover of Lorin Stein’s forthcoming translation but one fears that the supine trend will continue. Given the vital role of cover art in the history of book making, it is hard to accept that publishers would willingly embrace aniconism, the proscription against the creation of images, but Sottomissione is the proof.

Soumission Soumission Soumission