The Academy

18 May 1907



In the work of the late Joris Karl Huysmans there were combined many excellent literary qualities, and one or two of the first order. Kiplingism owes much, if not everything, to him in the matter of style. No French writer — not even Théophile Gautier — had a rarer or richer vocabulary, or manipulated words with more consummate virtuosity. The French inspiration of the Kiplingese manner is admittedly traceable to the school of expression of which Huysmans was the last and most subtle professor. This is what modern English literature owes to Huysmans — largely without knowing it. As a novelist, Huysmans delineated for the first time certain highly interesting phrases of the French character, particularly its mysticism, bringing to this task rare powers of sympathetic analysis, and an admirable sense of colour. His work is as superior to that of Zola, who was his first master, as a Greek bronze statue is to Madame Tussaud’s waxworks, and his principal achievement lay in the artistic point which he gave to the ideals of naturalism. He vivified and illumined a literary creed which, in the narrow and dogmatic interpretation of its high priest, never rose above a dead-level of vulgarity and meanness. No more painstaking and conscientious artist than Huysmans ever lived.

Huysmans’ attitude towards religion, whether in his Satanic romance of “Là-bas,” in the mystical sequel “En Route,” in “La Cathédrale,” and in his last work on Lourdes was ever that of the pure artist. His convictions (such of them as appeared) were artistic. He believed in God because he was conscious of Beauty, and of the beauty of Belief. It was only on questions of what was or was not beautiful that he came into contradiction with modern Church teachings, and these points of disagreement were few and of no importance, for in recognising the eternal perfection of the line of Nature and of all that has grown out of Nature, including Human Nature, Huysmans was almost as universal as Rodin.

Huysmans, till within a very short time ago, was employed in a comparatively humble capacity at the Ministry of the Interior. If you had seen him there, with spectacles on his nose, diligently driving a pen, or hurrying through the corridors with a dossier under his arm to answer the call of some pompous little chef de cabinet, you would have taken him for the perfect rond de cuir. In his modest apartment in the rue Ste Placide the official dryness and timidity were thrown off, Huysmans’ voice found free and cheerful vent, and at the little dinners which he gave every week to two or three intimate friends he would be the gayest and most talkative of the party. He was not witty in the French sense of spirituel, nor was he vastly erudite, in spite of the learned air of his stories, but he maintained to the end the fresh and naïve curiosity of a child, with much of the child’s marvellous power of observation.