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Showing posts with label Philip Roth The Plot Against America. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Philip Roth The Plot Against America. Show all posts

Sunday 18 October 2015

Review: Michel Houellebecq, Soumission

I think Michel Houellebecq is a very good writer - sometimes superb - but I don't think this is a good novel. It doesn't really work.

He imagines France a few years on from now (2022) electing a (moderate) Islamic President one of whose (less moderate) priorities is to islamicise - with the help of Saudi Arabian funding - university education. The events of the novel unfold through the eyes of a jaundiced professor who is cast, first, as an Outsider à la Camus: there is an obvious nod to the opening page of L'Etranger at page 174. But he is cast, second, as a faux naïf  who sits open mouthed (always nibbling at the canapés or the mezze) as others, more clued in politically, give him lessons in what is happening to France. These lessons take the form of set piece speeches, delivered by a secret policeman and a university rector to their audience of one. It is one of the drawbacks of a roman à thèse that you are forced into such desperate literary devices.

I should add that the narrator is also cast, third, as an academic expert on J K Huysmans, sufficiently distinguished to get the invitation to edit a Pléiade edition of his works. What Houellebecq writes about Huysmans is interesting and clearly knowledgeable; some university should probably give Houellebecq a doctorate for his thesis and overlook the novel.

Houellebecq can be an amusing writer when he wants to be but I am not sure - maybe my French isn't good enough - if he intends that we should be in fits of laughter as he brings his novel to a close. His narrator likes food and sex, preferably free but he will pay for both if necessary. He's a bit down on his luck when he is compulsorily retired from the new islamicised Sorbonne. But he is tempted back. He sees what is happening to those of his colleagues who have converted to Islam. They not only have the salaries, but new wives. The rector of the University has been given a 15 year old, very sexy, but also has an older wife who can cook, very well.

And so the narrator, after dutifully reading the little introduction to Islam provided,  discreetly enquires - If I accept the invitation to return, for how many wives would I qualify? Well, there is no obligation to take all of them, but we could probably offer you three. That settles it and, to the delight of his colleagues, our Vicar of Bray returns to his university post.

Thursday 20 November 2014

Review: Philip Roth, The Plot Against America

“What If?” historical novels and alternative histories are inevitably at risk of failure. The reason is very simple. We expect our stories based in everyday reality to be plausible – to possess verisimilitude. But a book which imagines what might have happened, what would have happened if history had been different, defies plausibility because all the time we are likely to be thinking, “Actually, it didn’t happen like that”.

Philip Roth makes a good shot at a counter-factual novel, imagining what would have happened if in the 1940 US Presidential election, Roosevelt had been defeated by a pro-Hitler Republican, a role for which he casts Charles Lindbergh, the pro-Nazi and anti-Jewish aviator. 

But the novel works best when it is farthest away from the specific counter-factual reality he has constructed. So, for example, chapter 2 “Loudmouth Jew” builds up characteristic Roth tension on the basis of conflict erupting between diners in a restaurant because one table doesn’t like what the other is saying. It’s extremely well done but it is plausible, has verisimilitude, because it can be imagined by the reader as something which could occur independently of the overarching, counterfactual Lindbergh story.

The novel weakens in the last two chapters which almost seem to be in the wrong order. Chapter 8 tells us that Roosevelt gets back in to power in 1942 which brings to an end the open and growing anti-semitism triggered by the Lindbergh regime. But then chapter 9 takes us back again to the Lindbergh period. I don’t think this works; it tries to bring back the tension after the tension has been defused.

Worse, at the beginning of chapter 8 (page 290), there is either a typographical error or a howler in the editing which allows us to know – just as things are going from bad to worse -  that there is after all going to be some kind of happy ending: we are casually thrown forward to 1960 and the at least tolerable fate of one of the book’s main and most troubled characters, Alvin. Did nobody pick up the mistake here? There is no other fast forward to a date as late as 1960 anywhere else in the book.

To counter-balance these critical remarks, I thought the book's main characters are interestingly cast in shades of grey, with personality traits which in one context seem admirable and then in another context become questionable. They also change under the pressure of circumstances in ways which defy simple morality tales.