Joris-Karl Huysmans’s career as a novelist falls, almost too neatly, into three distinct phases, each lasting about one decade. However, those three phases—naturalistic, Decadent, and religious—are so startlingly different from one another that traditional literary historians have usually found little underlying unity in his development and much that seems arbitrary and even willfully eccentric. It is perhaps this impatiently unsympathetic reaction to his work and his personality that accounts for the common tendency to relegate Huysmans to the role of a minor curiosity in the history of the novel. With the perspective of time, however, one can recognize more readily that Huysmans evolved quite comprehensibly as a writer, in accordance with the forces at work in and around him. Although it is true that his work, as a whole, falls well short of greatness, at its best it is worthy of serious attention and is significant in the history of literary ideas and aesthetics.
The special quality of Huysmans’s sensibility and imagination determined the apparently erratic course of his evolution as a novelist and imprinted on his career whatever unity it can be shown to possess. Because he was intellectually insecure and lacked confidence in his own literary formation, he was easily influenced at the start of his career by more assertive personalities. That is why his early works strike the informed reader as derivative in both theme and approach, resulting, as they clearly do, from his acquaintance with such figures as Edmond de Goncourt, Zola, Gustave Flaubert, and Guy de Maupassant. If Huysmans was almost porously subject to outside influences, his way of internalizing those influences was certainly unique. He invariably and instinctively responded to these influences in terms of his inner needs, converting every theme into a device for exploring his private psyche and taking every approach to its extreme limits.
In his first work of fiction, Marthe, which depicts the life of a prostitute, Huysmans showed the influence of his literary friends by his choice of subject matter—the portrayal of the humble and the downtrodden—but consciously cast the subject in an extreme, therefore new, form, by focusing on the relatively new social phenomenon of the government-licensed prostitute living in a brothel. When he heard, however, that his friend, de Goncourt, had hit upon the very same subject for his next novel, he hastened to get his work into print at his own expense in order to be the first to treat the subject. Marthe does, indeed, have the distinction of being the first work of fiction to treat the precise phenomenon of the licensed prostitute, but it is a poor novel, and it attracted few readers.
The book’s most interesting aspect for the modern reader, moreover, is not the depiction of Marthe and her grim life of degradation but the account of her relationship with Léo, a young poet and journalist who falls in love with her and tries unsuccessfully to win her away from the life of degradation into which circumstances have forced her. The psychology of Léo is more convincingly presented than is the psychology of Marthe, doubtless because Huysmans used his subject as a pretext to examine and try to comprehend his own first sentimental involvement as a young man. Léo is the first in a long series of characters in Huysmans’s fiction that are based on the author himself. In the case of Marthe, the character Léo is simply the means by which Huysmans contrived to make his naturalistic subject something profoundly personal.
The Vatard Sisters
The same process occurred with Huysmans’s next novel, The Vatard Sisters, a naturalistic subject ostensibly focused on the fate of two working-class sisters who find it impossible to attain happiness in their lives, even though one chooses the path of vice and the other the path of virtue. The two sisters command less of the author’s attention, however, than do the relationships they enter—namely, that of the older sister with a painter and that of the younger sister with a sensitive and timid young man who works in the same shop with her. The two suitors patently represent two aspects of Huysmans’s own character, and the failure of both relationships, which proves to be the central concern of this novel, is presented more from the point of view of the male characters than from that of the sisters.
The novel was probably inspired by Zola’s L’Assommoir (1877; English translation, 1879) and is dedicated to him, but Huysmans departed sufficiently from Zola’s naturalistic principles to have turned it into another exploration of his personal inability to establish a successful relationship with a woman. He had set out to examine a certain social milieu and ended by analyzing a private problem instead. This personalized approach became more overt in Huysmans’s next novel, Living Together, which featured the painter of The Vatard Sisters and one of his friends, a writer, as exemplary cases of the incompatibility of art and domestic life.
In retrospect, these first three novels, none of which succeeded as a work of art, can be understood as Huysmans’s apprenticeship to the novel. The result of this apprenticeship was the discovery of his own voice and a clearer focus on the only subjects that really interested him: the exploration of himself and of his frustrating private search for happiness and meaning in life. Both the personal voice and the personal subject find full artistic expression for the first time in the short novel, or novella, Down Stream, which he published in 1882.
Down Stream’s French title, À vau-l’eau, means, literally, “as the water wills” and is a figurative colloquialism suggesting a passive drift to destruction and evoking the image of flotsam carried away by a current. The title alludes to the life of the book’s pathetic central figure, Jean Folantin, who is shown in his middle years to be the prisoner of a dreary daily routine, hardly distinguishable from death. Born in poor circumstances and unable to obtain an education, he is forced, at an early age, into a clerical post that affords no opportunity for advancement and pays too little to enable him to enjoy any personal comfort in his life, let alone to support a family.
As the book begins, Folantin has arrived at middle age, a lonely bachelor suffering from chronic indigestion who has so reduced his aspirations in life that his central preoccupation has become finding a way to get his daily meals without suffering. He has long since ceased to take any interest in his work, and he has no social or sentimental life outside his office. The bitter emptiness of his existence is epitomized by the recollection that the one woman whose company he had ever really enjoyed, in his youth, had given him a venereal (sexually transmitted) disease.
The heart of the novel is an account of the last futile gestures he makes toward creating some comfort or pleasure for himself before finally resigning himself to his fate. Having found all restaurants within his means intolerable, he is excited to learn of a place that will contract to deliver edible meals to his apartment at an affordable price. He even redecorates his apartment in anticipation of a new threshold of contentment to be enjoyed. After the first few digestible meals, however, the quality of the food abruptly declines. His dream shattered, he is thrown back on the mercy of the infamous restaurants. In need of social contact, he seeks out an old friend, but they have a miserable evening together, beginning with a bad meal and finishing with a painful evening at the theater (the play, which he remembers having enjoyed in his youth, turns out to be boring as well as poorly acted).
In thenarrative’s final scene, Folantin goes into a restaurant at a late hour, hoping to be the only customer so that he can at least enjoy some peace and quiet to make up for the bad food. Instead, a prostitute comes in, sits down with him, and cajoles him into paying for her meal. He spends the night with her, for which she charges him...
(The entire section is 3378 words.)