Là-Bas – J.-K. Huysmans (tr. Brendan King)

‘Là-bas’ is the opening novel in J.-K. Huysmans’ tetralogy that tracks the character Durtal and his spiritual journey. The main character, Durtal is a thinly veiled version of Huysmans himself, the sequence of novels beginning with ‘Là-bas’, and is followed by ‘En Route’, ‘La Cathédrale’ and ‘L’oblat’.

After ‘Là-bas’ appeared in serialized form in the newspaper ‘Écho de Paris’ irate readers threatened to cancel their subscriptions, once in book form it was banned from sale at railway station kiosks and therefore took on an underground notoriety. As mentioned in my previous post, about the two recent English translations, the book was even burned in the USA by the Society for the Suppression of Vice as it “constituted an outrage on public morals”.

Our work opens with a discussion, a rejection of Naturalism. As we know, Huysmans moved away from Naturalism towards Decadence in the late 1800’s. This novel appearing seven years after ‘À Rebours’ (‘Against Nature’). The opening paragraph talks of Zola’s ‘L’Assommoir’ and a further discussion is prompted by the mention of Goncourt and Flaubert:

“I grant you that, they are honest, rebellious, proud artists, and so I put them in a class apart. I admit, too, and without your prompting, that Zola is a great landscape painter, a marvellous handler of crowd scenes and a spokesman of the people. Besides, in his novels he hasn’t, thank God, pushed the theories he expounds in his articles – which advocate the intrusion of Positivism into art – to their logical limits. But the work of his best disciple, Rosny, the only novelist of talent who’s fully absorbed his master’s ideas, has become a tedious display of amateurish learning, the wisdom of a lab-technician written-up in pseudo-scientific jargon. No, there’s nothing more to say. The whole school of Naturalism, such as it exists today, reflects the desires of a hideous age. With it, we’ve arrived at an art so shabby and so hackneyed I would rather call it ‘conciergism’. Why? Just read their latest books and what do you find? Simple anecdotes, scraps of news cut out of the papers, nothing but tired old stories and unreliable histories, without a single idea about life, about the soul, to prop them up, and all related in a style like that of a bad stained-glass window. I’ve reached the point where, after I’ve finished one of these books, I can’t recall any of the inconsequential descriptions, the insipid harangues, they contain. Nothing remains with me but the astonishing thought that a man can write three or four hundred pages, even though he has absolutely nothing to reveal to us, nothing to say to us.”

This paragraph alone, which appears within the first three pages, tells us that Huysmans is undergoing a novelistic journey of a different type, we are about to undertake a journey of the soul.

‘Là-bas’ is constructed using a number of concurrent streams, past and present. Our protagonist, Durtal, is a writer and is researching Gilles de Rais, a lord and a knight, who served in the French army and was a companion-in-arms of Joan of Arc. More notoriously de Rais, post Joan of Arc’s burning at the stake, became erratic, spending heavily, falling foul of the church and the Royals and then turned to the occult, kidnapping and murdering hundreds (accounts vary between 100 and 600) of young boys, he admitted guilt and was executed by “hanging and burning” in October 1440.

The novel explores Durtal’s research about de Rais, anecdotes of the horrendous torture and defilement of young boys, but it also concurrently explores Durtal’s investigations into contemporary satanic practices, looking for characters who can remove death spells, attending a black mass, sacrilegious potions, discussions about the symbolism of bell ringing and astrology, fallen priests, defiled religious hosts…

We also have another thread, with Dural conducting a sordid affair with a friend’s wife, Hyacinthe, the temptations of the flesh.

All of this bound up by Durtal’s struggles with his own demons, all set at the turn of the century, a Fin de Siècle novel, a world that is in decay:

“…but it’s a very good thing is dust. Besides having a bouquet of stale biscuits and the faint aroma of old books, it’s the liquid velvet of things, a fine dry rain which bleaches out excessive colour and brutal tones. Not only that, it’s the cloak of abandonment, the veil of oblivion. Who, therefore, could dislike it, except certain people of a pitiful sort who you ought to think about now and then? Indeed, imagine what life’s like for someone who lives in one of Paris’s passages. Well, picture a consumptive spitting blood and choking in a room on the first floor, under the arched glass roof of an arcade, that of the Passage du Panorama, for example. The window is open, stirring up dust saturated with stale tobacco and lukewarm sweat. The unfortunate is suffocating, begging for someone to give him air. You rush to the window . . . and you close it, because how can you help him to breathe if you can’t shelter him from the dustiness of the arcade and isolate him from it? Well, isn’t this dust which induces haemoptysis and coughing fits rather more harmful than the stuff you’re complaining about?…..
“With regard to dust, looking at it in relation to the way it recalls our origins and reminds us of our ends, did you know that after death our carcasses are devoured by different species of worms, according to whether they’re fat or whether they’re thin? In the corpses of obese people, you find one type of larvae, the rhizophage; in the corpses of lean people, you discover those of the phora. These latter are obviously the aristocrats of the parasite world, a kind of ascetic worm which scorns huge meals, disdaining to feed on large breasts and the piquant stew of a big fat belly. To think that there isn’t even perfect equality in the way larvae extract the dust of death from each one of us . . .”

The Fin de Siècle period is even discussed as a time where attraction to the satanic was inevitable:

“But it has always been so, the ends of centuries are all alike. All are periods of vacillation and confusion. When materialism rages, magic rears its head. This phenomenon occurs every hundred years. Not to go back any further, just look at the close of the last century. Aside from the rationalists and the atheists, you find Saint-Germain, Cagliostro, Saint-Martin, Gabalis, Cazotte, Rosicrucian societies and Hell-Fire Clubs, just like today!”

As I have previously explored with Huysmans’ work (see ‘Drifting’) he highlights what he sees as the advancement of science as being detrimental to society, where is the attraction to the spiritual, more specifically Roman Catholicism?

It’s just the same with demonomaniacs, who, whether consciously or unconsciously, do evil for evil’s sake. They’re no more mad than the monk falling into ecstasies in his cell, or the man who does good for good’s sake. There people, who are completely beyond the reach of medical science, are just at the two opposite poles of the soul, and that’s all.

Durtal’s journey into satanic rituals, researching evil, sins of the flesh, results in him questioning the role of the Devil and how, in this era of decadence, he has settled within Durtal himself:

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 those souls whom he exulcerates and incites to unaccountable crimes. Moreover, he can then hold them with the hope – which he himself breathes into them – 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.

Huysmans manages to blend the past (de Rais and his abdominal crimes) with the present (Durtal’s affair with Hyacinthe). For instance, de Rais is (1) a brave and pious soldier, (2) he is a refined, but a criminally-minded artist, and (3) he becomes a repentant sinner and mystic. Hyacinthe is (1) reserved, haughty, a friend, affectionate and tender, but (2) in bed she is “a whore spitting filth and lost to shame” and (3) she is “a ruthless minx, a truly nasty Satanic woman”.

This is a multi-layered, complex novel exploring Satanism, the occult, and our protagonists’ pursuit of a sinful life. As the cycle of novels unfolds we will learn of Durtal’s move from Hell, to purgatory (‘En Route’) where he struggles with what road to take, the road to heaven, là-haut, or the road to hell, là-bas.

One thought on “Là-Bas – J.-K. Huysmans (tr. Brendan King)

  1. Most intriguing; I have recently read “The Man in the Red Coat” by Julian Barnes and would recommend that too for anyone interested in the period. It is also superbly illustrated.

    Liked by 1 person

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