Like the alienated individuals of twentieth-century fiction, he is at odds with his surroundings, a victim of history, unsure of himself, dragged down by unhealthy living, and on the look out for something valuable in a worthless world.
- David Blow, Introduction to ‘En-Route’ by JK Huysmans (tr. W Fleming)
The subject of this quote is Durtal, the thinly disguised autobiographical protagonist of Huysmans’ four novel sequence, ‘Là-Bas’, ‘En Route’, ‘The Cathedral’ and ‘The Oblate of St. Benedict’.
A decadent sequence of works, it explores satanism, the occult, Benedictine monks, the enrichment of the soul, a conversion to Catholicism, the art and architecture of the past amongst a raft of subjects. However today I am going to simply look at Huysmans’ view of the natural world as opposed to Octave Mirbeau’s, which I presented yesterday.
In each there is a longing for the simpler times of the past, and this is melded with nature by Mirbeau in ‘The Diary of a Chambermaid’ (tr. Douglas Jarman):
Nevertheless, I was happy, and longed for June to come. Oh, the daisies growing in the meadows, and the little footpaths through the woods, and the fluttering leaves . . . And then the birds’ nests that you find in the clumps of ivy, hanging from old walls . . . And the nightingales singing in the moonlight, as you sit on the wall of a well, covered with maidenhair fern and moss and honeysuckle climbing all over it, holding hands and talking quietly to one another . . . And the great bowls of warm milk, and the big straw hats, and the baby chicks, and going to mass in the village church, and the sound of bells, and all the rest of it . . . Why, it makes you feel as though your heart would burst with happiness, like those lovely songs they sing in the cafés in Paris! . . .
On the other hand, when Huysmans’ travels to, what most would consider, more idyllic settings the description is in opposition to Mirbeau’s:
It was as if you had been transported to Brittany itself. Here was the same sky and the same landscape, a melancholy, sombre sky, a sun which seemed older than elsewhere and which gilded but feebly the mournful gloom of the ancient forests and the old, moss-covered sandstone, a landscape which stretched out, as far as they eye could see, in barren moors, a landscape pock-marked by pools of rusty water, bristling with rocks, and riddled by little pink bells of heather and small yellow gorses, by clumps of furze and tufts of broom.
You felt that his iron-coloured sky, this famished earth, empurpled here and there by the blood-red flowers of buckwheat, that these roads bordered by walls of stone, piled one on top of the other without plaster or cement, that these footpaths edged by a wild tangle of hedgerows, that these crabbed weeds and untilled fields, that these crippled beggars eaten by vermin and scoured with filth, that even the mean and neglected livestock, the stunted cows and the black sheep whose blue eyes had the clear, cold stare of the degenerate or the Slav, had endured absolutely unchanged in and identical landscape for centuries.
From ‘Là-Bas’ (translated by Brendan King) pg 116 of Dedalus edition.
Unchanged for centuries, but here it is a “degenerate” past, “rusty”, “mournful”, a gothic past.
Mirbeau’s protagonist Célestine looking fondly backwards, not sure of her future, will it be valuable in a worthless world? Huysmans’ Durtal looking back to sombre times, his future possibly more valuable.
I will touch on Durtal’s future, and his attraction to old architecture, writing, art, religious teachings, and rituals (for example, the unaccompanied Gregorian chant is much preferred to the hymns accompanied by an organ) in future posts as I explore his four novels.