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En route (1895)


The Saturday Review

9 March 1895.


To the student of psychology, few more interesting cases could be presented than the development of M. Huysmans. He began his literary career, nearly twenty years ago, as a realist, more unflinchingly absorbed in the ugliness of reality than even Zola himself. "Marthe: Histoire d’une Fille," published at Brussels in 1876, is one of the most brutal books ever written. "Les Soeurs Vatard" and "En Ménage," which followed, are both sordid studies in the most sordid side of life; it is with all the dull persistence of hate that they detail, gloatingly, the long and dreary chronicle of insignificant, disagreeable, daily distresses. The end of "En Ménage" leaves us with this note of despairing resignation: "Peut-être bien que l’éternelle bêtise de l’humanité voudra de nous, et que, semblable à nos concitoyens, nous aurons ainsi qu’eux le droit de vivre enfin respectés et stupides!" In "A Rebours" the realist has outgrown the creeds and the methods of realism, and we have an astonishing picture of the artificial paradise in which a perverse imagination can isolate itself in the midst of all the healthy and intolerable commonplaces of contemporary existence. The book is the one real, the one quintessential, book which has been produced by the literature vaguely called decadent. And, in giving final expression to this theory of the charm of what is diseased, unnaturally beautiful, to this lust of strange sensations, it ends with an even more hopeless cry of dissatisfaction: "Seigneur, prenez pitié du chrétien qui doute, de l’incrédule qui voudrait croire, du forçat de la vie qui s’embarque seul, dans la nuit, sous un firmament qui n’éclairent plus les consolants fanaux du vieil espoir!" In "Là-Bas" we are in yet another stage of this strange pilgrim’s progress. The disgust which once manifested itself in the merely external revolt against the ugliness of streets, the stupidity of faces, has become more and more internalized, and the attraction of what is perverse in the unusual beauty of art has led, by some obscure route, to the perilous halfway house of a corrupt mysticism. "Là-Bas," with its monstrous pictures of the Black Mass and the spiritual abominations of Satanism, is one step further in the direction of the supernatural; and it, too, ends desperately; "mais ce siècle se fiche absolument du Christ en gloire; il contamine le surnaturel et vomit l’au-delà." After this there was but one more step to take, and M. Huysmans has taken it. "En Route" is the story of a conversion, and, surely, the strangest story of the strangest conversion that was ever seen. Durtal, the hero of the book, is the same personage whom we have seen in "Là-Bas," and this personage is neither more nor less than M. Huysmans himself, under the very faintest of disguises. The book makes no pretence to being a novel; it has no incidents save the visit to this church or that, to Saint Sulpice or Saint Sévérin, and the ten days’ retreat at La Trappe. It is entirely concerned with the history of a soul, and this intense preoccupation has modified even the contours and colours of a style which was the most visible and tangible of any writer of our day. It is true that we get something of the old manner in some of the passages referring to music, to architecture; as, for example, in those wonderful pages in which the cycle of the liturgy is compared to the jewels of the Gothic crown in the Musée de Cluny.

"Et le grand Lapidaire avait commencé son oeuvre en incrustant, dans ce diadème d’offices, l’hymne de saint Ambroise, et l’invocation tirée de l’Ancien Testament, le ’ Rorate coeli,’ ce chant mélancolique de l’attente et du regret, cette gemme fumeuse, violacée, dont l’eau s’éclaire alors qu’après chacune de ses strophes, surgit la déprecation solennelle des patriarches appelant la présence tant espérée du Christ. . . . Et, subitement, sur cette couronne éclatait, après les feux las des Carêmes, l’escarboucle en flamme de la Passion. Sur la suie bouleversée d’un ciel, une croix rouge se dressait et des hourras majestueux et des cris eplorés acclamaient le Fruit ensanglanté de l’arbre; et la ’Vexilla regis’ se répétait encore, le dimanche suivant, à la férie des Rameaux qui joignait à cette prose de Fortunat l’hymne verte qu’elle accompagnait d’un bruit soyeux de palmes, le ’Gloria, laus et honor’ de Théodulphe."

But for the most part the language is chastened and constrained into a sort of severity, in which the sharpness and strength of words are used, no longer decoratively, and for their own sakes, but as the most forcible and acute means of expression; demonstrating, indeed, in a particular instance, the exact contrary of this very true general statement: "Non, il n’y a pas à le nier, la complexion de notre race n’est évidemment point ductile à suivre, à expliquer les agissements de Dieu travaillant au centre profond de l’âme, là, où est l’ovaire des penseés, la source même des conceptions; elle est réfractaire à rendre, par la force expressive des mots, le fracas ou le silence de la grâce éclatant dans le domaine ruiné des fautes, inapte à extraire de ce monde secret des oeuvres de psychologie, comme celles de sainte Térèse et de saint Jean de la Croix, d’art, comme celles de Voragine ou de la soeur Emmerich." And indeed, in modern French, the book is new; it is a "confession," a self-auscultation of the soul, not in the pleasant and superficial manner of the professed "psychologues," such as M. Bourget, to whom the soul is a dainty cluster of touching and elegant sentiments, but with a certain hard, dry casuistry, a subtlety and a closeness truly ecclesiastical, in the investigation of an obscure and yet definite region, whose intellectual passions are as varied and tumultuous as those of the heart. In this astonishing passage, through Satanism to Faith, in which the cry "Je suis si las de moi, si dégoûté de ma misérable vie," echoes through page after page, until despair dies into conviction, the conviction of "l’inutilité de se soucier d’autre chose que de la mystique et de la liturgie, de penser à autre chose qu’à Dieu," it is impossible to, see a mere exploit of rhetoric, a mere flight of fancy; it has the sincerity of a real, a unique, experience. The force of mere curiosity can go far, can penetrate to a certain depth; yet there is a certain point at which mere curiosity, even that of genius, comes to an end; and we are left to the individual soul’s apprehension of what seems to it the reality of spiritual things. Such a personal apprehension we cannot but recognize in these words, for instance: "Ce qu’il ressentait, depuis que sa chair le laissait plus lucide, était si insensible, si indéfinissable, si continu pourtant, qu’il devait renoncer à comprendre. En somme, chaque fois qu’il voulait descendre en lui-même, un rideau de brume se levait qui masquait la marche invisible et silencieuse d’il ne savait quoi. La seule impression qu’il rapportait, en remontant, c’est que c’était bien moins lui qui s’avançait dans l’inconnu, que cet inconnu que l’envahissait, le pénétrait, s’emparait, peu à peu, de lui." Such a personal apprehension, again, comes to us, even more unmistakably, in those remarkable pages, near the end of the book, where Durtal enters "la Nuit obscure" of the Catholic mystics, a passage unlike anything else in Huysmans, where, at one point, the very words fail him, and he breaks off with: "Ce fut inexprimable; car rien ne peut rendre les anxiétés, les angoisses de cet état par lequel il faut avoir passé pour le comprendre." Yet, just as, in the days when he forced language to express, in a more coloured and pictorial way than it had ever expressed before, the last escaping details of material things, so, in this analysis of the aberrations and warfares, the confusions and triumphs of the soul in penitence, seeking light and rest, he has found words for even the most subtle and illusive aspects of that inner life which he has come, finally, to apprehend. The book is not an emotional one, much of its strength lies in its sobriety, and certainly much of its curiosity in the ratiocinative tone which pervades it. Every step is taken deliberately, is weighed, approved, condemned, viewed from this side and from that, and at the same time one feels a certain impulsion urging forward this self-analytic soul against its will, in spite of its protests, doubts, and revolts, along a fixed path. The sense of this impelling, this indwelling force, the grace of God, we are led to suppose, is conveyed to us throughout the whole book with an extraordinary skill. The whole book is a sort of thinking aloud; it fixes, in precise words, all the uncertainties, the contradictions, the absurd unreasonableness and not less absurd logic, which distract man’s brain in the passing over him of sensation and circumstance. And all this thinking is concentrated on one end, is concerned with the working out, in his own singular way, of one man’s salvation. Once again, the conclusion is unsatisfying: "Paris et Notre-Dame-de-l’Atre m’ont rejeté à tour de rôle comme une épave et me voici condamné à vivre dépareillé, car je suis encore trop homme de lettres pour faire un moine et je suis cepenant déjà trop moine pour rester parmi des gens de lettres." But the title reminds us that after all this is only "En Route." What will be the next step, one wonders? Whatever it is, it can hardly fail to be surprising, it can hardly fail to be in some sort logical, for M. Huysmans’ development has hitherto been along an ascending spiral, an enigmatical but always ascending spiral of the soul.