Saturday, October 06, 2007

BOOK: J.-K. Huysmans, "Marthe"

J.-K. Huysmans: Marthe: The Story of a Whore. Translated by Brendan King. Sawtry: Dedalus, 2006. 1903517478. 149 pp.


This is Huysmans' first novel, and his second book altogether, published in 1876, preceded only by A Dish of Spices a few years earlier.

The book also includes an introduction by the translator, with interesting information about the beginnings of Huysmans' literary career. After A Dish of Spices, he began writing short essays and sketches for magazines, but some friends eventually persuaded him to try writing a novel (p. 10).

Marthe was published in slightly unusual circumstances; Huysmans had largely finished his manuscript when he learned that Edmond de Goncourt, a respected writer of the older generation, was also working on a novel with a similar subject, i.e. dealing with the life of a prostitute (it was eventually published in 1877 as La fille Élisa). To avoid being accused of plagiarism, Huysmans decided to hurry his book through the press to get it published before Goncourt's. Because of censorship in France, he had it printed in Belgium at his own expense. (As a civil servant, he was also concerned about the reaction of his employers to the book if it were published in Paris.) He tried to personally smuggle a considerable part of the print run into France, but the books were seized by the customs officials :) (p. 13).

This first edition did not attract much notice, and newspaper reviewers tended to be hostile, but it was warmly praised by several famous writers to whom Huysmans sent copies, such as de Goncourt and Zola. Thus Marthe was an important step towards establishing Huysmans as a noted and respected naturalist writer. (Incidentally, Zola also wrote a prostitute-themed novel not long afterwards — Nana, first published in 1880.)

The story

As far as the contents are concerned, Marthe seems pretty much your typical sordid naturalist novel.

<spoiler warning>

Marthe grows up in powerty, her parents die soon; she spends her adolescent years at exhausting work in an artificial-pearl factory (in the usual naturalist fashion, Huysmans cannot resist including a detailed description of the manufacturing process — it involves large quantities of fish scales; pp. 37–8). Following the example of the other girls she works with, she takes a lover; things go from bad to worse, a few lovers later she ends up in a brothel, finds this kind of work rather revolting and runs away.

She gets a job in a (very) downscale theatre, more for her looks than for her singing or acting abilities. She even gets herself a reasonably decent boyfriend, a young journalist named Léo. After a while she moves into his flat, but this turns out to be the beginning of the downfall of their relationship, as they cannot help getting more and more on each other's nerves. This is exacerbated by their dire poverty, as the newspapers Léo writes for aren't exactly thriving, and the theatre where Marthe worked goes bankrupt. Léo learns of Marthe's past when the police come to take her to a medical examination, which she is required to undergo regularly as a former registered prostitute (apparently a public-health measure to prevent the spread of venereal diseases).

Meanwhile, Ginginet, an old actor, Marthe's former theatre manager, and inveterate drunkard, has inherited a bar and set himself up as a publican. He persuades Marthe to come live with him as his mistress and bartender, and even manages to get her struck off the prostitute register. However, their relationship is stormy and full of violence, with Marthe mostly as the victim; and they are both pretty hard drinkers. Eventually she leaves, briefly returns to Léo but leaves him as well after just one night, as they both realize that their former relationship is well and truly dead. Soon she ends up in a brothel again.

Ginginet, meanwhile, has drank away his inheritance as well as his health and his voice; he dies as a beggar in the streets, and in the last chapter of the book we witness his autopsy for the benefit of medical students. We also hear that Léo has got married; he doesn't particularly love his wife but it seems that they'll manage to put up with one another somehow, and he definitely (if cynically) appreciates the convenience of having someone cook your meals and mend your clothes.

</spoiler warning>

Why was it ever written?

Well, I haven't really read any naturalist novels before (nothing by Zola, for example), so this is in a way my first encounter with genuine naturalism (not just its traces in Huysmans' later works). I must say it is about as bad as I was led to expect by what I've heard or read about it until now. I don't see why anybody would take the trouble to write such a novel, not to mention why anybody would think it worth being published. (Ah, but I forget; the first edition was published at Huysmans' own expense anyway.) It's all so ceaselessly negative; it's just bad things, bad people, bad actions, all the damn time.

From what I've heard, at least some naturalists, Zola for example, thought of their works as something that should point out society's faults and act as kind of call for social reform. But it isn't clear to me that Huysmans had any such aim here. The narrator of the story doesn't seem to particularly sympathize with the characters (in particular, one ofter seems to feel in the narrator's tone a kind of contempt for Marthe and for the way she always ends up returning to the life of prostitution; in fact the narrator seems to be a bit cynical about women in general, and is somewhat of a misogynist).

(See also the introduction, p. 19: “While Zola used Naturalism as a political tool with which to offer a critique of contemporary society, Huysmans saw it as a means to an aesthetic end.” And Huysmans himself writes in a preface to Marthe (p. 28): “I write what I see, what I feel and what I have lived, writing the best that I can, and that is all.” But that's a mighty poor excuse, if you ask me.)

In fact the writer seems to have gone out of his way to make much of the characters' misfortune a result of their personal faults rather than of social problems; for example, Ginginet inherits a bar just when his theatre fails — surely an act of providence if ever there was one — but he promptly goes and drinks day and night until he squanders everything and ends up a pauper. Similarly with Marthe, one cannot help feeling that at least some of her problems stem from her unstable character; she seems to want to be abused (ch. 8, pp. 97–8). Nowadays some people say that many prostitutes, especially victims of abuse, later come to suffer symptoms very similar to those of shellshock, or post-traumatic stress disorder; perhaps something similar is going on in Marthe's head as well.

Anyway, in the end you can of course always conclude that all the problems of the characters in this book stem from their hopeless poverty and from living in a society with no safety net; but I'm afraid that the book doesn't do much to encourage such a conclusion; it will only be made by people who are, like me, predisposed to blame the society as a whole for all the problems that beset the individuals who live in it.

Perhaps you could also argue that in some ways Marthe tries to act as a traditional morality tale. Surely Ginginet's career requires no further comment, it is already a perfect warning against the evils of alcoholism. And as for Marthe, she herself says to Ginginet near the end of the book (end of ch. 11, p. 123): “All the same, my dear, if we could live our lives over again, you know it would have been better to sweat and slave in an honest job, it would have paid better!” And Léo writes, most callously (ch. 12, p. 129): “whores like her have this much good about them: they make us love those who resemble them least; they serve as a foil to decency.” But on the other hand, it's hard to take this novel seriously as a traditional morality tale. It contains just negative examples, no positive ones, and the narrator seems too neutral: he doesn't strongly take sides for good and against evil, for example; nor would I really expect Huysmans to do such a thing at that time in his career.

Huysmans, an aspiring old salt?

I was surprised by the frequency with which maritime metaphors occur in this book, something that I don't remember seeing in Huysmans' other works. But maybe I was simply careless; the translator says on p. 148: “The notion that human beings periodically need to shelter from the storms of life is expressed through another maritime metaphor that recurs throughout Huysmans' work. The title of his 1887 novel En Rade, for example, literally means ‘in dry dock’ or ‘at harbour’.”

“This girl hadn't needed to strike a reef: she'd gone down with all hands on the open seas.” (Ch. 2, p. 45.)

The prostitutes trying to attract customers were “trying to reignite that flame in their glance for a few moments, so that some passing man might walk their plank and board them.” (Ch. 3, p. 49.)

“blondes who, seven sheets to the wind, were roaring with laughter and drinking wine” (ch. 4, p. 56).

Ginginet “had drowned his spirits in such a huge lake of cheap wine that he was lurching like a ship in distress, taking in not water but wine on all sides” (ch. 8, p. 93).

“The poet would have found her unsufferable if she hadn't served as a kind of harbour, in which he could refloat his stranded ship.” (Ch. 10, p. 113.)

The prostitutes “drank absinthe, shuffled their cards again, and waited until it was time to set sail, whether for Lesbos or for Cythera.” (Ch. 11, p. 116. Incidentally, does this mean that they also had female customers? I would naively imagine this to have been unthinkable in the society of that time.)

Funny passages and other miscellanea

“ ‘But what paper do you write for?’ — ‘The Monthly Review.’ — ‘Don't know it. And when does it come out?’ — ‘Generally every month.’ ” (Ch. 1, p. 34.)

“He lived by his pen, which is as much to say he starved” (ch. 4, p. 58).

“She dressed like all whores, sitting on the edge of the bed” (ch. 4, p. 60). WTF? Decent women must dress standing up, or what?! I can't help imagining Huysmans' office being stormed by disgruntled old grandmothers (armed with umbrellas and handbags, of course) who, due to weakness and a poor sense of balance, cannot dress standing up any longer :)))

During a performance in Ginginet's theatre, the audience pelts the stage with apple-cores. Ginginet consoles the authors of the play: “ ‘Young men,’ he said, ‘the profession of dramatic author may not provide you with bread, but at least it'll grant you plenty of apples.’ ” (Ch. 4, p. 65.)

“there were greengrocers where you could buy milk and lead soldiers” (ch. 8, p. 91). Oh yeah, lead soldiers — part of a nutricious breakfast!

On Ginginet's acting career: he spent “years declaiming on the boards, mouth like a chicken's arse and eyes bulging like billiard balls” (ch. 8, p. 93).

“Big-bellied and short of breath, he had bushy sideburns and his face offered that astonishing peculiarity, a nose the colour of aubergine, while the rest of his face seemed to be stained that striking red used by enamellists, Cassius purple.” (Ch. 9, p. 102.)

“hitching up his trouser-legs with a fine semblance of absent-mindedness, he revealed to the woman he was keeping that he was wearing long pink tights. As she failed to go into ecstasies over this clownish elegance, he pulled a little at his leggings and, pouting his lips, said: ‘Can you see how supple that silk is?’ ” (Ch. 10, pp. 107–8.) Nowadays pink is considered a very feminine colour, but I've read in a number of places that this is relatively recent, and as little as a hundred years ago pink was considered a vigorous, lively, manly colour. Well, the passage above seems to confirm it in a way.

At some point (ch. 4, p. 56), the novel refers to a painting, The Bean King, by Jacob Jordaens (I think we can by now safely say that Huysmans was constitutionally incapable of writing a work without any references to the visual art of the Low Countries). There's an interesting translator's note explaining what the painting is about (p. 141), and the painting itself is shown on p. 139. It is rather hilarious, especially “the pot-bellied slattern wiping her child's backside while a dog sniffs at it” — clearly the 17th century was a very weird place :) If a party gets so rambunctious that you don't hesitate to wipe your child's arse during it, in plain view of everyone, then this is surely a party that you shouldn't have brought your child to in the first place. (At least this is probably what most present-day parents would think, not that I necessarily agree.)

Wallowing in filth

There are a few passages of memorable wallowing in filth, the kind that the naturalists were so fond of.

“piss-coloured velvet of the sofa” (ch. 1, p. 29).

“a sinister staircase that creaked at every footstep and was impregnated with the foul stench of drains and the smell of the lavatories whose doors swung open in the slightest breeze.” (Ch. 2, p. 43.)

“one of the lowest dives in the Rue de Vaugirard. [. . .] the floor, powdered with rouge, was starred with dried spit, phlegm, cigar butts and pipe dottle” (ch. 5, p. 76).

“window displays in which shrivelled fish turned brown and fell apart, and bloody rabits were framed by a wall of lacklustre dishes and salad-bowls that disgorged prunes wallowing in a mire of their own juices.” (Ch. 8, p. 92.)

“a dirty junk-shop at the door of which hung dresses whose crinoline flesh had rotted away and whose wire carcasses tinkled in the wind.” (Ch. 11, p. 120.)


All in all, there are many commendable things about this edition. The introduction and the translator's notes are interesting, there are even a few helpful plates, and the translator has made a good effort to have the characters speak in a colloquial tone that was no doubt also used by Huysmans in the original. What I disliked most was the general sordidness that pervaded the whole novel, but I guess that this is simply inevitable in a naturalist work.

Another thing I disliked was the typeface in which this book, and several other Dedalus books, is set. It's a horrible romantic typeface, similar to Bodoni; the vertical strokes are so thick that it feels as if the whole book was set in boldface. (And it's not like Dedalus doesn't know how to use prettier typefaces; the one they use in the last few pages, for their advertisements, is much nicer.) But, of course, I must admit that in a way the typeface is aptly chosen; the late 19th century, when the novel was written and in which it is set, was dominated by just such typefaces. And it is, after all, appropriate that an ugly novel about the sordid aspects of life in an ugly 19th-century city should be set in an ugly 19th-century typeface; to set it a humanist face would be an affront to everyone involved :)

(Yes, yes, I admit, I'm a bit of an aspiring typeface snob :))

Anyway, I think this book can be recommended to fans of naturalism (along with a hearty swig of prussic acid, to put you out of your misery) and to Huysmans completists (along with another look at À rebours, to remind you why you started reading the guy in the first place), and to pretty much nobody else.


  • Edmond de Goncourt's La fille Élisa; and Zola's Nana, both mentioned in the introduction of this book. I will need to find English translations, of course.

  • Evenings at Médan (1880), a collection of short stories contributed by Zola and five other naturalist writers. (Mentioned here on p. 18.)

  • Eugèene Sue: The Mysteries of Paris. (Mentioned here on p. 143.)

Labels: , , ,


Post a Comment

<< Home