The Word-Painter of Paris
This introduction was written for a selection of Joris-Karl Huysmans’ writings prepared by Brian Banks, some four years ago. To my knowledge, the book has not yet been published.
A few days ago, there was a ring at my doorbell, and a man whose face I failed to recognise reminded me that we had been introduced at a science fiction conference in Ghent many years ago. Now he was taking a girlfriend on a tour of southern England, and had decided to include me in his itinerary. When they were installed in my sitting room with glasses of wine, he asked me what I was writing a present: I explained that I had been re-reading À rebours as a prelude to writing an introduction about Huysmans. ‘Ah, Huysmans! He is my favourite writer. I bought À rebours on holiday so I could read it for the tenth time...’
THIN, PALE & INTELLECTUAL
It was a double piece of synchronicity, for I had been thinking only that morning as I re-read Brian Banks’ The Image of Huysmans, that I must begin this Introduction by saying that Huysmans remains a ‘cult figure’ who inspires intense devotion in a small group of devotees. Now I had one of them sitting opposite me, and for the next half hour or so - until I had to return to their hotel for dinner - we discussed the strange life of Huysmans, and the reason that he continues to exercise such power over a few discerning admirers. My visitor - whose name was Anton - struck me as a typical Huysmans enthusiast - thin, pale, bearded, intensely intellectual, and with a look of one ‘not quite of this world.’ I could almost hear him quoting that old friend of Huysmans, Villiers de L’Isle Adam: ‘As for living, our servants can do that for us...’
Now the odd thing is that most of Huysmans admirers would admit that he is probably not a great writer; he was too subjective for that. Then what is the source of this fascination which, in my own case, had lasted ever since I discovered A rebours, some forty-five years ago, via Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Grey? It lies, I think, in this: that Huysmans life and work are inextricably intertwined, and that the life itself is at least as interesting as the work. Moreover, as Brian Banks rightly insists, Huysmans is literally a painter in words, and to read him is to be transported back to the Paris of Manet and Renoir and Toulouse Lautrec. There is no writer, with the possible exception of his friend Maupassant, who can evoke fin de siècle Paris with such vividness and colour.
To grasp something of the fascination of Huysmans, it is only necessary to re-tell the curious story of how he achieved his early success.
Joris-Karl Huysmans (who preferred to be known as Georges) was born in Paris in 1848, the son of a painter and illustrator, who died when his son was eight. His mother remarried, and the remainder of Huysmans childhood was insecure and affection-starved. He was bullied at the boarding school to which he gained a scholarship, and at the age of seventeen, flatly refused to return there. But the shy, introverted boy had at least one thing in his favour: he lived on the Left Bank, amid the streets described in Henri Murger’s La Bohème. The book became his Bible. Paris did for Huysmans what Dublin did for James Joyce: it provided him with a lifelong subject. Nietzsche remarked: ‘The great man is the play actor of his own ideals’, and Huymans ideal was to become a ‘Bohemian.’ If he had been born in Marseilles or Lilles, it is highly probable that we would never have heard of him. But with ‘scene of Bohemian life’ around him every day, he was able to transform boredom into magic with the power of the imagination. At sixteen he lost his virginity with a middle-aged prostitute; at nineteen he took a soubrette from a cabaret as his mistress. (He gained access to her by posing as a journalist.) By that time he was studying law, and when his stepfather died, he lost no time in abandoning law and moving into a cheap apartment with his mistress. By now he had obtained a post as a sixth grade clerk in the Ministry of the Interior, in which he was to remain for the next thirty years - it was so poorly paid that when his mistress gave birth to a baby, Huysmans did not even have enough money for a fire in the room. He was saved from the misery and boredom of living en mé nage by the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian war; what became of the mistress and baby is unknown.
Huysmans was conscripted at the end of July 1870, but he spent most of the short-lived Franco-Prussian war in hospital with dysentery. He was in Paris during the siege and surrender, but was back at his desk - in Versailles - during the bloody Commune and its aftermath. Soon he was back in the Latin Quarter, living the life of La Bohè me and deploring what he called the Americanisation of the Left Bank.
A VERBAL GOLDSMITH
Since he was in his late teens, Huysmans had - following in the footsteps of his father - written the occasional art criticism. Now, under the influence of Baudelaire, he produced a series of prose-poems, which were completed by 1873. It was a late start for a writer - twenty-five - but Huysmans always wrote slowly and meticulously. Through his mother, he obtained an introduction to a publisher (his stepfather had owned a small printing business), but a meeting with M. Hetzel told him that he had no talent whatsoever and never would have, and that his style was execrable. It took him some time to recover from this blow to his self-esteem, but he allowed friends to persuade him that Hetzel was an idiot, and that he should publish the book at his own expense.
He did so - the Drageoir aux èpices (translated roughly ‘Dish - or Cabinet - of Spices’) came out in October 1874. To begin with, it looked as if it was stillborn. But two influential men of letters decided that Huysmans deserved encouragement; one published some extracts from the book in his magazine, while the others wrote letters to critics drawing attention to it. In the following January, the poet Theodore de Banville praised the book as a ‘skilfully cut jewel from the hand of a master goldsmith’, and suddenly Huysmans had ‘arrived.’ Admittedly the arrival went almost unnoticed; nevertheless, the book reached a second impression, Huysmans began to meet other artists and writers, and a newly launched periodical opened its columns to him.
AUTOBIOGRAPHY AS NOVEL
Huysmans was certainly fortunate that literary success in Paris depended upon becoming a member of a clique, and that his first volume was modest enough to arouse no jealousy. Anatole France, four years Huysmans senior, was enduring much the same kind of apprenticeship at the time, and was patronised by some of the same people (like Catulle Mendes.) Huysmans early contribution to periodicals revealed his affinity with painting, and his remarkable ability to describe a picture in words. But his attempts to create something on a larger scale ended in failure; by nature, he was a miniaturist. But after abandoning a novel about the war and a volume of short stories, chance came to his aid. During an evening with friends, Huysmans launched into autobiography, telling them about his liaison with the soubrette, and his anticlimactic war experiences. They pressed him to write about them, and Huysmans decided to try. Part of the war novel was salvaged as a story called Sac au Dos (The Knapsack) while the soubrette became a girl called Marthe, whose sordid adventures as a lady of loose morals was transformed into a novel that probably inspired Zola’s bestseller Nana. But Paris was not yet ready for this kind of realism, and Huysmans decided that he would have the book privately printed in Brussels. Even here, luck was against him; most of the copies were impounded by French customs as an offence to public morals.
Yet again he turned defeat into a kind of victory. Marthe gained him the friendship of Edmond de Goncourt and Emile Zola, the founders of the new French ‘realism’ or ‘naturalism’. Zola was at the time (1876) its most controversial champion. He had learned the value of shock tactics in his early novel Thé rè se Raquin, with a particularly brutal murder scene. The vast Rougon-Macquart cycle, inspired by Balzac’s Comé die Humaine, was intended to be demonstration of the laws of heredity, but as the cycle progressed the shock tactics became increasingly outrageous; every novel contained some scene designed to arouse moral indignation or make the reader feel slightly sick. Zola, a brilliant publicist, had chosen a cunning method of putting the critics on the defensive. The pseudo-scientific plan of le Rougon-Macquart meant that if critics accused him of salacity or crude sensationalism, he was able to shout honesty. And the critics who really objected to the crudeness and inaccuracy of the ‘realism’ became still more enraged as they saw they had no hope of escaping their false position.
IMPACT OF ZOLA
Posterity has come to agree with Zola’s critics: that he was little more than a crude poster artist. But in 1876, the year of the serial publication of L’Assommoir, a relentless and melodramatic portrait of a couple sinking into alcoholism, Huysmans was ready to believe that Zola was the greatest of living French novelists. His close friends Henry Cé ard and Ludovic Francmesnil agreed, while yet another friend, ‘Professor’ Bobin, strongly disagreed. Ceard knocked on Zola’s front door, expressing discipleship, and was kindly received. Huysmans soon followed with copies of the Drageoir and Marthe. Another Zola disciple, Paul Alexis, introduced Huysmans and Ceard to two unknown writers called Lé on Hennique and Guy de Maupassant. The five began to call regularly on the Zolas on Thursdays, and soon Hennique was giving a public lecture in defence of L’Assommoir, while Huysmans was publishing a series of articles about it. He declared: ‘Green pustules and pink flesh are all one to us; we depict both because both exist...’ In fact, the association was mutually beneficial; Zola gained an ardent young defender; Huysmans gained notoriety as the philosopher of the new movement called Naturalism.
Huysmans next novel, Les Soeurs Vatard (The Vatard Sisters) appeared in 1879 and, thanks to his new notoriety, sold fairly well. Although beautifully observed and superbly written, it is like Marthe a thoroughly gloomy piece of work, the tale of two working-class sisters employed in a book-bindery (like the one now owned by Huysmans since the death of his mother) who have thoroughly unsatisfactory love affairs with unsuitable men. The lover of the elder of the two, the artist Cyprien Tibaille, is interesting mainly as a foreshadowing of the famous Des Esseintes of À rebours. In a glowing review, Zola said he hoped Huysmans would be ‘hounded by a pack of envious, impotent fools’, for he would then know his own strength. But a hostile critic said with accuracy that the book was ‘bleak, hateful and infinitely sad.’
APOSTLES OF NATURALISM
Now Huysmans obtained a job as an art critic, and took a leaf out of Zola’s book determined to cause controversy; his onslaught on the salon of 1879 created outrage and made him hordes of enemies. And when Leon Hennique suggested that they all produce a war story for a book to be published under Zola’s aegis, Huysmans dusted off Sac au Dos and made some changes. Zola contributed The Attack on the Mill; Hennique, Céard and Alexis also produced war stories. And the neophyte Maupassant wrote a story called Boulle de Suif, which is now the only one in the volume which is remembered by posterity. Les Soirées de Médan (Médan being Zola’s new home in the country) was an immediate success, running through eight impressions. It launched the meteoric literary success of Maupassant and finally brought Huysmans a measure of fame - or at least, notoriety.
Yet in retrospect, it can be clearly seen that, where Huysmans was concerned, the whole association with Zola’s naturalism had much in common with that of his friends Manet and Cezanne; he enjoyed transferring the real world to his own canvas. He was not really a pessimist by temperament, any more than most of the Impressionists were. The gloom and violence of La Béte Humaine and La Terre were chosen like striking colours, because they were more effective than lyricism or optimism. If you had asked Zola whether he thought life was tragic, he would have replied that it is certainly intolerable for a large number of people because of poverty and social inequality, but that it is in essence neither tragedy nor triumph.
But Huysmans pessimism was an integral part of his personality. His miserable schooldays, his unsatisfactory attempt at domesticity, the setbacks of literary life and the backbiting and envy of the French cultural establishment, had convinced him that life is basically a series of frustrations. He did not believe in happiness. If you had asked Huysmans the same question, he would have replied: not tragic but futile. In fact, he was convinced that the nihilistic Schopenhauer is one of the few philosophers who has seen life clearly and without distortion.
This meant that while Zola’s life was a search for success and fame - which he achieved in abundance - Huysmans’ was a search for personal fulfilment which he believed - intellectually speaking - to be beyond his grasp - in fact beyond the grasp of any human being. The result is that although they thought themselves allies in naturalism, he and Zola were really travelling in opposite directions. Zola was successful and satisfied, while Huysmans was like a man groaning with toothache. Sooner or later, Zola’s attitude was bound to strike him as shallow and irritating.
The gulf between Zola and Huysmans can be clearly seen in Huysmans next publication Croquis Parisiens (Parisian Sketches), published in 1880, the same year as Zola’s Nana. Huysmans book is a series of prose poems, all full of ‘atmosphere’ and of Huysmans’ rather lugubrious, ‘decadent’ attitude to life. ‘Nature is only interesting when she is sickly and desolate. I will not attempt to deny her marvels and glories on the occasions when the heartiness of her laughter causes her to split her bodice of dark rocks and flaunt her green nippled bosom in the sunlight; but I must admit that I do not experience, when faced with the exuberance of her full-flowing sap, anything like the pitying attraction which is aroused in me by a desolate corner in a large town, a ravaged piece of hillside, or a narrow ditch dribbling along between two slender trees.’ It is the sadness of Verlaine, of Ernest Dowson, and of Yeats’ ‘tragic generation’; it has something in common with Balzac, but nothing whatever with the coarse vitality of Nana.
A MEAT-EATER’S EPIPHANY
One particularly significant piece in the Croquis was called The Prose Poem of Roast Meat and describes a bachelor going for his regular evening meal in a local restaurant where the food is cheap and bad. ‘The moment has come for the reddish, lukewarm, damp-smelling meat to turn your stomach.’ And as he eats his atrocious meal and drinks soda water, he thinks of a girl he almost married, and imagines what it would have been like to be eating at his own table and drinking good Burgundy. But then he sees ‘the other side of the picture’ - of ‘having to take part in the continual exchange of inane ideas’ and play silly games with his children, saddled with a nagging wife who probably sleeps like other men. Then his thoughts turn to a mature mistress ‘whose appetite for love was at an end’, and who would put up with his ‘little fads’ and cook him excellent meals of tender beefsteaks. This, he decides, would be the ideal...
The daydream took root and turned into his next novel En Mé nage, his best so far. But the subject is as uninspiring as Marthe and The Vatard Sisters: the moderately successful novelist, Andre Jayant, decides to marry and escape the dreariness of bachelor life, but find his petty-minded, empty-headed wife unbearable. When she is unfaithful he leaves her to live with a prostitute, but is unable to suppress his jealousy of her other clients. He then returns to an earlier mistress, but when she leaves him to go and work in London, he finally heaves a sigh and returns to his wife.
And here, for the first time, the reader is struck forcefully by the reflection that the hero’s boredom and dissatisfaction are entirely his own fault. His attitude to life is negative and self-pitying. He puts little into it, and consequently gets little out of it. All children and teenagers are familiar with the problem. They find it easy to slip into a state of fretful boredom which causes negative feedback. The feeling that nothing is worth the effort causes a sinking of the energies (for we summon energy like summoning the genie out of the lamp, when we are gripped by purpose), which in turn increases the feeling that life is a bore, which increases the fatigue... And so on in a cycle of self-enfeeblement. It seems incredible that a man in his mid-thirties could still be subject to this childhood ailment, and that he should lack the insight to grasp his predicament. But that was clearly Huysmans’ problem, and there is no point in pretending otherwise. If he were not such a fascinating word-painter we would lose patience. As it is, we read him for the language and the atmosphere, and wish that he had the exuberant vitality of his friend Maupassant, whose uproarious collection La Maison Tellier, (whose title story is about a crowd of prostitutes on an outing from a provincial brothel) appeared in the same year.
But we can see that, given his negative premises, Huysmans is going to find it increasingly difficult to find a subject to write about, not to mention the energy to sustain the effort of creation. So we are not surprised to learn that soon after publishing En Menage he was suffering attacks of neuralgia and becoming increasingly bored with Zola’s demands for research into subjects like suburban architecture and the design of rare postage stamps, which Zola was too lazy to do himself.
It seems somehow typical that the next novel A Vau L’Eau (Drifting Downstream) is little more than a long short story, less than a fifth the size of En Menage. It also reads like a postscript to En Menage in that the hero, Jean Folantin, is a bored little clerk whose sexual relationships are as disastrous as those of Andre Jayant, and who ends by deciding that, since Schopenhauer is right when he says that ‘life is as a pendulum that swings between suffering and boredom’, he will not abandon all attempt at controlling his destiny and ‘drift downstream’. In his biography of Huysmans, Robert Baldrick says that Folantin is one of the ‘great types’ in French literature - one who has been succeeded by Duhamel’s Salavin and Sartre’s Roquentin. In fact, the closest literary relative of Folantin are Goncharov’s Oblomov and the heroes of Samuel Beckett.
And so Huysmans found himself at the end of his tether. What was he to do after deciding to ‘drift downstream’? To begin with, he decided it was time to abandon naturalism. After all, if he found everyday life so boring, what was the point in describing it at length? The answer had to be a change of scene - from boredom and realism to poetry and intense subjectivity. He would create a hero who, like L’Isle Adam’s Axel, would regard mere living as an affair for servants. His hero, of course, had to be rich enough to indulge his whims, and intelligent enough to find pleasure in his own company - in other words, the complete opposite of Folantin.
The result, a Rebours, became one of the most famous novels of its time. The title is almost untranslatable. Against the Grain sounds oddly anonymous; Against Nature is closer to the spirit of the book. But since Huysmans explains that his hero, Des Esseintes, occasionally takes his nourishment ‘a rebours’ - through the rear end - when eating bores him, it could equally be translated as Up the Arsehole - a version that would have undoubtedly pleased the author.
Des Esseintes is a bored aristocrat of feeble constitution who has tried ‘unnatural loves and perverse pleasures’ (in fact, Huysmans own experiments with homosexuality disgusted him), and now only wants to escape the world and live in a self-created cocoon. This is the charm of the daydream. Huysmans spends chapter after chapter self-indulgently describing the life of someone who wishes to turn his back on the coarseness of reality, and live a life of the mind and the emotions. ‘Travel struck him as a waste of time, since he believed that the imagination could provide a more-than-adequate substitute for the vulgar reality of actual experience...’
EVOLUTION VIA IMAGINATION
This sentence also captures the fundamental appeal of the book. Huysmans intuition that the evolution of man lies in the imagination. But it also underlines the nature of his problem: his gloomy certainty that ‘this world’ is a bore, and that the only solution lies in ‘escape’. In fact, every child knows that imagination is not a substitute for reality, but a transcendence of it: they know it because every delightful experience underlines the point. The happiness of Christmas Day, of birthday parties, of visits to the seaside, of drowsy summer picnics by the river, is a happiness based on reality. But happiness stimulates the imagination, and transforms reality like looking at a tree through a prism. The answer is not therefore to turn one’s back on reality, but to transform it by a strengthening of the power of the imagination, which the French psychologist Janet rightly identified as ‘the reality function’. Doctor Johnson glimpsed the answer when he commented: ‘When a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.’ It would be a pity to get ourselves hanged to stimulate the imagination; but there is nothing to prevent us from disciplining the imagination until it can reproduce the sensation of a man about to be hanged.
I allow myself the indulgence of this commentary because the problem stated so powerfully by Huysmans is the problem at the heart of my first book The Outsider (1956), which is fundamentally a study of the ‘romantic agony’ and ‘outsiders’ who, like Huysmans, are inclined to feel that life is a tale told by an idiot. Des Esseintes symbolises the problem so well that he can also be made to illuminate its solution.
The truth is that Des Esseintes has simply allowed himself to collapse like a punctured tyre. ‘During the last month of his residence in Paris, at a time when, sapped by disillusionment, depressed by hypochondria and weighed down by boredom, he had been reduced to such a state of nervous sensitivity that the sight of a disagreeable person or thing was deeply impressed upon his mind...’ So he spends his days reading his favourite Latin writers, tasting liqueurs from ‘mouth organ’ which will allow a single drop of each to fall on his tongue (an enterprise doomed to failure since a drop of any single liqueur would destroy the taste of all the others), and meditating upon the paintings of Gustave Moreau.
CORRUPTING AN URCHIN
In Chapter Six, an altogether more sinister note is struck. Des Esseintes picks up a poverty-stricken urchin and decides, just for the fun of it, to try and turn him into a murderer by plunging him into a life of luxury and then abandoning him, so that he will turn to crime. The plan goes awry; but the episode makes the reader aware that Des Esseintes is not merely a harmless aesthete. There would have been no difference, in principle, in deliberately turning the boy into a drug addict. His philosophy is chillingly close to that of de Sade.
The most amusing - and typical - episode in the novel is the one that Brian Banks has chosen to quote - in which Des Esseintes feels a sudden urge to go to London, but decides to stop on the way for a meal in an English tavern near the Gare St Lazare - and then, after eating an English meal, reflects that he has now tasted the very essence of London: by comparison, the real thing will be a bore. So he goes home again.
Typically the novel ends on a note of defeat. Ordered back to Paris by his doctor, Des Esseintes decides that even the ‘noble pessimism’ of Schopenhauer is no answer. So after pronouncing a curse on the corruption of the modern world and the Americanisation of everything he cares about, he prepares to go and rejoin ‘the servile riff-raff’ in Paris. He ends with a kind of prayer: ‘Lord take pity on the Christian who doubts, on the unbeliever who would fain believe, on the galley slave of life who puts out to sea alone in the night, beneath a firmament no longer lit by the consoling beacon fires of ancient hope.’ As Brian Banks observes, he is obviously ready to fling himself into the arms of religion.
AMONG THE DEMONS
This, of course, is what he did - although not before exploring the realms of late 19th century occultism and demonology. He chose as his guide an unfrocked Abbe named Boullan, whom he believed to be wronged by the ecclesiastical authorities - only to discover, after Boullan’s death, that he was rather worse than anyone suspected.
Huysmans excursion into demonology is described in one of his most powerful novels, La Bas (Down Below), which brought him wider notoriety than a Rebours. But the student who by now knows his Huysmans can see perfectly well that all this is just one more attempt to solve the problem of his boredom. And, moreover, he has failed to solve it, because he has failed to grasp that it is his own fault. This become quite clear in a key episode in which the hero, Durtal, receives a letter from an unknown woman declaring her admiration. The reader’s curiosity is piqued, (for whatever his faults, Huysmans knows how to hold our interest) and he and Durtal’s attempts to establish her identity keep him amused and absorbed. Inevitably, when Durtal finally meets Hyacinthe Chantelouve, that experienced coquette pretends indifference, and he is soon convinced that he is in love with her. But when she finally comes to his apartment, and vanishes into the bedroom, he realises that he no longer desires her. ‘Disillusion had come even before possession.’ And after possessing her: ‘Ah yes, his disillusion was complete. The satiety following justified the lack of appetite preceding. She revolted and horrified him. Was it possible to have so desired a woman, only to come to - that?’ In fact, the real Hyacinthe Chantelouve was something of a tart; but it is impossible not to feel that the effete and exhausted Huysmans would have felt the same about the goddess of love.
The remainder of Huysmans journey is charted by Brian Banks in the last section of this book. Huysman himself described it at some length in the three novels which still arouse the most enthusiasm among Catholic readers: En Route, La Cathedrale and L’Oblat. I must confess that, although I went to enormous lengths to find secondhand copies of the trilogy, I have never succeeded in finishing them. This is not because they lack literary merit but because it is so clear that Huysmans has simply chosen the wrong solution, and was wasting his time. The decision to abandon reason and swallow the dogmas of Catholicism was no answer because it sprang out of weakness, out of the old conviction that the only solution was to turn his back on the world. Des Esseintes tried it and found it didn’t work. Durtal seems unaware that he is merely repeating the mistakes of Des Esseintes in a religious key. But it is perfectly obvious to the reader that, while Huysmans attitude towards himself and towards life remain fundamentally negative, there can be no solution. It seems somehow typical that Huysmans died of cancer of the throat after appalling suffering.
And so, in retrospect, it is impossible not to feel that Huysmans’ life was a sad moral fable. He possessed immense talent, even a touch of genius; the only thing he lacked was insight into his own boredom. But then, unlike his contemporary Nietzsche - whose life was in many ways so like his own - he was not a philosopher. In Zarathustra - whose essence lies in the comment: ‘I have made my philosophy out of my will to health’ - Nietzsche has left us a masterpiece of optimism of which Huysmans would have been incapable. But then, in his finest prose, Huysmans left us some masterpieces of atmosphere of which Nietzsche would have been incapable. That is achievement enough for any man.
Index of Articles