route cover

En route (1895)


The Guardian

August 7, 1895.


En Route. By J.-K. HUYSMANS. Paris: Tress et Stock.

To the influence of French literature we owe, doubtless, directly and indirectly, much of the indecency of moral and spiritual libertinage which is at the present moment corrupting our own novels and conversation, and much also of the morbid sentimentality of fashionable and literary religiosity which almost justifies even what is most stupid and brutal in such wholesale revolts against the mystical element in life as that of a critic like Max Nordau, who finds mental disease alike in the hysteria of Rossetti, the utopianism of Tolstoi, the Satanic pessemism of Ibsen, and the Catholic Revivial of the Oxford Tractarians. It is, therefore, most fit and right, and altogether satisfying to the instincts of literary justice, that a French writer should trace for us the return movement of a soul from the foulest sloughs of infidelity and immorality — we will not say merely to the bosom of the Catholic Church, but to the inner sanctuary of the most elevated Catholic mysticism. But, obviously, En Route us a book which none but a Frenchman could have written. It is the story of a modern man of letters, emotional, fastidious, imaginative — above all artistic and crfitical — flung upon the full tide of Parisian materialism and sensuality, and for twenty years and more swimming with the tide, finding himself when over forty irresistibly attracted to Catholicism — outwardly by its ritual and its music, inwardly by a sudden and unaccountable conviction of the truth and beauty of its sacramental doctrine — and yielding himself with generous candour to conversion and reconciliation. In form the book is a novel; but internal evidence — and we do not claim to have any other to go upon — outs it almost beyond doubt that it is in substance and autobiography. There is not only assurance on every page of that kind of just observation of life, and personal sincerity in passing on impressions, which make the sum of literary veracity in fiction; but it gives at least one indication of being a record of personal experience which may almost always be trustsed. The form of the book is not autobiographical, but from the first to last one feels that it ought to have been, and that the third person is used to denote the chief actor in the story only in order to put the reader a little off the scent. The natural limits of autobiography are never over-stepped; nothing is recorded that has not come directly under the observation of the hero, either as part of his individual experience, or as something directly related to him in conversation. And these limits are observed with such perfect ease that, unless the book were open under one’s eyes, it would be almost impossible not to fall into the blunder of speaking of it as actually cast in the autobiographical form. Again, it would be difficult to believe that, if the book were purely or mainly a work of imagination, an author who had described with such painful fulness and plainness the sins of his hero’s unconverted life would have been able to give us such perfectly clean and pure pictures of the religious life to which the sinner is called back. Many free-thinking and licentious French novelists have painted the attractions of the Catholic faith with a glow of literary sentiment and aesthetic beauty, but their impure imaginations have almost always breathed a suspicion of uncleanness into the holiest mysteries they have touched, and they have left upon their readers’ minds the mischevious impression of their own conviction that religion is after all but the fairest and the most specious of the deceits of the flesh. In En Route there is no trace of this most detestable and insidious kind of blasphemy. The author describes his hero as steeped in uncleanness, and suffering the horrible obsessions with which a highly strung imagination punishes its owner for having defiled it; and his descriptions of these things are perhaps rather too much spun out and too often repeated for the taste of an English reader. But his pictures of the religious life, his desscriptions of interviews between the penitent and the priests and monks from whom he seeks help, and all the conversations and dissertations upon religious life and doctrine are absolutely clean, simple, practical, and full of an unmistakeable sincerity. These things make a strong case for the probable genuineness of the narrative; and we dwell on them because we feel that the testimony of the book is far more valuable if it really is a story of an actual experience, and not only a very remarkable artistic creation. This last it is in any case, and as such it is of great value and interest even if it be not the real story of an individual soul. For the soul whose return from infidelity it paints so powerfully and so touchingly, is typical in its temperament, in its circumstances, in its lapse and its recovery, of all that is most characteristic in the complicated and paradoxical influences which are shaping our modern Renaissance, and making it, like all Renaissances, a movement of such ambiguous tendency that it is not easy to say off-hand of any of its watchwords, or of those wh9o use them, whether they hail from the heavenly city, or from Sodom and Gomorrah.

Durtal, the hero of En Route, is, without suspecting it, a born mystic, and his falling away from faith is the result not of any rationalising processes of the intellect, but of the disinclination of a voluptuous temperament to accept the restraints of religion. We gather from slight allusions in the chapter in which he tries to explain to himself his sudden and mysterious recovery of faith, that he was born of a Catholic family with far reaching traditions of piety; that even in childhood he shrank with a kind of terror from the suggestion of austerity in the manners and countenances of the good women who frequented his parents’ house; that at school he fell un unresisting victim to corrupting influences, and that after a formal first confession and Communion, he threw off every pretence of religious conformity and led a life of unbridled licence. But what conscience did not do for his conduct, a fine artistic taste, professionally cultivated and developed, did for his emotional susceptibility, and he became that common phenomenon of modern life — a man of refined taste, of sure critical instinct in matters of art and literature, delicately appreciative even of the beauties of pure life and simple faith, but absolutely without practical religion or morality. By the drift of circumstances he found himself at forty a solitary man, and a prey to that weary disgust of life which is such a common feature of the earlier stages of middle age. It was at this point that he became conscious of a powerful attraction and interest in the services of Catholicism. Going from one to the other of the great churches of Paris, saturating his senses with the influences of sacred music and solemn ritual, sometimes opening and sometimes closing his sympathies to the spiritual intention of the worship he "assisted at"; observing, interpreting, criticising all that he felt, and saw, and heard, he became a haunter of the outer courts of religion and a connoisseur in its art and literature, without seriously contemplating the possibility of becoming a believer. Then suddenly he discovered that, without knowing how, he had arrived at believing in God; and from this point his own spiritual condition begins to trouble him. Then he makes acquaintance with a priest — the Abbé Gévresin — with whom he discusses the lives of the saints and the works of the great mystics. But though he opens his heart very thoroughly to the Abbé, he gets little help from him. "Alone you have begun, and alone you will finish," is the priest’s first answer. But little by little, as Durtal gives increasing evidence of earnesness, the priest relaxes his reserve, and at last surprises him by prescribing a week’s retreat in a Trappist monastery as the only wat in which he can complete his reconciliation; and after a brief struggle with a host of natural repugnances, shrinkings, and scruples, partly of the flesh and partly of the spirit, Durtal consents to go. The Abbé has taken a very exact measure of his penitent’s soul, and judged rightly that intimate intercourse with any religious community whose standard and practice fall below the ideal, will be more injurious than helpful to the progress of his soul. For Durtal’s taste in religioin is perfect, and, having had no experience at all in the practice of any religious duties, he brings to bear upon the conduct of all professing Christians the usual uncompromising standard of the on-looker, and is easily thrown in hostility by the shortcomings of his betters. Hardly any secular priest will have a chance with him, but, in a community of saints, his friend judges that he will find his true levvel. Durtal is half-annoyed and half-amused at being read so well, but he recognises the justice of the diagnosis and accepts the prescription.

The account of the retreat at La Trappe is quite the best picture of monastic life, and the best answer to all the common objections brought against it, that we have ever come across. The effect upon Durtal is all that the Abbé Gévresin had expected. The uncompromising austerity of the life led by the Brothers; their exalted mysticism and their simple homeliness; the courtesy, kindness, and affection shown to himself; the perfect candour and delicate respect with which his soul is handled, all combine in an influence of irresistible fascination. Here there is nothing to excite his critical faculty except what is in himself, and he surrenders without reserve; and when the time comes for returning to the world he leaves his retreat with a heavy heart. What is the practical outcome the author does not tell us. He leaves Durtal at the moment in which he re-enters Paris, and this is the last word of the book:-

Il était de retour à Paris.

— Si ceux-là, reprit-il, pensant à ces écrivains qu’il lui serait sans doute difficile de ne pas revoir, si ceux-là savaient combien ils sont inférieurs au dernier des convers! s’ils pouvaient s’imaginer combien l’ébriété divine d’un porcher de la Trappe m’ intéresse plus que toutes leurs conversations et que tous leurs livres! Ah! vivre, vivre à l’ombre des prières de l’humble Siméon, Seigneur!

The conversion described in En Route is a conversion to the Roman Church, consequently in the account of it many points of doctrine and discipline, not accepted by our own communion, are taken for granted. None the less, it is a book of which the appeal is for a far wider circle of readers than is comprised in the Roman communion alone. Its supreme merit lies in the rare force and simplicity withwhich it brings home to the mind the inevitableness of the great realities of religion and the absolute common sense of the mystic’s life detached from the world by constant realisation of the omnipresence of God. And these great realities, we need hardly say, are not the monopoly of Benedictine monks, though they are very beautifully and, to us, sympathetically illustrated by their lives. Extremes meet, and, while reading of the Brothers of La Trappe, we found ourselves pleasantly reminded of another very beautiful, though in some respects very different book, also published this year. Externally, a whole ecclesiastical sky divides the inmates of a Benedictine monastery from the rough and taciturn Free Kirk Elders of Drumtoughty described in "The Bonny Brier Bush." But spiritual elevation, a life of labour and hardship, habits of silence towards men and devout communion with God set a common mark on both — the mark expressed in the homely phrase of the Scotch book, of being unmistakeably "far ben" in the mysteries of the world beyond sense. The writer of En Route has succeeded admirably not only in bringing out the beauty of individual souls among the monks, but in vindicating the reasonableness and usefulness to the world outside, of communities voluntarily dedicated to the life of vicarious suffering and intercessory prayer; and above, all, he has succeeded in distinguishing between the common fallacy that fiath is a matter of temperament, and the truth that the same temperament which, in revolt, is most antagonistic to the practice of religion, once brought to obedience is the most apt to apprehend its mysteries.