Submission: A Novel by Michel Houellebecq

Houellebecq is one of France’s leading novelists, maybe their leading novelist. He is known for being controversial. This is the only book of his I’ve read. It made me want to read another.

The story is told from the point of view of a middle-aged professor of literature at the Sorbonne. He is relatively well-known in academic circles, but feels his career is at a dead end. He has frequent affairs with his female students. He is especially attached to one young woman, but otherwise feels lonely.

The novel is set in the near future. What may have made it controversial is that Houellebecq imagines that a new political party is having great success in France. It’s the Muslim Brotherhood. An election is coming and it looks as if they may win. Nobody knows what will happen. The professor isn’t really interested in politics, but he’s nervous about his future in a country that appears to be rapidly changing.

The arabic word islam means “submission” or “submission to the will of God”. I suppose Submission is satire, and it’s funny at times, but it addresses serious themes. I only wish I had understood more of the cultural references. The author refers to lots of French historical and literary figures, as well as current politicians and pundits. If I’d known who he was talking about, I’d have appreciated more of the jokes.

Simply Napoleon by J. David Markham and Matthew Zarzeczny

Napoleon Bonaparte was one of the most important people who ever lived. I’ve been curious about him but haven’t wanted to read an 800-page biography. That’s why I got a copy of this brief one. It’s part of the “Simply” series of short biographies for the general reader. Other titles in the series include Simply Freud, Simply Dickens and Simply Tolstoy.

I now have a better understanding of Napoleon’s life, but do not recommend this book. It’s a second-rate production. It covers the major events in Napoleon’s military and political career, but provides little insight into his thinking or character. It lists precise statistics for the losses in battles that happened more than 200 years ago but never indicates that the numbers aren’t necessarily to be trusted. For example, it’s stated that 243 Spaniards were killed and 735 were wounded, while some 2,200 Frenchmen were killed, 400 wounded and 17,635 were captured in the same battle. Is it plausible that almost 10 times as many Frenchmen were killed while almost twice as many Spaniards were wounded? A number of illustrations appear as black splotches.

Furthermore, the subjects emphasized are sometimes bizarre. One paragraph covers Napoleon’s seizure of the French government and the creation of a new constitution in 1799. That’s immediately followed by almost nine pages devoted to the slave revolt in Haiti and its repercussions.

If you want to read something short about Napoleon, you might try Napoleon: A Very Short Introduction and A Very Short Introduction to the Napoleonic Wars. I haven’t read those two, but the “Very Short Introduction” books from Oxford University Press tend to be quite good.

The Oxford History of the French Revolution (2nd Edition) by William Doyle

I now have a feeling for how complex the French Revolution was, since the author goes into great detail while still taking the story from roughly 1775 to 1815. However, this isn’t an introduction to the topic. Events and personalities are mentioned and described as if the author expects the reader to know a lot about French history already. 

A couple things I learned: The large debt France accrued by supporting the American revolution was one of the factors that led to dissatisfaction and the eventual revolution. And the revolution had a major effect on the entire French population, not just the residents of Paris. Most of the victims of the Terror, for example, weren’t Parisians. The revolution also affected all of Europe as it quickly led to war between France and most of its neighbors.

One thing I thought was odd: The author implies that the American revolution played no role in fomenting revolution in France (other than the effect of the debt France acquired):

The modern idea of revolution goes back no further than 1789. But once it had occurred in France, the idea that it was possible, and right, to overthrow an existing order by force, and on grounds of general principles rather than existing law, was launched. Simultaneously a new figure appeared on the stage of history: the revolutionary. There had been no revolutionaries before 1789. 

Tell that to the men who signed the Declaration of Independence or fought in our Revolutionary War. For that matter, tell it to George III.

When the Nazis and Their Collaborators Ruled France

Vichysoisse is a thick soup made of leeks, onions, potatoes, cream and chicken stock, usually served cold. Whether it was invented in France or the United States is a matter of controversy among culinary historians. It is agreed, however, that the soup was named by a French chef who worked at the Ritz Carlton hotel in New York City, in honor of the spa town of Vichy.

Vichy is perhaps more famous as the capital of the French State (its actual name) during the German occupation in World War II. Vichy was chosen as the capital because it was relatively close to Paris, had lots of hotel rooms and also had a modern telephone exchange. Two weeks after surrendering to the Germans, the French parliament met in Vichy and voted to abolish the Third Republic. Marshall Philippe Pétain, the Lion of Verdun, was chosen to lead the new government.

I’ve never been interested in French history and know very little about the Third Republic or the Vichy government. (Although I remember that something called “Vichy water” was mentioned in Casablanca.) However, a recent article in the New York Review of Books by the historian Robert Paxton turned out to be quite interesting.

The article is called “Vichy Lives! — In a Way”. It’s a review of a book about the lasting effects of the Vichy period on modern France. The first especially interesting thing in the article was this description of the final years of the Third Republic, before the German invasion:

The late Third Republic had woefully neglected French infrastructure, along with a host of unresolved political, social, and economic problems. The contraction of the French economy in the 1930s is sometimes attributed to the Third Republic’s weak executive, deadlocked parliament, and ideological divisions. The essential reason … was the economic policy of deflationary budget-cutting with which French leaders confronted the Great Depression until 1936. Even then, when the Popular Front government of Léon Blum proposed to take a different economic tack, it was prevented by divisions within its tenuous majority from embarking seriously upon needed public expenditures. The final decade of the Third Republic was therefore a period of extensive disinvestment. 

Does that sound familiar? Change the dates and a few proper names and it’s a description of present-day America.

The other striking point Professor Paxton makes is that the Vichy government had some significant accomplishments, even though the leaders of the government were definitely right-wingers. For example, they began construction on the freeway that circles Paris, built a major bridge over the Seine, constructed a tide-operated power plant and started the Trans-Sahara railroad. They created a national police force, replaced France’s 90 departments with 17 regions and unified Paris’s mass transit system.

More surprisingly, as a very conservative regime, Vichy instituted old-age pensions, a minimum wage, obligatory doctor visits for students, labor inspectors in factories, universal vaccinations and a program to reduce alcohol consumption. Vichy’s social welfare activities were actually consistent with the actions of other right-wing governments in Europe. It was Otto von Bismarck of Germany who created the first social welfare state, which was emulated by the Austrian Empire. As Paxton explains:

All the modern twentieth-century European dictatorships of the right, both fascist and authoritarian, were welfare states. The current American conservative agenda of a weak state associated with laissez-faire economic and social arrangements would have been anathema to them, as an extreme perversion of a despised individualistic liberalism (in that term’s original sense). They all provided medical care, pensions, affordable housing, and mass transport as a matter of course, in order to maintain productivity, national unity, and social peace.

Of course, these authoritarian right-wing governments, especially the fascists and the Vichy government, combined their positive accomplishments with terrible misdeeds. They also used some of their reforms to exert more control over their citizens.

Still, the contrast between these European politicians and our own bizarre Republican Party is remarkable. It’s possible that no other nation in world history has ever been at the mercy of a gang of radical politicians who want a government that does as little as possible, aside from extending its military and surveillance powers, supporting a conservative religious agenda and insuring rising incomes for the wealthy, while ignoring the needs of the majority.