route cover

En route (1895)


The National Observer

June 1, 1895.


2. Prière. By JULES BOIS. Paris: Librairie de l’Art Indpéndant.

3. En Route. By J. R[sic]. HUYSMANS. Paris: Tresse and Stock.

2. ’My quarrel with the young poets of to-day is that they have nothing to say, or at any rate nothing to say that I can understand.’ Such was the judgment passed quite recently in the hearing of the present writer, by J. K. Huysmans, on the cabalistic versifiers who belong they themselves alone know to which decadent or deliquescent school. This criticism carries the more weight since the author of En Route cannot, it is plain, be suspected of want of sympathy with any form of literary expression on the score that it breaks away from tradition or is cast in a new mould. Very numerous, we are sure, are the students of modern French poetry who will re-echo the complaint of M. Huysmans. Far too much contemporary French verse, though read with the keenest wish to appreciate its qualities, must be held on examination to be a maze of words wondrously intricate. These young singers spend infinite pains on the curious chasing of line and stanza, but they act like vintners, who would fain make amends for the poverty of their wine by presenting it in fantastic cups. It is the great, though far from the only merit of M. Jules Bois, that he has made a stand against this glorification of manner at the expense of matter. In his short, but most suggestive preface to Prière, he writes: ’Ne détraquez pas arbitrairement votre rhythme, ne lui infligez ni un relâchement paresseux ni de puériles contorsions. Chacun porte en soi un rhythme, noble si l’âme est noble, beau si l’âme est belle. Ayez la franchise de témoigner et de chanter seIon votre âme.’ This wise recommendation would be futile were the singer without a soul and in consequence without a message, which is not the case with the author of Prière. M. Bois is in earnest revolt against the materialism and grossness of the time. Bent on seeking solace from the pettiness of existence in the possession of some ’larger hope,’ he has suffered keenly in his search after an ideal, and these latest verses of his give eloquent utterance to the mental anguish traversed in hours of stress and trouble. The very personal form of mysticism that finds expression in this volume, as in preceding works by the same writer, may remain a sealed book to some readers, but side by side with thought of this special cast is a fund of reflection that will appeal to a far wider audience. M. Bois has put into words sensations and yearnings which are familiar to a multitude of his contemporaries. This achievement is our excuse for having dwelt at such length on a short volume of verse which has come into the world without any flourish of trumpets, but is the best work given us as yet by a writer who has passed from the stage of promise into that of fulfilment.

3. In a sense En Route is another Pilgrim’s Progress. M. Huysmans narrates in his most remarkable volume the spiritual faring of a man alive, after long indifference, to his moral worthlessness, brought to confess himself a sinner and in search of religious peace. Durtal, the central figure in En Route, would fain, like Christian, reach the Promised Land, but journeying in the last decade of the nineteenth century he plods thither by very different ways to those trodden by his forerunner. Perhaps there is no better way to gauge the contrast between the two pilgrims than to juxtapose John Bunyan and M. Huysmans, the old-time English Methodist and the contemporary French man of letters who wrote Les Soeurs Vatard before he was absorbed in all honesty of purpose by religious mysticism. When we make the acquaintance of Durtal his conversion is already in some sort accomplished. Utter weariness of the spirit and a profound disgust for the life that he has led hitherto and for a world that has lost its savour have prepared the way for the change which overtakes him at last in virtue of the artistic satisfaction afforded him by the Roman Catholic ritual, with its constant appeal to the eye, the ear and the intellect. He finds the surest proof of the divine origin of Christianity in the splendour of the works of art the doctrine has inspired; in Gothic cathedral, the pictures of the Primitives, the lives of the saints, above all in the older Church music, the Gregorian chants, whose incomparable grandeur, and solemnity seem to voice aspirations that are superhuman. Still Durtal’s hold on his faith is precarious. He cannot rid himself entirely of his former self; he is beset with doubts and temptations, he despairs of attaining to the superb confidence of the illumined mystics over whose works he pores, he shrinks from complying with the observances the Church imposes on its children. One of the finest scenes of the book is that describing the anguish by which Durtal is wracked when the hour arrives for him to submit to the ordeal of the confessional. In spite of the most earnest striving Durtal is unable to work out his salvation in Paris. He is losing hope, his conscience, ’skilled in self-torture,’ twits him with the inanity of his efforts, he fears that the Church, the ’hospital of souls,’ will abandon him as incurable, when he is induced, against his will and in dread of what will come of his experiment to make a short stay in a Trappist monastery. For days the result is doubtful, but in the end he has his reward, to this extent that for a few hours he is certain he is on the right road, his faith is absolute. This perfect contentment is, it is true, shortlived. We leave Durtal apprehensive of what will betide him now that he has turned his back on his temporary retreat, doubtful how he will support the fight away from the special and stimulating atmosphere of the monastery to which he has not the courage to retire definitely, confessing that he is ’too much a man of letters to make a monk yet with too much of the spirit of the monk in him to consort with his fellow literary men.’ The entry of ’the land called Beulah’ is denied Durtal. At best he is only permitted to hover on the frontier clogged as he is in his progress by his questioning uneasy temperament, a heavier burden and one more difficult to be rid of than the load of sins which Christian bore away from the City of Destruction. M. Huysmans has handled his matter with astonishing skill and with the marked individuality of thought and style that stamps all his work. En Route has been condemned as tedious. It is not the lightest literary fare, but we cannot believe that M. Huysmans has failed to hold the attention from beginning to end of his more serious readers, though, given his material, we admit that in doing so he has effected a tour de force. He is saved by his masterly literary experience. There are pages upon pages in his volume which are absolutely flawless as there are isolated felicities of phrase which simply compel enthusiasm. The work is worthy of the craftsman.