The Elementary Particles by Michel Houellebecq

The English translation of Houellebecq’s best-known novel was published 20 years ago. It was widely-discussed, even controversial. I can see why.

It’s the story of two French step-brothers, Michel and Bruno, from their school years into adulthood. Michel is brilliant and becomes an important molecular biologist. But he is extremely emotionally detached. Bruno is bullied in school and very self-conscious. He becomes a writer and is mostly concerned with sex.

I’d say the theme of the novel is the decline of the human race. It includes a lot of science and a lot of explicit sex. Michel and Bruno don’t live happily ever after. Neither does humanity. Yet the story ends on what seems to be a positive development. Houellebecq is suggesting that things can only get better from here.

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.