The Cathedral – J.-K. Huysmans (tr. Brendan King)

“it is in vain that we say what we see; what we see never resides in what we say.”
– Foucault

J.-K. Huysmans’ ‘The Cathedral’ is the third novel in his tetralogy tracking the conversion of Huysmans’ alter ego Durtal. the first two novels ‘Là-bas’ and ‘En Route’ I looked at over the last month and the final work, ‘L’Oblat’, I intend writing about in the coming weeks. The journey of Huysmans’ alter-ego is from decadence, satanism and black masses through a purgatory questioning of his spiritual self, ending with a journey and stay at a monastery. Here he is billeted at Chartres.

This hefty novel opens with the wind battering everybody in Chartres, refuge from the elements for our protagonist Durtal is in the Cathedral of Our Lady of Chartres.

A massive Cathedral, mainly constructed between 1194 and 1220, it is now a UNESCO World Heritage listed site, dedicated to the Virgin Mary, and said to contain the tunic worn by Mary at Christ’s birth.

Once inside Durtal gets to thinking:

He thought of the Virgin, whose watchful attentions had so often preserved him from unseen risks, from careless slips, from great falls. Was she not a Well of Kindness that never ran dry, a Benefactress of the blessing of Patience, a Visiting Sister for hearts that are dried up and closed? Was she not, above all, a living and benevolent Mother?
Always leaning over the squalid bed of the soul, she bathed the sores, dressed the wounds, consoled the fainting weakness of converts. Through all the ages, she remained the eternal supplicant, eternally praying, merciful and grateful at one and the same time: merciful to the unfortunates she alleviated, and grateful to them, too. Indeed, she was thankful for our sins, because if it were not for the sinfulness of man, Jesus would never have been born under the corrupt semblance of our image, and she would never have been the immaculate Mother of God. Our misfortune was thus the initial cause of her joy, and indeed this is the most bewildering of mysteries, that this supreme Good should result from the very excess of Evil, that this touching, though supererogatory, bond should link us to her, because her gratitude might seem unnecessary since her inexhaustible mercy was enough to attach her to us for ever.

This obsession with the Virgin is explained in the introduction to the novel:

But if the Virgin –- and the cathedrals and churches which were dedicated to her and with whom she was so closely associated – played a broader ideological role in fin de siècle social and political life, there were also deeper psychological reasons why Huysmans was drawn to her image. Containing within her the seemingly contradictory avatars of the Virgin and the Mother, she was able to fulfil her procreative role without involving the guilt and shame that Huysmans associated with sex. He had long been searching for a way out of the impasse of sexual desire, a way to reconcile his spiritual yearnings with his physical urges, which in the early years of the 1890s were given fictional expression through the phantasmagorial sexual excesses of Madam Chantelouve in Là-bas, and the obsessive, nymphomanic visions of Florence in En Route.

As mentioned in my brief look at the previous novels in this cycle, these are multi layered works, the Virgin not a theme I had only mentioned in passing, knowing I could address it in some more detail here. Even the novel ‘Drifting’ (translated by Brendan King) the protagonist thinks “There’s no way I can accept . . . the virginity of an expectant mother…”.

It is through the architecture, art, sculptures and stained-glass windows that we travel through the Chartres Cathedral, and the obsession with the Virgin is peppered throughout:

The Virgin is sovereign over all. She fills the whole interior, and even on the exterior, on the West and South Porches which aren’t set aside for her, she also appears, in a niche, on the overdoor, in the capitals, high up on the pediment, in the air. The Hail Mary of art has been repeated without interruption by the painters and sculptors of every age. Never has the pious thread of its rosary been broken. The cathedral of Chartres is truly the fiefdom of Our Lady.

This obsession continues throughout:

Nowhere else was the Virgin so admired, so cherished, so emphatically proclaimed mistress of the realm offered her; and one detail proved it. In all other cathedrals, kings, saints, bishops and benefactors lay buried in underground sepulchres; but not at Chartres, not a body had ever been buried there, never had this church been an ossuary, because, as one of its historians, old Rouillard, said: “it has the pre-eminent distinction of being the couch or bed of the Virgin.”

Early in this work there are mentions of Zola, who appears in other works once Huysmans moved from the Naturalist style toward the Decadent, here Zola is employed to write promotional material for Lourdes:

It’s this that really confounds the mind: Jesus resigning himself to employ the wretched artifices of human commerce, adopting the repulsive tricks we use to launch a product or a business!

Three months into Durtal’s residence at Chartres, “his soul has kept to its room, barely getting out of bed” the fog of praying like clockwork becomes an allegory for Edgar Allan Poe:

The rooms of his inner castle were empty and cold, encircled, like those of the House of Usher, by a tarn whose mists ended up penetrating and cracking the worn shell of its walls. And he would prowl, alone and uneasy, amid these ruined cells, whose closed doors would no longer open; his walks within his own mind were thus limited and the panorama he could contemplate was singularly constrained and constricted, contracted almost to nothing. He knew full well, moreover, that the rooms surrounding the central cell, the cell reserved for the Master, was locked, sealed with bolts that couldn’t be unscrewed, triple-barred, inaccessible. So he limited himself to wandering in the halls and passageways.

It is not only the halls and passageways of Durtal’s mind where the wandering occurs, we have 342 pages, plus an additional 22 pages of photos, where Durtal wanders through the Chartres Cathedral and gives us detailed descriptions of the artworks, the windows, the sculptures, the architecture and more. At times it reads like a guidebook, an 1898 Lonely Planet guide to the Cathedral. Huysmans extends this exploration of art, with detours, at one stage Durtal reading aloud an article he has had published about ‘The Coronation of the Virgin’ by Fra Angelico, held in the Louvre, this small excerpt, again, referring to the Virgin:

She is ageless; she is not a woman, yet she is no longer a child. And one wouldn’t even know that she’s an adolescent, a barely nubile girl, so sublime is she, above all humanity, beyond the world, exquisite in her purity, forever chaste.
She remains wholly without parallel in painting. Next to her other Madonnas are vulgar; they are, in any case, women; she along is truly the white blade of corn divine, the wheat of the Eucharist; she along is truly the Immaculate, the
Regina Virginum of the hymns; and she is so young, so guileless, that the Son seems to be crowning his Mother before she could even have conceived him.

Huysmans is returning to his roots, art criticism, and this work contains innumerable examples.

Iconography and the symbolism of colours, the inner and outer colours of cloaks in artworks, of the hues and brightness in stained-glass windows, of gemstones, plants, North, South, East and West, animals and their appearance in the Bible, it is all explored in minute detail, a guidebook that’s is also a set of research notes, wrapped up in a tale of a man’s journey through purgatory, an obsession with the Virgin and fear of women:

…the passage where that terrible monk takes up the seductive charms of woman, turns them over, flays them, and flings them aside like a rabbit eviscerated on a butcher’s stall?

In ‘En Route’ we read about Durtal’s travails and concerns of moving to a monastery, here those struggles of the soul continue, using a different lens, the concrete reality of monuments and art dedicated to religion:

The church symbolism, this psychology of cathedrals, this study of the soul of sanctuaries, so entirely overlooked since the Middle Ages by those professors of monumental physiology called archaeologists and architects, was so interesting to Durtal that, for hours at a time, he was able to forget the turmoil and struggles of his soul; but the moment he ceased applying himself to researching the real meaning of those outward forms, everything started again. The kind of ultimatum that the Abbé Gévresin had so curtly given him, to put an end to his procrastinations and make a decision one way or the other, was as disturbing as it was terrifying.

Through Durtal’s observations and detailed descriptions of the Chartres Cathedral, do we move closer to God? Do we take this ekphrastic approach and picture the divine in the mind’s eye? The benefits of living in the internet age is that I can look up each of the referenced works and alongside Huysmans detailed descriptions, observe the work in question, notice his embellishments, his mind’s eye.

Stained glass! isn’t it the art in which God intervenes the most, the art which man alone could never make perfect, because only heaven can animate its colours and give movement to its lines by a ray of sunshine; in short, man fashions the outer form, prepares the body, but must wait for God to infuse the soul.

Although a guidebook for the Chartres Cathedral, this also contains the multitude of the man’s soul and his struggles, the intricate detail of each section of the church and its innumerable artworks, as Foucault says, “it is in vain that we say what we see; what we see never resides in what we say.” And although Huysmans says a lot there is still much more to be seen. A visit to the Cathedral has been added to the bucket list.

En Route – J. -K. Huysmans (tr. W. Fleming)

Michel Houellebecq’s controversial 2015 novel ‘Submission’ (‘Soumission’) opens with the following epigraph:

A noise recalled him to Saint-Sulpice; the choir was leaving; the church was about to close. ‘I should have tried to pray,’ he thought. ‘It would have been better than sitting here in the empty church, dreaming in my chair – bur pray? I have no desire to pray. I am haunted by Catholicism, intoxicated by its atmosphere of incense and wax. I hover on its outskirts, moved to tears by its prayers, touched to the very marrow by its psalms and chants. I am thoroughly disgusted with my life, I am sick of myself but so far from changing my ways! And yet . . . and yet . . . if I am troubled in the chapels, as soon as I leave them I become unmoved and dry. In the end,’ he told himself, as he rose and followed the last ones out, shepherded by the Swiss guard, ‘in the end, my heart is hardened and smoked dry by dissipation. I am good for nothing.’

A quote from ‘En Route’ by J. -K. Huysmans. As readers of Houellebecq’s novel will know it details the struggles of François, a middle-aged Huysmans academic, his disenchantment with late-capitalist consumerism, his spiritual barrenness, and the rise of Islamic law in France.

In a nutshell, Houellebecq’s work is a modern take on Huysman’s 1895 novel, instead of late-capitalist consumerism we have the decadence of the late 1800’s, instead of a spiritual conversion to Islam we have a conversion to Catholicism, both novels plotting the spiritual barrenness of their protagonists.

‘En Route’ is the second novel in the Durtal tetralogy, a collection of four novels plotting Durtal’s move from satanism, through conversion to Catholicism and finally ending with residence in a monastery as an oblate, Durtal a thinly veiled version of Huysmans himself. The first novel ‘Là-bas’ I looked at a few weeks ago, the final two ‘La cathédrale’ and ‘L’Oblat’ I intend to look at over the coming weeks.

If ‘Là-bas’ explores Satanism, the occult, and our protagonists’ pursuit of a sinful life (hell?), then ‘En Route’ could be seen as purgatory, where Durtal struggles with what road to take, the road to heaven, là-haut, or the road to hell, là-bas. This is a work of mental self-talk, a writer unsure of his future, does he return to the sins of the flesh, or does he take the spiritual path?

Durtal followed in his prayer book this work with so short a text, so long a chant; and as he listened to, and read it with recollection this magnificent prayer seemed to decompose as a whole, and represent three different states of the soul, to exhibit the triple phase of humanity, during its youth, its maturity, and its decline; it was, in a word, an essential summary of prayer for all ages.

Here he is talking about the Gregorian chant of ‘the “Salve Regina” (‘Hail Holy Queen’), for a version listen here, chanted by the monks of the Abbey of Notre Dame. Interestingly, Durtal is less impressed by the services at the Notre Dame, “as he listened to this admirable chant, which had nothing in common with that which is bellowed at Paris in the churches”. We may also note Huysmans’ attraction to the chants featuring “Our Lady”, as we will learn later of his obsession with the virgin, a figure of motherhood but also a figure of purity, unsullied.

‘En Route’, whilst detailing Durtal’s struggles also spends a significant portion of the novel lamenting the disappearance of the Gregorian Chant, the roots of spirituality, the stripped bare form of worship. A novel that looks deeply at religious music, and as the journey unfolds, Durtal will travel through religious architecture, sculpture, and painting, the symbolism of the tower bells, their construction, housing and sounds, the full gamut of religious art.

Durtal befriends the Abbé Gévresin, a spiritual advisor, a foil for his continuous self-doubt. It is through the Abbé that the idea of spending sometime in a monastery, La Trappe, germinates, could a few weeks living under spiritual conditions lead Durtal to the heavenly path?

“The Eucharist also seems terrible. To dare to come forward, to offer Him as a tabernacle the sewer of self scarce purified by repentance, a sewer drained by absolution, but still hardly dry, is monstrous. I am quite without such courage as to offer Christ this last insult, and so there is no good in fleeing to a monastery.”

A novel exploring the wavering and indecisiveness of the protagonist, a work where debates about the existence of Hell (how could God create such an abomination and not forgive all?), sit alongside Durtal’s concerns for his digestive system in a monastery.

We eventually journey with Durtal to La Trappe, experience his weeks with the monks, his debates with the oblate, as he slowly, begrudgingly moves towards a spiritual life.

This existentialist struggle really worked for me, the lingering self-doubts, the wavering self-talk, the indecision all being masterfully captured as a burning internal struggle. I’ll be back in the coming weeks with my views on book three, ‘La cathédrale’.

If you’ve read this work I suggest you give Michel Houellebecq’s ‘Submission’ a try, and if you’ve read Houellebecq then hop onto ‘En Route’, if you’ve read neither I suggest you do them as a double, you’ll have so much more depth added to the controversial book of 2015.

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.

‘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.

Drifting – J.-K. Huysmans (tr. Brendan King)

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 does 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.

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).

A Decadent Woman – Georges De Peyrebrune (tr. Brian Stableford)

Mathilde-Marie-Georgina-Élisabeth de Peyrebrune, a decadent name if I’ve ever seen one, wrote under the pseudonym of Georges de Peyrebrune and according to ‘A Library of the World’s Best Literature – Ancient and Modern, Volume XLIII’ was “one of the most popular women novelists in France”.

Her novella ‘Une Décadente’ (translated here as ‘A Decadent Woman’) first appeared, in two parts, in the ‘Revue Bleue’ 20 March and 27 March 1886.

The novella tells the story of Hélione d’Orval, possibly suffering from tuberculosis, and primarily her interactions with her immediate family, sister Marguerite and brother in law Marcus, who is a doctor.

As the introduction advises:

The early 1880s was the hey day of the Parisian “Amazons,” women who took satirical advantage of an old city statute that permitted them to apply to the Prefecture of Police for a permit to wear male attire in public. The political fashion statement had been made before, but the possibility of making it “official” when it was challenged was an attractive floupetterie of which several determined self-publicists took advantage. The fencing-schools of the city, running low on their traditional customers, had recently opened their doors wide to female clients, who flocked there in much the same spirit, compounding the scandal in the eyes of the popular press, which swiftly created a mythology of female duelists that was enthusiastically transplanted into fiction by writers proud to belong to the largely fictitious “decadent school,” including Catulle Mendès.

Our novella opens with a description of protagonist Hélione’s portrait, full of pleats of silk and pearls, however later we learn of her slip into decadence, her wearing of male clothes, fencing, smoking and generally lazing about awaiting death;

“…Oh, certainly we’re decadent – but if we begin to take pleasure in it proudly, we’ll be doomed. How many sick people one could save if we could leave them ignorant of their disease! Fortunately Messieurs the Decadents are almost all poets – which is to say, not dangerous from the viewpoint of the propagation of their theory, for, as soon as they express it in verse, no one hears them any longer.”

There is the juxtaposition of the eloquent portrait against Hélione’s descent into decadence, is it an illness, is her rejection of the social norms a mental degeneration? There’s a tinge of satire here, the protagonist who has rejected society vs the expectations of her accepting amour, becoming a mother and therefore being cured of her “illness”.

“He’s not effeminate, spoiled, pomaded, like the stupid young men of your so-called artistic cirlces; he doesn’t wear a necklace or bracelets under his garments, doesn’t make himself up like a girl, doesn’t intoxicate himself with morphine or hashish, and doesn’t walk lazily with his eyes half-closed, swinging his hips. He’s a man. But it’s evident that that type of virile, strong, powerful beauty, full of health and life, can’t please a young woman like you, who preaches the reversal of sex roles, dresses in masculine fashion, binds her delicate forms in vests and waistcoats, salutes with the neck, shakes hands brutally, fences with a sword, hunts, smokes cigarettes . . . that’s evident, that’s evident! You no longer need a master today, a leader or a support, you clever women, bold, artistic and decadent to excess. You no longer need a defender, you who kill with revolver in hand those who get in your way or wound you. You no longer need amour, that slavery of the true woman, nor children, that meek embarrassment of your arms, henceforth occupied in a virile manner…”

The novella is primarily conversationally based, the characters bantering about her health, her decadence and her potential cure.

“Since we’re born to die, isn’t it in the very spirit of the work of nature to do everything with a view to hastening that end, which is its goal?”
“It’s nihilism that you’re practicing in that?”
“Exactly; it’s the philosophical theory of nations in decadence. We’re a finished people, so let’s hasten to disappear and make way for the races to come!…”

This work’s language is florid, with rambling philosophical debates of the will or reasons to live, layer upon layer of extravagant arguments, as though they are the blooming silk pleats in Hélione’s portrait. To exaggerate the satire, Hélione is sent to a country retreat to possibly cure her decadent “illness”, a place populated with simple folk, an environment where nature giving life may transform Hélione and give her back the will to live, a regression to simpler times, away from the uncertainty of the turn of the century, where science had taken over religion, where the putrid atmosphere hangs over Paris, where the new century held too many uncertainties.

Only it was becoming extremely difficult to reflect and sharpen one’s thought, to excite subtle reasoning in one’s mind, in the absorbing environment, much more sensational and subjective than she had believed it to be previously. Something very material, very alive, but very pleasant, invaded you, which seemed to rise from the warm earth, from the germination of plants, from the electricity spread by all the beings scattered in great active nature; something obscure, but powerful, inexpressible but perfectly sensed and understood, as if the beings and things, saps, breaths and perfumes, were pushing you in the direction of their own activity, their movement and their life, toward a goal identical to theirs, fatal, inexorable and definite. It was like an enlacement in the vibrant chain of existence common to all organic beings, a recovery of possession by Mother Nature, a remembrance of primitive needs stifled by purely cerebral fictitious desires issued from the unhealthy exasperation of the nerves. It was like the diminution of a fever under the mollified circulation of refreshed blood, a penetrating health that brought into play all the regenerated physical forces.

A nice addition to the decadent works of the late 1800’s and having the satirical, tongue in cheek approach of a decadent woman, being part of the feminist movement and being considered unwell is a very interesting approach.

The book also contains three short stories. ‘The Fays’, which appeared as a supplement to the short novel ‘Giselle’ in 1891, a gothic fairy story of a King and Queen, “when she was taken to him, scarcely nubile, he found her to be not to his liking, and neglected her shortly thereafter.” She gives birth to a daughter and we have a feminist climax to the tale. ‘The Red Bird’, which appeared in L’Écho de Paris in the 19 September issue of 1889, a very short story of a heart being a red bird enclosed in the rib cage  and ‘Salome’ which also appeared in L’Écho de Paris but in the 27 December issue in 1889, another very short story about a cremation of an artist’s studio model.

Another addition to the Women In Translation catalogue, de Peyrebrune’s works now making their way into English, being translated by Brian Stableford, a regular translator for Snuggly Books, who specialize in decadent literature. Although de Peyrebrune was one of the “most popular women novelists in France” she, like many artists, unfortunately died in poverty and oblivion in Paris in 1917.

Nature in Octave Mirbeau and J-K Huysmans

By Aubrey Beardsley – [1], Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=13703

Like the alienated individuals of twentieth-century fiction, he is at odds with his surroundings, a victim of history, unsure of himself, dragged down by unhealthy living, and on the look out for something valuable in a worthless world.

  • David Blow, Introduction to ‘En-Route’ by JK Huysmans (tr. W Fleming)

The subject of this quote is Durtal, the thinly disguised autobiographical protagonist of Huysmans’ four novel sequence, ‘Là-Bas’, ‘En Route’, ‘The Cathedral’ and ‘The Oblate of St. Benedict’.

A decadent sequence of works, it explores satanism, the occult, Benedictine monks, the enrichment of the soul, a conversion to Catholicism, the art and architecture of the past amongst a raft of subjects. However today I am going to simply look at Huysmans’ view of the natural world as opposed to Octave Mirbeau’s, which I presented yesterday.

In each there is a longing for the simpler times of the past, and this is melded with nature by Mirbeau in ‘The Diary of a Chambermaid’ (tr. Douglas Jarman):

Nevertheless, I was happy, and longed for June to come. Oh, the daisies growing in the meadows, and the little footpaths through the woods, and the fluttering leaves . . . And then the birds’ nests that you find in the clumps of ivy, hanging from old walls . . . And the nightingales singing in the moonlight, as you sit on the wall of a well, covered with maidenhair fern and moss and honeysuckle climbing all over it, holding hands and talking quietly to one another . . . And the great bowls of warm milk, and the big straw hats, and the baby chicks, and going to mass in the village church, and the sound of bells, and all the rest of it . . . Why, it makes you feel as though your heart would burst with happiness, like those lovely songs they sing in the cafés in Paris! . . .

On the other hand, when Huysmans’ travels to, what most would consider, more idyllic settings the description is in opposition to Mirbeau’s:

It was as if you had been transported to Brittany itself. Here was the same sky and the same landscape, a melancholy, sombre sky, a sun which seemed older than elsewhere and which gilded but feebly the mournful gloom of the ancient forests and the old, moss-covered sandstone, a landscape which stretched out, as far as they eye could see, in barren moors, a landscape pock-marked by pools of rusty water, bristling with rocks, and riddled by little pink bells of heather and small yellow gorses, by clumps of furze and tufts of broom.
You felt that his iron-coloured sky, this famished earth, empurpled here and there by the blood-red flowers of buckwheat, that these roads bordered by walls of stone, piled one on top of the other without plaster or cement, that these footpaths edged by a wild tangle of hedgerows, that these crabbed weeds and untilled fields, that these crippled beggars eaten by vermin and scoured with filth, that even the mean and neglected livestock, the stunted cows and the black sheep whose blue eyes had the clear, cold stare of the degenerate or the Slav, had endured absolutely unchanged in and identical landscape for centuries.

From ‘Là-Bas’ (translated by Brendan King) pg 116 of Dedalus edition.

Unchanged for centuries, but here it is a “degenerate” past, “rusty”, “mournful”, a gothic past.

Mirbeau’s protagonist Célestine looking fondly backwards, not sure of her future, will it be valuable in a worthless world? Huysmans’ Durtal looking back to sombre times, his future possibly more valuable.

I will touch on Durtal’s future, and his attraction to old architecture, writing, art, religious teachings, and rituals (for example, the unaccompanied Gregorian chant is much preferred to the hymns accompanied by an organ) in future posts as I explore his four novels.

The Diary of a Chambermaid – Octave Mirbeau (tr. Douglas Jarman)

‘The Diary of a Chambermaid’ was originally published in 1900, during what was known as the “fin de siècle” period, the “end of century” or as the English refer to it, the “turn of the century”. A period considered one of degeneracy, whilst also looking towards the hope for a new beginning, the closing of one era and the opening of another. As Wikipedia tells us:

Works such as Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886); Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891); Arthur Machen’s The Great God Pan (1894); H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine (1895) and Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897) all explore themes of change, development, evolution, mutation, corruption and decay in relation to the human body and mind. These literary conventions were a direct reflection of many evolutionary, scientific, social and medical theories and advancements that emerged toward the end of the 19th century.

It is also a period where rejection of religion and the acceptance of the evolution of science, was reflected in numerous literary works, notably the decadent works of JK Huysmans:

‘What about Paul Bourget, Father?’
‘Bourget? Well, he’s certainly turned over a new leaf . . . I wouldn’t say no, I wouldn’t say no. But he’s not a genuine Catholic, not yet at least . . . He’s still very muddled . . . He seems to me, this Bourget, rather like a wash-basin . . . Yes, that’s it . . . a wash-basin that all sorts of people have been washing in, where you’re apt to find olives from Mount Calvary floating amongst bits of soap and hair . . . It would be better to wait a bit . . . And Huysmans? Well, he’s a bit steep. . . Still, he’s quite orthodox.’

This novel was also written and released at the height of the Dreyfus Affair, an anti-Semite miscarriage of justice and a huge political scandal. Whilst there are small references to the affair itself the book does contain a character who is deeply anti-Semite, him reading newspaper articles about the affair, having his walls plastered with nationalistic images etc.

As the name implies, ‘The Diary of a Chambermaid’ is a diary of a chambermaid’s, Célestine’s, present-day employment peppered with memories of previous engagements:

I shall spend this night reviving once again, perhaps for the last time, memories of my past. IT is the only way to stop myself brooding about my present problems, or plaguing myself with dreams about the future. These memories amuse me, yet at the same time they deepen my feeling of contempt. After all, what singular and monotonous faces I have encountered in my life of servitude! . . . When I see them again, in imagination, they no longer strike me as being really alive. They only live, or at least create the illusion of being alive, through their vices . . . Take away their vices, which preserve them like the bandages that preserve a mummy, and they are no longer even ghosts . . . merely dust and ashes . . . death . . .

The memories are of past lovers, past employers who sexually harass, abuse or mistreat their staff, a scandalous collection of bourgeois exploitation:

Servants are not normal social beings, not part of society. The lives they lead are disjointed, and they themselves are made up of bits and pieces that do not fit together. They are worse than that, they are monstrous hybrids. They have ceased to be part of the common people from whom they spring and they will never become part of the bourgeoisie whom they live amongst and wait on. They have lost the generous responses, the native strength, of the people they have rejected, and have acquired the shameful vices of the bourgeoisie without the necessary means of satisfying them; they have adopted their vile feelings, their cowardly fears, their criminal appetites, without the background, and therefore without the excuse, of their wealth. Living in this ‘respectable’ bourgeois world, simply from breathing in the fatal atmosphere that rises from this putrid drain, they lose all sense of spiritual security, and cease to be aware of their own separate existence. They wander like ghosts of themselves amongst a crowd of strangers, and when they search their memories all they can find there is filth and suffering. They are always laughing, but the laughter is forced; and, realized, it always wears the bitter grimace of revolt, the cruel sneer of sarcasm. Nothing is so heart-rendingly ugly as this laughter – it burns and withers . . . Perhaps it would have been better if I had cried! Yet I don’t know . . . Anyhow, to hell with it!

Using standard first person literary devices such as eavesdropping, partaking in the country gossip or being present whilst arguments amongst the bourgeoisie occur, this work holds a mirror up to late 19th Century society, the servant’s role, the degeneration of society, whilst also containing Célestine’s dreams of a better future, the fin de siècle, a new beginning.

Another interesting element is the occasional foray into naturalism, pastoralism, where the horrors of the current day filth, the putrid existence, the decadent lifestyle is set aside for a romantic view of the past:

Nevertheless, I was happy, and longed for June to come. Oh, the daisies growing in the meadows, and the little footpaths through the woods, and the fluttering leaves . . . And then the birds’ nests that you find in the clumps of ivy, hanging from old walls . . . And the nightingales singing in the moonlight, as you sit on the wall of a well, covered with maidenhair fern and moss and honeysuckle climbing all over it, holding hands and talking quietly to one another . . . And the great bowls of warm milk, and the big straw hats, and the baby chicks, and going to mass in the village church, and the sound of bells, and all the rest of it . . . Why, it makes you feel as though your heart would burst with happiness, like those lovely songs they sing in the cafés in Paris! . . .

These slight respites occasionally appear against the backdrop of an anarchist view of the world, a place where there is no justice for the working classes, a world where the bourgeoisie treat the servants worse than their pets:

… whichever way you tun, it’s always the same, and naturally it’s always those that have got the least that get robbed the worst . . . But what can you do about it? You can rage as much as  you like, you can try and revolt, but in the end you just have to admit that it’s better to be cheated than to starve, and die in the street like a dog . . . There’s only one thing certain, and that is that the world’s damned badly organized . . .

I’ve only lightly touched on the dominant theme of the exploitation of servants, sexually, physically, financially, however it is this dark undercurrent that pervades throughout the novel, Célestine merely portraying tales of debauchery, for example her shoes are taken by an old man, who is found dead in his bed, naked, in his teeth the leather, or the scraps the servants eat whilst the bourgeoisie feed prime beef to their dogs.

Célestine’s diary also contains her tales of promiscuity, including manipulation of her employers, loves, fraternizations with fellow employees as well as her unfulfilled desires, the rape and murder of a young girl, and so many more reflections on a society that has fallen into disgrace.

There’s enough late 1800’s spice to ensure decent circulation, for example, at one stage she catches up with an old friend Clémemce, “Cléclé I used to call her”, at accommodation for unemployed, destitute servants the “Sisters of Our Lady of the Thirty-Six Sorrows”, a place where they are exploited even further, working for gruel and if getting a placement having to pay back a sum plus interest for their board and lodgings:

As our cubicles were next to one another, on the second night she came into my bed . . . After all, what else could you expect? Force of example, perhaps . . . but also, perhaps, the craze to satisfy a curiosity that had for a long time been plaguing me . . . And, besides with Cléclé it was a passion . . . ever since she had been seduced, four years ago, by one of her mistresses, a General’s wife.

‘The Diary of a Chambermaid’ is a not a difficult read, it addresses social issues of the late 1800’s, adds in the decadent elements of an era of degeneracy, whilst also looking towards Célestine’s hope for a new beginning. Using a style that is not simply a diary, there’s the non-linear approach with the flashbacks, eavesdropping, social commentary and scandal you are engaged throughout. If you have seen the Luis Buñuel film that is based on this book, I suggest you read this work as it contains a whole lot more depth of riches (the flashbacks) and the story of Célestine’s redemption, if it can be called that, is significantly different. For anybody who is intrigued by the literature of the French decadent period this is a worthwhile novel to add to the list of possible reads. Currently, I am continuing with the writers of that era, presently focusing on JK Huysman’s four semi-autobiographical novels about Durtal and his rise from decadence to Roman Catholic saving and I will write up my thoughts about these books over the coming weeks.