BOOK: J.-K. Huysmans, "Parisian Sketches"
J.-K. Huysmans: Parisian Sketches. Translated by Brendan King. Sawtry: Dedalus, 2004. 1903517249. xi + 190 pp.
Huysmans is nowadays chiefly remembered as a novelist (see e.g. my post about his last novel, The Oblate, which I read last year); but he also wrote other things, such as sketches and art criticism. This present book is a collection of sketches, first published in 1880 and later in an expanded edition in 1886. The translation is based on this expanded edition, and the translator has provided an interesting introduction and lots of explanatory notes, so from this point of view there is nothing to complain about.
Nevertheless I didn't really enjoy this book. My complaint is with the contents as such; I simply don't see the point of such sketches. They may be interesting from the point of view of literary history; as the translator's introduction points out, they illustrate Huysmans' transition from realism or naturalism to the symbolism and decadence of the fin-de-siècle. (Note that the novel which most clearly marked Huysmans' break with naturalism, À Rebours, was also published in the same period — 1884.) But apart from that, I simply didn't enjoy reading them for their own sake.
Huysmans here continues the tradition of the flâneur, the aimless perambulator, walking through the city, observing its seedier sides, never actually doing anything or getting involved himself, and then writing about his observations as if this was somehow something relevant and interesting and worth reading about! This always exasperates me. The flaneur phenomenon and attitude already annoyed me last year when I encountered it in some of Baudelaire's poems (Baudelaire was practically the founder of flaneurism in literature), it annoyed me in one or two pieces by Arthur Symons which I read in various anthologies, and it annoyed me again now when I read this book by Huysmans. For me, any big city as such, and doubly so its seedier sides, the ones on which the flaneur thrives, is something to be regretted and tolerated as an inevitable necessity, not something to be enjoyed and savoured and endlessly described the way a flaneur does.
Why on earth would any sane person care about theatres, dance-halls, cafes, and bus conductors in some run-down part of 1870s Paris? It's sad enough that some people had to live in that sordid environment, it's doubly sad if this is made as the background of some literary work, but it's an irreparable tragedy when they are made the centre and the raison d'etre of some literary work, as is the case with these sketches: they are nothing but impressions of the environment; they have no story to speak of.
Maybe the problem here is again my lack of comfort with the modern world. I remember reading somewhere that Baudelaire, with his flaneur attitude, was one of the first to try to find some kind of beauty in the non-glamorous aspects of a modern city; one of the first who tried to regard this environment as something more than merely sordid and soulless; one who tried to see in it, despite all appearances to the contrary, some kind of beauty, something that made it worth walking through such parts of a city, observing them, perhaps even revelling in them. This is all well and good, I suppose, but I personally am probably hopelessly stuck in a pre-modern attitude whereby the only things that can be beautiful about a modern city are its parks, palaces, and cathedrals; but not its ordinary districts inhabited by ordinary people. These are too everyday and sordid for me to be able to appreciate them. Perhaps they could be interesting to look at in the case of a medieval or ancient city, merely for their picturesqueness and exoticism; but even then they wouldn't do for a visit or a walk, because by then you couldn't avoid having to smell the excrement in the gutters. Anyway, in a modern town, the ordinary districts don't even have the excuse of picturesqueness and exoticism; they are merely humdrum and pointless. They may be necessary, because without them people wouldn't have any place to live, but that by itself doesn't make them worth reading about or celebrating them in literature.
What this means for a book like Parisian Sketches, I guess, is that it isn't a bad book, nor irrelevant for our day and age, but merely that I am not in its target audience. I am sure that most people nowadays don't share my opinion that cities are merely regrettable and sordid; most of them aren't hampered by my lack of social skills, and can therefore appreciate and enjoy the vibrant, diverse and colourful social life that only a city can offer. In this the 19th-century Parisian flaneur was their forerunner, and they may therefore well enjoy Parisian Sketches and other similar works much better than I did.
A few interesting passages from the translator's introduction: “Huysmans was a flâneur parisien, a habitual walker of the city's back streets and byways, a prose poet of its forgotten corners and neglected alleyways.” (P. 20.) “Unlike Zola, who often sought to make political capital out of social injustice or economic distress in his novels, Huysmans' prose poems aestheticise his subjects rather than politicise them.” (P. 21.)
On the topic of aestheticising his subjects, here's an example: “[. . .] this theatre, with its auditorium whose faded reds and tarnished golds clash with the brand-new luxury of the faux jardin, is the only place in Paris that stinks so deliciously of the make-up of bought caresses and the desperation of depravities that fail to excite.” (The Folies-Bergère in 1879, p. 44.)
For me, one of the most interesting aspects of Huysmans' work (and especially of À Rebours) is how it illustrates the transition from naturalism to the fin-de-siècle. Here is a nice example from this book: “To one side, Ninie was pinning up a gaping hole in her drawers and large patches of sweat were spreading under her armpits almost as far as her breasts. To the pungent smell of horse-dung and rancid grease emanating from the agitated uniforms of the cavalrymen, was now added the pestilential aroma of warm riding-boots and hot hob-nailed shoes, the fetid perfume of unwashed armpits and cheap make-up.” (Dance Night at the Brasserie Européenne in Grenelle, p. 58–9.) This is, on the one hand, a typically naturalist passage, taking pleasure in wallowing in the dung as only the naturalists knew how to. But, on the other hand, is it not only a small step away from decadence, with its obsession with unwholesome things and its fondness for extremes?
Another passage that presages the decadence: “Nature is interesting only when sickly and distressed. I don't deny her prestige and her glory when, with a fulsome laugh, she cracks open her bodice of sombre rocks and flaunts her green-nippled breasts in the sun, but I confess I don't experience before these sap-induced debaucheries that pitiful charm that a run-down corner of a great city, a ravaged hillside or a ditch of water trickling between two lank trees inspires in me./ Fundamentally, the beauty of a landscape consists in its melancholy.” (The Bièvre, p. 93.)
There's even a whole sketch titled The Armpit: “I want simply to speak of the exquisite and divine scent prepared by the women of our cities, wherever they get overheated” (p. 127). “As diverse as hair colour and as undulating as the curls that conceal it, the odour of the armpit could be analysed ad infinitum” (p. 128). How disappointed he would be in these days of clean-shaven bodies soaked in deodorants!
Another curious sketch is Low Tide, about the various types of breasts seen on the female torso mannequins in a boutique. He contrasts them with the idealized shapes as seen e.g. on ancient statues: “How superior to those mournful statues of Venus are these lifelike dressmakers' mannequins; how much more insinuating are these upholstered busts [. . .] because they bring to mind the sufferings of those unfortunate women who despairingly watch their bodies dry up or swell out”, etc., etc. (p. 131), to which I say: bullshit! Why in the name of all that is decent should something be superior merely because it is taken from real life and is therefore more imperfect? I guess this is as good a summary as any of the difference between these flaneurs and me, who am annoyed with them and with the sordid environments they inhabit. I'd take the perfect and unreal over the real but imperfect any time. Ah well. I guess this is just another sign of my emotional immaturity, but I have my doubts if I shall ever be cured of it.
“The enigmatic figure of the Pierrot recurs throughout Huysmans' work.” (Translator's note, p. 168.) “[The actor Jean Gaspard Deburau] made his name with the introduction of the figure of Pierrot, the ever-hopeful but always disappointed lover.” (Translator's note, p. 167.) Apparently Pierrot was quite a major fin-de-siècle obsession — he appears often in the art of Aubrey Beardsley; Dowson wrote a ‘dramatic phantasy in one act’ titled The Pierrot of the Minute; and now I also find him in Huysmans. I hope somebody has written a book about this curious phenomenon, and that I'll eventually find it and read it.
Many of these sketches and poems in prose are dedicated to various Huysmans' friends, most of whom were themselves writers or artists, but usually not so well known (to me at least) as Huysmans. Fortunately the translator's notes introduce each of them in a few words. What struck me as interesting is how many of them worked as civil servants in various government ministries (just like Huysmans). Nowadays we think of civil servants as mere soulless bureaucratic pen-pushers whom we expect to hardly ever mention in the same sentence as art; it's nice to see that this perhaps wasn't always the case.
What to say at the end? I cannot unreservedly recommend this book. As the old saying goes, those who like this sort of thing will find this to be the sort of thing they like. As for me, I wouldn't have been much worse off if I hadn't read this book.