The Academy and Literature
18 April 1903.
(From our French Correspondent.)
EVEN if "L’Oblat" by Joris-Karl Huysmans, were not a fine piece of literature it would still, as a curious document, be a remarkable and instructive book. But to examine first its literary and less important aspect, there are descriptive pages that can be described as nothing less than first-rate, and this is a measure of praise we have got out of the way of bestowing on books of the hour. Not that such high praise can be given to the book in its entirety, for it is far too difficult reading for perfection, and it is often monstrously heavy and dull, though never uninteresting because of the author’s felicitous achievement of his purpose and his rare literary sincerity. He is a conscientious craftsman, like those wonderful craftsmen of the Middle Ages he reveres, and takes not only infinite pains, but infinite delight in the accomplishment of his task and in the most minute details of labour. I would recommend to readers, in order to realise M. Huysmans’ marvellous precision and surety of touch in description, such pages as 336 and 337, pages no other living writer would have written in just that way, with all the art as well as the slow and apt security of observation. "At that hour a few maids knitted beside a gigantic poplar whose hollow truck opened in a wooden grotto on the ground level. This tree, which figures in the ancient cavalier views of Dijon, bulged out a carapace of scabby elephant, girdled with bandages, corsetted with bronze, propped up with crutches, kept in place by wire in every sense. And here and there priests read their breviaries and gardeners wheeled about cart-loads of flowers; one sniffed along the edges of the flower-beds the mixed smell of honey and fresh herbage of the iris; but now and then the sweet and ingenuous perfume was swept away by a whiff of wind which breathed a puff of the sharp and ripened odour spread by the Bohemian olive, speciments of which might be seen at the bottom of the garden, two or three trees with inky trunks, of silvery foliage and gold-tipped little flowers. And there was a smell of over-ripe melon, of rotting strawberry, of plaster being removed. Before sitting down, Durtal made the round of the alleys separated by clumps of trees. There were collections of coniferous growths, of blue cedars and varied larches, of pines whose stems were almost blond and whose spires were nearly black, and in the flower-plots baskets of salmon-hued roses, light tea-roses and roses of a sulphur shade. Maltese crosses of the bright red of bichromate of potassium, magnificent bushes of aconite, sombre foliage, of sharp linear edges, and flowers of the celestial blue of the turquoise, but a turquoise from whose too heavy azure the white had been decanted," — such passages, which abound, show the trained and patient vision of the writer who, in becoming a mystic, has not ceased to belong to the realistic school.
The mystical learning revealed throughout these 448 pages is prodigious, but if it overlays somewhat ostentatiously the novelist’s art, it does not hide it altogether. The development of the famous convert, Durtal, whom we have met so often, and whom we always find astonishing and singularly interesting, whether as rake and sensualist or as mystic and oblat, belongs to a consideration of far deeper moment than such matter as mere literature, for whatever the significance of art, it matters greatly less than the drama of the human soul or the drama of human life. But M. Huysmans is essentially, and that before everything, the writer, the artist, and his characters are stamped with all the qualities of the artist’s literary temperament. We are pleased to renew acquaintance with Madame Bavoil of Chartres, and find her no less an agreeable and original figure at Dijon, where she rejoins Durtal in the capacity of cook, housekeeper, and friend. The book might be read alone for such characters as Monsieur Lampre and his delightful middle-aged niece, Mademoiselle de Garambois, the oblate. These are easily but lastingly drawn, and the conversations and discussions are natural, with such a ring of the human voice about them that even their liturgical pedantry does not weary or irritate.
So much for the artist, whose merit is considerable. Both less and more may be said of the man. M. Huysmans is, and has always been, his own sole hero. He has never wavered in his allegiance to his minute and merciless study of his "moi". He has carried us with him through all the phases of decadence, decadence in literature and decadence in religion. His mysticism is literary, and his Christianism is purely liturgical. The "Oblat" is a hymn to liturgy, and if he adores the Benedictines, it is because of their Gregorian chaunt and the sober elegance of their offices. Outside the Benedictine cloisters, Catholicism, as practised by the immense majority of his countrymen, is a mere vulgar travesty, fit for common mortals, who in his disdainful and narrow esteem are a mixture of imbecile and "mufle". See how he handles the curé. No Jacobin could treat him more contemptuously. And his loathing of the pious nobleman who plays the organ and sings in the parish church! The unfortunate man is held up to our obloquy, because he sings the sugary music of Gounod and Massenet. The famous choir of St. Gervais all Paris delights in, is castigated as "the success of snobism," "the art of steeplechase" in singing, more fit for the racecourse than a dwelling of Christ. It would be difficult to find a religious temperament more strikingly void of charity, kindness, indulgence, and simple goodness than that of Durtal. He despises and detests all contemporary humanity, except the Benedictines. He gives us a pleasing picture of them, simple, amiable, learned men who indulge in interminable discussions with him on liturgy and unknown saints. we talk of the frivolities of the world, and after reading "L’Oblat," we are in a position to shake our head in wonder and smile at the frivolities of the cloisters. The importance alloted to etiquette and detail was never attained by any court protocol, and to turn from the Gospels, with their large and simple teaching, to those remarkable and erudite pages of M. Huysmans, with their quiet ecstacy in praise of a religion which has abjured simplicity, and finds its expression in a narrow and intolerant devotion to splendid offices, is to realize the sensation of a mystification. The whole book swells and reels with claustral pride. Some of the musical descriptions are beautiful, as, for instance, Durtal’s analysis of the services for the profession of a Benedictine nun. Here he reaches an unwonted note of ecstacy. "The absolute altitude of liturgy and art is here. There are moment when during the extraordinary ceremony the quick thrill of divine splendour makes your soul tremble, and you feel exalted, projected out of yourself, far from the banality of the world that surrounds you." Of course there is a great deal said of the Law of Associations, but here M. Huysmans is suprisingly sane and just. Chapter XIV opens with a conversation between Durtal and Madame Bavoil over the morning news that the victims of the hour would do well to meditate. This intelligent old lady wants to know why the Orders should show themselves more papist than the Pope. A monk’s mission, she holds, is to be persecuted, and he should rejoice in it, or else he is no better than another man, and Durtal exclaims that at the bottom of the clamours of the moment there is a good deal of hypocrisy. "We claim today the liberty we have never granted to others," he cries, "and if tomorrow the wind turned, if one of the sorry vegetables grown in our Catholic kitchen-gardens supplanted Waldeck, we would be far more intolerant than he, and would render him almost sympathetic. We worried everyone to death, Maadame Bavoil, whenever we had a suspicion of authority. We are getting it back now, for these things are always paid back...Ah, yes, the Catholics deserve all they are getting, and we should repeat this every morning and evening on our knees before God and man." Elsewhere he blames Jansenism and Jesuitism for all the evils of the day. "Imbecile bigotry, the fear of our shadow, hatred of art, lack of comprehension of everything, lack of indulgence for the ideas of others, we owe to the Jansenists. The passion of little devotions, prayer without liturgy, suppression of offices with sole compensation of musical Benedictions, the lack of substantial nourishment, the milk diet of the soul, this we have from the Society of Jesus, and the two together have produced a strange amalgam of sectarian intolerance and feminine piousness, in which we are going to pieces." Pieusarderie, a coined word, describes "piousness" with an untranslatable and indescribable contempt.
The last chapter, with the flight of the Benedictines, breathes a charming note of pathos and a mournful resignation. The reader has become attached to this little world of monks and oblats, all harmless and all mad on liturgy.