3 December 1898.
After many false alarms it seems at last certain that M. Huysmans has decided to enter a monastery. In the Cathédrale he seemed nearly to have made up his mind to enter the Benedictine Order, but without being a sybarite he likes his bachelor comforts, and has no fondness for early hours in winter, nor for gastronomic parsimony. After a score of years, passed as a high official at the Home Office, he craves in his retirement for the old principle of authority. He wishes once more to be enregimenté, etiqueté, and as he is pious and no longer as young as when he wrote "En Ménage," there is nothing strange in his desire to flee from the social solicitations of which he is becoming more and more the object by seeking the repose of a religious house.
The Benedictine Abbey of Ligugé tempts him. The country is picturesque. Last summer he spent at Poitiers and had his first view of the enchanting site, as he call it, of Ligugé. He decided, therefore, to build there a little house, where he hopes to be settled by next August. He quits Paris with his literary and art collections, his servant, and his cat. But this, it will be said, is not entering a monastery. M. Huysmans moves towards his goal by easy stages. Already, through the primate of Ligugé, he has been put into communication with the Pope as to the question of his admission. Dom Hildebrand de Hempdiune hopes to reconcile the rules of the order with M. Huysmans’ individualism. But the magnificent catholicity of Rome hass stood the strain of comnpromises more far-reaching, and M. Huysmans’ confidence does not seem misplaced.
28 January 1899.
Dom Hildebrand de Hempdiune, primate of Ligugé, has obtained the Papal consent to the establishment, under the shadow of his Benedictine abbey, of the religious house, the literary refuge, which as we mentioned on December 3, M. Huysmans coveted with all the passion of an incorrigible fonctionnaire who cannot work out of harness. Thus once more is illstrated the plasticity of Romanism. But M. Huysmans’ artistic curiosity is far removed from the humble docility of piety. There is about him nothing of the dévot, and this fresh stage in his progress among the ruins and monuments of the old faiths must be taken simply as a repose by the wayside of a traveller whose life is made up of the search for sensations.
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There are certain analogies between the new familia sacra of Ligugé and an organization already in existence in connection with a Benedictine monastery at Dresden. There the monks receive in their midst a certain number of artists, who, while preserving their entire liberty, and being exempted from certain religious duties, indulge in their favourite pursuits. There are painters and scultpors and poets, and the monks have already formed a little museum of the gifts offered them by the artists upon whom they have bestowed their hospitality. But at Ligugé the monks are not to invite artists to visit them. It is the writers and painters who ask to settle down under the wing of the monastery. M. Boucher, a friend of M. Huysmans, and one of the directors of the little review Pays Poitevin, describes the nature of the new compact as follows:-
Those who, having fully renounced Parisian civilization, would like to devote their life to the glorification of the Church and the renascence of religious art will settle down definitely, and with their own resources, under the mantle of Saint Martin. They will be attached to the abbey, only according to their own good pleasure...the bond consisting simply in affiliation to the Third Order of Saint Benoit, otherwise known as oblature. This Third Order exacts no vows nor any special religious observances...Nor does it involve a costume, although the candidate dons the Benedictine dress the day when he is admitted to oblation...These new Benedictine members of the Third Order will have as their mission the reform of religious art, just as the black monks have undertaken the reform of the liturgy.
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M. Huysmans, then, has found a solution for the problems which, as La Cathédrale betrayed, have been worrying him for the past two or three years. In 1900 we may expect from him a fresh report of his progress in the form of a novel entitled "L’Oblat." One matter still remains to be settled — namely, whether the novelist is to be allowed to take with him to Ligugé the middle-aged servant who has played a rôle in his life not generally known. Not only does M. Huysmans, according to the writer of a curious article in the Figaro, owe to this servant, Anne Thibaut, much of his inspiration; he owes his conversion to her as well. Readers of La Cathédrale will recall the picturesque figure of Mme. Céleste Bavoil, the bonne of Abbé Gevresin. The sketch is drawn from life. It is Anne Thibaut herself, a mystic who hears "voices" like Jeanne d’Arc and has attained a strange ascendency over the brain of Huysmans, which he is inclined to think now to be her providential mission.
27 January 1900.
M. Huysmans is to don the robe of a Benedictine oblat on March 19th. No method could be happier for the necessary observation of that inner vie religieuse which he has already announced his intention to describe. M. Huysmans knows as well as the inventor of the proverb that it is not the "habit" which makes the monk. His conscience is clear because he makes no pretence of becoming a monk. He settles down at Ligugé at the gate of the monastery; and as for the rest the Church is responsible.
10 February 1900.
A Figaro interviewer has elicited the reasons why M. J. K. Huysmans, though resolved to live the life of a religious recluse, has decided to live it outside the monastery rather than inside. In the first place, if he became a full-blown Benedictine, his Superior would have the right of choosing his publisher for him, and he does not "see" the reverend father in question in the character of literary agent. In the second place he would, under the same conditions, be unable to publish anything at all without the imprimateur of the Bishop of the diocese. The thought of the episcopalblue pencil performing a war dance in the midst of his carefully polished sentences "frightens me a little," said M. Huysmans; and one can understand his apprehensions. There has hitherto been a good deal in his books which would not commend itself to Bishops. For the rest M. Huysmans explained to his interviewer — with that candour which is so characteristically French — that he had joined the Benedictines rather than the Trappists because they allowed him a more generous diet.
21 September 1901.
The monks with whom M. Huysmans has been living at Ligugé are about to leave France in consequence of the Associations Act. The novelist will not accompany them, but will return to the Latin Quarter in Paris.