France

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?”


It is 2022 and the votes are being counted in France

Tuesday, 17 November, 2015 0 Comments

On the day that Michel Houellebecq’s Submission was published in France, two Islamist terrorists stormed into the offices of the satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo and murdered 12 people, including eight journalists. Among the dead was the economist Bernard Maris, one of Houellebecq’s closest friends. The tragedy and the coincidence were interpreted as a portent, but nobody could agree as to its significance. Conspiracy theorists wondered if Houellebecq had not somehow provoked the attack. The fact that the publication date of the book had been signaled long in advance did nothing to deter them.

Submission transports readers to the year 2022 as the votes are being counted after the French general election. Marine Le Pen and her Front National are neck-and-neck with the Muslim Brotherhood, led by a charismatic grocer’s son, Mohammed Ben Abbes. The Socialists, under Manuel Valls, decide to form a coalition with the Brotherhood to keep Le Pen out of the Élysée Palace, but negotiations are tricky. One evening during the talks, François, the narrator, meets a friend whose husband works for the DGSI intelligence service, and the three discuss politics with the aid of port. Snippet:

“But what do they want?”
“They want every French child to have the option of a Muslim education, at every level of schooling. Now, however you look at it, a Muslim education is very different from a secular one. First off, no co-education. And women would be allowed to study only certain things. What the Muslim Brotherhood really wants is for most women to study Home Economics, once they finish junior school, then get married as soon as possible, with a small minority studying art or literature first. Sottomissioni That’s their vision of an ideal society. Also, every teacher would have to be Muslim. No exceptions. Schools would observe Muslim dietary laws and the five daily prayers; above all, the curriculum itself would have to reflect the teachings of the Koran.”
“You think the Socialists will give in?”
“The haven’t got much of a choice. If they don’t reach an agreement, they don’t have a chance against the National Front. Even if they do reach an agreement, the National Front could still win. You’ve seen the polls…”

“Are your sure? That sounds so drastic…”
“Quite sure. It’s all been settled. And it is exactly in line with the theory of minority sharia, which the Muslim Brotherhood has always embraced. So they could something similar with education. Public education would still be available to everyone though with vastly reduced funding. The national budget would be slashed by two-thirds at least, and this time the teachers wouldn’t be able to stop it. In the current economic climate, any budget cut is bound to play well at the polls.”

All of this bores François, who Houellebecq depicts as a caricature of the Western middle class: smug, agnostic, narcissistic, alcohol-addicted and sex-preoccupied. But there’s no smoke without fire. The question at the core of the story is how will he manage when his world is engulfed by the approaching wave of zealotry. Sink or swim? If ever there was a book for our times, Submission is it.


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.”


Kerouac and Cohen in Paris

Saturday, 18 July, 2015 0 Comments

Dean Moriarty is the hero of On the Road by Jack Kerouac and Leonard Cohen enjoyed a few wild days and nights in the company of Kerouac during that mid-60s Chelsea Hotel phase in New York City. Fast forward a generation and we find Kerouac and Cohen providing inspiration for Moriarty, a musical collective of French, American, Swiss and Vietnamese artists living in France. Here, lead singer, Rosemary Moriarty, aka Rosemary Standley, joins forces with Dom La Nena, a Brazilian-born cellist and singer based in Paris. This is a special trans-Atlantic mix of Kerouac and Cohen, past and present.

I saw a beggar leaning on his wooden crutch,
He said to me, “You must not ask for so much.”
And a pretty woman leaning in her darkened door,
She cried to me, “Hey, why not ask for more?”


The French lose the currency battle of Waterloo

Wednesday, 10 June, 2015 0 Comments

The great question of 19th century Europe was as follows: Would the continent become a union of states ruled by French laws and language, or would it be an association of states existing in a sphere of security guaranteed by the naval and economic power of Britain? The Battle of Waterloo provided the answer and the 19th century became the British Century. Not surprisingly, the French have not forgotten.

In March, France stopped Belgium from issuing a €2 coin to commemorate the battle. “The circulation of these coins carrying a negative symbol for a section of the European population seems detrimental at a time when eurozone governments are trying to build unity and co-operation under the single currency,” the French government stated in a letter that attempted to disguise chauvinism as concern for market stability. The Belgians retreated then, but they’re back and their Royal Mint has outflanked Paris with a €2.50 brass coin that commemorates the bicentenary of Waterloo. The canny Belgians have made 100,000 and plan to flog them for €6 each. Even better is their trove of 10,000 commemorative €10 silver coins, which can be had for €42 each. To entice French collectors, it has a silhouette of Napoleon on one side, and for British and German investors the other side features a key Waterloo moment: Lieutenant Colonel John Freemantle of the Coldstream Guards telling the Duke of Wellington that the Prussians had arrived on the battlefield.

Waterloo pound Talking of Prussians and Brits, the Royal Mint is issuing a commemorative £5 coin featuring the famous post-battle handshake between Wellington and Field Marshall Blücher, the Prussian commander.

Notes the Mint: “Your purchase is supplied with an absorbing booklet that explores the battle, its great leaders, its legacy on the world — and its impact on Britain’s coinage.” This remains the pound, not the euro, as the French, “trying to build unity and co-operation under the single currency,” have noted, to their chagrin.


Visca el Barça vs. mia san mia on the second screen

Tuesday, 12 May, 2015 0 Comments

A number of initiatives have been started in recent years to encourage more women to learn about computing, such as Ada Developers Academy, and Google, for its part, says it has given more than $40 million to organizations working to bring computer science education to girls. The reality, though, is that tech is still very much a man’s, man’s world and this impression was reinforced last week at the EIT Innovation Forum in Budapest, where Emanuela Zaccone was the only female nominee for the 2015 Awards.

Zaccone is the co-founder of TOK.tv, a platform that lets users chat to their friends while watching a game, such as tomorrow night’s Champions League semi-final between Juventus and Real Madrid. As it happens, the two teams are TOK.tv partners and Zaccone pitches her second screen play as a win-win for both sides as their fans, scattered around the world, can sit on the same virtual couch during a match and the clubs can monetize this engagement. And what about tonight’s Barcelona vs. Bayern Munich game, which pits the Catalan Visca el Barça against the Bavarian mia san mia cultures? Zaccone smiles. “We’re talking,” she says. The two teams are global players in every sense of the term and their joint presence on the TOK.tv platform would add considerably to its reach.

Back in 2007, when Emanuela Zaccone was working on her PhD thesis at the University of Nottingham, she had a hunch that a combination of social media streams and audio-visual content would lead to to new forms of audience participation in entertainment. She was right. From her vantage point in Rome today and in her role as Social Media Strategist at TOK.tv, she’s proving that a woman can transform a man’s game.

Emanuela Zaccone


Germanwings flight 4U9525

Tuesday, 24 March, 2015 0 Comments

Over the years, the Rainy Day team has flown dozens of times to and from Barcelona, over the French Alps. Our thoughts today are with the families and friends of the passengers and crew of Germanwings Flight 4U9525 who died there this morning.

Germanwings

Courage is the price that life extracts for granting peace.
The soul that knows it not, knows no release from little things.
Knows not the livid loneliness of fear,
Nor mountain heights, where bitter joy can hear
The sound of wings.

Amelia Earhart (1897 – 1937)


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

Michel Houellebecq reads in Cologne

Monday, 19 January, 2015 0 Comments

Topping the bestseller list at Amazon.fr is Soumission by Michel Houellebecq. Is his vision of a supine French “submission” to a gradual Islamic takeover a farce or a warning? Tonight, in Cologne, people will have a chance to make up their own minds when the controversial author makes one of his rare trips abroad to speak about his work. Unsurprisingly, the Lit Cologne event is sold out.

Soumission is set seven years in the future, in the year 2022. Mohammed Ben Abbes becomes president of France and immediately all women must be veiled in public, state secondary schools adopt an Islamic curriculum, and the protagonist, François, is told that he cannot return to his university job unless he converts to Islam. He happily submits to the new order, not for any religious or philosophical reasons, but because the new Saudi owners of the Sorbonne pay far better — and he can be polygamous. As he notes, in envy of his new boss, who has converted already: “One 40-year-old wife for cooking, one 15-year-old wife for other things… no doubt he had one or two others of intermediate ages.”

For those who are not fortunate enough to have a ticket to see Michel Houellebecq in action tonight, this Paris Review Q&A, “Scare Tactics: Michel Houellebecq Defends His Controversial New Book,” is essential reading. Snippet:

Have you asked yourself what the effect might be of a novel based on such a hypothesis?

None. No effect whatsoever.

You don’t think it will help reinforce the image of France that I just described, in which Islam hangs overhead like the sword of Damocles, like the most frightening thing of all?

In any case, that’s pretty much all the media talks about, they couldn’t talk about it more. It would be impossible to talk about it more than they already do, so my book won’t have any effect.

Doesn’t it make you want to write about something else so as not to join the pack?

No, part of my work is to talk about what everyone is talking about, objectively. I belong to my own time.

Soumission by Michel Houellebecq


A lament for Paris

Saturday, 10 January, 2015 0 Comments

Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten by the Estonian composer Arvo Pärt begins with a lone tolling bell. Strings slowly emerge, as if from a fog, and begin to well up in waves of sorrow that seem to carry on forever. As we meditate on the victims of the evil ideology that brought death and suffering to Paris this week, let us take what comfort we can from this simple but powerful expression of grief.