Gary Raymond asks in these testing times, where are the great British novels of political dissent, and finds in Michel Houellebecq’s Submission a remarkable example of what’s missing in the UK.
So the story goes, so outraged and terrified of Vasily Grossman’s 1959 novel Life and Fate were the Soviet authorities, that not only did the Kremlin outlaw, confiscate and burn every copy in existence, but they ordered the destruction of the typewriter ribbon with which the manuscript was written. The novel simply had to be erased from existence, even the negative imprint hammered into the inking tool. The history of dissident literature is smattered with juicy stories like this – stories that seem to become part of the fabric of the novels themselves, part of the folklore of literature and its power. Jean Genet wrote Lady of the Flowers on cigarette papers in his prison cell. When guards discovered the ‘manuscript’ (such as it was) they destroyed it. Genet wrote it again. Hid it better.
We may be forgiven for thinking such times are past, or perhaps we need safe distance for our dinner table stories – perhaps Rushdie’s Fatwah largely put paid to such romanticising, or perhaps, as Rushdie’s friend Christopher Hitchens noted, satire died when Henry Kissinger won the Nobel Peace Prize. It is not so much that there is nothing to rebel against, but rather the weapons have proven limp. If the pen is mightier than the sword it is only because literature can incite people to take up arms. And wasn’t that maxim always only a form of dissent anyway? As far as the written word goes, only the Bible could really rival the blades of Genghis Kahn, Attila the Hun, or Ronald Regan when it comes to the mightiness of bloodshed and empire-building. It seems the Koran may be striving to catch up.
But that is not to say the pen has no might. It is the pen that, with the exceptions of cultist manifestos, is defiant of the darkest compulsions and motives – it represents a vital element of humanness that humanity has forever understood to be defining of civilisation and culture. The opposing force to that other definition bound up in cruelty and murderousness.
It seems almost twee to state that we live in testing times (although the history books may look back and see that for the weakest in society, times invariably are hard). So why are there so few epochal novels out there? There are good ones, perhaps even great ones, being published often, but where are the works that attack the columns, that are ferocious in their revolutionary zeal, that are unforgiving in their satire? In the UK alone, ignoring the global dangers and corruptions that face us right now, who is writing the novel that gets into the putrid bloodstream of the country’s right wing media? Where is the work about the systematic dissolution of the University ethos, as thought is elbowed out by ‘training’? Where is the great novel about the banking collapse? Every way you look things are being pushed in the wrong direction, and the British novel has yet to tackle this successfully; it seems at the moment, greatness is keeping a low profile when we need it most.
Is it an industrial issue? Has the political novel been swamped by marketing fads? Alan Hollinghurst’s award-winning Line of Beauty was one of the few mega-hits of recent times that the publishing industry did not fall over themselves to clone into exhaustion. Novels about the human condition – big axe-wielding novels, as well as slight, pensive ones – are not in short supply. Timeless novels are doing well for themselves, but where are the timely ones? Paul Murray’s much anticipated follow up to Skippy Dies, The Mark and the Void, is an attempt at a biting satire directed at the culture within the global banking system, and was widely derided earlier this year. In theatre, always a great place for reactive art, things skip on as they normally do; first-timer Katherine Soper has just won this year’s Bruntwood Prize for Playwriting for Wish List, a play about the current dehumanising pressures of the UK benefits system. Gilbert and George are currently exhibiting at White Cube in Bermondsey, possibly the most on-the-nose commentary on current public discourse there could possibly be; and perhaps there is no more important phenomenon on the planet right now than how we great and civilised folk continuously debase the art of debate.
But in fiction…
Perhaps I am wrong. Of the titles shortlisted for this year’s Man Booker prize only Tom McCarthy’s Satin Island really comes anywhere near to being a political book of and about our time. But what exactly is the thing I’m looking for? I could list the characteristics of the book I want to see that begins to satirise, undermine and wield swords when it comes to the sheer vast awfulness of the direction of things. But instead I will just point out the book that has done it already in France. Michel Houellebecq’s Submission, for all its faults, is an astonishing piece of work. Released in January this year in France and in English translation in September, it is a rip-roaring satire on modern French fears, hypocrisies, arrogances, institutions, ambitions, and cowardliness. The backdrop is the 2022 French General Election and the coming to power of the Muslim Brotherhood, voted in on a democratic mandate with Socialist support in opposition to Marine Le Pen’s National Front party. Since its publication, I need not detail the chronology of events in France.
In Submission we have a funny, dour, frightening understanding of the French national idea. That is the novelist’s job. At least a certain breed of novelist. The gun fighting on the streets in Submission’s Paris is not the norm, but neither is it uncommon. Characters react with a weariness rather than panic. And Houellebecq understands the reach of satire, too. His depiction of academia and academics will be sadly familiar to anyone who has ever worked in the trade. Francoise, the narrator, is a literature professor, wincingly unaware of his own unfashionably indulgent myopia in almost everything other than his own narrow area of academic prowess. Houellebecq understands, and displays, that modern society’s defining problem is a failure to look out of the window, whilst believing it understands all. It is simultaneously a devilishly clever and admirably simple book. Although it is not prescient (as far as we know), in the same way that, for instance DeLillo’s Mao II seems to have been, it uses a careful sense of prescience to make its point. And, of course, even more importantly, as agents of the death cults continue to threaten France in the months after Submission’s publication, Houellebecq has written a supreme work of intellectual art, which is exactly the sort of thing ISIS can neither stand nor understand. They would rip the ribbon from his typewriter.