Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3378
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 an outrageous sum. This experience proves to be the last straw. Recognizing that every attempt he has made to increase his pleasure or comfort in life has only made things worse, he decides that, henceforth, he must abandon all such efforts and let his life drift passively, à vau-l’eau, offering no resistance to events because no matter what he does, “only the worst will happen.” Those are the last words of the book—“seul le pire arrive”—and they represent Folantin’s bitter summation of life.
In spite of the utter absence of exciting characters or events, Down Stream is a curiously moving novel—by implication, a relentless and haunting study of frustration and futility in the life of the anonymous masses of humankind. The subject matter is part of the very material used by the naturalists for their novels and short stories. Huysmans, however, made the naturalistic subject his own—first, by creating theprotagonist unmistakably in his own image, and second, by conceiving of the most extreme form in which the subject could be expressed. It would be difficult to imagine a drearier or a more hopeless failure of an existence than that of Folantin, yet Huysmans manages to persuade the reader that so extreme a case is, nevertheless, the true image of human fate. It is true that Folantin reflects, at the end, that nothing good can ever happen to “those who have no money,” but the novel should not be mistaken for an analysis of the economics of poverty. It concerns, rather, the human condition. Almost as though he wished to underscore that point, Huysmans deliberately made the equally frustrated protagonist of his next novel a person of wealth and position: the decadent duke, Jean des Esseintes.
Against the Grain
Published in 1884, Against the Grain scandalized the public of the day and promptly took its place as the breviary of the Decadents because it seemed to be a catalog of the aesthetic values advocated by that late nineteenth century coterie. With even less plot than Down Stream and with only one character of consequence, Against the Grain is one of the strangest compositions ever to bear the label “novel.”
The central figure, Duke Jean des Esseintes, is the last of his line, sickly and hypersensitive, representing the ultimate decay into which a once-noble family has fallen. To flee the real world, he sells the family estate and purchases a small, secluded cottage whose interior he transforms into the most artificial environment imaginable, with exotic colors on the walls, rare carpeting on the floors, a collection of books dominated by the authors of the Latin decadence, phantasmagoric paintings, and eccentric furnishings of all kinds. Most windows are covered so that little light is admitted and day cannot always be distinguished from night. Certain rooms are kept almost hermetically sealed, lighted only by candles. In this way, des Esseintes attempts to create an environment designed to flatter his refined taste and sensitivity and to be as little like the outside world as possible. He even eats breakfast in the evening and dinner at dawn, sleeping during the daylight hours, in order to experience life in a pattern opposite to, or “against the grain” of, the natural order.
Most of the novel is devoted to descriptions of the different ways des Esseintes invents to transform his environment and provide himself with constantly changing sensual experiences. After a year of living out his fantasies in this way, des Esseintes becomes dangerously ill and is forced to give up his sanctuary and return to Paris for medical care, recognizing that his attempt to flee the real world and inhabit an environment of his own creation is a failure—in fact, an impossibility.
Because the novel has no action to narrate and no interpersonal relationships to analyze, Huysmans contrived to hold the reader’s attention with a nervous and curiously ornate style designed to make all of des Esseintes’s strange experiments come vividly to life. The style is indeed arresting, at least in the first chapters, and some of the scenes described are hauntingly unforgettable in their bizarre details, such as the tortoise whose jewel-inlaid shell allows the play of light to create a constantly shifting pattern of color in the room. Another unforgettable scene is the account of des Esseintes’s experiment with an array of liqueur-dispensing containers that allow him to create a veritable symphony of subtly contrasting taste sensations by rearranging the order in which he sips from the collection of bottles and by mixing the contents in different ways. Eventually, however, in spite of the inventive style, these exotic orgies of sight, sound, smell, and taste pall, for the book consists of nothing else. The repetition causes boredom to set in for the reader, as it does for des Esseintes himself.
Against the Grain is certainly Huysmans’s most famous book, a remarkable achievement of sustained fantasy. Much of the fame of the novel results from its curiosity value. The effete and eccentric character of des Esseintes, and the eerie quality of his escapist fantasies, exert an undeniable power of fascination by themselves. The evident identification of des Esseintes with Huysmans himself, moreover, gives Against the Grain some of the titillating appeal of a scandalous confession, which seems to reveal the tormented soul of its author. Like Down Stream, Against the Grain offers a highly personal vision of humanity’s earthly condition, expressed in the form of an extreme case, on the outer edges of human possibility. Those characteristics are, as already noted, always the central features of Huysmans’s creative imagination. For such a sensationally revealing self-portrait, there will doubtless always be an audience.
Becalmed and Un Dilemme
Writing Against the Grain left Huysmans emotionally drained. Three years went by before he began another novel, Becalmed, and that new project proved to be only a temporary haven for him—as its original title, En rade (at anchor), suggests—rather than a continuation of his spiritual odyssey. Becalmed describes the futile attempt of a middle-aged Parisian couple to get away from their creditors during a period of financial difficulty by moving out to the country. They are so dismayed by the venal and predatory behavior of the peasants who surround them that they conclude it will be more comfortable to return to Paris and face their creditors. A similar tone of world-weariness informs the short novel Un Dilemme, which offered a glimpse of the sordid moral values that characterized the urban middle class.
These two works of social criticism, so lacking in spirit and conviction, seem to mark a period of hesitation and self-searching on Huysmans’s part, as though he were contemplating a return to the principles of naturalism but seemed unconvinced of the validity of those principles. Whatever the explanation, these two works are the least personal of all Huysmans’s compositions, containing no characters that can be clearly identified as based on aspects of his own personality. That the issue of the validity of naturalistic principles may have been his underlying concern in these two works is strongly suggested by the opening pages of the work that followed them, the novel Là-Bas, in which Huysmans returned to the theme of his own painful spiritual odyssey.
In the opening pages of Là-Bas, Huysmans introduces his new protagonist, a novelist named Durtal, earnestly discussing with his friend des Hermies the value of naturalism as a literary theory. In this discussion, it is des Hermies, a medical doctor who has rejected his profession’s scientific pretensions, who denounces naturalism for its crassly materialistic outlook, while Durtal defends its accomplishments in rendering the real world artistically. Durtal quickly concedes that naturalism is materialistic, and that its glaring failure has been an inability to deal with the nonmaterial aspects of human life, the spiritual side of humans. Durtal concludes the discussion by suggesting that naturalism has been valuable but, having gone as far as it is capable, has outlived its usefulness and must be replaced by a kind of “spiritual naturalism” that will treat matters outside the realm of materialistic naturalism.
This conversation about literature is a daring opening stratagem for a novel, but it works well as an expository device, introducing the character of the protagonist effectively and revealing the depth of his central concern, which is to confront the supernatural both in his professional and in his personal life. Là-Bas tells two interrelated stories: Durtal’s struggle to write a book about the notorious and enigmatic Gilles de Rais (a contemporary of Joan of Arc who, late in his life, engaged in necromancy and the kidnapping and murdering of children) and, as a consequence of research into the life of Gilles de Rais, Durtal’s involvement with Satanism and with the diabolic Madame Chantelouve, who is, briefly, his mistress. Both professionally and personally, Durtal is pursuing the theme of the supernatural in its most extreme form, the worship of Satan. Studying the historical figure of the cruel Gilles de Rais, and attending a Black Mass in the company of Madame Chantelouve, Durtal journeys “down there” to spend his season in hell, immersing himself totally in the world of Satanism. The immersion results, however, not in spiritual peace or satisfaction but in horror and revulsion. The novel ends, symbolically, with the simultaneous completion of the book on Gilles de Rais and the termination of the affair with Madame Chantelouve, leaving Durtal ready for the one remaining path to the resolution of his own spiritual crisis: conversion to Christianity.
Là-Bas is Huysmans’s finest novel. The vivid characters, well-integrated structure, and dramatic intensity of the action all seize the imagination of the reader, satisfy aesthetic expectations, and haunt the memory long afterward. In the character of Durtal, Huysmans created his ideal fictional protagonist, the perfect vehicle for expressing his central concern as a novelist from that time onward, namely, to describe the road to spiritual peace. The odyssey is completed in three novels, all of which have Durtal as protagonist but none of which attains the blend of artistic skill and dramatic intensity that makes Là-Bas so impressive a work of art.
Those three novels, En Route, The Cathedral, and The Oblate, appearing over a period of a decade, recount Durtal’s (and Huysmans’s) conversion to Catholicism, his retreat to Chartres and its cathedral, and his embrace of the monastic life. At that stage in his career, Huysmans no longer made any pretense at invention, allowing his novels, rather, to be undisguisedly autobiographical in nature. If the last three novels make for slow and tedious reading, it is perhaps because the source of Huysmans’s creative energy, the tortured emotions of his own inner being, had dried up. Once his spiritual crisis had been resolved, it seems, his imagination lost its driving force—an account of the coming of spiritual peace only infrequently has the same power as an account of spiritual torment.
Huysmans must be regarded as a minor figure in French literary history, the eccentric representative of a minor segment of the literary world at the end of the nineteenth century, the small band of spiritually troubled Decadents, among whom he was clearly a leading spokesperson. It is not, however, his advocacy of any particular literary theory that gives Huysmans his enduring place in the history of the novel. Rather, it is the highly personal character of his fiction that attracts and fascinates. Huysmans clearly wrote out of inner necessity, using his creative imagination as a form of self-therapy. His novels are, at bottom, one long, painful, and occasionally lurid personal confession. Taken together, his best works afford precious insight not only into the strange personality of Huysmans himself but also into a disturbing mental state characteristic of a significant portion of France’s intelligentsia during the final decades of the nineteenth century. Because of what he tells us about himself and about his age, Huysmans will always have a small, but devoted—and fascinated—readership.