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J.-K. Huysmans’ second novel, The Vatard Sisters (1879), was a key work in his development as a writer, consolidating his reputation as one of the most extreme figures in the controversial Naturalist movement. It tells the story of two working-class sisters: Désirée, young and attractive, but idealistic and a bit of a prude; and the worldly Céline, who is a few years older and has a more casual, more pragmatic approach to affairs of the heart. Despite their differences in temperament and moral outlook, the two sisters each have to try and negotiate their way through a brutal world that is sharply divided along class and gender lines. Their respective love affairs with men of varying degrees of integrity and social status are set against the backdrop of the gaslit bookbindery in which they work, and the cheap wineshops and bars of the quarter in which they live. But neither Désirée’s naivety, nor Céline’s cynicism are a match for the relentless pressure of bourgeois convention and respectability, and in their search for love both lose out in the end. The Vatard Sisters exemplifies Huysmans’ vibrant early style, full of neologisms, archaisms and slang, and his florid, meticulously observed descriptions of contemporary Paris provide a fascinating glimpse into the lives of ordinary working women during a tumultuous period of industrial, social and cultural change.
“A powerful and outstanding work.”
Gustave Flaubert in a letter to Huysmans
“The Vatard Sisters brought Huysmans to the notice of the public and revealed him as a man who could paint word-pictures which put earlier practitioners like Gautier and Edmond de Goncourt in the shade...The novel is a story of two working-class sisters, but the main protagonist is Paris, suburban Paris, the Paris of railway stations, cheap restaurants and café-concerts…and the passages that describe the music-halls and crowds of the Avenue de Maine and the Boulevard Saint Michel, or the railway yard seen from the back window of the sisters’ bedroom, have a visual immediacy...a kind of energy, a force of personality, which are utterly unusual in Huysmans’ work...”
Anita Brookner in The Genius of the Future