May 18, 1907



The death on Sunday last of Huysmans, at the comparatively early age of fifty-five, after a long and painful illness, removes from the ranks of European literature a brilliant intellect which remains somewhat of an enigma. The literary volte-face of Huysmans was so complete and thorough that his implicit good faith cannot be doubted. The enthusiasm of the extremist is often open to suspicion, and many years ago Barbey d’Aurevilly is reported to have declared, after reading A Rebours: “Après un tel livre il ne reste plus à son auteur qu’à choisir entre la bouche d’un pistolet ou les pieds de la croix!” How completely this prophecy was fulfilled is a matter of history.

Huysmans was born in Paris on February 5th, 1848; he was of Dutch origin, and one of his numerous critics has happily described him as “un Hollandais anémique et nerveux, et un Parisien curieux du pittoresque.” The influences of the land which produced Jan Steen and Adrien Ostade are manifest in his works. His first book, Le Drageoir aux Épices, a series of prose poems in the manner of Baudelaire, appeared in 1875; three years later he published Marthe, Histoire d’une Fille; and in the years immediately following he produced Les Soeurs Vatard, Croquis parisiens, En Ménage, A Vau l’Eau, Un Dilemme, and En Rade. He had developed into a “naturalist” novelist of an extremely uncompromising type, depicting life as he saw it with all the brilliant minuteness of the miniaturist. He was with Zola, Paul Alexis, Guy de Maupassant, and one or two others in the front rank of the school they founded.

The greatest of his earlier successes was A Rebours, which appeared in 1885 and this book bas been described as “le bréviaire de l’élégance, de l’esthétisme, du goût anti-bourgeois.” With Là-bas, which is to some extent autobiographical, and appeared in the Écho de Paris in 1891, Huysmans achieved his greatest fame as a novelist, and the evolution which this book indicated was still further emphasized, and carried to its natural conclusion, in En Route, L’Oblat, Sainte Lydwine de Schiedam, and La Cathédrale. It is said that Les Foules de Lourdes, which appeared a few months since, was his last book and that some time before he died he destroyed the manuscript of a number of unpublished works.

Incidental reference has been made to the association of Huysmans with Zola. From 1880 onwards he collaborated with Zola in a weekly publication of which the title explains its object — La Comédie humaine, Organe du Naturalisme. To the famous Soirées de Médan he contributed one story — Sac au Dos. This is a masterpiece of concentrated observation and description. The two friends separated when Huysmans devoloped his talents for mysticism. and his later works may be taken as a powerful protest against the naturalism of his former associate.