The Oblate of St Benedict – J.-K. Huysmans (tr. Edward Perceval)

‘The Oblate of St. Benedict’ is the final instalment in J.-K. Huysmans’ tetralogy following the spiritual journey of Durtal, a thinly veiled version of Huysmans himself. The sequence began with ‘Là-bas’, and is followed by ‘En Route’, ‘La Cathédrale’ (‘The Cathedral’) and ‘L’oblat’. For the Dedalus Editions of the four works the translators vary, with ‘Là-bas’ and ‘The Cathedral’ translated by Brendan King, ‘En Route’ by W. Fleming, and the final work by Edward Perceval.

A high level summary of our journey with Durtal so far, shows him dabbling with Satanism and attending Black Masses in ‘Là-bas’, before he begins to question decadence and enters a personal purgatory where he questions his faith, his sexual liaisons with a friend’s wife and turns to Catholicism, finally spending some time in a monastery, La Trappe, in ‘En Route’, before committing to a life of dedication to the Virgin Mary and being installed at Chartres where he reflects on the architecture, religious art, stained glass windows and the role it plays in Christian faith in the novel ‘The Cathedral’.

We now join Durtal ten years after his time at La Trappe, and now follow his his time as an oblate at Val-des-Saints and the Abbey of Solesmes. Whilst earlier novels dealt specifically with Durtal’s beliefs and his struggles to “covert” here we learn, on the opening page, his struggles with remaining cloistered, “the only monastic life that I could live is the life seen there!”, as opposed to being free to move about, unlike the monks:

And yet he could not forget how, every time he left the Abbey and sat in the carriage conveying him to Sablé station, he had breathed deeply, as a man might do when relieved of an awful load; how, too, directly he was in the train, he said to himself, “Thank God! Here I am, a free man again!” And yet, in spite of this, he really missed that feeling of discomfort and of restraint due to being with others, and was sorry for his deliverance rom set hours and from unlooked-for distraction and inevitable minor worries. He found it difficult to analyse these feelings or to account for such abrupt changes. “Yes, certainly,” he would declare, “Solesmes stands alone; there is no place like it in the whole of France; religion there has an artistic splendour to be met with nowhere else; the chant is perfect; the services are conducted with matchless pomp. Where else, too, could I ever hope to meet an Abbot as broad-minded as Dom Delatte, or experts in musical palaeography more skilled learned than Dom Mocquereau and Dom Cagin, or, for that matter, with any monks more helpful and engaging — quite so, but…”

Whilst the earlier works dealt with Durtal’s struggle with his spiritual vocation here the reality of the monastic rules plays havoc with Durtal’s reconciliation with his writing career:

“Supposing the Abbot allows me to work at my books in peace,” he said to himself, “and agrees not to meddle with literary matters (and so broad-minded a man as he can be trusted in this), that would be no use for I should be absolutely incapable of writing a book in this Abbey.  On several occasions I tried to write, but the mornings and the afternoons are so broken up by services that all work of an artistic kind is out of the question. This sort of life, cut up into little slices, may be first-rate for collecting materials and for amassing notes, but for turning out good literary work, oh dear no!”
And he remembered certain distressing occasions when, playing truant from one service, he had endeavoured to work at a chapter only to be oppressed by the thought that, directly he had begun to get under way, he would have to leave his cell and go to the chapel for another service. “Thus,” he concluded, “the cloister is useful for preparing materials for a book, but it is best written elsewhere.”

The theological struggle that we have seen in the earlier novels, has made way and he is now struggling with his art, throughout we learn of Durtal’s settling with his demons of the past:

By way of consolation it is well to bear in mind that the devil has no power over the will and very little over the mind, but an unlimited power of the fancy. There he is master and there he holds revel with his myrmidons; but all this riot is of no more consequence than the din of a military band which passes your windows. The panes rattle, everything in the room shakes and you are deafened. But you have only to sit tight and wait till the blare of the brass and the noise of the drums have died away; the tumult is without; we feel its effect, indeed, but we are not responsible for the effect, unless, of course, we go to the window the better to hear; then, there would be assent. All this is easily said, but . . . another question on which light is needed is that of charity ort brotherly love. Everybody admits that we must love our neighbour; but, in certain cases, where does love begin and where does it end? At certain times, too, we may ask what becomes of truth, justice, candour, under this cloak of charity! For, after all, hypocrisy, sloth and injustice are often separated from charity only by a thread’s breadth. To avoide giving offence you may help a bad cause; you do harm by professing no to judge another, and cowardice and a wish to avoid getting entangled in unpleasantnesses, play no small part. The boundary line between this virtue and these vices is so indefinite that you never know if you have not crossed it. The theological theory is all right in its way: we must be ruthless as regards evil deeds, but merciful to evil doers; but this general principle doesn’t solve the special cases, and all the cases are special. The border-line that must be crossed is ill-defined and dark; nor is there any fence or warning-board to prevent you breaking your neck.

As in the previous works there are detailed historical explanations of the religious orders, the roles of white and black monks, and more specifically the role of the oblate. They “occupy that position half way between Fathers and lay-brothers”, the live in, or near, the monastery (in Durtal’s case near), but they have not taken vows.

Like ‘The Cathedral’ this book can tend towards the tedious, wherein the previous work there were detailed descriptions of stained-glass windows, art works or sculptures, a la a guidebook for people who cannot visit Chartres Cathedral, here we dip into more ekphrastic pages again on art works and sculptures. Huysmans is returning to his earlier writing days as an art critic. Now with instant copies of images available on the internet, detailed descriptions of a painting can be seen as peripheral, however, to call up the art works and then read Huysmans descriptions helps you to see the works with his eyes, with his experience, his trove of religious knowledge. As he says religious art is the “best form of propaganda.”

There is also political subjects and the Communities Bill of the time, rulings impacting monks, and oblates, with Benedictines being banished from France. This leads to lamentations on the future of monasteries, his order, his role. And as we learned in earlier works the Dreyfus Affair, with the Catholics showing their anti-Semite views, also plays a part here:

Durtal – who had always been persuaded that eh Devil had his finger in the Dreyfus Affair, and looked upon it as noting more than a spring-board, set up by Jews and Protestants, from which to leap at the Church’s throat and strangle her…”

At times a work that causes frustration, even a questioning as to why I was even reading it, however a decent conclusion to a spiritual journey. In my mind the works peter out over the last two instalments, becoming overly involved with obsessions with the Virgin Mary and the endless theological arguments, then again they do capture the mind of a man who has become overtly converted to his religion. A long journey, and, at times, a tedious one, however one I am glad I undertook.


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