Thursday, August 04, 2005

BOOK: J.-K. Huysmans, "The Oblate"

J.-K. Huysmans: The Oblate of St. Benedict. Translated by Edward Perceval. Sawtry: Dedalus, 2004. 1873982577. xi + 310 pp.

A few years ago, I was browsing in a bookstore and noticed a Penguin Classic with the interesting-sounding title Against Nature. I pulled it off the shelf and read the blurbs on the back cover. Do you remember how, in Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray, Dorian receives at some point as the present a book which completely fascinates him, leading to his years and years of decadent and aesthetic preoccupations which are then charted in the fantastic Chapter XI of that novel? It turns out that, although Wilde did not state the title or author of the book which Dorian receives as a present, he did have a particular book in mind; as he told later during his trial, it was A Rebours (Against Nature) by J.-K. Huysmans.

A book that comes with a recommendation like that is a book that I simply have to buy and read. Which I did, and was duly fascinated by this “breviary of decadence”, what with all the gems, the orchids, the perfumes, the gold-encrusted turtle, the wonderful chapter on the decay of Latin literature, etc., etc. The book also helped me understand somewhat better a question that had been puzzling me ever since I had learnt about the usual periodization of literature in secondary school: the period of realism and naturalism in the mid- to late-19th century was followed by the fin-de-siecle, the “new romanticism”, with its various new phenomena such as symbolism, decadence, and so on. How could a period be so completely different from the preceding one? How was such a break possible? What did this look like in practice? Did all the authors simply sit down one fine day and decided “let's start writing, from this day on, in an entirely different way from the way we've been doing until now”? Of course this is silly; but how did it actually happen? Well, this book by Huysmans is in a way a splendid illustration of how such a transition may have taken place. Against Nature is certainly very much a fin-de-siecle work; but all Huysmans' previous works were sordid naturalist pieces in the manner of Zola. In Against Nature you can still see the same studious spirit of naturalism, except that its efforts have been directed towards fantastic rather than realistic topics. Each chapter of Against Nature chronicles some new obsession of the book's central character, and each required Huysmans to study the technical literature of some new field, which he duly did with all the usual Zolaesque pedantry, and the resulting text bristles with lists of obscure details and impressive-sounding technical terminology. As it turns out, Huysmans kept these naturalistic instincts throughout the rest of his literary career; all of his subsequent novels are similarly full of passages where the author shows off his mastery of impressive amounts of completely irrelevant details from a multitude of fields. Anyway, all of this is an illustration of how one particular author made the transition from naturalism to the fin-de-siecle. As we can see, the gap between one period and the next was not nearly so great as I formerly imagined, and the transition was fairly smooth (which is not to say that Against Nature didn't cause a big stir when it was first published in 1884).

After this positive experience with Against Nature, I naturally wanted to try reading some more of Huysmans' works. Là-Bas, or The Damned in Terry Hale's recent translation, was next. It was OK, though nowhere nearly as fascinating as Against Nature. Just as in the latter, there wasn't much plot; the main character, a man of letters named Durtal, is working on a biography of Gilles de Rais and dabbles a little in contemporary occultism and satanism. This was curious and interesting in a way, as were the disquisitions on campanology and undoubtedly many other fine topics which I have by now entirely forgotten; but all in all, this book was hardly anything to write home about. Nevertheless, when I saw that Huysmans later wrote three further novels which chronicle Durtal's subsequent path towards religion and spiritual redemption, and that all these novels are in many aspects autobiographical and reflect Huysmans' own experiences, I decided to try reading them out of curiosity, despite the boring-sounding theme of the books.

These three novels are En Route, The Cathedral, and The Oblate. None of them has much of a plot; in En Route, Durtal briefly retreats into a Trappist monastery; in The Cathedral, he stays at Chartres and explores its splendid old cathedral; and in The Oblate, he becomes an oblate affiliated with a Benedictine monastery. The books mostly consist of endless monologues and discussions involving Durtal and various clerical figures (priests and monks). Durtal is particularly keen on art, especially medieval religious art, and we get to hear as much as anybody could possibly wish about all sorts of Christian symbolism in art, architecture, plainsong, botany, liturgy, medieval mysticism, etc., etc. All of these things are in a way interesting, but in a way they are also mind-numbingly boring. If I had ten lifetimes to spare, I wouldn't mind dedicating one of them to an exploration of these topics; but with only one, I'm fairly glad that I finally reached the end of the Durtal novels.

One aspect of Durtal's journey that I find particularly unsatisfying is that, in a way, it looks to me that he took the easy way out. He disliked the modern world, with its sordidness and alienation and so on; fine, so do I and undoubtedly a large number of other people. But what is his solution? Simple and trivial: become religious and let God sort things out. And, for good measure, retreat to a monastery as well. Sure, it's easy to stop worrying about this world if you think that there's a life after death and that indeed only the afterlife really matters. I'm not being quite fair to Durtal, because his journey is not as easy as this criticism of mine might imply; as the books show, finding religion was an honest and considerable effort for him. But still, this is no solution; it feels like cheating. It's just as if, when you don't know the answer to a question, you make an answer up and somehow delude yourself into thinking that this has got to be the right answer. To propose a return to good olde religion as a way to address the problems of the alienated and perplexing modern world might have seemed like a serious proposition a hundred years ago, when Huysmans was writing his novels; but surely nowadays this seems merely silly. As an example of how to respond to the modern world, Durtal is practically completely useless. How the heck could I take up religion? Whom would I be fooling? Not myself, that's for sure. But I suspect that even in Huysmans' time, few of the people afflicted by the fin-de-siecle malaise would have been seriously able to contemplate following the example of someone like Durtal (or indeed like Huysmans in real life) and taking up religion.

It was nevertheless interesting and impressive to observe how much of everything there has been accumulated in the Catholic Church during the two thousand years of its existence: knowledge, history, art, books, people, symbolism, there's just so much of everything. There's no end to the fascinating procession of obscure books and authors cited by Huysmans or his literary characters; no end to the endless array of saints, mystics, prelates, monks, priests, artists, theologians; no end to the innumerable symbols, rituals, traditions, regulations. Much though I dislike the church, and worthless though all these things seem to me, nevertheless I must admit: the church has been gathering moss for two thousand years, and it has a mighty impressive accumulation of moss to show for it. I don't like it when people take religious doctrines seriously, or when they allow the church to wield an influence in the real world; but if these undesirable things could be somehow prevented, I think I could easily become an admirer of the church as a supremely useless and delightful creation of the human mind. In these two ways it truly vies with philosophy and art (and is far ahead of science, which is seriously lacking in the uselessness department). Indeed one of the few reasons to be optimistic about humanity has got to be the fact that it has been able to spare some time from its sordid everyday life and dedicate it to these completely worthless intellectual pursuits in entirely imaginary realms. As Wilde said, “the only excuse for making a useless thing is that one admires it intensely”.

Since I've been reading Huysmans at a rate of approx. one novel per year, I don't remember any details from the novels I've read so far, except for The Oblate which I've just finished reading. So, here are a few more comments specifically relating to The Oblate.

At the time when The Oblate was being written, a new law was passed in France which required religious associations to register with the government and to apply for permission to continue their activities. This appears in the background throughout the novel (see Terry Hale's introduction, p. viii, and e.g. pp. 157, 188–92, 200–3, 218, 246–8, 260–1). Apparently the “culture wars” between the conservative/clerical and the progressive/liberal/etc. sections of society were quite fierce in France at that time.

The monastery to which Durtal had become attached as an oblate decided to move to Belgium rather than comply with the new law. In the last few chapters of the novel we get a few glimpses of the problems involving their relocation (pp. 246, 259, 266–8; see esp. moving the library, pp. 267–8), and the scene when the monks leave by train is quite touching (pp. 289–90).

It seems that Huysmans himself maintained quite strongly conservative pro-clerical opinions by this time. He seems regrettably inclined to see freemasons, socialists, and Jews at work behind all the problems that the catholic church had been facing in recent times; pp. 37, 128, 202, 288. In the novel, the peasants living in the Dijon area where the story takes place are often portrayed in a very negative light due to their republican opinions and their lack of religious fervour (pp. 16, 26). On p. 26 he blames this on the influence of politics on the peasants. (And on p. 279: “Almost all of them were Socialists”.) If this is true, I find it a most impressive achievement. Of all social classes, none consists of worse hidebound conservatives than the peasantry; almost everybody else can eventually be freed from the shackles of religion, but the peasants will always stubbornly persist in the ways of their ancestors. If the French republican politicians of the late 19th century indeed discovered a way to convert the peasantry to anti-clerical sentiments, this is an achievement quite beyond compare. How they managed to do it is beyond my comprehension. I can only wish that something similar could be done in this country, where religion has proved regrettably stubborn to 45 years of communist oppression and is rearing its ugly head again now that communism is over.

Huysmans is also critical of the French catholics in general, including the priests and monks, for their weakness and for not standing up to the new anti-clerical legislation (pp. x, 202, 264–5). Durtal says on p. 202: “As for the Catholics, you know as well as I do, what utter fools and cowards they are.” In fact he refers to catholic members of the parliament, but I can already see that this sentence will be great fun to quote out of context. :-)

Another minor subplot in the book concerns the rivalry between the monastery and the local parish priest; see e.g. pp. 15, 141, 162–7.

The novel also includes a few interesting minor characters, e.g. the female oblate Mlle. de Garambois, noted for her obsession with good food (pp. 58–9, 299) and her choice of clothing colors based on each day's liturgical characteristics (p. 220, 248), as well as her frequent but good-humoured bickering with her uncle M. Lampre.

There is an interesting discussion between Durtal and his housekeeper on p. 12, which illustrates that obtaining all the necessary provisions for running a household may have been a fairly nontrivial thing at the time, something that required planning and sometimes extra effort. Some things could be bought in the local village, but many required a train journey to the nearby town of Dijon. I found this interesting in contrast to the present-day situation, when everything is easily available from gigantic supermarkets that have sprung up around every corner, and when housekeeping seems to be a largely trivial matter (but then I'm probably not sufficiently involved in it to be able to appreciate all the complexities involved).

There is a fascinating legend about the Persian king Chosroes, who apparently lost his mind at some point and went to considerable lengths to have himself worshipped as a god (he even had constructed a “firmament” of his own, a large domelike structure with moveable parts to represent stars and planets). Pp. 18-21.

On criteria when considering new candidate monks: “ ‘Godliness, saintliness even, may disappear; but stupidity, never! That is the one thing that remains!’ ” (Pp. 43–4.)

Ouch: “taste of sugared turpentine” (p. 55). I had no idea that turpentine was meant to be tasted, let alone sugared. But now I find in Wikipedia that it “was once the preferred means of treating intestinal parasites”. For some reason, I can't shake off the association that sugared turpentine should go very well with battery acid. A veritable feast. :-)

On pp. 241–5 there is a religious meditation on sorrow, and it contains the following passage (p. 242) which I think is a wonderful example of how well decadent sensibility goes with fervent catholicism: “He took upon Himself the sins of the world, and, having embraced Him, she [i.e. the Virgin] gained a grandeur that was never hers till then. So terrible was she that at her touch He swooned. His Agony was His Betrothal to her./ She filled His cup with the sole blandishments that were hers to offer—atrocious and super-human torments; and as a faithful spouse she devoted herself to Him and never left him again till the end.”

Another great quote for taking out of context: “The fact is that everything is going to the dogs,” said by Durtal on p. 245. And he has another paragraph in the same vein on p. 286, a very fin-de-siecle thing on the complete bankruptcy of modern civilization (“Everything is going to rack and ruin”). There's more of the same on p. 288; lots of plague and putrefaction.

Holy sheet! No, I didn't misspell it. It's mentioned on p. 258: “the Holy Winding Sheet”. Sounds like something in which you would wrap the Holy Hand Grenade...

“ ‘[...] how incomplete your Breviary is in some respects! It mentions only a few of your Saints; what about Saints like Austrebertha, Walburga or Wereburga—where are they?’ ” (P. 259.) Indeed. Whoever's fault this omission is, I hope he fries in hell for depriving the readers of the breviary of the opportunity to laugh at absurd names like Austrebertha and Wereburga.

There is a very interesting conversation on pp. 269–71, where one of the monks is wondering if, as far as ensuring his own salvation was concerned, going to the monastery wasn't rather like taking the easy way out, compared with the effort it would have required if he had decided to stay in the world instead, or even if he had become an ordinary priest.

“[H]e used to read, and read, but never digested what he read. His poor brain was a tangled mass of doubts and scruples;” (p. 298). Sometimes I wonder if this doesn't apply to me as well, especially the part about not digesting what I read.

Here is a brief index to a number of curious topics mentioned in the book (many of them in a fair amount of detail): liturgical garden, p. 53; pharmaceutical plants, p. 55 (a paragraph on p. 55 shows that decadence is still going strong: Durtal's garden-arranging efforts remind me a lot of the various pursuits of des Esseintes in in A Rebours, except that the latter was wealthy and could thus afford to be more extravagant); legends of celandine, p. 57; graisserons, i.e. rillettes of minced goose, p. 58 (the name, like all names of French dishes, sounds exceedingly fancy; but judging from the descriptions I've found on the web, I doubt that I would enjoy this dish); ceremony in which a novice oblate receives his habit, pp. 63–65; the church of Notre Dame at Dijon, p. 70–75; a comparison of English and French Benedictine liturgy, p. 76; hermits and recluses, pp. 85–92 (“St. Lucipius, by way of penance, bore on his head an enormous stone, which two men could hardly lift”, p. 86); the monks' self-criticism sessions (p. 95; communists would be delighted :-)); history of oblates, pp. 96–107; the monks “should never eat the flesh of four-footed animals” (p. 111; I couldn't help imagining herds of cows and pigs with amputated legs); on the extremes of fasting, p. 112; “ ‘These dispensations [...] are amply justified by our weakened constitutions and by our sedentary life of study, which one could not lead on a diet of vegetables and water’ ” (pp. 112–13; obviously, if one were instead to spend the entire day ploughing or chopping firewood, meat could be easily dispensed with; a couple of rotten carrots and a swig of stale rainwater would be amply sufficient for the whole day); Durtal inveighs against the lack of mysticism in modern-day catholics, pp. 117–18; “Whatever fools may say about the Middle Ages, that period was not one of prudery” (p. 136); the martyrdom of Benignus, the apostle of Burgundy (pp. 142–3; quite an impressive performance); the Dijon museum, pp. 150–6; perpetual prayer (different monastic orders pray at different hours, and at any given moment somebody somewhere is sure to be praying; p. 184); books of hours, p. 209; dyes used by medieval illuminators, p. 210 (says Durtal, “Ah, what a delightful frail, blue-eyed, golden-haired little girl was Illumination, who, in giving birth to her big daughter Painting, was fated to die!”); wine, p. 216; Sluter's sculptures at Dijon, pp. 222–8; botanical garden at Dijon, pp. 229-30; life of Sluter, p. 231 (“For the sum of forty gold francs [...] the monastery gave him, for life, the use of a room and a cellar for himself and a servant” and four rolls of bread per day; depending on the weight of those coins, it sounds like an excellent deal compared to present-day rents and gold prices); importance of oblates for religious art, p. 232; ideas for a colony of artist-oblates, pp. 233–40; the béguines, p. 234; a meditation on sorrow, pp. 241–5; liturgical pedantry, pp. 249–51; liturgical calendar, pp. 252–9; ceremony of taking the habit, p. 272; feet-kissing, p. 273 (for another splendid feet-kissing scene, see Rushdie's The Satanic Verses, ch. VI, p. 386 of the paperback edition).

By the way, I had a curious incident when ordering this book via Their web site said they have the book in stock and can ship it in 24 hours. But when I placed my order, I noticed that £2 had been added to the costs of my order because the book is supposedly one of those hard-to-find ones where it takes them up to 6 weeks to find the book and they charge £2 extra for it. And indeed the book's web page immediately also reflected this supposed new status. However, the book was then actually dispatched the next day and reached me in a little less than a week, as is usual when I order from the UK. I guess I must have been the victim of some sort of quirk in their software; perhaps the copy I ordered was the last one they had in stock, and any subsequent copies would indeed have to be ordered from the publisher; but their billing system must have seen only the updated “hard-to-find” status of the book rather than its previous “ships in 24 hours” status (which is the one that actually applies to the copy that I ordered). A further consequence of this imaginary hard-to-find status of the book is that they refused to ship it together with the other books I had ordered at the same time; hard-to-find books are always shipped separately. Thus I had to pay a few more pounds because the books were sent in two shipments rather than in one. And, seeing that the order would be shipped to Slovenia, helpfully added Slovenian VAT to the price of the books. Damned EU! All in all, what I paid for the book was practically twice its original list price. Grrrr.

Also by the way, here is Oscar Wilde's opinion on En Route (written in a letter to Robert Ross, 6 April 1896; published in Ross's 1908 edition of De Profundis; see also Wilde's collected works, vol. 2, Oxford, 2005, p. 321): “En Route is most overrated. It is sheer journalism. It never makes one hear a note of the music it describes. The subject is delightful, but the style is, of course, worthless, slipshod, flaccid. It is worse French than Ohnet's. Ohnet tries to be commonplace and suceeds. Huysmans tries not to be, and is.”


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I suspect Wilde's assesment of Huysman is an accurate one, and holds for his work generally. I have a blog "In The Library With Mr. Finch", but I am having all sorts of trouble with the beta business right now and can't sign in from my own computer. I am planning to do an entry on Huysmans re a rebours and la Bas...the only works I know.

I have an interest in Decadence, and the quote you unearthed is very helpful. No doubt Huysmans was not really a Decadent, but a sensationalist journalist on an under-cover assignment with the Decadents and Satanists. He wound up a Catholic because he was never anything else...his conversion was an elaborate resume-builder - a sojourn in the World to amke him more marketable among the Catholic writers.

Huysman's could be almost fantastically obtuse: his preference for writings from the Latin Decadence is clueless - there is little or no affinity between the sensibility of late Roman authors and the Decadents. (Who would likely have preferred Horace and Catullus)

It is a coincidence of nomenclature (and Huysman plugs some early Catholics, of course).

Maybe I should get the Catholic novels though. I kinda liked the Durtal character (how many men get to swive with a succubus? too many?)

Fun to read your blog...will be back.


In The Library With Mr. Finch

Thursday, August 17, 2006 11:29:00 AM  
Blogger ill-advised said...

I have a blog "In The Library With Mr. Finch",

And a very fine blog it is, too! Keep up the good work :)

I have an interest in Decadence, and the quote you unearthed is very helpful. No doubt Huysmans was not really a Decadent, but a sensationalist journalist on an under-cover assignment with the Decadents and Satanists. He wound up a Catholic because he was never anything else...his conversion was an elaborate resume-builder - a sojourn in the World to amke him more marketable among the Catholic writers.

But wasn't pretty much all of his pre-1890s career "in the World"? As far as I understand, there was nothing particularly Catholic in his early (naturalist) works, or in his Parisian Sketches and prose poems.

But I agree that he probably wasn't really a decadent in the full sense of the word -- I don't see how he could have combined that with the career of a civil service bureaucrat :)

It's true what you say about his being marketable to Catholics, though -- in some of the translators' introductions in his books I read (to my great surprise) that books like The Cathedral and The Oblate were actually bestellers at the time they were published (and The Cathedral was supposedly widely sold in Chartres to tourists...).

Huysmans could be almost fantastically obtuse: his preference for writings from the Latin Decadence is clueless - there is little or no affinity between the sensibility of late Roman authors and the Decadents. (Who would likely have preferred Horace and Catullus)

It is a coincidence of nomenclature

I don't know much about Latin literature, and I don't doubt that you are correct when you say that there isn't much similarity between the late Romans and the fin-de-siecle decadents. But I was always under the impression that the reason why late Roman literature might have fascinated a decadent such as des Esseintes was simply the fact that it was something that had (if we judge by conventional standards) declined in many ways from the classical perfection of an earlier age. To me, the decadents seem fairly enthusiastic about decaying things -- in this case there was e.g. a (perceived) decay of language, perhaps of creativity and poetic force, and also of the classical senses of beauty and proportion, etc.; and there was the added bonus that these writings were produced in a language that was gasping its last breaths, while its civilization was collapsing all around the writers. I think these were the things that might make a 19th-century decadent interested in late Roman literature.

Or maybe it was all a pose -- if I remember correctly from some translator's footnote, Huysmans basically came across an obscure and suitably pedantic book about Latin literature by some 19th-century German professor, and lifted most of the authors and titles from that book's chapters about Latin literature of the late antiquity and early middle ages.

(and Huysman plugs some early Catholics, of course).

I agree, but I think that at least in this case many decadents genuinely felt that there was some affinity between their sensibility and that of catholicism (at least in the way they liked to imagine it). It wasn't just Huysmans after all -- Wilde and, if I remember correctly, several other British decadents as well, all flirted with catholicism to a greater or smaller degree.

Maybe I should get the Catholic novels though.

I warn you that you might find them boring -- I certainly did :)

(how many men get to swive with a succubus? too many?)

I recommend this webcomic :)

Thursday, August 17, 2006 7:46:00 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home