detout cover

De tout (1901)



August 16, 1902

De Tout. Par J. K. Huysmans. (Paris, Stock.)

For a certain order of mind we can conceive of no more delicate pleasure than that of hearing Huysmans discoures on things in general. ’De Tout’ he calls his latest book, into which he has gathered some five-and-twenty short essays on subjects as different as ’Les Habitués de Café,’ ’Bruges,’ ’Le Luxe pour Dieu (Solesmes).’ They are all, in reality, notes by the way, fragments left over from his novels, as ’Les Chemineaux des Trappes,’ which is an appendix to ’En Route’; or from his preparations for them, as ’L’Abbaye de Ligugé,’ or ’La Quartier Notre Dame’ and ’Les Gobelins,’ which are more properly parallel studies to the admirable book on ’La Bièvre et Saint Séverin.’ Others are art notes and notes of picturesque things and places which he has come upon in his journeys after pictures, ’Le Quentin Matsys d’Anvers,’ ’Lübeck,’ &c.; notes, even, and not the least personal and significant, on the sleeping cars in which he travelled and the railway buffets at which he ate. To every subject — a railway buffet, an aquarium, a monastery — he brings the same patient and wrathful observation. When he deala with matters of religion or of art he is infinitely patient; he has a dull, smouldering, voluminous rage against stupidity, the modern parodies of progress, the newest things in civilization. He numbers the bricks and reckons up the stones that have been cast down, the spoils that have been carried away, when he speaks of Notre Dame or the old quarters of Paris: he loves the stones of Paris. When he speaks of the monasteries in which he has lived, or which he has frequented, he has the same deliberate interest in every detail; and he is absorbed by questions such as those controversies of the Carmelites about which he writes a learned and sympathetic article, with, perhaps, some of the same kind of interest as that of Browning in the controversies which make ’The Ring and the Book.’ It is the other side of this minute love of ancient, earnest, and beautiful things which comes out in such studies as the ’Noëls du Louvre,’ with its venomous invective, its descriptive orgie of denunciation hurled against bad pictures, or bad details in pictures, and in such masterpieces of profoundly sincere and angry humour as ’Le Buffet des Gares’ and ’Le Sleeping-Car.’ How disgust seems to become heroic, an agony of pleasure, as it is bitten in by this etching-needle! Listen:-

"Et l’express continue de rouler à toute vapeur; il fait le lacet, gronde et mugit, patine et sifffe. Je valse, emporté par une danse Saint-Guy qu’accélère un orage de culbutes et de gifles. A moitié nu, en bannière, je flotte comme un gonfalon, je dégringole comme un sac de lest, je ricoche comme une balle, je crois, à certains moments, que je vais défoncer d’un coup de front le toit du véhicule et crever d’un coup de pied son sol. Je deviens à la fois, tourniquet et toton, bobine et fusée, jet d’eau et boule !"

Huysmans is a brain all eye, a brain which sees even ideas as if they had a superficies. His style is always the same, whether he writes of a butcher’s shop or of a stained-glass window; it is the immediate expression of a way of seeing, so minute and so intense that it becomes too emphatic for elegance and too coloured for atmosphere or composition, always ready to sacrifice euphony to either fact or colour. He cares only to give you the thing seen, exactly as he sees it, with all his love or hate, and with all the exaggeration which that feeling brings. His art of painting in words resembles Monet’s art of painting with his brush: there is the same power of rendering a vivid effect, almost deceptively, with a crude and yet sensitive realism. "C’est pour la gourmandise de l’oeil un gala de teintes," he says of the provision-cellars at Hamburg; and this greed of the eye has eaten up in him almost every other sense. Even of music he writes as a deaf man with an eye for colour might write, to whom a musician had explained certain technical means of expression in music. No one has ever invented such barbarous and exact metaphors for the rendering of visual sensations. Describing the Gobelins tapestries after Moreau, now in the Luxembourg, he writes of "la fond de grotte marine fleurie de coraux, de mousses en velours de feu, de plantes en dentelle." In the aquarium at Berlin he sees a marine beast,

"et rien ne peut rendre le horreur de ce corps en soufflet, de ces chairs noires et plissées qui jouaient de l’accordéon dans les ondes, de ces pattes violettes et tigrées de blanc."

Properly, there is no metaphor; the words say exactly what they mean; they become figurative, as we call it, in their insistence on being themselves fact.

Huysmans knows that the motive-force of the sentence lies in the verbs, and his verbs are the most singular, precise, and expressive in any language. But in subordinating, as he does, every quality to that of sharp, telling truth, the truth of extremes, his style loses charm; yet it can be dazzling; it has the solidity of those walls encrusted with gems which are to be seen in a certain chapel in Prague; it blazes with colour, and arabesques into a thousand fantastic patterns. Take the description of a fifteenth-century house at Lübeck:-

"Il était unique en son genre, ce monument. Je la voyais, en un effort de mémoire, si élégant et si saugrenu, ai vieillot et si puéril! il était haut comme une botte et dressait sur des galeries de cloître, si basses qu’un homme de haute taille pouvait à peine passer sous ses voûtes, une façade extravagante, chamarrée de blasons peints, surmontés d’ogives aveuglées par de murs, coupée de cinq tours minuscules, à bonnets pointus de cuivre vert, cinq tours arlequines, bâties avec des briques bleues, roses, vertes, brunes, mêlées çà et là à des briques noires, qui avaient des reflets irisés de bulle; tout cela chatoyant, malgré la patine de l’âge, et se profilant sur un ciel gris; et cette incroyable façade se prolongeait en équerre, derrière un autre monument, au coin de la place, et elle était alors composée de trois nouvelles tours, coiffées de cornets verts, réunies entre elles par un mur de brique percé de trois grands trous ronds. C’était inutile, c’était improbable et c’était très bien."

Imagine how that house would have been described by Gautier, by Ruskin, by Goncourt, and imagine, if you can, a more precise, a more literally seen description by any one of the three. Gautier would have written more flowingly, Ruskin more eloquently, Goncourt more exquisitely; but Huysmans stamps the hard, sharp facts of vision brutally into the mind. His other books have shown him to us as one of the great descriptive writers of our time, as well as one of the most interesting and unattractive individualities; in this book of scraps and jottings we have glimpses, on one page or another, of almost every side of his singular genius, including some which he has chosen to hide from us since the time of his conversion to the Catholic Church.