The Matter of Frenchness

By Jonathan WilsonDecember 20, 2015

Submission by Michel Houellebecq
Pedigree: A Memoir by Patrick Modiano

IN THE AFTERMATH of last month’s horrific events in Paris, two recent books by outstanding French authors, Michel Houellebecq’s novel Submission and Patrick Modiano’s memoir Pedigree, each significant to begin with, become exigent. 

Since 1789, France has inspired and thereby brought all kinds of good news to downtrodden peoples including, pace Marco Rubio, providing both plenty of work for welders — the Eiffel tower — and the philosophical thought that underpins the exercise of democracy in the United States. Leaning towards liberty, committed to state secularism for more than a century (in a way that their cross-channel neighbors, the British, have never been) and before that to a Napoleonic code that, although it didn’t do much for Moslems, at least liberated the Jews of the French empire and recognized Judaism as an official religion, France has the appearance, and sometimes the reality, of a country hospitable to those who are historically marginalized outsiders. Only last month, in a response to the Syrian refugee crisis rendered extraordinary by its proximity to the murderous devastation in the 11th arrondissement and at the Stade de France, François Hollande announced that his country would take in 30 thousand refugees in 2016. The contrast with the pusillanimous reaction to the crisis of 30 governors and the majority of the Congress in our own nation couldn’t be clearer.

Unfortunately, modern French history has some ugly blots in its copybook, including a nasty and brutal colonization in North Africa and elsewhere, and an appalling collaboration with the Nazis, vigorously denied for the longest time. What appears to screw things up, when things get screwed up, is adherence to a certain notion of “Frenchness” that, despite lip service to the contrary, is exclusive, divisive, punitive, and frequently cruel. It is an acrimony that Marine Le Pen, the leader of France’s National Front party, who appears as a character in Houellebecq’s novel, is always poised to exploit.

The matter of “Frenchness,” and its competing hard and soft contours, is at the heart of both Modiano’s and Houellebecq’s most recent books (each wonderfully served by an excellent translator, Mark Polizzotti for Modiano and Lorin Stein for Houellebecq). At first glance Submission appears the more crucial. Set in Paris in 2022, the novel begins with France in political disarray and on the verge of electing a government to be run by the Muslim Brotherhood, a party headed by its charismatic and persuasive leader Mohammed Ben Abbes. We follow the fortunes of François, a lecturer at the Sorbonne and an expert on the late 19th- and early 20th-century novelist Joris-Karl Huysmans, as both his personal relationships and his professional life are buffeted by first the chaos that precedes the election and then the transformations wrought by the new order. In contrast to the Salafists and other Muslim extremists pressing their case in France, what Ben Abbes offers is a kinder, gentler Islam that appeals in ways that have quite a bit in common with the platforms of our Republican Party: family values, religious education, faith-based charity. He is also a champion of law-and-order, easily capable of co-opting, and thereby subduing, the raucous Muslim-populated banlieues. After the Brotherhood takes power, crime drops by 90 percent. 

It is no accident that François’s scholastic devotion is to Huysmans, for the novelist’s À Rebours (Against Nature) is a classic of the Decadent movement whose aesthete-hero Des Esseintes, rather than participate in the world’s business, is happy to remain at home and watch his bejeweled tortoise circumnavigate his Oriental rug. That Huysmans himself wound up spending considerable time in a monastery toward the end of his life additionally clues us in to François’s (and France’s) dangerous indifference to history in the making. In an op-ed last month in The New York Times titled “How France’s Leaders Failed Its People” Houellebecq rolled out a polemic, at times glib, at others angry, that lathered on the insults in a manner that was almost Trumpian: “the insignificant opportunist who passes for our head of state [and] the congenital moron who plays the part of our prime minister.” But most significantly he offered the following revision:

Despite the common perception, the French are rather docile, rather easy to govern. But they are not complete idiots. Instead, their main flaw is a kind of forgetful frivolity that necessitates jogging their memory from time to time.

In Submission, François’s complacency is of a piece with an encroaching national docility that allows the Muslim Brotherhood to fully Islamize French culture more or less without a whimper from anywhere, except the extreme right.

François loses his job at the Sorbonne, which is now the Islamic University of Paris–Sorbonne, but under the new administration — which excludes women from most teaching positions and bans them from receptions and other official gatherings (the female students wear veils) — a man can recover his old appointment through the simple act of conversion. François, whose Jewish girlfriend has fled the country for a new life in Israel, and whose loneliness is not assuaged by various familiar Houellebecqian adventures with hookers, is drawn out of his almost terminal solipsism by the carrots that the new order has to offer. The benevolent Big Love Islam that Houellebecq imagines for the French future recruits in ways not too different from ISIS, promising money — double François’s salary; women — multiple wives, at least one of whom may be as young as 15; and the chance for those who have been largely powerless (in this case an academic from the bottom of the social-respect pile) to lord it over their peers. All that is required to reap the benefits is a quick purification ceremony followed by an utterance in Arabic to testify that, “there is no God but God, and Muhammad is the messenger of God.”

Submission, as is widely known, appeared in France on the day of the Charlie Hebdo massacre and has thus had the misfortune to be indelibly linked with that ghastly event, as if somehow Houellebecq (who lives, as Rushdie once did, under police protection) had anticipated the murderous eruption at the offices of the magazine, and repudiated its perpetrators with a warning about the future, a warning that some have argued is saturated in Islamophobia. But Submission is hardly concerned with bashing Islam; Houellebecq’s narrator seems far more interested in food. And that’s the problem: attention to the good life, withdrawal from politics, enervating nostalgia, an obsession with aesthetic and/or sexual delights, all perfectly understandable human activities and desires, are also dangerous distractions when the life of a democracy is at stake.


Where Houellebecq imagines a near future stamped and shaped by the burgeoning Muslim presence in France, Modiano’s writing deals almost exclusively with the past, and one that is frequently defined by Jewish absence. His fiction, often concentrated on the war years, 1939 through 1945, evokes emptiness, vacancy, and unexplained disappearance via narratives that themselves wander down cul-de-sacs or into occluded alleyways where narrators, other characters, and readers all get lost. Modiano’s books are studded with carefully specified Paris addresses, street names and numbers that take on the memorializing work of gravestones, markers of the missing who once lived in one arrondissement or another and hid in apartments with dimly lit stairways and curtained rooms. The epigraph to his 1968 first novel, La Place de l’Étoile, sets the tone for all that follows: “In June 1942, a German officer approaches a young man and says, ‘Excuse me, monsieur, where is the Place de l’Étoile?’ The young man gestures to the left side of his chest.” This star is one of the ineradicable stains on French history, and since he was a young man Modiano has done his best to remind us of that. Five years after La Place de l’Étoile he wrote the screenplay for Louis Malle’s whistle-blowing movie of French collaboration Lacombe Lucien.

Modiano’s aides-mémoires have, perhaps, even more contemporary resonance than Houellebecq’s imagined dystopia: last month, US presidential candidate Donald Trump not only flirted with the notion that Muslims living in the United States should register on a special database, but also refused to repudiate even more radical ideas regarding the ways in which Muslim US citizens might, after next year’s election, be required to identify themselves.

Patrick Modiano’s Jewish father Albert, Italian-born, was one of those rare individuals who managed to spend the war years hiding in plain sight. Armed with fake papers and with more than a foot in the door of Paris’s criminal underworld, he spent the occupation in much the same way as the peace that followed it, involved in shady business dealings with both lowlifes and dissipated aristocrats. A trickster of the first order, and frequently on the move and unavailable to his son, he was nevertheless a more stable presence than Modiano’s mother, Louisa, a Belgian-born actress with a flat-lined career who flitted from one secondary theatrical or film role to another and had no qualms about leaving young Patrick in the dubious care of her demi-monde friends and acquaintances for long periods of time. Modiano’s parents separated early in their marriage but continued to inhabit the same building, even after Albert had remarried. Pedigree is a memoir of Patrick Modiano’s early life up to the age of 26 when he published his first novel. In its pages, it seems, we find the key to unlock the haunting, charged, atmospheric novels that preceded it, fictions redolent with the sorrows of separation and concealed lives. Here, unmistakably, are the “originals” of characters we have formerly apprehended in the fiction, in Suspended Sentences, Dora Bruder, After the Circus, and elsewhere.

And yet, the unsentimental education that Modiano receives in the loose care of his parents and among the worldly-wise, seductive, and felonious figures that are their surrogates brings more than a tremor of recognition. For the memoir reiterates the elusive qualities of the novels and, in its concern for shadows and fog, casts the mysterious lives of his parents as emblematic of a larger obscured history. It is tempting to strip Modiano to his Freudian bones and reveal that Pedigree explains his obsession with the mass disappearances engineered by the Nazis in France with a strong assist from a large number of the locals. But of course he’s already done so himself. As the inside book jacket of the United States edition wisely counsels us, “Nobel Laureate Patrick Modiano admits that his many fictions are all variations of the same story. Pedigree is the theme.” The theme is not delinquent parents; it is the lacunae of absence.

Toward the end of Submission, François, wandering on the Left Bank and reflecting on the twists of turns of history that, over a period of 800 years, have returned the Sorbonne to its medieval origins, opines that,

We feel nostalgia for a place simply because we’ve lived there; whether we lived well or badly scarcely matters. The past is always beautiful. So, for that matter, is the future. Only the present hurts, and we carry it around like an abscess of suffering, our companion between two infinities of happiness and peace.

How to lance the abscess of the present? French fiction has always wandered from the painful lessons of the real, as in Balzac’s muddied disillusion, to romantic elegy (Alain-Fournier’s Le Grande Meaulnes is a novel so perfect when you are 17 that it is painful to think of reading it later in life lest the bubble burst), to the terminal whimsy of novels like Boris Vian’s Froth on the Daydream. Modiano’s reminders that the French past was not always beautiful and Houellebecq’s fantasy of capitulation, while ecstatic for aspiring polygamists, would seem to puncture François’s neat phrasing. The French nationals who shipped out the Jews from Drancy, and the (mostly) French nationals who perpetrated the murders at the Bataclan, whatever their religious or ideological convictions, were and are dangerous but thankfully circumscribed minorities. Neither Modiano nor Houellebecq’s books are in any way prescriptive; they present problems rather than solve them. Like many accomplished novelists, Houellebecq appears to know or allow something in his fiction, a web of complication that often eludes him in his discursive prose. Taken together, at either their haunted or prophetic best, we might usefully deduce from Submission and Pedigree that only a convergence of history’s lessons with a big tent French future will make the present viable.


Jonathan Wilson’s work has appeared in The New Yorker, Esquire, The New York Times Magazine, and Best American Short Stories, among other publications.

LARB Contributor

Jonathan Wilson’s work has appeared in The New Yorker, Esquire, The New York Times Magazine, and Best American Short Stories, among other publications. In 1994 he received a John Simon Guggenheim Fellowship. His fiction has been translated into many languages including Dutch, Hebrew, Italian, Polish, Portuguese, Russian, and Chinese.


Wilson is the author of eight books: the novels The Hiding Room (Viking 1994), runner up for the JQ Wingate Prize, and A Palestine Affair (Pantheon 2003), a New York Times Notable Book of the Year, Barnes and Noble Discovery finalist, and runner up for the 2004 National Jewish Book Award; two collections of short stories, Schoom (Penguin 1993) and An Ambulance Is on the Way: Stories of Men in Trouble (Pantheon 2004); two critical works on the fiction of Saul Bellow; a biography, Marc Chagall (Nextbook/Schocken 2007), runner-up for the 2007 National Jewish Book Award; and Kick and Run, a memoir.


Wilson lives in Newton, Massachusetts. He is Fletcher Professor of Rhetoric and Debate, Professor of English and Director of the Center for the Humanities at Tufts University.


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