Regular readers of the Journal of Decadence should be aware of the earliest entries in the series, which consisted of a compilation of short commentaries culled from postings to friends on the books that accompanied my most recent commencement into the world of fin de siecle Decadence.
While marked by a brevity and personal, often tangenital focus rather than adhering to the more in depth and philosophical dissertation and analysis of all subsequent Journal entries, some of the books included were in fact among my favorites, and objectively the best of the style.
It is true that some of the tomes spoken to in that initiatory missive proved somewhat lacking: D’Annunzio’s bowlderized mistranslation under the prim auspices of Georgina Harding (whose very name deserves to be stricken from the record and annals of history by dint of her pronounced disservice to the literary medium thereby) and de Gourmont’s moribund paeans to isolation and sehnsuct, Camillo Boito’s quite competent but misclassified Poe-style tales of comeuppance, which were excellent in their own right, but ill befitting the heading of Decadent literature.
It is also true that the much feted Monsieur Venus, despite its hoary and somewhat undeserved reputation, proved quite lacking by comparison to Rachilde’s semiautobiographical masterwork The Marquise de Sade, a sort of Jane Eyre done right, which was later reviewed in justifiably glowing terms. But even her rather connotatively twisted The Juggler lent itself to far more discussion of its philosophical underpinnings (however screwed up they may have been) than Venus ever could.
But in the end, two works were given only the most perfunctory of attention, and each of these remain among the very pinnacle of the genre and style: Octave Mirbeau’s semiautobiographical Le Calvaire, and J.K. Huysmans’ like styled La Bas.
Now, there’s a bit of personal history to backtrack through at this point. While I’d been long exposed (since my mid to late teens, in fact) to such similarly philosophically erotic and arguably Decadent authors as de Sade, Pauline Reage, Emanuelle Arsan and Sacher Masoch, La Bas was one of those novels one always heard discussed in hushed and reverent whispers, but never available in print, at least in English translation.
Thus it was, that a decade or more on, I was astonished to find one lone copy of one book from an apparent series of self-identified Decadent works published by one Dedalus Books, out of the UK, sitting on the bottom shelf of the markdown cart at the much-missed Borders chain. Grabbing the book without hesitation, I proceeded to get bogged down in the first few chapters, with their long explication of such esoteric topics as the role of bells in the Medieval Catholic Church. Distracted by other things, I put the book on my shelf and walked away for more than a decade, always intending to give it another shot, someday.
Suffice to say, it was the first book I read of its type, and the one which inaugurated my current, and most in depth foray into the delights and philosophical underpinnings of the Decadent movement, a movement with which I strongly identify and to which I cast no small measure of allegiance and appreciation as mirroring closely not only my own persona and beliefs, but as being frighteningly apropos and relevant to events and cultural trends taking place and predominance in the present day – a modern day fin de siecle in all ways save numerical. In plain speech, what we are discussing is nothing less than the decline and fall of an Empire and way of life that has subsisted for over a century.
Sidestepping the politicosocial implications for purposes of the present discussion (readers of the Journal should have picked up enough tidbits from each discussion to see what I’m getting at with that statement), let’s come to the point.
While my love for the book in question would and did naturally lend itself to seeking out what else may follow therefrom (thus this ongoing exploration of the works of the genre and movement), in terms of the author himself, I found myself strangely stymied. While other authors may have proved limited in terms of available works translated into the English language, that was not the issue with Huysmans, who appears to have any number of works available for domestic perusal. The problem is the man himself.
Huysmans, you see, while often considered the greatest author in the genre and something of a linchpin on which all others rest, was something of a chameleon. To go by all available discussions, reviews and references, his actual Decadent work was quite limited.
Starting off as something of a disciple of Emile Zola (though many, primarily Huysmans himself, would vociferously dispute that assertion), his early works are generally considered to fall under the aegis of Naturalism – an uncompromising, sort of blunt take on Dickensianism that celebrated…or more precisely, centered itself on, the ugly realities of the human condition – poverty, effective serfdom, hard lives and sorrow.
While some of this does play into the realistic assessment of life that Decadence notes and seeks to escape from in hedonistic and often nihilistic philosophizing and Romantic/Symbolist delving into inner cognitive dreamscapes, derangement of the senses and lionization of a romanticized past that never really was what adherents make it out to have been, Naturalism bears few if any of the markers of the Decadent, wallowing in its misery to an extent unpalatable to any but the most ardent devotee of sick human interest and idealized leftist propagandizing.
Huysmans is known to have broken with Zola and the Naturalist style with the publication of A Rebours (Against Nature), a seminal work of decadence to be discussed in a future Journal entry. However, by most accounts, his next work in the style was La Bas, an autobiographically inflected affair revolving around Huysmans’ real life study of the life of the notorious Gilles de Rais, Catholic obsessions, and dealings with fellow occultists which results in his eventual attendance at a bizarre black mass (the more or less direct parallels between Catholicism and the black arts, symbolized by the historical partnership between de Rais and the sainted Jeanne D’Arc being an overriding theme of the novel). While a lengthy work, it proves to be both gripping and a fascinating read, despite all this obsession with the dying art of bell ringing and its former importance to Catholic ritual.
But here’s problem #1. Immediately following La Bas, and despite for all intents and purposes still being classified as a Decadent author, Huysmans began an Aligherian ascent from the depths of his own personal Inferno through a sort of Purgatorio (if never actually reaching his Beatrice and Paradisio). Husymans himself, as history shows, appears to have taken to heart Barbey D’Aurevilly’s assertion that the author of A Rebours would “either wind up at the barrel of a gun or the foot of the cross” and rediscovered his Catholic faith, eventually attempting to become a novitiate into monasticism.
While this ultimately failed, and proper orders denied him, it resulted in a trilogy of books about Catholicism: En Route, L’Cathedrale, and L’Oblat. Having been affected soporifically by his efforts in that direction even during the course of the entertaining La Bas, I’ve been understandably quite reluctant to take the plunge into Catholic apologia (and yes, certain Catholic scholars do officially consider Huysmans one of their apologists…).
So with the abject miseries of Naturalism behind, and the parchment-dry rigors of Catholicism ahead, are we doomed to two works from an author with as much promise as this? Well, no. Because there’s one work nobody wants to tell you about. Falling smack dab between A Rebours and La Bas, comes a little novel known as En Rade (Stranded). And it’s a damn good one.
So first thing’s first. Why the hell would a book this good remain so undiscussed, if not deliberately hidden from view, while even his Catholic phase is offered up as if an ongoing work of Decadence?
Bearing some measures of both what lay behind and where he was taking things at the time, En Rade has the odd reputation of being an unfocused work – simultaneously backwards-gazing towards Naturalism and marred by the blurred division between “realistic” events and the hallucinatory waking dreams its hero becomes subject to. Apparently this was too much for some people, and so it becomes the de facto black sheep of the Huysmans family. And that’s just absurd.
En Rade centers itself around one Jacques Marles, whose undisclosed business dealings appear to have gone sour. Fleeing from the hounding of his Parisian creditors in an effort to buy some time while awaiting some pecuniary assistance from his own debtors, he heads out to the French countryside, to the half-ruined and dilapidated Chateau de Lourps, which is ostensibly under the purview of its nominal caretakers, who also happen to be relations of Marles’ “lowborn” wife.
With the aforementioned Mme. Marles suffering from the early stages of syphilitic paralysis, the bulk of the narrative centers around their exploration of the faded majesty of this mouldering hulk of an estate and their dealings with the petty, money-grubbing people of the region. With evocatively descriptive passages relating the sorry state of their new temporary domicile (which bears no usable privy, heat or proper amenities, and whose environs are water damaged, decaying and filled with mold, stray birds nesting and the like) and its environs and little to do save wander the expansive grounds, overgrown pathways and nearly-abandoned church on the hill, this is a gothically aesthetic celebration of past glories lost to the march of time and lack of maintenance or care from those whose uncaring and inaesthetic if not uncivilized hands into which they have fallen.
With meager supplies delivered from the distant town center by a succession of extortionate locals, the Marles find themselves looked upon as a source of endless funds for the taking, and viewed as clueless and without any measure of street smarts or savvy. A young girl who takes their order and returns with supplies on a subsequent day demands an ever increasing service charge on top of already-usurious marked up pricing on the goods in question. The baker refuses to make the journey up the hill to the chateau, only agreeing to leave bread in a basket at the base thereof, which is subject to the vagaries of weather (resulting in soggy bread on rainy days and suchlike). The mailman is a hopeless drunkard and souse who wheedles a free meal and booze out of them on a daily basis. And perhaps worst of all, their own relations take them for fools, watering down the barrels of wine they purchase on the Marles’ behalf as well as, like everyone else, marking up the actual cost.
Local village life consists of raising cattle, cutting wheat, and drunken gambling and gossip at the local tavern, all of which Huysmans relates with an equal measure of bemused detachment and repulsion if not disgust. As he discovers to his dismay, these poor are just as greedy, two faced and money grubbing as the rich and powerful…
Midway through the narrative, they adopt a stray cat which is more or less ignored if not abused by the sleazy old couple who serve as caretakers for the chateau, finding in its affections a measure of comfort in their failed escape from the difficulties of the real world “back home”. Unfortunately, the cat is already victim to its sorry upbringing, and succumbs to a similar disease (and presumed eventual death) to that of Mme. Marles.
But central to the book is a theme of the disintegration of a relationship, namely the marriage of Jacques and Louise Marles themselves, chiefly due to the change in their circumstances (both financial and physical), but also in relation to some marked alterations in her character as he knows and has experienced it to date: changes which are probably more internal and therefore irrevocable.
Things start out promisingly enough, given the situation. His wife at first is excited by the change of pace and the prospect of “roughing it”:
“And in fact, like most women, she was feeling excited by the spontaneity of this haphazard encampment…pitching her tent no matter where. That childish happiness a woman has in breaking a habit, in seeing something new, in contriving some clever scheme to secure a bed for a night, that need to think on her feet, that compulsion to live the nomadic life of a touring actress – which every middle class woman secretly envies so long as it’s watered down, with no real danger and doesn’t last very long…had acted powerfully on her and braced her nerves.”
Jacques, like Huysmans himself, is shown to be an artistic type, who has a hard time adapting to the harsh reality of trying to make a living in a pragmatic, commerce-centric world, that ignores the important things in life in favor of the all consuming pursuit of the almighty dollar:
“He was…incapable of interesting himself in the kind of jobs other men coveted, unfit to earn money or even to hold onto it, indifferent to the lure of public honors and the attainment of high office. It wasn’t, however, that he was lazy, because he’d done an immense amount of reading, his scholarship was wide ranging but too sporadic, ingested without any precise aim, and consequently held in contempt by utilitarians and the idle rich alike.
The question he was striving to excise from his preoccupations, the question of knowing by what stratagem he could earn his daily bread in the future, assailed him more sharply and more doggedly now that his eyes fell on his wife, slumped in her chair and no doubt tortured by similar fears herself.”
As will happen in situations where there is an economic imbalance of some sort, particularly when the husband is on the lesser end of the equation, even the one point of solace he might expect to retain is shattered and driven into disrepair:
“….He hadn’t married in order to relieve the chaos of his bachelor life…he’d wanted a blissful haven, a well furnished ark, sheltered from the winds, and what’s more, he’d also wanted a woman’s company, her skirts whisking away the irritation of trivial cares, protecting him like a mosquito net from the stings of life’s minor concerns….
Solitary though he was…he realized his dream of quietude by marrying a girl without (money), with neither father or mother, with no family to visit, who was…devoted, practical and honest…who revolved around his idiosyncracies, protecting them rather than disturbing them. How far away that all seemed now!…how short lived that had been!”
“…Once outside, he mused over the change that was taking place in his wife, sought to unravel what was going on inside her. That’s three phases, he said to himself, after a moment’s reflection. After the wedding: a decent girl, loving and devoted, thrifty but not penny-pinching, and in good health, it should be said; then, after the nervous disorders began, improvident, wasteful, almost submissive; and now, selfish and bitter…he felt that some new, indefinable element was insinuating itself between them, a hint of defiance and resentment…
No, there was something in particular, a new state of mind: on the one hand, an impatience he’d never seen in her before, and on the other an attempt to assert herself, clothed in a series of vague reproaches, a sort of reaction against her role in the relationship…a reaction that inevitably implied a disdain for men and a certain vain confidence in herself.
Not only are you dropped by casual acquaintances and colleagues when you fall into poverty, he thought to himself bitterly, you’re even abandoned by those closest to you.”
He further speaks honestly to the omnivorous and often capricious nature of the intellectual, those who are more excited by concepts, theories, mysteries and ideas than by punching a time clock and smacking a ball around with friends, and yet how fruitless it is ultimately esteemed as in the eyes of the world at large, and how ungainful intelligence and scholarship proves to be in a pragmatic sense:
“From the first premonitory symptoms of her inexplicable illness, the atmosphere at home had changed rapidly…was it his fault…if, with all his interests and passions, he needed peace of mind at all costs?
He was a man who, reading in a newspaper or book one day some bizarre phrase about religion, science, history, art or whatever it might be, immediately gets carried away and rushes headlong into the study of it, hurling himself into antiquity, straining to probe its depths…then drops it all, suddenly disgusted for no reason with his work and his researches; a man who one morning throws himself into contemporary literature, swallowing the contents of various books, thinking about nothing but this particular art, not even sleeping, until he abandons it too, the next morning in a sudden volte face, and now bored, daydreams while waiting for another subject on which to pounce. Ancient myths, theology, the Kabbala, each in its turn had demanded and held his attention. He had scoured libraries, worked through boxes of old papers, cluttered up his intellect skimming the surface of this jumble, and all this from idleness, a momentary passion, with no aim or useful purpose in mind.
Pirouetting around like this amid the dust of time, he’d spent some delightful hours, but ever since Louise’s provident ways had dissipated…he’d been left defenseless against the money worries that froze his intellectual infatuations and brutally threw him back into the inextricable spider’s web of real life…he wondered, as he did every day, how he was going to live when he returned to Paris.”
But above and beyond anything taking place in the Marles and their relationship, objectively, the change of scene turns out to be anything but beneficial, and some longstanding popular delusions are shattered thereby. For he discovers that the Romanticism and lyric portraiture of the noble peasant is an utter lie, and that no matter how far down the pay scale it may be, employers at any level harbor equal disdain for their workers:
“…For the harvest they’d taken on some of the Belgian laborers …complaining that having to pay and feed these men would be the ruin of them.
“They’re a scourge,” Norine was saying, they’re good for nothings, you have to do everything for them…”
“But,” said Jacques, “couldn’t you cut the wheat yourselves?”
“Oh, dear me, no! Besides…after the grain harvest be finished, there’s the grape harvest, too. This’ll be going on for the next three months.”
And the old man ended up admitting that the Belgians…were quicker at the job and worked harder than all the men in the region put together.”
When he’s later dragged to see the studding of a bull, he finds himself similarly disillusioned:
“Jacques was beginning to think that, like “golden wheat”, the epic grandeur of the bull was just an old commonplace of the Romantics, one of those hackneyed images endlessly touched up by the would-be poets and second-rate novelists of the present day. No, really, there was nothing here to get carried away by, nothing to put your riding boots on and blow your horn for! It was neither dignified nor elevating. As for lyricism, the coupling consisted of amassing two types of meat which they thrashed, piled on top of one another and then dragged apart as soon as they’d touched, beating them again as they went!”
The general townsfolk are so abjectly low as to attempt to ensnare others, slightly more well off, into compromising situations, forcing marriage for the prospect of bettering their fortunes monetarily:
“But if that’s the case,” replied Jacques, “the village must be full of pregnant girls.”
“It is indeed…and they has to get married…the craftier lads, ” he added after a pause and with a wink of his eye, “they try to get the well-to-do girls in the family way…”
“And is it the same everywhere around here?”
“Of course, what did you expect?”
“Fair enough,” said Jacques, a little taken aback by this story, which summed up the hatred those in the countryside felt towards Parisians, as well as their money-grubbing instincts and their lack of morals.”
In the end, so distasteful was the Marles’ experience among these low, conniving country types that he’s more than glad to get back home and deal with the situation he was trying to escape from in the first place:
“Jacques was studying the peasants who he was hoping never to see again. That thought will console me for having to leave this miserable haven where I almost found a refuge, he thought, because if I’ve got to mix with rogues, I’d prefer them to be more sharp witted and more easy going!”
While occupying more of a dark realism and descriptive approach to nature and humanity than his audience may have come to expect from the author of A Rebours, I found no real disparity herein distinguishing En Rade from similarly semi-autobiographic Decadent works as Octave Mirbeau’s Le Calvaire or Rachilde’s Marquise de Sade – these works, on a certain level, are all very much of a piece, and all both quite excellent and rather revealing of their authors.
Like those works, En Rade is directly autobiographical to a certain extent, as Huysmans and his mistress did in fact make semi regular retreats to the selfsame Chateau de Lorps, which was in fact in the same state of disrepair, and featured the exact partially ruined church on the hill nearby. Further, Anna Meunier, the mistress in question, was in fact afflicted with a similar disease (and would pass on shortly thereafter), and the whole sequence with the cat runs parallel to and was in fact inspired by the last days of Huysmans’ own beloved feline companion not long prior to the publication of the novel.
While Huysmans himself felt the book a bit rushed and somewhat of a failed experiment in terms of its admixture of semi-naturalism, Decadence and three rather bizarre and unclassifiable dream sequences which interrupt the narrative, but which are easily skimmed through, En Rade remains a very satisfying work, more vibrant and honest than his somewhat drier acknowledged literary pinnacles of A Rebours and La Bas which bookend it.
Personally, I still vouch for La Bas as his masterwork, but would be more inclined to reach for En Rade for a second (or third) perusal – it bears little of the stodginess that inflects his other works to some degree or other, and is quite apt and honest in its assessment of the futility of seeking change, or something better, in the human race as a whole.
As an artist and outsider, as much as one may wish and hold out hope for some sense of a grand scale family, where everyone sees and understands the necessity of working together and pulling up their fellow man when they get knocked down, we seem to live in a world of the selfish and rotten, who choose to ignore if not kick and abuse those who are down while they have the opportunity.
While it’s fairly easy (and accurate) to point fingers at those in power for their unconscionable abuse of the masses (particularly in today’s pledge signing anti-worker’s rights, pro-corporate Congress), the sad fact is that the common man is often no better, making their way by means of cheating, manipulation, and “the hustle” of their fellows for comparatively minor gain. Nowhere is this dark, somewhat Hobbesian but unfortunately realistic sentiment of enemies on all sides expressed better than in En Rade.