I don’t have any work to share but I owe the world some news. I’ve been in Sydney for ten months and I’m well and truly over it. According to my last two medical checkups, my health’s gone from excellent (Hobart, 2014) to borderline bad (Sydney, 2015) and my inspiration's gone. It’s always been like this for me; the six months I spent in Sydney in 2011 were another long and miserable episode of non-achievement. Leaving then was easy – I could fit everything I owned into a couple of travel bags – but it’s not so simple this time round. FranRose (I’ll use her DA name) has more commitments here than I do, though she’s also had enough of the place and likes what she's seen of Hobart. If everything goes as planned we’ll have a new home there soon. I’m not surprised she wants to go, but I’m amazed and flattered that she wants to go with me.
I can’t help comparing my impressions of Sydney and Hobart with those of Leo Schofield, a restaurant reviewer and arts trustee who described his ten years in Hobart as the unhappiest of his life. This partly stems from government cuts to one of his projects, an outdoor Baroque music festival. Schofield has apologised for many of the things he said, and as a natural outsider with no strong ties to either city, I never took offence at them. I still can’t help thinking Baroque music isn’t the best choice for Hobart; its natural surroundings would provide a better backdrop to the wilder, more tempestuous scores of nineteenth-century Romantic composers. In an age when most musicians looked to Germany for inspiration, the likes of Mussorgsky, Grieg and Sibelius sought to capture the grandeur of their more isolated homelands, and the residents of Hobart – who live on a southern island very different from mainland Australia – might appreciate this mindset, and the music it inspired, more than structured Baroque compositions typically written to glorify God. I think Schofield’s rants reveal a sad lack of affinity with a spectacular environment and a surprising ignorance of European musical history. These aren’t the sort of traits you’d look for in an arts director, but they’re probably to be expected of one who makes sweeping claims about whole cities from his expensive home in Potts Point.
Reading’s helped to keep me sane, and recent events in Paris confirm Michel Houellebecq’s Submission as a timely and important book. (In case you haven’t read it, the next three paragraphs are full of spoilers). The main character, Francois, is a typical Houellebecq creation – an ageing, disillusioned, and loveless intellectual – and the setting’s a near-future France. Two very different candidates are running for the presidency: Marine Le Pen, an extreme nationalist, and Muhammed Ben Abbes, a charismatic Muslim. At first Le Pen has more support, but when more progressive parties – who fear a right-wing government – form a coalition with Ben Abbes he wins the election easily. Under his Muslim Fraternity, France undergoes rapid change: compulsory education ends at 12, many women leave the workforce, polygamy is legalised, and Francois, who has devoted much of his life to studying French literature, suddenly finds himself unemployed and more marginalised than ever. At one point he tries to emulate the life of his favourite writer, Joris-Karl Huysmans, who retired to a Christian monastery; but on speaking to a former colleague, who has converted to Islam, kept his job, and acquired at least two new wives, Francois starts to see the benefits of working with the new regime.
Houellebecq’s been called many things – sexist, racist, misanthropic, nihilistic, and Islamophobic, among others – but I personally think he’s a brave and thought-provoking writer. His attitude to religion in general, and Islam in particular, seems to have softened since he wrote Platform, but his tone is as acerbic as ever. I can’t call Submission anti-Muslim; Houellebecq reserves his greatest contempt for the progressive elements who oppose Le Pen’s conservative Front National but initially support, and eventually cede power to, Ben Abbes’ even more conservative Muslim Fraternity. The conflict at the heart of Submission is not between Islam and Christianity, but between Islam and liberal humanism, and Houellebecq suggests liberal humanists lack the courage and conviction of their Muslim contemporaries. Conservative Christian readers will find parts of Submission challenging too; some of Ben Abbes’ values might be reminiscent of their own, but it takes an alliance of conservative Muslims and secular liberals to see them legally enshrined. Things seem simpler for Francois; although he spends some time comparing belief systems, we’re left with the impression that he just wants a job and a young wife or two.
Other parts of Submission are less satisfactory. Houellebecq compares the super-state envisioned by Ben Abbes to the old Roman empire – one covering similar territory, but with Paris as its capital and Islam as its state religion – but this is not described in depth. The Muslim Fraternity’s economic policies, which are based on Western distributism, are also under-analysed. The near-total silence of progressives who once campaigned for gay rights, women’s rights, and freedom of/from religion will strike some as pessimistic, though I enjoyed Houellebecq’s description of Islamo-leftism as “a desperate attempt by mouldering, putrefying, brain-dead Marxists to hoist themselves out of the dustbin of history by latching on to the coat-tails of Islam.” For me, Submission’s biggest failings stem from Houellebecq’s more extreme assumptions. Though Islam is likely to become the most widespread religion this century, and has made impressive gains in Europe, we are unlikely to see an Islamic France by 2022; some sober projections can be seen here www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/…. Houellebecq also presents French Muslims as an almost united front, ignoring the fact that they come from many different countries which have very different laws and if anything are more divided than non-Muslim French citizens. If current trends continue, a France under enlightened rule sadly seems less probable than one consumed by anarchy. Much of this can be excused when you consider Houellebecq’s intentions; he’s not setting out to build a world so much as challenge common attitudes and on this count Submission shines. I can’t recommend it to anyone who’s after a fast-paced, action-packed thriller set in a crumbling dystopian France, but if you’ve made it this far, and like what you’ve heard, it could be a worthwhile read.
My surroundings aren't so interesting, but I’m looking forward to the next few months. Leaving Sydney with my partner will be a rewarding first and our new lives should be easier. My long break from the Internet has been refreshing in some ways, though it’s great to get back on DA and see what others have been up to! Curtsibling’s comics remain horribly hilarious, and I’m honoured, if a little daunted, by Viergacht’s request I write a book. I’ll get back to creative work as soon as I’ve moved interstate.
It’s been a long post; thanks for your time.