Michel Houellebecq’s controversial 2015 novel ‘Submission’ (‘Soumission’) opens with the following epigraph:
A noise recalled him to Saint-Sulpice; the choir was leaving; the church was about to close. ‘I should have tried to pray,’ he thought. ‘It would have been better than sitting here in the empty church, dreaming in my chair – bur pray? I have no desire to pray. I am haunted by Catholicism, intoxicated by its atmosphere of incense and wax. I hover on its outskirts, moved to tears by its prayers, touched to the very marrow by its psalms and chants. I am thoroughly disgusted with my life, I am sick of myself but so far from changing my ways! And yet . . . and yet . . . if I am troubled in the chapels, as soon as I leave them I become unmoved and dry. In the end,’ he told himself, as he rose and followed the last ones out, shepherded by the Swiss guard, ‘in the end, my heart is hardened and smoked dry by dissipation. I am good for nothing.’
A quote from ‘En Route’ by J. -K. Huysmans. As readers of Houellebecq’s novel will know it details the struggles of François, a middle-aged Huysmans academic, his disenchantment with late-capitalist consumerism, his spiritual barrenness, and the rise of Islamic law in France.
In a nutshell, Houellebecq’s work is a modern take on Huysman’s 1895 novel, instead of late-capitalist consumerism we have the decadence of the late 1800’s, instead of a spiritual conversion to Islam we have a conversion to Catholicism, both novels plotting the spiritual barrenness of their protagonists.
‘En Route’ is the second novel in the Durtal tetralogy, a collection of four novels plotting Durtal’s move from satanism, through conversion to Catholicism and finally ending with residence in a monastery as an oblate, Durtal a thinly veiled version of Huysmans himself. The first novel ‘Là-bas’ I looked at a few weeks ago, the final two ‘La cathédrale’ and ‘L’Oblat’ I intend to look at over the coming weeks.
If ‘Là-bas’ explores Satanism, the occult, and our protagonists’ pursuit of a sinful life (hell?), then ‘En Route’ could be seen as purgatory, where Durtal struggles with what road to take, the road to heaven, là-haut, or the road to hell, là-bas. This is a work of mental self-talk, a writer unsure of his future, does he return to the sins of the flesh, or does he take the spiritual path?
Durtal followed in his prayer book this work with so short a text, so long a chant; and as he listened to, and read it with recollection this magnificent prayer seemed to decompose as a whole, and represent three different states of the soul, to exhibit the triple phase of humanity, during its youth, its maturity, and its decline; it was, in a word, an essential summary of prayer for all ages.
Here he is talking about the Gregorian chant of ‘the “Salve Regina” (‘Hail Holy Queen’), for a version listen here, chanted by the monks of the Abbey of Notre Dame. Interestingly, Durtal is less impressed by the services at the Notre Dame, “as he listened to this admirable chant, which had nothing in common with that which is bellowed at Paris in the churches”. We may also note Huysmans’ attraction to the chants featuring “Our Lady”, as we will learn later of his obsession with the virgin, a figure of motherhood but also a figure of purity, unsullied.
‘En Route’, whilst detailing Durtal’s struggles also spends a significant portion of the novel lamenting the disappearance of the Gregorian Chant, the roots of spirituality, the stripped bare form of worship. A novel that looks deeply at religious music, and as the journey unfolds, Durtal will travel through religious architecture, sculpture, and painting, the symbolism of the tower bells, their construction, housing and sounds, the full gamut of religious art.
Durtal befriends the Abbé Gévresin, a spiritual advisor, a foil for his continuous self-doubt. It is through the Abbé that the idea of spending sometime in a monastery, La Trappe, germinates, could a few weeks living under spiritual conditions lead Durtal to the heavenly path?
“The Eucharist also seems terrible. To dare to come forward, to offer Him as a tabernacle the sewer of self scarce purified by repentance, a sewer drained by absolution, but still hardly dry, is monstrous. I am quite without such courage as to offer Christ this last insult, and so there is no good in fleeing to a monastery.”
A novel exploring the wavering and indecisiveness of the protagonist, a work where debates about the existence of Hell (how could God create such an abomination and not forgive all?), sit alongside Durtal’s concerns for his digestive system in a monastery.
We eventually journey with Durtal to La Trappe, experience his weeks with the monks, his debates with the oblate, as he slowly, begrudgingly moves towards a spiritual life.
This existentialist struggle really worked for me, the lingering self-doubts, the wavering self-talk, the indecision all being masterfully captured as a burning internal struggle. I’ll be back in the coming weeks with my views on book three, ‘La cathédrale’.
If you’ve read this work I suggest you give Michel Houellebecq’s ‘Submission’ a try, and if you’ve read Houellebecq then hop onto ‘En Route’, if you’ve read neither I suggest you do them as a double, you’ll have so much more depth added to the controversial book of 2015.