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.


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.