Oct. 24, 1896.
En Route. By J. K. Huysmans. Translated by C. Kegan Paul. (Kegan Paul & Co.)
The English observer of foreign literature is constantly reminded of the singlar thoroughness with which modern French novelists work a psychological problem. They take a definitely mapped out episode in the mind of an individual; and treating it exhaustively with very few sidelights, they allow nothing to interfere with the central idea of the book. After reading En Route, we can well imagine that to M. Huysmans the crudest aspirations of a half-savage dweller in an East London slum would prove as absorbing a study as the one we have before us, nor can we doubt that the author would treat such a subject with all the literary skill and analytic ability he has bestowed upon his latest book.
This attitude is logical and correct enough for the psychologist, and possibly from the artistic standpoint there is something to be said for it; but it can be too faithfully adhered to, and En Route gives point to our objection. This book has been received with something very like enthusiasm both here and on the Continent, and it is not difficult to understand why. Any conscientious piece of work which deals cleverly with religious problems is certain of attention. A coterie may be interested in a particular problem, a clique may wax enthusiastic over certain aspects and forms of thought; but the great central fact of life — the struggle between good and evil — is tremendous importance to us all.
M. Huysmans’ latest book in the story of a penitent named Durtal. He is pictured as a man of strong artistic sensibilities, of a refined and cultured taste in art, who engages in the grossest forms of immorality with as much ardour as he devotes to higher ranges of amusement. He goes into retreat at aTrappist monastery, where his converson takes place. To this man all life is a struggle for enjoyment. Religion in his hands is not a means of grace and a help to duty: it is an occupation that affords the subtlest pleasures of repentance, the most enervating kind of spiritual sensation, and be uses it as an instrument with which to work upon his artistic temperament and excite it to pleasurable ecstasies. The author portrays Durtal with a consummate force and vividness. He shows us this tortuous and evil mind in all its moods with an absolute and even cruel fidelity; but the conversion of the debauchee is of a piece with his unregenerate life — it is a debauch of religious sentiment. In the very article of prayer, in the very throes of repentance, Durtal is struck with an aesthetic horror at a jarring note in a plain song or an inartistic colour in a vestment. We do not for a moment dispute the truth of the author’s picture — any priest would testify to its lamentable truthfulness; but we deplore the conclusions that the book arrives at. The very fact that the author makes this eclectic hedonist find ultimate peace and rest in religion may prove a stumbling-block to minds which are not sufficiently wideawake to appreciate the teaching of the book. It teaches plainly that religion may be played with, may be treated as a sweet morsel which will ultimately bring happiness. Throughout the study there is no note of duty. These "brightest transports, choicest prayers which bloom an hour and fade," are the whole of the author’s philosophy.
But M. Huysmans has a claim to be dealt with as much from a literary as from an ethical point of view, and here we have for him nothing but the most unsparing praise. En Route is a rare work, and not carelessly to be read. Great exquisiteness of taste, great delight in scholarship, and, apart from what we have said above, a penetrating sense of what is best worth knowing in the expression of man’s aspirations, are its most vivid characteristics. There are a few scenes which in their way are unrivalled, where thought is elaborated with a sort of earnest care, while the author has yet achieved a singular purity of presentation. A more "subjective" book it would be difficult to find; but what pleases us most are the scattered impressionist pictures of scenery and interiors, written with a plasticity and variety of movement which are inimitable.
Mr. Kegan Paul contributes a translator’s note, which is dignified and interesting, although we have a prejudice against introductions, which nearly always arouse a feeling of resentment. There seems no need for a showman if the show is excellent, and most of us like to form our own impressions unaided. We recommend the preface as a criticism to be read after, not before, the book.
We have had an opportunity of seeing the original work; and Mr. Paul is to be congratulated on his spirited English version.