J. K. HUYSMANS
The novels of M. Huysmans, however we may regard them as novels are, at all events, the sincere and complete expression of a very remarkable personality. From Marthe to Là-Bas every story, every volume, disengages the same atmosphere — the atmosphere of a London November, when mere existence is a sufficient burden, and the little miseries of life loom up through the fog into a vague and formidable grotesqueness. Here, for once, is a pessimist whose philosophy is mere sensation — and sensation, after all, is the one certainty in a world which may be well or ill arranged, for ultimate purposes, but which is certainly, for each of us, what each of us feels it to be. To M. Huysmans the world appears to be a profoundly uncomfortable, unpleasant, ridiculous place, with a certain solace in various forms of art, and certain possibilities of at least temporary escape. Part of his work presents to us a picture of ordinary life as he conceives it, in its uniform trivial wretchedness; in another part he has made experiment in directions which have seemed to promise escape, relief; in yet other portions he has allowed himself the delight of his sole enthusiasm, the enthusiasm of art. He himself would be the first to acknowledge — indeed, practically, he has acknowledged — that the particular way in which he sees life is a matter of personal temperament and constitution, a matter of nerves. The Goncourts have never tired of insisting on the fact of their névrose, of pointing out its importance in connection with the form and structure of their work, their touch on style, even. To them the maladie fin de siècle has come delicately, as to the chlorotic fine ladies of the Faubourg Saint-Germain: it has sharpened their senses to a point of morbid acuteness, it has given their work a certain feverish beauty. To M. Huysmans it has given the exaggerated horror of whatever is ugly and unpleasant, with the fatal instinct of discovering, the fatal necessity of contemplating, every flaw and discomfort that a somewhat imperfect world can offer for inspection. It is the transposition of the ideal. Relative values are lost, for it is the sense of the disagreeable only that is heightened; and the world, in this strange disorder of vision, assumes an aspect which can only be compared with that of a drop of impure water under a microscope. “Nature seen through a temperament” is Zola’s definition of all art. Nothing, certainly, could be more exact and expressive as a definition of the art of Huysmans.
To realise how faithfully and how completely Huysmans has revealed himself in all he has written, it is necessary to know the man. “He gave me the impression of a cat,” some interviewer once wrote of him; “courteous, perfectly polite, almost amiable, but all nerves, ready to shoot out his claws at the least word.” And, indeed, there is something of his favourite animal about him. The face is grey, wearily alert, with a look of benevolent malice. At first sight it is commonplace, the features are ordinary, one seems to have seen it at the Bourse or the Stock Exchange. But gradually that strange, unvarying expression, that look of benevolent malice, grows upon you as the influence of the man makes itself felt. I have seen Huysmans in his office — he is an employé in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and a model employé; I have seen him in a café, in various houses; but I always see him in memory as I used to see him at the house of the bizarre Madame X. He leans back on the sofa, rolling a cigarette between his thin, expressive fingers, looking at no one and at nothing, while Madame X moves about with solid vivacity in the midst of her extraordinary menagerie of bric-à-brac. The spoils of all the world are there, in that incredibly tiny salon; they lie underfoot, they climb up walls, they cling to screens, brackets, and tables; one of your elbow menaces a Japanese toy, the other a Dresden china shepherdess; all the colours of the rainbow clash in a barbaric discord of notes. And in a corner of this fantastic room, Huysmans lies back indifferently on the sofa, with the air of one perfectly resigned to the boredom of life. Something is said by my learned friend who is to write for the new periodical, or perhaps it is the young editor of the new periodical who speaks, or (if that were not impossible) the taciturn Englishman who accompanies me; and Huysmans, without looking up, and without taking the trouble to speak very distinctly, picks up the phrase, transforms it, more likely transpierces it, in a perfectly turned sentence, a phrase of impromptu elaboration. Perhaps it is only a stupid book that someone has mentioned or a stupid woman; as he speaks, the book looms up before one, becomes monstrous in its dulness, a masterpiece and miracle of imbecility; the unimportant little woman grows into a slow horror before your eyes. It is always the unpleasant aspect of things that he seizes, but the intensity of his revolt from that unpleasantness brings a touch of the sublime into the very expression of his disgust. Every sentence is an epigram, and every epigram slaughters a reputation or an idea. He speaks with an accent as of pained surprise, an amused look of contempt, so profound that it becomes almost pity, for human imbecility.
Yes, that is the true Huysmans, the Huysmans of A Rebours, and it is just such surroundings that seem to bring out his peculiar quality. With this contempt for humanity, this hatred of mediocrity, this passion for a somewhat exotic kind of modernity, an artist who is so exclusively an artist was sure, one day or another, to produce a work which, being produced to please himself, and being entirely typical of himself, would be, in a way, the quintessence of contemporary Decadence. And it is precisely such a book that Huysmans has written, in the extravagant, astonishing A Rebours. All his other books are a sort of unconscious preparation for this one book, a sort of inevitable and scarcely necessary sequel to it. They range themselves along the line of a somewhat erratic development, from Baudelaire, through Goncourt, by way of Zola, to the surprising originality of so disconcerting an exception to any and every order of things.
The descendant of a long line of Dutch painters — one of whom Cornelius Huysmans, has a certain fame among the lesser landscape men of the great period — Joris Karl Huysmans was born at Paris, February 5, 1848. His first book, Le Drageoir à Epices, published at the age of twenty-six, is a pasticcio of prose poems, done after Baudelaire, of little sketches, done after Dutch artists, together with a few studies of Parisian landscape, done after nature. It shows us the careful, laboured work of a really artistic temperament; it betrays, here and there, the spirit of acrimonious observation which is to count for so much with Huysmans — in the crude malice of “L’Extase,” for example, in the notation of the “Richness of tone,” the “superb colouring,” of an old drunkard. And one sees already something of the novelty and the precision of his description, the novelty and the unpleasantness of the subjects which he chooses to describe, in this vividly exact picture of the carcass of a cow hung up outside a butcher’s shop: “As in a hot-house, a marvellous vegetation flourished in the carcass. Veins shot out on every side like trails of bind-weed; dishevelled branch-work extended itself along the body, an efflorescence of entrails unfurled their violet-tinged corollas, and big clusters of fat stood out, a sharp white, against the red medley of quivering flesh.”
In Marthe: histoire d’une fille, which followed in 1876, two years later, Huysmans is almost as far from actual achievement as in Le Drageoir à Epices, but the book, in its crude attempt to deal realistically, and somewhat after the manner of Goncourt, with the life of a prostitute of the lowest depths, marks a considerable advance upon the somewhat casual experiments of his earlier manner. It is important to remember that Marthe preceded La Fille Elisa and Nana. “I write what I see, what I feel, and what I have experienced,” says the brief and defiant preface, “and I write it as well as I can: that is all. This explanation is not an excuse, it is simply the statement of the aim that I pursue in art.” Explanation or excuse notwithstanding, the book was forbidden to be sold in france. It is Naturalism in its earliest and most pitiless stage — Naturalism which commits the error of evoking no sort of interest in this unhappy creature who rises a little from her native gutter, only to fall back more woefully into the gutter again. Goncourt’s Elisa at least interest us; Zola’s Nana at all events appeals to our senses. But Marthe is a mere document, like her story. Notes have been taken — no doubt sur le vif — they have been strung together, and here they are, with only an interesting brutality, a curious sordidness to note, in these descriptions that do duty for psychology and incident alike, in the general flatness of character, the general dislocation of episode.
Les Soeurs Vatard, published in 1879, and the short story Sac au Dos, which appeared in 1880 in the famous Zolaist manifesto, Les Soirées de Médan, show the influence of Les Rougon-Macquart rather than of Germinie Lacerteux. For the time the “formula” of Zola has been accepted: the result is, a remarkable piece of work, but a story without a story, a frame without a picture. With Zola, there is at all events a beginning and an end, a chain of events, a play of character upon incident. But in Les Soeurs Vatard there is no reason for the narrative ever beginning or ending; there are miracles of description — the workroom, the rue de Sèvres, the locomotives, the Foire du pain d’épice — which lead to nothing; there are interiors, there are interviews, there are the two work-girls, Céline and Désirée, and their lovers; there is what Zola himself described as “tout ce milieu ouvrier, ce coin de misère d’ignorance, de tranquille ordure et d’air naturellement empestée.” And with it all there is a heavy sense of stagnancy, a dreary lifelessness. All that is good in the book reappears, in vastly better company, in En Ménage (1881), a novel which is, perhaps, more in the direct line of heritage from L’Education Sentimentale — the starting point of the Naturalistic novel — than any other novel of the Naturalists.
En Ménage is the story of “Monsieur Tout-le-monde, an insignificant personality, one of those poor creatures who have not even the supreme consolation of being able to complain of any injustice in their fate, for an injustice supposes at all events a misunderstood merit, a force.” André is the reduction to the bourgeois formula of the invariable hero of M. Huysmans. He is just enough removed from the commonplace to suffer from it with acuteness. He cannot get on either with or without a woman in his establishment. Betrayed by his wife, he consoles himself with a mistress, and finally goes back to the wife. And the moral of it all is: “Let us be stupidly comfortable, if we can, in any way we can: but it is almost certain that we cannot.” In A Vau l’Eau, a less interesting story which followed En Ménage, the daily misery of the respectable M. Folantin, the government employé, consists in the impossible search for a decent restaurant, a satisfactory dinner: for M. Folantin, too, there is only the same counsel of a desperate, an inevitable resignation. Never has the intolerable monotony of small inconveniences been so scrupulously, so unsparingly chronicled, as in these two studies in the heroic degree of the commonplace. It happens to André, at a certain epoch in his life, to take back an old servant who had left him many years before. He finds that she has exactly the same defects as before, and “to find them there again,” comments the author, “did not displease him. He had been expecting them all the time, notwithstanding, to see them neither grown nor diminished. He noted for himself with satisfaction that the stupidity of his servant had remained stationary.” On another page, referring to the inventor of cards, Huysmans defines him as one who “did something towards suppressing the free exchange of human imbecility.” Having to say in passing that a girl has returned from a ball, “she was at home again,” he observes, “after the half-dried sweat of the waltzes.” In this invariably sarcastic turn of the phrase, this absoluteness of contempt, this insistence on the disagreeable, we find the note of Huysmans, particularly at this point in his career, when, like Flaubert, he forced himself to contemplate and to analyse the more mediocre manifestation of la bêtise humaine.
There is a certain perversity in this furious contemplation of stupidity, this fanatical insistence on the exasperating attraction of the sordid and the disagreeable; and it is by such stages that we come to A Rebours. But on the way we have to note a volume of Croquis Parisiens (1880), in which the virtuoso who is a part of the artist in Huysmans has executed some of his most astonishing feats; and a volume on L’Art Moderne (1883), in which the most modern of artists in literature has applied himself to the criticism — the revelation, rather — of modernity in art. In the latter, Huysmans was the first to declare the supremacy of Degas — “the greatest artist that we possess today in France” — while announcing with no less fervour the remote, reactionary, and intricate genius of Gustave Moreau. He was the first to discover Raffaëlli, “the painter of poor people and the open sky — a sort of Parisian Millet,” as he called him; the first to discover Odilon Redon, to do justice to Pissarro and Paul Gauguin. No literary artist since Baudelaire has made so valuable a contribution to art criticism, and the Curiosités Esthétiques are, after all, less exact in their actual study, less revolutionary, and less really significant in their critical judgements, than L’Art Moderne. The Croquis Parisiens, which, in its first edition, was illustrated by etchings of Forain and Raffaëlli, is simply the attempt to do in words what those artists have done in aquafortis or in pastel. There are the same Parisian types — the omnibus-conductor, the washer-woman, the man who sells hot chestnuts — the same impressions of a sick and sorry landscape, La Bièvre, for preference, in all its desolate and lamentable attraction; there is a marvellously minute series of studies of that typically Parisian music-hall, the Folies-Bergère. Huysmans’ faculty of description is here seen at its fullest stretch of agility; precise, suggestive, with all the outline and colour of actual brush-work, it might even be compared with the art of Degas, only there is just that last touch wanting, that breath of palpitating life, which is what we always get in Degas, what we never get in Huysmans.
In L’Art Moderne, speaking of the water-colours of Forain, Huysmans attributes to them “a specious and cherché art, demanding, for it appreciation, a certain initiation, a certain special sense.” To realise the full value, the real charm, of A Rebours, some such initiation might be deemed necessary. In its fantastic unreality, its exquisite artificiality, it is the natural sequel of En Menage and A Vau l’Eau, which are so much more acutely sordid than the most sordid kind of real life; it is the logical outcome of that hatred and horror of human mediocrity, of the mediocrity of daily existence, which we have seen to be the special form of M. Huysmans’ névrose. The motto, taken from a thirteenth-century mystic, Rusbroeck the Admirable, is a cry for escape, for the “something in the world that is there in no satisfying measure, or not at all”: “Il faut que je me rejouisse au-dessus du temps...quoique le monde ait horreur de ma joie et que sa grossièreté ne sache pas ce que je veux dire.” And the book is the history of a “Thebaide raffinée” — a voluntary exile from the world in a new kind of “Palace of Art.” Des Esseintes, the vague but typical hero, is one of those half-pathological cases which help us to understand the full meaning of the word décadence, which they partly represent. The last descendant of an ancient family, his impoverished blood tainted by all sorts of excesses, Des Esseintes finds himself at thirty “sur le chemin, dégrisé, seul, abominablement lassé.” He has already realised that “the world is divided, in great part, into swaggerers and simpletons.” His one desire is to “hide himself away, far from the world, in some retreat, where he might deaden the sound of the loud rumbling of inflexible life, as one covers the street with straw, for sick people.” This retreat he discovers, just far enough from Paris to be safe from disturbance, just near enough to be saved from the nostalgia of the unattainable. He succeeds in making his house a paradise of the artificial, choosing the tones of colour that go best with candle-light, for it need scarcely be said that Des Esseintes has effected a simple transposition of night and day. His disappearance from the world has been complete; it seems to him that the “comfortable desert” of his exile need never cease to be just such a luxurious solitude; it seems to him that he has attained his desire, that he has attained to happiness.
Disturbing physical symptoms harass him from time to time, but they pass. It is an effect of nerves that now and again he is haunted by remembrance; the recurrence of a perfume, the reading of a book, brings back a period of life when his deliberate perversity was exercised actively in matters of the senses. There are his fantastic banquets, his fantastic amours: the “repas de deuil,” Miss Urania the acrobat, the episode of the ventriloquist-woman and the re-incarnation of the Sphinx and the Chimera of Flaubert, the episode of the boy chez Madame Laure. A casual recollection brings up the schooldays of his childhood with the Jesuits, and with that the beliefs of childhood, the fantasies of the Church, the Catholic abnegation of the Imitatio joining so strangely with the final philosophy of Schopenhauer. At times his brain is haunted by social theories — his dull hatred of the ordinary in life taking form in the region of ideas. But in the main he feeds himself, with something of the satisfaction of success, on the strange food for the sensations with which he has so laboriously furnished himself. There are his books, and among these a special library of the Latin writers of the Decadence. Exasperated by Virgil, profoundly contemptuous of Horace, he tolerates Lucan (which is surprising), adores Petronius (as well he might), and delights in the neologisms and the exotic novelty of Apuleius. His curiosity extends to the later Christian poets — from the coloured verse of Claudian down to the verse which is scarecely verse of the incoherent ninth century. He is, of course, an amateur of exquisite printing, of beautiful bindings, and possesses an incomparable Baudelaire (édition tirée à un exemplaire), a unique Mallarmé. Catholicism being the adopted religion of the Decadence — for its venerable age, valuable in such matters as the age of an old wine, its vague excitation of the senses, its mystical picturesqueness — Des Esseintes has a curious collection of the later Catholic literature, where Lacordaire and the Comte de Falloux, Veuillot and Ozanam, find their place side by side with the half-prophetic, half-ingenious Hello, the amalgam of a monstrous mysticism and a casuistical sensuality, Barbey d’Aurevilly. His collection of “profane” writers is small, but it is selected for the qualities of exotic charm that have come to be his only care in art — for the somewhat diseased, or the somewhat artificial beauty that alone can strike a responsive thrill from his exacting nerves. “Considering within himself, he realised that a work of art, in order to attract him, must come to him with that quality of strangeness demanded by Edgar Poe; but he fared yet further along this route, and sought for all the Byzantine flora of the brain, for complicated deliquescences of style; he required a troubling indecision over which he could muse, fashioning it after his will to more of vagueness or of solid form, according to the state of his mind at the moment. He delighted in a work of art, both for what it was in itself and for what it could lend him; he would fain go along with it, thanks to it, as though sustained by an adjuvant, as though borne in a vehicle, into a sphere where his sublimated sensations would wake in him an unaccustomed stir, the cause of which he would long and vainly seek to determine.” So he comes to care supremely for Baudelaire, “who, more than any other, possessed the marvellous power of rendering, with a strange sanity of expression, the most fleeting, the most wavering morbid states of exhausted minds, of desolate souls.” In Flaubert he prefers La Tentation de Saint Antoine; in Goncourt, La Faustin; in Zola, La Faute de l;Abbé Mouret — the exceptional, the most remote and recherché outcome of each temperament. And of the three it is the novel of Goncourt that appeals to him with special intimacy — that novel which, more than any other, seems to express, in its exquisitely perverse charm, all that decadent civilisation, of which Des Esseintes is the type and symbol. In poetry he has discovered the fine perfume, the evanescent charm, of Paul Verlaine, and near that great poet (forgetting, strangely, Arthur Rimbaud) he places two poets who are curious — the disconcerting, tumultuous Tristan Corbiè, and the painted and bejewelled Théodore Hannon. With Edgar Poe he has the instinctive sympathy which drew Baudelaire to the enigmatically perverse Decadent of America; he delights, sooner than all the world, in the astonishing unbalanced, unachieved genius of Villiers de l’Isle-Adam. Finally, it is in Stéphane Mallarmé that he finds the incarnation of “the decadence of a literature, irreparably affected in its organism, weakened in its ideas by age, exhausted by the excesses of syntax, sensitive only to the curiosity which fevers sick people, and yet hastening to say everything, now at the end, ton by the wish to atone for all its omissions of enjoyment, to bequeath its subtlest memories of sorrow, on its death-bed.”
But it is not on books alone that Des Esseintes nurses his sick and craving fancy. He pushes his delight in the artificial to the last limits, and diverts himself with a bouquet of jewels, a concert of flowers, an orchestra of liqueurs, an orchestra of perfumes. In flowers he prefers the real flowers that imitate artificial ones. It is the monstrosities of nature, the offspring of unnatural adulteries, that he cherishes in the barbarically-coloured flowers, the plants with barbaric names, the carnivorous plants of the Antilles — morbid horrors of vegetation, chosen, not for their beauty, but for their strangeness. And his imagination plays harmonies on the sense of taste, like combinations of music, from the flute-like sweetness of anisette, the trumpet-note of kirsch, the eager yet velvety sharpness of curaç, the clarinet. He combines scents, weaving them into odorous melodies, with effects like those of the refrains of certain poems, employing, for example, the method of Baudelaire in “L’Irréparable” and in “Le Balcon,” where the last line of the stanza is the echo of the first, in the languorous progression of the melody. And above all he has his few, carefully-chosen pictures, with their diverse notes of strange beauty and strange terror — the two Salomés of Gustave Moreau, the “Religious Persecutions” of Jan Luyken, the opium-dreams of the French Blake, Odilon Redon. His favourite artist is Gustave Moreau, and it is on this superb and disquieting picture that he cares chiefly to dwell.
“A throne, like the high altar of a cathedral, rose beneath innumerable arches springing from columns, thick-set as Roman pillars, enamelled with vari-coloured bricks, set with mosaics, incrusted with lapis lazuli and sardonyx, in a palace like the basilica of an architecture at once Musselman and Byzantine. In the centre of the tabernacle surmounting the altar, fronted with rows of circular steps, sat the Tetrarch Herod, the tiara on his head, his legs pressed together, his hands on his knees. His face was yellow, parchment-like, annulated with wrinkles, withered with age; his long beard floated like a white cloud on the jewelled stars that constellated the robe of netted gold across his breast. Around this statue, motionless, frozen in the sacred pose of a Hindu god, perfumes burned, throwing out clouds of vapour, pierced, as by the phosphorescent eyes of animals, by the fire of precious stones set in the sides of the throne; then the vapour mounted, unrolling itself beneath arches where the blue smoke mingled with the powdered gold of great sunrays, fallen from the domes.
“In the perverse odour of perfumes, in the over-heated atmosphere of this church, Salomé, her left arm extended in a gesture of command, her bent right arm holding at the level of the face a great lotus, advances slowly to the sound of a guitar, thrummed by a woman who crouches on the floor.
“With collected, solemn, almost august countenance, she begins the lascivious dance that should waken the sleeping senses of the aged Herod; her breasts undulate, become rigid at the contact of the whirling necklets; diamonds sparkle on the dead whiteness of her skin, her bracelets, girdles, rings, shoot sparks; on her triumphal robe, sewn with pearls, flowered with silver, sheeted with gold, the jewelled breast-plate, whose every stitch is a precious stone, bursts into flame, scatters in snakes of fire, swarms on the ivory-toned, tea-rose flesh, like splendid insects with dazzling wings, marbled with carmine, dotted with morning gold, diapered with steel-blue, streaked with peacock-green.
“In the work of Gustave Moreau, conceived on no Scriptural data, Des Esseintes saw at last the realisation of the strange, superhuman Salomé that he had dreamed. She was no more the mere dancing-girl who, with the corrupt torsion of her limbs, tears a cry of desire from an old man; who, with her eddying breasts, her palpitating body, her quivering thighs, breaks the energy, melts the will, of a king; she has become the symbolic deity of indestructible Lust, the goddess of immortal Hysteria, the accursed Beauty, chosen among many by the catalepsy that has stiffened her limbs, that has hardened her muscles; the monstrous, indifferent, irresponsible, insensible Beast, poisoning, like Helen of old, all that go near to her, all that look upon her, all that she touches.”
It is in such a “Palace of Art” that Des Esseintes would recreate his already overwrought body and brain, and the monotony of its seclusion is only once broken by a single excursion into the world without. This one episode of action, this one touch of realism, in a book given over to the artificial, confined to a record of sensation, is a projected voyage to London, a voyage that never occurs. Des Esseintes has been reading Dickens, idly, to quiet his nerves, and the violent colours of those ultra-British scenes and characters have imposed themselves upon his imagination. Days of rain and fog complete the picture of that “pays de brume et de boue,” and suddenly, stung by the unwonted desire for change, he takes the train to Paris, resolved to distract himself by a visit to London. Arrived in Paris before his time, he takes a cab to the office of Galignani’s Messenger, fancying himself, as the rain-drops rattle on the roof and the mud splashes against the windows, already in the midst of the immense city, its smoke and dirt. He reaches Galignani’s Messenger, and there, turning over Baedekers and Murrays, loses himself in dreams of an imagined London. He buys a Baedeker, and, to pass the time, enters the “Bodéga” at the corner of the Rue de Rivoli and the Rue Castiglione. The wine-cellar is crowded with Englishmen: he sees, as he drinks his port, and listens to the unfamiliar accents, al the characters of Dickens — a whole england of caricature; as he drinks his Amontillado, the recollection of Poe puts a new horror into the good-humoured faces about him. Leaving the “Bodéga,” he steps out again into the rain-swept street, regains his cab, and drives to the English tavern of the Rue d’Amsterdam. He has just time for dinner, and he finds a place beside the insulaires, with “their porcelain eyes, their crimson cheeks,” and orders a heavy English dinner, which he washes down with ale and porter, seasoning his coffee, as he imagines we do in England, with gin. As time passes, and the hour of the train draws near, he begins to reflect vaguely on his project; he recalls the disillusion of the visit he had once paid to Holland. Does not a similar disillusion await him in London? “Why travel, when one can travel so splendidly in a chair? Was he not at London already, since its odours, its atmosphere, its inhabitants, its food, its utensils, were all about him?” The train is due, but he does not stir. “I have felt and seen,” he says to himself, “what I wanted to feel and see. I have been saturated with English life all this time; it would be madness to lose, by a clumsy change of place, these imperishable sensations.” So he gathers together his luggage, and goes home again, resolving never to abandon the “docile phantasmagoria of the brain” for the mere realities of the actual world. But his nervous malady, one of whose symptoms had driven him forth and brought him back so spasmodically, is on the increase. He is seized by hallucinations, haunted by sounds: the hysteria of Schumann, the morbid exaltation of Berlioz, communicate themselves to him in the music that besieges his brain. Obliged at last to send for a doctor, we find him, at the end of the book, ordered back to Paris, to the normal life, the normal conditions, with just that chance of escape from death or madness. So suggestively, so instructively, closes the record of a strange, attractive folly — in itself partly a serious ideal (which indeed is Huysmans’ own), partly the caricature of that ideal. Des Esseintes, though studied from a real man, who is known to those who know a certain kind of society in Paris, is a type rather than a man: he is the offspring of the Decadent art that he adores, and this book is a sort of breviary for its worshippers. It has a place of its own in the literature of the day, for it sums up, not only a talent, but a spiritual epoch.
A Rebours is a book that can only be written once, and since that date M. Huysmans has published a short story, Un Dilemme (1887), which is merely a somewhat lengthy anecdote; two novels, En Rade (1887) and Là-Bas (1891), both of which are interesting experiments, but neither of them an entire success; and a volume of art criticism, Certains (1890), notable for a single splendid essay, that on Félicien Rops, the etcher of the fantastically erotic. En Rade is a sort of deliberately exaggerated record — vision rather than record — of the disillusions of a country sojourn, as they affect the disordered nerves of a town névrose. The narrative is punctuated by nightmares, marvellously woven out of nothing, and with no psychological value — the human part of the book being a sort of picturesque pathology at best, the representation of a series of states of nerves, sharpened by the tragic ennui of the country. There is a cat which becomes interesting in its agonies; but the long boredom of the man and woman in only too faithfully shared with the reader. Là-Bas is a more artistic creation, on a more solid foundation. It is a study of Satanism, a dextrous interweaving of the history of Gilles de Retz (the traditional Bluebeard) with the contemporary manifestations of the Black Art. “The execration of impotence, the hate of the mediocre — that is perhaps one of the most indulgent definitions of Diabolism,” says Huysmans, somewhere in the book, and it is on this side that one finds the link of connection with the others of that series of pessimist studies in life. “Un naturalisme spiritualiste,” he defines his own art at this point in its development; and it is in somewhat the “documentary” manner that he applies himself to the study of these strange problems, half of hysteria, half of a real mystical corruption that does actually exist in our midst. I do not know whether the monstrous tableau of the Black Mass — so marvellously, so revoltingly described in the central episode of the book — is still enacted in our days, but I do know that all but the most horrible practices of the sacrilegious magic of the Middle Ages are yet performed, from time to time, in a secrecy which is all but absolute. The character of Madame Chantelouve is an attempt, probably the first in literature, to diagnose a case of Sadism in a woman. To say that it is successful would be to assume that the thing is possible, which one hesitates to do. The book is even more disquieting, to the normal mind, than A Rebours. But it is not, like that, the study of the exception which has become a type. It is the study of an exception which does not profess to be anything but a disease.
Huysmans’ place in contemporary literature is not quite easy to estimate. There is a danger of being too much attracted, or too much repelled, by those qualities of deliberate singularity which make his work, sincere expression as it is of his own personality, so artificial and recherché in itself. With his pronounced, exceptional characteristics, it would have been impossible for him to write fiction impersonally, or to range himself, for long, in any school, under any master. Interrogated one day as to his opinion of Naturalism, he had but to say in reply: “Au fond, il y a des écrivains qui ont du talent et d’autres qui n’en ont pas, qu’ils soient naturalistes, romantiques, décadents, tout ce que vous voudrez, ça m’est égal! il s’agit pout moi d’avoir du talent, et voilà tout!” But, as we have seen, he has undergone various influences, he has had his periods. From the first he ha had a style of singular pungency, novelty, and colour; and, even in Le Drageoir à Epices, we find such daring combinations as this (“Camaïeu Rouge”) — “Cette fanfare de rouge m’étourdissait; cette gamme d’une intensité furieuse, d’une violence inouïe, m’aveuglait.” Working upon the foundation of Flaubert and of Goncourt, the two great modern stylists, he has developed an intensely personal style of his own, in which the sense of rhythm is entirely dominated by the sense of colour. He manipulates the French language with a freedom sometimes barbarous, “dragging his images by the heels of the hair” (in the admirable phrase of M. Léon Bloy) “up and down the worm-eaten staircase of terrified syntax,” gaining, certainly, the effects at which he aims. He possesses, in the highest degree, that “style tacheté et faidandé” — high-flavoured and spotted with corruption — that he attributes to Goncourt and Verlaine. And with this audacious and barbaric profusion of words — chosen always for their colour and their vividly expressive quality — he is able to describe the essentially modern aspects of things as no one had ever described them before. No one before him had ever so realised the perverse charm of the sordid, the perverse charm of the artificial. Exceptional always, it is for such qualities as these, rather than for the ordinary qualities of the novelist, that he is remarkable. His stories are without incident, they are constructed to go on until they stop, they are almost without characters. His psychology is a matter of the sensations, and chiefly the visual sensations. The moral nature is ignored, the emotions resolve themselves for the most part into a sordid ennui, rising at times into a rage at existence. The protagonist of every book is not so much a character as a bundle of impressions and sensations — the vague outline of a single consciousness, his own. But it is that single consciousness — in this morbidly personal writer — with which we are concerned. For Huysmans’ novels, with all their strangeness, their charm, their repulsion, typical too, as they are, of much beside himself, are certainly the expression of a personality as remarkable as that of any contemporary writer.