Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 494
The roots of Joris-Karl Huysmans’s eccentric character and interests are not to be found in the prosaic surface details of his biography. Born Charles Marie Georges Huysmans in Paris, the only son of a thoroughly bourgeois couple, Huysmans entered government service when he was eighteen years old and held a position in the ministry of the interior for more than thirty years. By the time he retired from that post, at the age of fifty, he had become an established author whose books had sold well enough to make him economically independent. He never married, had relatively few friends, and had played little public role in the literary or political controversies of the times. He died at the age of fifty-nine, after a prolonged battle with cancer.
Beneath this uneventful surface of a civil servant’s life, however, a private existence of increasing alienation and anguished search for meaning had developed, and the evolution of those personal feelings had found its natural expression in the literary activity that had been the most vital part of Huysmans’s life since early adulthood, although it had been pursued as an after-hours avocation. One may surmise that his feelings of alienation from his world were partly inherited: His father was a Dutch lithographer who had come to Paris in search of work when he was about thirty years of age, had married a Parisian, and, having been unsuccessful at his trade and unhappy in his marriage, had died at the age of forty-one, a lonely and embittered man. When Huysmans’s mother remarried, within months of his father’s death, the boy, not yet ten years old, must have experienced the kind of shock of insecurity and alienation that can last a lifetime. One symbolic expression he gave to those feelings was his insistence, when he began to publish his works, on changing his name from the French Charles-Marie-Georges, with which he had been baptized, to the Dutch Joris-Karl, perhaps to proclaim his self-willed alien status in the Parisian literary world and his sympathy with his father’s fate.
Throughout his literary career, Huysmans seemed to make it a point to be visibly outside the literary mainstream, both in his choice of subject matter and in his choice of friends. That he was centrally preoccupied with the question of the meaning of his own existence is dramatically evident in that all of his works of fiction are transparently autobiographical and trace his private odyssey from disillusionment with reality to Decadent aestheticism and on to the extremes of spiritual crisis and religious conversion. Even the eccentric style he cultivated in his novels seemed to express both his alienation—by its rejection of what is most typically French in the language—and the anguish of his search for personal meaning—by its often painfully contorted forms. Loneliness and suffering, often by his own choice, were the hallmarks of Huysmans’s literary career and, indeed, of his entire life.
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