J.-K. Huysmans and food

‘À vau-l’eau’ (translated as ‘Drifting’ by Brendan King) is a novella by J.-K. Huysmans, it was published just prior to his much lauded ‘A rebours’ (‘Against Nature’). Guy de Maupassant reviewed the work in ‘La Gaulois’ on 9 March 1882, he said; “It’s the story of a clerk looking for a beefsteak. Nothing more.” Whilst I would argue the story is a whole lot more, and I will save that for a later post specifically about the book, it is also a “Ulysses of the eatery” (again Guy de Maupassant, in the same review).

As our bachelor protagonist, M. Jean Folantin, moves from eating house to eating house, wine shop to wine shop, his eating experiences are described in fine satirical detail.

The opening sentence contains a waiter, and the first page explains our lamentable protagonist’s terrible degustation’s:

And M. Jean Folantin, sitting at a table cluttered with plates of congealed leftovers and empty wine bottles whose bottoms had left their imprimatur in purple on the cloth, grimaces, certain that he was going to eat a wretched cheese; his expectations were not disappointed: the waiter brought a kind of white laced marbled with indigo, evidently cut from a cake of Marseilles soap.

As I was reading this book, it occurred to me that there are many references to food throughout Huysmans’ writing, his characters do not simply “dine” their dining experience is explored. So here is a few passages from four books by Huysmans where the meal becomes the subject.

From ‘À vau-l’eau’, I could quote innumerable passges, however I’ll simply present one that deals with his never ending search “looking for a beefsteak”:

M. Folantin wondered if all the changing around was worth it, seeing that everywhere the wine was adulterated with lead oxide and diluted with pump water, the eggs were never cooked how you wanted them, the steaks always lacked juice, and  the boiled vegetables looked like prison leftovers: but he went in them anyway – ‘If I keep looking, I might find something’ – and he continued to roam among taverns and bars…

The opening pages of chapter one of ‘A rebours’ (‘Against Nature’ also translated by Brendan King):

From black-bordered plates they had eaten turtle soup, Russian rye bread, ripe olives from Turkey, caviar, salted mullet roes, smoked black pudding from Frankfurt, game birds covered in sauces the colour of liquorish and boot polish, truffle gravy, chocolate-flavoured ice cream, plum-puddings, brugnon musqué peaches, fruit preserves in grape juice, mulberries and black-heart cherries; from dark glasses they had drunk wines from Limagne and Roussillon, from Tenedos, Valdepeñas and Oporto; and after coffee and walnut brandy, they had savoured kvass, porter and stout.

‘Là-Bas’ (also translated by Brendan King) is the first novel in a series of four detailing a protagonist’s, Durtal, journey from decadence to religious conversion, here Durtal, a writer, investigates the life of Gilles de Rais and explores alternative medicines, astrology, satanism, horrific satanic rituals and more. Several times Durtal meets various experts in these fields at the bell tower, where the bell ringer and his wife reside. They debate these topics over a meal:

Carhaix served the soup and everyone fell silent, taking cooler spoonfuls from the edge of their bowls; then his wife brought in the celebrated lamb à l’anglaise and gave it to des Hermies to carve.
It was a magnificent red in colour, oozing large drops of juice at the touch of the knife. Everyone went into ecstasies as soon as they tried the strong-tasting meat, which was flavoured with puréed turnips and sweetened with a white caper sauce.

In the next novel in the series ‘En Route’ (translated by W. Fleming) Durtal struggles with his learnings, a man who is drawn to Catholicism but who questions every opportunity to commit to conversion. Convinced that a visit to a monastery, and the change in diet would not agree with him, Durtal even has to “convert” his digestive temptations:

“As to the cookery, it matters little that it is uncivilized, if my stomach can digest it; to have bad food, and get up in the middle of the night is nothing, provided the body can stand it, and not doubt I shall find some means of smoking cigarettes by stealth in the woods.”

Once at the monastery the simple food, of each meal, is described:

The dishes were on the table, two poached eggs, a bowl of rice, another of French beans, and a pot of honey.

He discusses, with the Oblate, the meals:

“The food is not bad,” he said, “but I do not quite understand the same strange and identical taste in all the dishes; it smells, how shall I express it? Like burnt fat or suet.”
“That is the warm oil with which the vegetables are dressed, you will soon grow accustomed to it, in a couple of days you will cease to notice it.”

These food references throughout Huysmans’ work had got me thinking about contemporary literature, do any of these modern characters eat?

I’ve only presented you a few small appetizers, a nibble of the Huysmans menu, his characters delving into culinary extremes, from rancid fat, adulterated wines to oozing juices, extravagant fruits and deserts to top shelf vignerons.

I do intend to visit these works individually, and not from the food angle, it was simply a theme that jumped out at me, I hope you can come back to the blog as I explore the other themes in each of these multi layered works – and I haven’t even started ‘The Cathedral’ and ‘The Oblate of St. Benedict’, the last two works about Durtal (the thinly disguised version of Huysmans himself).

7 thoughts on “J.-K. Huysmans and food

  1. What a nice post; what a pleasure to see novelists looking at food, for Huysmans one of many aspects of the sensual, material world.

    The kinds of contemporary literature I read has plenty of eating, does it ever. I don’t know about other readers read, though. Who knows why those people do what they do.

    Anyway, I have plenty of examples if for some reason you want them.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Keeping in mind: what do I know about contemporary literature? And limiting myself to the 21st century:

      Kathleen Founds, When Mystical Creatures Attack! (2014), the amazing Methodist church cookbook chapter.
      Kevin Young, Dear Darkness (2008), where you will find the “Ode to Pork,” the “Ode to Boudin.”
      Monica Ali, “Brick Lane” (2003), plenty of Bangladeshi home cooking.
      Willy Vlautin, pretty much anything, not that I am saying the characters eat well, but they eat.
      Andrea Camilleri, both the mysteries and the other books, full of Sicilian cooking.
      Richard Bean’s One Man, Two Guvnors (2011), adapting and outdoing Goldoni, so the dinner scene, obviously.
      Juan Pablo Villalobos, Quesadillas (2012), a “condition of Mexico” novel by means of the title food.
      What is eaten in César Aira’s Dinner (2006). Oh, that’s right, brains. That probably does not count.

      I definitely get your point, but some writers are more material and some less, and it has always been so. Henry James characters, free-floating consciousnesses, do not eat much either. Zola characters do.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Thanks Tom, now you mentioned Ali Smith it brings to mind ‘Hellfire by Leesa Gazi (tr. Shabnam Nadiya), a Bangladeshi novel with mouth watering meals. Looking at your list maybe there’s a cultural influence? Interesting, something for me to contemplate further.

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  2. Barbara Pym’s novels often contain references to food and the pleasures (or not) of eating. The disappointment of a cauliflower cheese that skimps on the cheese; the horror of finding a caterpillar on a guest’s dinner plate…etc. etc.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for stopping by Jacqui, nice to know Barbara’s characters actually eat. I’ve now thought of a few recent novels (generally translations) where characters do it, so it was probably a tad flippant to generalise. Maybe I need to broaden my horizons!!!

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