Delousing the soul.
There is an astonishing photograph of this fitful Satanist amid a throng of pilgrims at the Grotto of Lourdes. Taken in September 1904, it shows Huysmans wedged in with other rapt devotees before the basilica. With his neatly trimmed goatee, close-cropped skull, and impeccable frock-coat, he cuts a strangely stylish figure in the crowd. In other photographs taken at Lourdes, he has a sleek look, his delicate features giving him the unexpected aspect, amid the blurred hordes, of an elegant ferret. The sometime dandy and the lifelong bureaucrat have coalesced in his respectful but jaunty stance. A career functionary at the Ministry of the Interior by day, novelist and feuilletonist on evenings and weekends, as well as president of the newly formed Academie Goncourt, Huysmans juggled more guises, as well as poses, than any other literary figure of his day. In the end, through the unforeseeable machinations of grace, these jostling selves fused. Without abandoning either his wit or his clearsightedness, Huysmans ended up the most convinced of Catholics. And his faith was accompanied by a deepening exercise of all the stolid virtues which previously he had ridiculed. If "humility is endless" as T. S. Eliot declared, the once arrogant Huysmans explored its furthest boundaries in his final agonies. It took years, and it took stubborn patience, before he grew into goodness. At the end he could offer up the protracted sufferings of his hideous death as an act of "mystical substitution" refusing morphine so that his agonies might serve to redeem others, all unknown to him. The substitution demanded anonymity, perhaps the utmost limit of humility.
An assiduous reader of hagiographical books--the more lurid the better--Huysmans himself slowly developed into an exemplum. Though the story of his life, and of his creeping, almost inconspicuous transformation, rivals that of other more celebrated figures--St. Augustine comes to mind--the Church has not clasped Huysmans to her bosom, but has handled him, and his case, with squeamish tongs. And yet, for all the brilliance of his fiction and criticism, Huysmans' life was his own most bizarre, and moving, creation.
In 1955, the Oxford scholar Robert Baldick published the definitive biography of this odd genius and his account has now, at long last, been re-issued in an affordable paperback. (1) I first read The Life of J.-K Huysmans over thirty years ago and thought it a masterpiece, able to hold its own with Painter's Proust or Ellmann's Joyce; on a rereading, it seems to me even better than I had remembered. This is not solely because Baldick writes very well; though he loved Huysmans and had read almost every word, published or unpublished, which he wrote, he eschewed the master's baroque prose in favor of a swift, clear, graceful style. He interviewed the novelist's few surviving friends and relatives; he ransacked archives and obscure repositories; he carried out bibliographic sleuthing with admirable doggedness. In his research he uncovered many previously unknown or unsuspected facts which illumined Huysmans's literary career as well as his intricate spiritual life.
But mastery of the subject and expository skill do not alone make an outstanding biography. Baldick possessed two further gifts which come brilliantly into play in his Life. He had an uncanny feeling for the taste and smell and feel of late-nineteenth-century French literary and cultural life; as we read him, we seem to rub up against the very texture of the time. And he was a gifted storyteller. These abilities enabled him to create unforgettable vignettes of any number of noble and eccentric and downright dotty characters who flitted through Huysmans's life. These include totally forgotten figures, such as Mme. Enguerrand de Marigny, an aristocratic widow who served as Huysmans' charwoman and who not only relished her late husband's descent from one of Philip the Fair's ministers who had hanged himself, but "would sometimes re-enact his suicide in gruesome detail, in a misguided attempt to amuse her employer." Another was a fanatic Latinist and advocate of Gregorian Chant, the elderly and irascible Anguste Dessus, whose cartes de visite identified him, in Latin translation, as "A. Super" and who once hectored the Cardinal Archbishop of Paris "into visiting the dying Abbe Raillard, a neglected Gregorianist, and afterwards showed him to his carriage with the final admonition: 'Your Eminence, extra Gregorianum, nulla salus!'"
Of course, more illustrious figures dominate the narrative, from the impecunious and quixotic Villiers de l'IsleAdam to the loathsome Leon Bloy--with Flaubert, de Maupassant, Verlaine, Mallarme, and Zola making brief but trenchant appearances--and Baldick has some wonderful anecdotes to tell about them. Thus, when the absinthe-sodden Verlaine asked Huysmans for money to buy new clothes, Huysmans shrewdly insisted on accompanying the poet to the tailor. There Verlaine would settle for nothing less than a suit of corduroy velvet, declaring, "I should like to look like a carpenter because carpenters are the most magnificent exemplars of human beauty! I want a jacket in ribbed velvet, and baggy trousers with that little pocket for the yellow yardstick--and if I can't have what I want, I swear I shan't wear any clothes at all, but go stark naked like John the Baptist!" Huysmans stood firm and the raving poet left the shop more sensibly attired. On other occasions, Verlaine would fall into despondency and send Huysmans scribbled notes at the Ministry of the Interior, begging for help. As Baldick puts it, "With a sigh, Huysmans would tidy away his papers and hurry out to the cafe, where an ugly, sinister figure sat hunched over a table, sobbing like a child, and waiting to be comforted." (These are but two instances of innumerable acts of kindness on Huysmans's part to friends and hangers-on throughout his life and form a counterpoise to his outbursts of misanthropic rage.) It is to Baldick's great credit, however, that he never allows these more famous figures to skew his narrative. The shady defrocked priest, long forgotten, is as sharply drawn as the literary lion, and the liveliness of the narrative springs in part from this fine justice of regard.
Huysmans launched his literary career as a dedicated follower of Zola. His earliest works revel with appalled exactitude on the most sordid aspects of urban life, beginning in 1876 with Marthe, a seamy portrait of a streetwalker. In 1882, he published his first masterpiece in this vein, the novella A Vaul'Eau ("Downstream"). This is the story of Jean Folantin, an underpaid clerk whose whole object in life is to find a digestible, and affordable, meal somewhere, anywhere, in Paris. Already here we sense Huysmans chafing against the strictures of Naturalism; in this little epic of indigestion, the sleazy begins to take on a life of its own. The first symptoms of that love of excess which typifies the later Huysmans start to show; the prose almost oozes, like one of those vile and bubbling sauces slathered over poor Folantin's gristly entrecote. As Baldick notes, by this time Huysmans had become disillusioned with Zola's methods; Naturalism had proved an impasse. With hindsight, however, we realize that it was not simply Naturalism, but matter itself, the physical world, and in particular the body, which both baffled Huysmans and inspired him. He would beat against its obduracy to the end.
One of his tactics in this battle--and it is one which unites his disparate works from the first to the last and gives them an unlikely coherence--entailed discovering the most extreme physical analogue for the spiritual. This is already apparent in his gruesome depictions of suffering flesh, a favorite subject, but it applied to other, more intimate matters as well. Thus, in describing his "conversion" Huysmans always maintained that it had been a slob; natural, almost ruminative process; there had been no flash of insight, let alone any road to Damascus. He claimed that in fact it was akin to the process of digestion (another cherished theme). And he played on such analogues as his own devotional practices intensified, calling the sacrament of confession a "delousing of the soul." This lifelong preoccupation with the mutinous body and its manifold ills obsessed Huysmans and he documented it, often with ferocious humor, in his fiction. In this respect, he might be termed the most dogged chronicler of the Incarnation; it was his nagging fascination with the flesh that led him to Christ, the embodied God.
A Rebours ("Against the Grain" or "Against Nature") appeared in 1884 and introduced the fastidious Jean des Esseintes, the last stunted scion of the ancient Floressas des Esseintes line, to a bemused public (who made it a bestseller). A Rebours has always been Huysmans' most popular novel, and it's probably his best. In des Esseintes, Huysmans found the perfect fulcrum upon which the competing claims of the spirit and the senses could be poised. Contrary to first impressions, though he is a supreme aesthete, des Esseintes is not really a hedonist; pain is as essential to him as pleasure, it is the freshness of sensation that intrigues him. Des Esseintes is a logician of the senses, advancing corporeal hypotheses and fleshly premises to find where they may lead, though inevitably--whether through his "taste organ" which uses rare liqueurs to play symphonies on his palate or through the desiccated prose of late Latin authors or through rough-and-tumble foreplay with the acrobat "Miss Urania" ("an American girl with a supple figure, sinewy legs, muscles of steel, and arms of iron")--his conclusions turn to ash. One by one, des Esseintes puts each sense to the test and finds it wanting, however fantastically primed or stimulated.
No wonder Jules Barbey d'Aurevilly--not a great admirer of Huysmans--could repeat to him a remark he had once made to Baudelaire after the publication of Les Fleurs du Mal: "It remains for you only to choose between the muzzle of a pistol and the foot of the Cross." And he added, "Bandelaire chose the foot of the Cross. But will the author of A Rebours make the same choice?" A Rebours ends with a prayer, as though Huysmans, through des Esseintes, were already half-conscious of what others, even at the time, saw plainly enough. With senses and imagination exhausted, des Esseintes (in Baldick's translation) implores, "Lord, take pity on the Christian who doubts, on the unbeliever who would fain believe, on the galley-slave of life who puts out to sea alone, in the night, beneath a firmament no longer lit by the consoling beacon-fires of the ancient hope!"
It was also with A Rebours that Huysmans first displayed his remarkable prose style, that outlandish amalgam in which exactitude of phrase consorts with outrageous excess. This is no longer the stately French of the Academy but a wholly idiosyncratic melange, at once vituperative, sumptuous, and strangely caressing. This inimitable style, which his one-time friend Leon Bloy described as "continually dragging Mother Image by the hair or the feet down the worm-eaten staircase of terrified Syntax" shows to good effect in his celebrated description of the Isenheim Altarpiece by Matthias Grunewald (c. 1480-1528). Huysmans had seen the triptych in Colmar and in his 1891 novel La-bas, he evoked Grunewald's vision of the crucified Christ:
Christ's arms, dislocated, practically ripped from his shoulders, seemed throttled along their entire length by the coiled thongs of the muscles. The gaping armpits cracked; the wide-spread hands brandished gaunt fingers which still persisted in blessing in a mingled gesticulation of prayer and reproach. The pectoral muscles quivered, buttery with sweat. The torso was streaked with circular stave-ends where the ribs showed through the ribcage. The flesh swelled, bluish and rotting, spattered with flea-bites, speckled by pinpricks from the tips of the flails which had snapped against the skin but still, here and there, had studded it with splinters. Purulence was beginning; the draining gash in the side streamed sluggishly, drenching the thigh with blood like some thickened blackberry juice; a milky pinkish discharge, like a gray Moselle wine, seeped from the chest and spattered the belly beneath which the grimy loin-cloth rippled.
Though Huysman had always cultivated an exuberant relish for wounds and lesions and suppurations, here he surpassed himself (and I've translated only a snippet--the passage continues for almost three pages), but his ghoulish pleasure in depicting the insults of the flesh had, almost in spite of himself, a deeper purpose. In one sense, he seems to be competing with his model, as though prose could rival oil in its tints and shades. But then, after dwelling with macabre affection on every pustule of the dying Christ, he remarks:
This was the Christ of the Poor, He who had taken His place among the most wretched of those whom He had come to redeem, among the outcasts and the scroungers, among all those upon whose hideousness or destitution man's cravenness fixes. This was also the most human Christ, a weak and sad-fleshed Christ, deserted by the Father who intervened only when no fresh torment was conceivable; the Christ attended only by his Mother--helpless then, and useless--to whom, like all those who are tortured, He nanst have cried with the screams of a child.
La-bas deals with satanic cults and Black Masses, but this passage clearly prefigures the later Huysmans who made a fervent cult of the Mater Dolorosa and who denounced "the Christ of the rich" that prettified "Galilean Adonis." It also reveals his compassion. Like many fin-de-siecle French Catholics, Huysmans had a penchant for invective which he indulged at every turn; even later, after his conversion, he could deride "the canticle-braying hordes" of Lourdes. When the censorious Charles Peguy was admonished with the verse "Judge not lest ye be judged," he shot back,
"I don't judge, I condemn" and Huysmans would have concurred. And yet, again like Peguy but unlike Bloy (whom Baldick unmasks as not only a self-righteous hypocrite but also the most shameless of spongers), Huysmans's words were often harsh while his actions were kind.
Huysmans's last three novels (all featuring his alter ego Durtal, first introduced in La-bas) constitute his "spiritual autobiography." With the possible exception of En route of 1895, neither La Cathedrale (1898) nor L'Oblat (1903) is much read today (the most recent translations into English all date from the 1920s). But Baldick draws on them with tact and delicacy to reconstruct Huysmans' inner life; they contain "the story of a soul" and in that sense are perhaps more precious than mere novels can be.
If "the style is the man" then Huysmans's own prose style seems rife with prescience. In 1901, he published Sainte Lydwyne de Schiedam, a gruesome study of the fourteenth-century Dutch martyr, in which no detail of her horrific afflictions was left to the imagination. As Baldick points out, it was to be Huysmans's own final statement on human suffering. Blessed Lydwyne had been an early exponent of "mystical substitution," and this sparked Huysmans's interest. In his view, Christ had undergone a mystical marriage with suffering, personified as a bride, on the Mount of Olives; in this union He had offered up his own agonies for the redemption of others. Huysmans came to accept this doctrine as the only plausible explanation for the unmerited sufferings of the innocent. He would put the doctrine into practice in his own flesh.
Diagnosed with a malignancy which ate away his mouth and lips and palate, Huysmans suffered the pain and the stench of his own decomposition with uncomplaining fortitude. When his doctor offered him morphine, he exclaimed, "All, you want to prevent me from suffering ... I forbid you!" And towards the end he remarked, "I am the total of a sum. Who knows whether I am not expiating the sins of others?" His death, on the evening of May 12, 1907, was what Catholics used to call "a good death." A good death was not a painless one but a death welcomed in the hope of salvation.
The devil seems to have deserted Huysmans in his final months. Perhaps he had served his purpose. Huysmans's preoccupation with Satan and the daft protocols of the occult strikes us as somewhat quaint. But this may be to miss a crucial point. For Huysmans the supernatural was a kind of spectrum, with cruder wavelengths in the form of hobgoblins and "ecclesiastical larvae" at one extreme, and ever more refined pulsations, leading ultimately to God, at the other. To accept even the least of these was to set one foot on the lintel of belief. It may have taken a swat from that hooked paw, but, once embarked, Huysmans never looked back.
(1) The Life of J.-K. Huysmans, by Robert Baldick; Dedalus, 592 pages, $23.
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|Title Annotation:||The Life of J.-K. Huysmans|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Sep 1, 2006|
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