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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
Joris-Karl Huysmans (1848–1907)
Critical and Biographical Introduction with Selections by Pierre Dareutiere de Bâcourt (1869–1924)
 
JORIS-KARL HUYSMANS was born in Paris. The artistic tendencies so noticeable throughout his career can be traced to his forbears; through his father and grandfather, both clever illuminators, he descended from the famous Dutch painter Cornelius Huysmans; his mother was the daughter of a well-known sculptor. His life was strangely uneventful. After the studies of the average French middle-class young man he became a clerk at the Ministry of Interior and remained there, a punctual if not enthusiastic employee, for thirty-two years, being in time appointed assistant chief and decorated with the Legion of Honor. He never married, unable to decide which was the worse—restaurant cooking or noisy children. His modest salary provided for his material needs and as he enjoyed a certain amount of leisure he soon turned to writing as a means of expression. His first book, ‘Le Drageoir à Épices,’ appeared in 1874 and was reprinted in 1875 under the slightly modified title of ‘Le Drageoir aux Épices.’ This poem in prose, too obviously inspired by Beaudelaire, contains at best a promise of the mastery of style that the author was to show later on. The realist school was at the highest pitch of its success, and as its tendencies coincided more or less with Huysmans’s natural leanings he enlisted under the flag of Médan. From the very start he outzolaed Zola. ‘Marthe, the Story of a Prostitute’ (Brussels, 1876) is a thoroughly sordid and nauseating book, as may be inferred from the title, the only redeeming feature being a style that no other realist, Goncourt excepted, ever possessed. ‘Sac au Dos’ (1878), memories of the Franco-Prussian war of 1870, was included in the famous ‘Soirées de Médan,’ a collection of short stories written by Zola and his disciples Maupassant, Céard, Hennique, and Alexis. This contributed to establish the young writer’s budding reputation.  1
  ‘Les Sœurs Vatard’ (1879), a story of Parisian working girls, is very much in the same vein as ‘Marthe.’ With absolute sincerity and amazing care for minute details Huysmans depicts the miserable life of the lowly. ‘En Ménage’ (Married Life), nicknamed by a French critic ‘La Vie Bête’ (Stupid Life), takes us again into the same depths of wretchedness, but towards the end we notice a slight change in the author’s attitude; the book closes on a note of despairing resignation—“maybe the everlasting silliness of humanity will tolerate us and, like our contemporaries, we shall have at last the right, as they have, to live respected and stupid.”  2
  In ‘À Rebours’ (1884) Huysmans forsook the dull realities of life and turned to the spiritual. “This dangerous and seductive book,” said Gabriel Mourey, “might be described as a complete course of intellectual voluptuousness, as a treatise on cerebral sadism, as the most terrible monograph on the crowning disease of these fin de siècle days, as the poem of neurosis.” The hero, Duke John Floressas des Esseintes, whose model in real life was, it is said, Count Robert de Montesquiou the poet, is a tormented soul who revolts against the vulgarity and coarseness of life, and seeks a refuge in an artificial world. He withdraws into a house in which the particular tones of every room have been chosen with scrupulous care, and with a view to their appearance by candle light, for he lives by preference at night, because “the mind is never really excited or thrilled except by contact with shadows.” For the decoration of his study, “he decides to have his walls bound like books, with morocco, the color of crushed berries, or calf-skin polished by strong steel plates under powerful presses.” His dining-room is arranged like the cabin of a ship, and the light of day can only illumine it through a casement whose panes have been replaced by unsilvered glass, through the water of an aquarium which runs round the room, or through portholes. His bedroom affects the style of a monastic cell. He possesses a “mouth organ.” It is a cupboard containing a series of little round-bellied casks standing in a row, pierced low down by silver spigots…. “All these spigots can be joined by a wand and reached by one single movement, so that when the apparatus is once fixed, the pressing of a button hidden in the woodwork suffices to turn on all the taps at once and to fill the imperceptible goblets placed below them.” He could thus play symphonies inside himself, and succeeds in producing sensations in his throat like those which music lets fall upon the ear. To the refinements of taste succeed those of smell and sight. Des Esseintes contrives to “lull himself with harmonies of scents”; he has a tortoise the shell of which is cased in gold and set with precious stones; he makes a collection “of real flowers in imitation of artificial ones—nothing seems to him real; woven stuffs, paper, porcelain, metal, had apparently been lent by man to nature “to enable her to create her monsters.” (Gabriel Mourey—translated for the Fortnightly Review, March, 1897.)  3
  In spite of this orgy of refinement he does not find peace. The book ends on this cry of des Esseintes leaving his retreat to re-enter life: “Lord, have pity on a Christian torn with doubt, on an unbeliever who would fain believe, on one of life’s galley slaves who is setting sail, solitary and in darkness, under a sky no longer illumined by the comforting beacon of the ancient hope!”  4
  ‘En Rade’ (1887) is a reversion to the realistic formula, and, we may say, an error of date; it ought to have been published before ‘À Rebours,’ after ‘En Ménage.’ ‘Là-bas’ (1891) on the contrary is the logical sequence of ‘À Rebours’ in the moral evolution of Huysmans.  5
  For the first time appears Durtal whom we are to find again in several subsequent works; he is the mouthpiece of the author. From the very start he gives us a new profession of faith which is a scathing condemnation of all that Huysmans had formerly lauded: “what I object to in naturalism is not the dull, heavy, stone-colored effect of its clumsy style, but the filthiness of its ideas: I accuse it of having made materialism incarnate in literature and glorified the democracy of art!”  6
  A seeker of the supernatural, Durtal undertakes to write a monograph on Marshal Gilles de Rais, the Bluebeard of the legend. In studying mediæval occultism he is led to Black Magic of the present day. Madame Chautelouve, an adept of the doctrine, introduces him to the mysteries of the Black Mass celebrated by the sacrilegious deacon Docre. We find here the history of Satanism which persisted from the sixteenth century to our age. In contrast to these demoniacal figures maddened by an unhealthy desire to penetrate the occult we have Carhaix the bell-ringer of St. Sulpice Church and his wife, simple and upright people to whom the sympathy of the author goes out as the story advances. The book ends in a curse upon the existing social order and the century. From the top of St. Sulpice steeple Carhaix hears away down below him the crowd shouting itself hoarse in honor of General Boulanger just elected a Deputy. “The people nowadays,” says the bell-ringer contemptuously, “ah, they would not cheer like that for a man of learning or an artist, nor even for the supernatural human being, the saint.” “Down here, everything is dead and decayed,” retorts one of the lookers-on.  7
  Huysmans was still hesitating, but his path was already mapped out for him by the two obvious tendencies shown in ‘Là-bas’: contempt for modern life, disgust for the evil he had fathomed to its utmost depths.  8
  Sometime in 1892, he took a decisive step and went for a retreat at the convent of the Trappists of Notre-Dame d’Igny. This glimpse of monastic and contemplative life made a profound impression on his soul. It was the starting point of his conversion, which is told in ‘En Route’ (1895), “the strangest story of the strangest conversion that was ever seen.” This book is in no way a novel; it is the history of a soul groping blindly after the light of faith. The reader would look in vain for incidents, for there are none, except perhaps the visits to St. Sulpice and St. Séverin and an account of a retreat at the Trappist Monastery. This self-examination of a sinner under the influence of religious emotion has nothing in common with the self-analysis of a Bourget or with the cult of the Ego of a Barrès, who describe the feelings of more or less hypothetical characters. Huysmans shows us his bare soul without any disguise. Although he used the medium of fiction he is as frank and personal as Bunyan is in ‘Grace Abounding’ and a great deal more so than Rousseau in his ‘Confessions.’ The whole book is a kind of thinking aloud, and although the emotions it describes reach to the very depth of the soul, it is not emotional; it is sober, terse, ratiocinative in tone. But, in spite of all his efforts, Durtal has not yet attained his end: faith.  9
  The subject of ‘La Cathédrale’ (1898) is extremely simple. Abbé Gévresin goes to Chartres as vicar-general of a friend of his who has been nominated bishop of that historic town. Durtal joins his adviser of ‘En Route.’ His religious studies are far from complete, the world of men is no longer of any interest to him, and he wishes to plunge himself in an atmosphere of faith. He has mastered plain-chant and mysticism in ‘En Route,’ but how much remains to be learned on the religious arts, architecture, sculpture, painting! And what better subject of study could anywhere be found than the Cathedral of Chartres? A complete history of the religion of the Old and the New Testament, of the Apocryphal gospels, of the lives of the saints, even of the popular legends is derived from the study of this marvelous poem of stone, interwoven with descriptions in the most splendid poetic prose. Seldom has a monument of faith been celebrated in such masterful and pictorial style. In the end Durtal, feeling an ever-growing distaste for this profane world, makes up his mind to go and live in a cloister.  10
  Huysmans tried to realize the dream of Durtal, but as he had said in ‘En Route,’ the man of letters was not yet dead in him, and he dreamed of a kind of community of littérateurs and artists who would lead a quasi-religious life, dividing their time between work and prayer.  11
  But where to find men so peculiarly inclined? His friend and disciple Jean de Caldain thought of Charles-Marie Dulac, the mystic painter, who entered into their views with enthusiasm; the old monastery of the Benedictines of Ligugé near Poitiers was chosen as their retreat, but the two oblates could not be admitted permanently there; they would have to find a dwelling somewhere in the neighborhood. A priest, Father Ferret of St. Sulpice Church, who wished to join them, obtained the help of two wealthy friends, Mr. and Mrs. Léon Leclaire, who furnished funds for the erection of a small house adjoining the abbey. When everything was ready, Father Ferret and Dulac had died, de Caldain, perhaps afraid of a tête-à-tête with his friend, declined to go, and Huysmans went alone. Huysmans remained at Ligugé about two years. He worked hard and followed the divine services with the monks. During this time he wrote ‘La Magie en Poitou,’ ‘Ste. Lydwine de Schiedam’ (1901), and ‘L’Oblat’ (1903) which is a study of Benedictine life and completes what might be called the cycle of the conversion. But the religious orders having been interdicted in France the monastery was closed and the writer had to leave; Ligugé had no longer any attraction for him.  12
  Huysmans then returned to Paris, and manifested a great joy in finding again the artistic treasures of the capital. But this pleasure wore out rapidly, he felt unhappy, out of place. He became restless; unable to stand the slightest noise after the great calm of the country, he constantly changed his lodgings. Finally he was stricken by cancer and died in 1907. According to his last wishes he was buried in his cowl. Shortly before, he had published ‘Les Foules de Lourdes,’ an extremely curious and picturesque description of the great pilgrimages which gather every year at the famous shrine of the Holy Virgin. The book, although pervaded by the highest religious sentiment, was not readily accepted by the narrow-minded, being considered too realistic.  13
  Huysmans tried his hand at journalism with scant success; he obstinately refused to pay any attention to the feelings of subscribers, and thus drove several editors to despair.  14
  As an art critic he showed rare instinctive knowledge of painting and remarkable foresight. He was one of the first to wage a vigorous campaign in favor of the impressionistic school. He endorsed Moreau, Pissaro, Monet, Whistler, and Rops the etcher, when it was considered bad form and rank lack of taste to admire them. His articles collected in the volumes, ‘Art Moderne’ (1883), ‘Certains’ (1889), are a notable contribution to the history of the art of that period. In ‘Trois Primitifs’ (1905) he analyzed masterfully the works of ancient artists, notably Mathias Grünewald. In ‘Les Vieux Quartiers de Paris’ (1890), ‘La Bièvre et St. Séverin’ (1898), ‘Les Gobelins’ (1901), and ‘Le Quartier Notre-Dame’ (1905), he made splendid use of his qualities of pen-painter in giving the most vivid and suggestive descriptions of old quarters of the French capital generally neglected by tourists.  15
  Huysmans’s work is interesting from more than one point of view. His evolution from realism to mystic faith through spiritual epicureanism, black magic, and occultism is a problem strangely attractive to the psychologist. But it is probably as a pure artist, as a master of words that he deserves our complete admiration. Huysmans, true to his ancestry, was a born painter, and he turned to writing almost by accident. The painter’s qualities, love and sense of color, keen judgment of values and masses are noticeable in every line he wrote. He painted all his life, but he wielded a pen instead of a brush.  16
  In his first novels we find a care for accurate details, crude as they may be, a passion for visual impression, an acuteness of vision which recall the treatment of a Steen, a van Ostade. Let us take for instance his description of the window of a “little Parisian eating shop” as he calls it, and its proprietor:—
          “A rice-pudding with one portion taken out was crumbling away in an iron dish; some wine-colored eggs filled a flowered salad-bowl; a rabbit, lying cut open in a dish with its four feet sticking up, was letting the violet liquid of its liver ooze out over its pale vermilion-colored carcass. A rampart of cups, with intertwined handles, and a tower of blue-edged saucers, were piled up behind, and in front of them, close to the shop window, stood an old, short-necked bottle, meant for prunes preserved in brandy, and filled with water, where some sword-grass that had seen better days still shook its trembling heads.
  “This establishment was something between a country inn and a creamery in the poorest parts of Paris. The proprietor, in his shirtsleeves, with a stomach protruding like a hump, and a nose like a proboscis, stood lounging, napkin on arm, slowly drawing his carpet slippers, with their pattern of card and dominoes, through the muddy mixture made by sand and spittle.”  (‘En Ménage.’)
  17
  Later on, when his viewpoint had entirely changed, Huysmans depicted loftier objects in the same pictorial manner, but then he makes us think of Memling rather than of Pierre Van Laar. Take for instance his description of Chartres Cathedral and its stained glass windows:—
          “Seen as a whole, under a clear sky, its gray silvers and, if the sun shines upon it, turns pale yellow and then golden; seen close, its skin is like that of a nibbled biscuit, with its silicious limestone eaten into holes; sometimes, when the sun is setting, it turns crimson and rises up like a monstrous and delicate shrine, rose and green; and at twilight, turns blue; then seems to evaporate as it fades into violet.
  “High up, in space, like salamanders, human beings, with burning faces and flaming robes, lived in a firmament of fire; but these conflagrations were circumscribed, limited by an incombustible frame of darker glass, which beat back the clear joyous joy of the flames; by that kind of melancholy, that more serious and more aged aspect, which is taken by the duller colors. The hue and cry of reds, the limpid security of whites, the reiterated halleluias of yellows, the virginal glory of blues, all the quivering hearth-glow of painted glass, died away as it came near this border colored with the rust of iron, with the russet of sauce, with the harsh violet of sandstone, with bottle-green, with the brown of touchwood, with sooty black, with ashen grey.”  (‘La Cathédrale’—Translated by Arthur Symons in ‘The Symbolist Movement.’)
  18
  Unfortunately no translation, however excellent, could give an accurate idea of the witchery of his style.  19
  To sum up and explain the admiration of the French for this difficult but attractive writer, we cannot do better than to cite the judgment of an American, Harry Thurston Peck:—
          “His strange books must always remain among the most remarkable that any modern man has ever penned—sometimes crude and sometimes nobly eloquent, replete with an excess of learning, yet animated always by genuine emotion, and giving a sure proof that the lasting things of this life and the next are those which concern, not the mortal body, but the immortal soul.”
  20
 
 
CONTENTS · GENERAL INDEX · SONGS & LYRICS · BIOGRAPHICAL DICTIONARY
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