Academy Portraits XL: J. K. Huysmans
By One Who Knows Him
I have made the journey many times during the last few years to the house in the Rue de Sèvres where the author of En Route lives, and many times has the door been opened by Joris Karl Huysmans’ housekeeper, that mystic old woman whom he has introduced into more than one of his novels. And so many pleasant chats have I had with this French author about his books and those by other people, about men and about things in general, that it hardly seems possible the call I recently made will be the last — yet it is highly probable M. Huysmans will shortly leave Paris for Ligugé, in the department of the Vienne, there to pass the remainder of his days in solitude.
One might almost be said to be able to read the life history of M. Huysmans, a grey-headed, blue-eyed man with a Roman nose and a wrinkled forehead, in the objects which crowd his cosy study. Things worldly and things spiritual lie side by side, marking the two extremes of his life. On the walls are drawings by Parisian artists and engravings by Flemish masters, in the book-case facing the window are priceless worksd on mysticism and devil-worship side by side with works of devotion and rare Bibles, over the title-pages of which their owner will go into ecstacies; on the mantle-piece are carved figures of saints, an altar decoration and tapers, suggestive of devotion and a saintly life. There is a strange air of faith and wanton unbelief in the room, and each is so pronounced that one begins to wonder which has gained the mastery in the contest for a soul.
No matter what volume of the fifteen works comprising M. Huysmans’ literary baggage we take in hand, it is not difficult to detect his nationality. Though French by education and in sympathies, he is Dutch by origin; and he possesses a certain faculty of using words as though they were colours, a power over detail such as may be observed in the work of Teniers and Jordaens. He was born in Paris on February 5, 1848, his father being Dutch and his mother French. His début as a writer was made under M. Emile Zola, in those days — now long since past and, with their literary ideals, almost forgotten — when Guy de Maupassant, Céard, Hennique, and Paul Alexis used to meed at Médan. Les Soirées de Médan, principally dealing with the 1870 War, was the result — a remarkable one, too, in its way, since that volume of short stories, which had been published previously in France and abroad, contained several notable pieces of work, Maupassant’s Boule de Suif being, undoubtedly, the greatest, and Huysmans’ Sac au Dos by no means the least important of the collection. In that story, the earliest which M. Huysmans wrote, the author’s pessimistic outlook upon life found expression; and so it was to be in the more pretentious works which followed. Take no matter what novel or short story written by him — Marthe, which was published in 1876; Les Soeurs Vatard, 1879; En Ménage, 1881; À Rebours, 1884; À Vau l’Eau, 1882; En Rade, 1887; and Là-Bas, 1891 — all contain the outpourings of a soul embittered by life, and, what is more, an evident love on his part, as M. Rodenbach has pointed out, for "l’odeur du péché". À Vau l’Eau — "Drifting" — the story of a Government official, M. Folantin, who can find no ray of hope in anything, is the most pessimistic of all. But in Là-Bas the modern apostle of pessimism strayed somewhat from his usual path; he gave his readers a minute study of Satanism in the mystic rites of which he is as great an authority as M. Jules Bois, the author of Les Petites Religions de Paris. "There is no doubt," said M. Huysmans to me upon one occasion, "that devil-worship exists in Paris at the present time. I have published much of the truth in Là-Bas, as much as I can, for I have not disclosed all. There are some things which I could show you in works in my library here which are really terrifying." Mysticism led M. Huysmans to Catholicism.
Durtal, the mystic in Là-Bas, is no other than M. Huysmans himself, and he makes no secret whatever of the fact. He appears again in En Route and in La Cathédrale, both of which have been translated into English, and he will finally be seen in L’Oblat, a forthcoming study of the Benedictine life upon which M. Huysmans is at present engaged. Of the genuineness of M. Huysmans’ conversion there can be no doubt whatever. It is now six years ago since he made a retreat at La Trappe, and since then he has carried out everything that could be required of the most devout Catholic.
In writing his books M. Huysmans is very slow and painstaking. His method of work is very similar to that of M. Zola. He reads everything which bears on the main idea and characters of his novel, at the same time taking careful and voluminous notes. His researches are made principally in the evening, the morning until noon being devoted to the classification of his notes. And what a labour these researches entail, M. Huysmans, as did his old friend Gustave Flaubert, has discovered. When writing En Route he had to read whole libraries. Then, when he has thoroughly mastered his subject and the characters of his novel have begun to take the form of living men and women, he works principally in the easly morning, upon the actual writing of the chapters of his book. But during this part of his work M. Huysmans takes long rests, sometimes never touching his pen for five or six days together.
M. Huysmans has not solely followed the profession of literature; like Charles Lamb, he was engaged for thirty years of his life in "sucking his sustenance though a quill." In fact, it is only short time since he retried upon a pension from the Service de l’Administration of the Ministry of the Interior. He feels now, that he is well-entitled to a rest, and that is why he intends to build a hermitage after his own heart at Ligugé, where he will coin the golden phrases for L’Oblat and for that life of Sainte Lidwine.