Kafka’s Gregor Samsa cannot get to work because he has become a giant insect, Herman Melville’s Bartleby responds to the menial office tasks with “I would prefer not to” and now I have discovered J.-K. Huysmans’ Monsieur Jean Folantin, a bored office worker who spends his life looking for the perfect meal. As Guy de Maupassant said in his review of Huysmans’ short work: “It’s the story of a clerk looking for a beefsteak. Nothing more.”
This story, which counts for sixty of the 104 pages of this text, first appeared in 1882, shortly before Huysmans defining ‘À rebours’ (‘Against Nature’), and it contains a number of interesting references and themes which would come to appear in Huysmans later work, the disdain of the Americanisation of Paris, the longing for the better times of the past, Catholic rejection, and the themes of decadence, for example the colour purple.
As the translator, Brendan King, points out the title ‘À vau- l’eau’ is not easily translatable, “in general terms the phrase means to go along in the direction of a flow of water, and is used both literally and metaphorically.” Other translations have been ‘Downstream’, and as King argues this “suffers from the fact that it refers more to a location than an action”, and ‘With the Flow’ which “expresses the literal movement implicit in the original, but is slightly less effective in conveying its existential sense.” King, who has translated a substantial amount of Huysmans’ work, lands on ‘Drifting’ and I feel that captures both the mood and the action.
The seeds of decadence are scattered throughout this work, as Brendan King points out in his introduction:
With the advantage of hindsight, À vau- l’eau, with tis radical blend of dark irony and idiosyncratic subjectivity, seems less an addendum to Huysmans’ earlier Naturalist work, and more a precursor to what would follow.
As our protagonist moves from eating house to eating house, searching for the perfect meal, he contemplates other options, he could move to another neighbourhood for example:
‘If only I had the courage to leave,’ sighed M. Folantin from time to time. But his office was here, and besides he’d been born here, his family had always lived here; all his memories were rooted in this quiet old district, already starting to be disfigured by the knocking through of new streets, by dismal boulevards that were baking in summer and freezing in winter, by bleak avenues that had Americanised the look of the area and destroyed its intimate charm forever, without bringing any benefits in exchange in terms of comfort, gaiety or life.
Or as Monsieur Jean Folantin wanders the banks of the Seine, wasting time looking at the spines of books on stall outside of shops, or contemplating the buildings, before he moves onto another dreadful eating experience:
‘But there you go, the old easygoing attitude has disappeared; besides, the centre of the trade is shifting: nowadays all the antique dealers and antiquarian booksellers in this area are just marking time, and as soon as their leases expire they’ll flee to the other side of the river. Ten years from now the brasseries and cafés will have taken over all the ground-floor premises on the quay. There’s no doubt about it, Paris is turning into a sinister Chicago.’ And by now totally depressed, M. Folantin kept repeating to himself: ‘Let’s make the most of the time left to us, before the crass vulgarity of the New World takes over completely.’
As Parisians are approaching the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth, the traditions of the past are disappearing, the future is not rosy but bleak, the crass vulgarity of the New World is taking over. This story is an acerbic view of an impotent bachelor’s life in 1880’s Paris. Filled with depressing anecdotes and descriptions, you are dragged into the drudgery of Monsieur Jean Folantin’s existence. In the opening pages we find him:
Feet frozen, squeezed inside boots stiffened by showers and puddles, skull white hot from the gas burner hissing above his head, M. Folantin had barely eaten anything and even now bad luck wouldn’t let him be; his fire was faltering, his lamp was smoking, his tobacco was damp and kept going out, staining the cigarette paper with yellow nicotine.
The insignificant man, single with no romantic prospects, suffering from syphilis, described as, “suddenly one night, for no reason, she deserted him, leaving him a souvenir he had difficulty curing himself of”, our anti-hero simply exists…and looks for a decent meal:
Neither the next day, nor the day after that, did M. Folantin’s unhappiness dissipate; he simply let himself drift, incapable of resisting under this crushing feeling of depression. Mechanically, under a rainy sky, he would make his way to his office; then he would leave it, eat, and go to bed at nine, only to resume the following day the exact same routine; little by little he slid into complete spiritual apathy.
It is worth noting that Huysmans, until the huge success of ‘The Cathedral’ in 1898, worked as a clerk, his writing not drawing a sufficient income to be self-sustainable, are these ramblings of a disenchanted, depressed, apathetic worker reflections of Huysmans himself? In later works Huysmans himself is thinly disguised as the character Durtal, however he is a writer on a spiritual journey, here M. Folantin is a clerk.
The sequence of the Durtal novels ‘Là-Bas’, ‘En Route’, ‘The Cathedral’ and ‘The Oblate of St. Benedict’ deal with a journey through the occult, religious uncertainty and conversion to Catholicism, here there is still the questioning, the agnostic statements, and, interestingly enough, an obsession with the virgin birth (more on that subject when I get to formalizing some thoughts on ‘The Cathedral’):
‘Yes, but why are the consolations of religion only fit for simpletons? Why sis the Church want to elevate the most absurd beliefs into dogmatic truths? There’s no way I can accept either the virginity of an expectant mother, or the divinity of a comestible prepared by a breadmaker,’ and besides, the intolerance of the clergy revolted him. ‘And yet mysticism alone could heal the wound that torments me. All the same, it would be wrong to point out to the faithful the futility of their devotions, because if they can accept all the vexations, all the afflictions of their present life as a passing trial they are happy indeed…’
Apologies, Guy de Maupassant this may be “the story of a clerk looking for a beefsteak”, but it is a whole lot more. I’ve not touched on the meal elements at all and whether M. Folantin get’s his precious meal, you’ll have to read this yourselves to find out. I am very grateful to Brendan King and his ongoing translation work of Huysmans, and of course Dedalus Books for publishing them, these lesser-known works add another layer to his more recognized pieces, as you see a writer developing, honing his skills. Another wonderful addition to the Huysmans oeuvre at Dedalus.