After watching a play by Yasmina Reza, “Conversation after the funeral”, a friend gave me to read Reza’s book “Happy are happy”. I usually don’t read French contemporary literature so curiously I dived into it. Beautifully and playfully written the book dissects the relationships in the French society mainly through affairs happening in a somehow connected group of friends or social interactions. The stories connect each others through characters who are bored as hell in their marriage and trying a little bit of excitement, joyless most of the time, in their affairs. When I reached the middle of the book my library sent me an email that Houellebecq’ “Submission”, the French best seller published exactly in the day of the Charlie Hebdo attacks, was waiting for me so I started reading it and seamlessly from the past reading I dived in an even more intense description of sex and food on a background of total boredom experienced by the main character, the Sorbonne literature professor, Francois.
If you ask somebody what the novel “Submission” is about, most people would tell you that is about a time when a Muslim becomes French President and how the French society copes under the rule of the Muslim Brotherhood. Or at least this is what I used to hear about it. No matter that this story is there, the book uses it as a background to paint a fresco of the French conformism middle class, symptomatic for a bourgeois society bored as hell by lack of existential goals and mainly lack of aspirations. Written artfully and almost subliminally, Houellebecq comes obsessively upon the topics of the main character’s self center life, sex, done more like a social interaction, interlaced with gourmet trips with an occasional interest for weather and an escapism in his niche specialty of the French novelist Huysmans’ life, writings and his conversion to Catholicism. Huysmans’ pessimism and the disgust for modern life is mimicked by Houellebecq through his main character. The New York Times, in more than one piece, describes the novel as a satire, a thing that I found puzzling proving mainly an American misunderstanding of the French society countered in the article by the French novelist and editor Marc Weitzmann, who said: “It’s not reality; it’s the French view of reality….his (Houellebecq) real subject is how the French think.” The book was labeled as Islamophobic, an epithet agreed upon even by Houellebecq as long as it wants to describe the “fear of Islam”. But for sure it is not a “phobia of Islam”, especially in a country that adopted a very large segment of Muslim population. But the fear is easily understood, even if not by the current events directly, but by the entire history education taught in the European schools, especially of the Eastern Europe, countries that still take full credit as the Christianity saviors of Europe.
From an European perspective the French society as we know it is for sure closer as described in the book than the one described in the American papers. The remarkable mastery of Houellebecq is that the controversial political background is weaved majestically in the society fabric and the character’s possible evolution is of no surprise, the hypothetical end of the book being actually the most natural, following his behavior pattern. I finished the book pensively just to continue almost in the same bourgeois spirit, imbued by sex and food, Yasmina Reza’s making a sandwich of these two.