‘Là-bas’ or ‘The Damned’? J.-K. Huysmans

J.-K. Huysmans’ tetralogy following the character Durtal, a thinly veiled version of Huysmans himself, begins with the novel ‘Là-bas’, and is followed by ‘En Route’, ‘La Cathédrale’ and concludes with ‘L’oblat’. Over time I will write about each novel individually, the themes, Durtal’s journey towards Catholic conversion, the symbolism and a whole lot more. Today I want to look at the two currently available English translations of the first novel ‘Là-bas’.

As translator Brendan King points out in his introduction to the Dedalus Books version:

Là-bas is a book to make us look again at what we are and what we believe, and to decide whether we are on the road to heaven, là-haut, or on the road to hell, là-bas.

Translator King has chosen to retain the French title, however the Penguin Classics edition,  translated by Terry Hale, is titled ‘The Damned’. Personally I think the original title retention suits Huysmans work better as it is capturing the journey, “the road to hell” where Durtal starts before taking a different route, là-haut, whereas ‘The Damned’ seems suited to a group of people who are doomed, it has become individualized, who are the damned? Is Durtal damned? For my futher comments in this piece I will refer to the novel as ‘Là-bas’ unless I am quoting Terry Hale who refers to the work as ‘The Damned’.

In their introductions both translators write about the English versions of Huysmans work, and more specifically the subject matter. ‘Là-bas’ was not translated unto English until 1924 with the other three volumes appearing in translation before the first volume ‘En Route’ translated in 1896, ‘La Cathédrale’ 1898, ‘L’oblat’ also appearing in 1924. The novel originally appeared in print serialised in ‘Écho de Paris’, and when the book appeared it was banned from sale in railway station kiosks.  Interestingly when the book appeared in translation in the United States (tr. Keene Wallis) a reviewer stated that “the book was not for smut-hunters”. Apparently this then raised the interest of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice, and in 1930 the Sanitation Department incinerator received ‘Là-bas’ along with works by Joyce, Schnitzler and Lawrence.

The Penguin Classics edition ‘Introduction’ contains a potted history of the translation of this work into English, the heavily edited versions, the digested versions, and the publishers from the pornographic book trade. This leads to many versions of the work being available. The Dedalus version claiming “‘Là-bas’ has never, until now, been publicly available in a complete and unexpurgated English translation.”

Let’s quickly look at the opening paragraph of each translation:

‘Là-bas’ – Dedalus Books

“So you believe in these ideas so completely, my friend, that you’ve abandoned adultery, love and ambition, all the subjects that the modern novel has made us only too familiar with, to write a history of Gilles de Rais?” Then, after a pause, he added, “I don’t reproach Naturalism for its prison slang or for using the vocabulary of the army latrine and the poorhouse, because that would be unjust and it would be absurd. In the first place, certain subjects call out for them, and in the second, such expressions and words are the plaster and pitch with which it’s possible to build immense and imposing works, as Zola proved with L’Assommoir. No the problem lies elsewhere, what I reproach Naturalism for isn’t the thick stucco of its crude style, but the shoddiness of its ideas, what I reproach it for is for having embodied materialism in literature, and for having glorified the democracy of art.

‘The Damned’ – Penguin Classics

‘Then you are so convinced by these new theories that you plan to jettison all the cliches of the modern novel – adultery, love, ambition – in order to write a biography of Gilles de Rais!’
After a pause, he continued:
‘It is not the obscenity of Naturalism I detest – the language of the lockup, the dosshouse and the latrines – that would be foolish and absurd. Let’s face it, some subjects can’t be treated any other way – Zola’s
L’Assommoir is living proof that works of tremendous vision and power can be constructed out of the linguistic equivalent of pitch and tar. That is not the issue, any more than the fact that I have serious reservations about Naturalism’s heavy-handed, slapdash style. No, what I really object to is Naturalism’s immorality on the intellectual plain – they way it has turned literature into the living incarnation of materialism, the way it promotes the idea of art as something democratic!’

Let’s look at one further paragraph from each:

‘Là-bas’ – Dedalus Books (Chapter VIII page 113)

“Because essentially that’s what Satanism is,” he said to himself, “The question of physical manifestations, which has been disputed since the world began, is really a secondary one when you think about it. The Devil has no need to show himself in human or animal form in order to attest to his presence. For him to prove himself, it’s enough that he chooses to reside in these souls whom he exulcerates and incites to unaccountable crimes. Moreover, he can then hold them with the hope – which he himself breathes into them – that instead of living inside them, as is really the case and which they’re often unaware of, he’ll submit to their invocations, will appear to them and negotiate, in lawyer-like fashion, the benefits that he’ll grant in exchange for certain forfeits. Even the mere desire to make a pact with him must sometimes result in his seeping into us.”

‘The Damned’ – Penguin Classics (Chapter VIII page 94)

‘In fact, that’s what Satanism is really all about,’ said Durtal to himself. ‘The questions everyone always asks, the primordial question, concerning the Devil’s physical appearance, hardly matters when you think about it. Satan does not exactly need to reveal himself either in human or bestial from to make his presence felt. All he has to do, in order to affirm himself, is select the soul in which he wishes to take up residence, the souls he intends to ulcerate and incite to the commission of the most inexplicable crimes; and, to this end, he needs only whisper in the ear of his victim that, instead of domiciling himself in his body without his knowledge, he will obey his summons, appear before him at will, confer advantages on him on the basis of a legally binding pact in exchange for certain concessions. The very fact of being willing to enter into such a pact will often be enough to bring out his presence in us.

I have fully read the Dedalus edition, translated by Brendan King, and have dabbled in the Penguin Classics edition. My personal choice being the Dedalus ‘Là-bas’, however I thought I would present a few examples of the different translations so you could make up your own mind as to the version that suits your reading style. Interestingly Penguin only publish two novels by Huysmans, ‘Against Nature’ (‘A Rebours’) and ‘The Damned’, which I think is a strange choice, why only publish the first volume of a series of four books and even refer to those four books in the introduction?

I will return with a look at ‘Là-bas’ the themes, the high level narrative precis, the symbolism etc. as a separate post.

3 thoughts on “‘Là-bas’ or ‘The Damned’? J.-K. Huysmans

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s