The novels of Joris-Karl Huysmans – Prophetic Parallels?
I had the great good fortune when I was just sixteen years old of quitting a boarding school in England and finding myself at the University of Fribourg in Switzerland studying French Literature under a brilliant teacher Robert Benoit Cherix – a convert from Protestantism to Catholicism. One series of lectures he gave was on French Catholic Literature in the 19th century starting with Chateaubriand. Reading a selection of the recommended books the one that impressed me most was "A Vau l'Eau" (Downstream) by Joris-Karl Huysmans which struck me as the most depressing book I had ever read. It is the story of a lowly civil servant trying and failing to find a decent meal in the restaurants of Paris which leads him to total despair.
Huysmans began as a follower of the Naturalist Movement led by Emile Zola. Novels depicting people whose lives were bound and limited by generally awful social conditions. Huysmans followed Zola's example with 'Marthe' the story of a prostitute.; 'Les Soeurs Vatard' about the unhappy love affairs of two sisters and 'En Menage' about failing marriages. However Huysmans gradually fell out with Naturalism and he wrote that it had ended in a cul-de-sac. He saw the characters in these novels as merely cardboard cut-outs without souls. There was no grace which would enable them to do other than to respond to impulses and instincts in their social setting. “A Vau l'Eau” was the beginning of a reaction in that the conclusion for the hero is utter despair – there is no way out. Zola believed in Positivism and Progress. Huysmans did not.
His next and most famous novel was “A Rebours” (variously translated as 'Against Nature'). Here the hero is not a poor civil servant but a rich aristocrat who sets out on a life of seeking every sensual pleasure imaginable. “A Rebours” became a manual for decadence influencing Oscar Wilde and others. Indeed to-day many still regard it as such dismissing all of Huysmans later work. In a later edition of “A Rebours” Huysmans writes in the Preface that each chapter of “A Rebours” entailed deep research into particular sensual specialities such as smell or taste or painting or sculpture. As a disciple of Schopenhauer and an atheist he was constantly surprised by what his researches told him about art and the Catholic Church. How could such a religion 'invented for children' have inspired such glorious works of art? He states that the seeds of his later novels can be found in the chapters of “A Rebours”.
His next novel “En Rade” (“Laid up”) is a curious mixture of dreams, one about visiting the moon, and an account of living in a decaying Chateau amidst a rural scene which he describes with brutal realism and disgust. Huysmans never liked the countryside. There is a particularly gruesome description of the death of a cat. Huysmans was beginning to sense that there was more to life than Zola's 'realism'.
There followed four final novels brought together as “Le Roman de Durtal”. Durtal is Huysmans himself. His interest in dreams in “En Rade” leads to an interest in the life of the spirit with an examination of Satanism in late 19th century France. The centre piece of this first Durtal novel “La-Bas” (“Down there”) is a biography of Gilles de Raiz, a follower of Joan of Arc, who having lost his fortune hopes to recover it by appeasing Satan with appalling acts of paedophilia. Court records of his eventual trial say that he murdered some 200 children although it might have been considerably more. The reality of Satanic phenomena haunted Huysmans for the rest of his life. Satan has used paedophilia with devastating effect for the Church in our own day.
“En Route” follows and is the story of Durtal's return to the Church. One evening he enters Saint-Sulpice in Paris during the Octave of All Saints when the darkness hides what he calls the hideous nave. “There he could soil his soul without being seen; he was at home”. He recounts how he hears the unctuous speech, and the greasiness of his accent of a well-fed priest pouring out the commonest of platitudes to his listeners and Durtal is filled with disgust. Suddenly though the organ starts and he hears the De Profundis. At first it calls to his pessimism but eventually he is thunderstruck by it. “What music so ample or so sorrowful or so tender that it might be, was worth the solemnities of the Magnificat, the august words of the Lauda Sion, the enthusiasms of the Salva Regina, the distress of the Miserere and of the Stabat, the ever powerful majesty of the Te Deum”. For Durtal the real proof of Catholicism lay in the art it had produced. There follows a long discussion of sacred music based on his research which had started with “A Rebours”. To-day Cardinal Aupetit has clamped down on such traditional liturgy in Paris. You are more likely to hear sacred music on Classic FM than in any church. Ave Verum Corpus seems to be a popular request at the moment. How many realise it is an assertion of the Real Presence in which so many Catholics no longer believe?
Durtal prefers the text of the Dies Irae to that of the De Profundis. Benedict XVI explains in his book “Eschatology Death and Eternal Life” in 1977 how “In the Dies Irae … we hear only of the fear of judgement, which contemplates the End under the appearances of horror and of threat to the soul's salvation.” This was not acceptable to most of his fellow theologians who no longer believed in the existence of the soul or indeed salvation. Benedict wrote that in opposing this “I took up a position which was sharply opposed to the post-conciliar consensus of a seeming majority of Catholic theologians”. Benedict continues “Indeed, the Missal of Paul VI dared to speak of the soul here and there, and that in timorous fashion, otherwise avoiding all mention of it , The soul has been deleted where possible. As for the German rite of burial, it has, so far as I can see, obliterated it altogether.”
In listening to sacred music Huysmans/Durtal suddenly realises that he believes. The rest of En Route is the story of his gradual recovery of the practice of the faith seeking out good liturgy in various Churches; it is a veritable “Good Music Guide” to the Paris of his time. He finds a spiritual director who directs him to orders of monks and nuns and the best plainchant in a Convent of Benedictine nuns in the Rue Monsieur. A convent later to be associated with Gabriel Marcel, Claudel, Maritain, Mauriac etc.
Huysmans/Durtal struggles with his sexual life and the devil. The description of this is graphic to say the least which led many Catholics to say that it was not a book for their daughters and to doubt his sincerity. Eventually his spiritual director sends him to stay in a Trappist monastery where he makes his confession. In fact Huysman's penance was one decade of the Rosary but he was not sure he had got it right and thought he was supposed to say ten complete rosaries. Later explaining to his confessor that he done this, rather badly and grudgingly, he was told that his confusion was merely a stratagem of the Devil to discourage him.
The next book La Catedrale is essantially a guide to Chartres Cathedral describing every statue with great erudition but at the same time a humorous description of his domestic life with his housekeeper and priest friends,
His final book is “L'Oblat”. Huysmans/Durtal had already visited Solesmes and admired the work of Dom Gueranger and his revival of plainchant. However he found the monastery too regimented for him and he realises that he was not suited to the life of a monk. Instead his ambition was to found a group of Benedictine Oblates made up of artists – writers, sculptors, illuminators, composers etc. He therefore buys a house next to what in reality was the Benedictine Monastery at Liguge near Poitiers a daughter house of Solesmes. Huysmans places his fictional version as being near Dijon in Burgundy describing the life of the Monastery and the liturgy in great detail.
Huysmans becomes an oblate but his ambition to create a group of artists fails. One of his fellow oblates is more strict than the monks while his niece wears the day's liturgical colours as ribbons in her hair and at the same time is extremely fond of her food. Being in Burgundy they discuss whether Gevrey-Chambertin should only be used as communion wine or whether it should be drunk at table. They decide on the latter. Despite his dislike of rural life Huysmans/Durtal does see this as his final destination but gradually the shadow of the anti-clerical and free-mason government of Waldeck-Rousseau begins to overshadow everything with its desire to control and limit all religious life.
Huysmans/Durtal wonders whether Leo XIII could not do more to oppose these developments but obviously the political influence of the Papacy had weakened after the loss of the Papal States. Waldeck-Rousseau, a Catholic in the same mould as Biden or Pelosi, disgusts him. Certain clerics are ambivalent; particularly the Bishop of Dijon who appoints a rough and poorly educated diocesan priest to the Parish previously ministered to by the monks. The Bishop decrees that the monks must hand over their Abbey Church every Sunday to this priest who promptly abolishes the use of plainchant and introduces awful modern hymns. Further the monks were forbidden to hear the confessions of the parishioners even those of the oblates. The latter take the train to Dijon and just happen to meet a monk there. Huysmans recounts the ensuing rows with great humour. To-day the present Bishop of Dijon, anticipating Traditionis Custodes by a month, has expelled the Priestly Fraternity of St Peter from his Diocese.
Eventually though the monks are obliged to abandon the Monastery for the third time in just over a century under the “Loi des Associations” of 1905. The monks move to Belgium. Durtal's idyll comes to an end and he returns to Paris. The “Loi des Associations” is still in existence and makes a mockery of the French state's pretensions to Liberte, Egalite et Fraternite. Recently there has been a move to have it challenged before the European Court of Human Rights.
Earlier in En Route Huysmans makes a reference to Saint Lydwine de Schiedam and eventually he wrote her biography. Huysmans's pessimism led him to the consideration of the problem of suffering and he eventually found the answer in the life of Saint Lydwine namely in the mystical theory of substitution; the idea that the suffering of an innocent person can expiate the sins of others and can bring them to virtue. He discusses it in detail in L'Oblat. St Lydwine, born the same year that St Catherine of Siena died, had a skating accident when young and suffered for the rest of her life from what some now believe was multiple sclerosis. Huysmans himself contracted cancer of the jaw and suffered for many years until it killed him. Robert Baldicks's excellent biography gives a very graphic account of his suffering. This mystical theory of dolorism, has its origins in Luke Chapter 2 and Simeon's prophecy to Our Lady that a sword would pierce her heart.
To-day some in the Church regard dolorism as being some sort of aberration. Feminists regard being told “to offer it up” as an example of how women are oppressed. The nineteenth century Comtesse de Segur, author of books for children including “Les Malheurs de Sophie” comes in for a lot of flack as a proponent of dolorism. An order of nuns in France, whose work was the care of the elderly which inevitably involves witnessing much suffering, were suspected of harbouring excessively traditional ideas and they received a visitation at the behest of their Bishop. A criticism of the sisters was that their work day was broken up by prayer. 'Hache' literally axed or chopped up, was the word used for describing how the day was interrupted by prayer. Even stranger was the accusation that the sisters entertained a 'sweetened' version of St Luke's account of the Presentation with undue emphasis on the sword that was to pierce the heart of Our Lady. This was dolorism in the eyes of the visitors and the idea of offering up suffering in expiation of sin was not acceptable. The report was largely withdrawn subsequently but the heavy hand of Cardinal Joao de Braz, of the Congregation for Institutes for the Consecrated Life, was such as to lead the sisters to ask to be released from their vows rather than accept a modernising tutelage. One can only fear for other traditional orders now put under Cardinal Joao de Braz by Traditionis Custodes.
One of the problems in reading Huysmans is his very ornate language; some of his vocabulary is possibly invented or at least unique to him. He is worth the effort particularly if you are interested in sacred art but overall he is probably the most interesting and greatest French novelist of the nineteenth century.