Marthe, by J.-K. Huysmans
Marthe, subtitled “the story of a whore”, is the 1876 first novel of French writer J.-K. Huysmans, most famous for his work Là-Bas, the Damned.
Huysmans is often seen as part of the Naturalist movement of French fiction. He was a disciple of Zola (with whom he later fell out over what he regarded as an excess of materialism and absence of spirituality in Zola’s work), as well as of Edward de Goncourt. Marthe was the first novel addressing the life of licenced prostitutes in French society, a theme more popular than Huysman guessed when he began the work as Goncourt was producing his own novel on the same theme and within a few years so too did Zola. Huysmans had to rush his work to print, a possible explanation for its very hurried ending, and even went so far as to fabricate a backstory for its authorship, so as to ensure his came first of all and to avoid possible charges of plagiarism.
All this, as well as details of initial public reactions, the confiscation of the first print run and something of the climate to which it was released is brought out in the lucid, fascinating yet concise introduction to the Dedalus edition of this work. Together with that introduction, written by the translator (of whom more shortly), the Dedalus imprint comes with useful but not excessive endnotes and examples of original art (and indeed of originally rejected art, thought too risque).
The Dedalus edition of Marthe is translated by Brendan King, a freelance writer and translator with a PhD in the life and work of JK Huysmans. That level of expertise shows in the text, this is a lively translation which is a pleasure to read. Huysmans is fond of slang, of intentional archaisms, of wordplay (the subtitle itself could be read as “the story of a daughter”, “the story of a young girl” or “the story of a whore”, a fact which King notes of itself says much about 19th Century France), King brings all this to life and I would consider his name on any future translated works I encounter a draw in its own right.
So then, all that aside, what of the novel itself?
Marthe is, as the subtitle suggests, the story of a whore. When we first encounter Marthe, she is an actress, in a theatre company notable more for its lack of success than any other trait, she is a former prostitute and it soon becomes apparent that under the laws of the period if discovered as such she can be forcibly returned to the brothel from which she escaped. The story is a simple one, Marthe acquires an admirer, a young journalist named Léo, they become enamoured of each other and the novel follows the course of their relationship, as well as Marthe’s (often dubious) relationship with aging alcoholic actor Ginginet, the man who brought her into acting. There is a plot, relationships between characters develop and alter, but it is not a complex one and therefore I do not wish to speak of it at any length here.
What I would like to speak to is the peculiarly Huysmanian mix the novel contains of humour and social criticism, coupled on occasion with an almost gothic sensibility (at times it is slightly reminiscent of Therese Raquin, which I think must have been an influence, though personally I hugely prefer Marthe to Therese). Here we have two descriptions of the life of the theatre, from different sections of the book:
The audience started to get restless again. What it appreciated above all was the entrance of an enormous actress whose nose seemed to be marinading in a sea of fat. The tirade of verse that spouted from the bunghole of this human wine-barrel was punctuated by a great battery of drumming from the stalls and the poor woman was so bewildered she didn’t know whether to stay or make a run for it.
The play fell flat. Apple-cores flew, owl-like tu-whit-tu-whoos drowned out the noise from the orchestra pit made by two sad old baldies who were scraping the bellies of their cellos. Marthe and Léo took flight. It was every man for himself. The curtain fell. No one was left on stage apart from Ginginet and the two authors of the play, who looked at each other, crushed.
The actor consoled them with a few wise words.
‘Youg men,’ he said, ‘ the profession of dramatic author may not provide you with bread, but at least it’ll grant you plenty of apples. This lot will serve to make a nice apple turnover. As for my opinion on your work, here it is: those who hooted the play were right, those who bombarded me with missiles were dunces. And now, sound the trumpets, I’m off!’
In both passages there is a clear use of physical comedy, but also a refusal to shrink from the unpleasant. The beautiful and the ugly both exist, and so Huysmans depicts both, but in fulfilling that mandate he is not opposed to having a laugh along the way. Equally, Huysmans is drawing on earlier literary traditions, Ginginet is a Rabelaisian character, a rogue I found myself often liking even though he is a drunk, a lecher, lazy, dishonest and a panderer (but perhaps that’s why I like him).
Marthe then is full of humour, indeed at times it is extremely funny (as is Là-Bas, Huysmans’ comic ability is hugely underrated). Marthe does not, however, aim simply to amuse. Rather, it is an almost forensic examination of certain situations, places and people. In this, it is profoundly Naturalist, containing as is typical of that movement a frank approach to sexuality, a study of the individual as product of society and a generally pessimistic (if here blackly funny) tone. Huysmans is often at pains to depict a scene as precisely as he is able, to create an almost painterly sense of it, as this example shows:
The saloon was almost empty when she went in and hadn’t been swept yet. The mirrors on the walls, smeared with pommade from the heads that continually leaned against them, were clear at the top and tarnished at the bottom; the floor, powdered with rouge, was starred with dried spit, phlegm, cigar butts and pipe dottle, the marble table-tops were ringed with tacky stains from dirty glasses, and, at the back of the room on a sofa, a living image of infamy, lay the landlady’s father, whose job it was to work the beer pumps.
Such depictions occur throughout the book, in masterly passages portraying the inside of a brothel, the work of an artificial pearl workshop (painstakingly researched by Huysmans apparently), the exact contents of a morgue and the routine of those working in it. All is precise, all is exactly so, Huysmans lavishes on squalor the attention most authors would reserve for scenes of great beauty. It would be wrong to say that in doing so he gives that squalor its own beauty, he does not nor does he intend to, rather he says “this is” and in doing so shows us exactly what the “this” consists of.
The examination of squalor lies not only in examination of place, but also in examination of people. Marthe has no prospect of redemption, and does not especially seek it. She is trapped, by her circumstances, her inclinations and by her own history. As a former prostitute, she is always at risk of return to the brothel, as an actress she is barely more than a prostitute anyway. She drinks too much, she is promiscuous and not overly faithful, she sells herself because that is what women of her station do, and her fate could be that of any of them. If anything, it is her beauty that causes her to be trapped where the women she grew up with were not. Hers is a life in which the choices are few.
Marthe contains passages of great subtlety, the conversation between Léo and Marthe as they go to his apartment for the first time, running out of things to say to each other and sex becoming an escape from awkwardness, this is brilliantly observed. Huysmans is often at his best when addressing the banalities of flawed relationships, the small compromises and strained silences, above all the petty resentments. It also contains, however, it’s share of dramatic speeches, of confrontations and battles, each of which is full of passion but none of which achieve any great change to the characters’ fates:
‘Look!’ She shouted, getting more worked up the more she cried, ‘youd have done better to let me die. Believe me, I’ve thought about it enough! You know how it is, you lose your head for a moment, you think it’s all very simple to climb up on to a parapet and jump. That doesn’t last long, let me tell you. You get a right fright, up there. It churns your stomach, that boiling water under the bridge; it’s as if you’re being gripped by the throat, being strangled. And that’s stupid as well, because it would be better to finish it all quickly than to continue to live like I’m doing! Don’t you see, Ginginet, you can say what you want, but Léo is a good boy all the same. I’ve behaved like the worst of women with him. I’d get sloshed you know, and he’d put me to bed, and he looked after me when I was ill. Would you have done that? You? you’d try to get pissed on what was left in the bottle. As for what you think of me, I don’t give a damn. Between people like us there’s no such thing as love. We meet someone and sleep with them, just like we eat when we’re hungry. Oh, I’ve had enough of this life of continual fear, I’ve had enough of being hunted like an animal. I’ll give myself up. And what if I do? When you first looked at me with your startled eyes the day you accosted me in that bar, didn’t you think you’d found a virtuous one? You picked up a filthy tart, my dear. And you know, it’s no good trying to clean it off, it sticks with you forever, comes back like an oil stain on a dress. And anyway, when all’s said and done what’s that to me? Neither father nor mother nor good health, that’s called good luck when you do what I do.’
Marthe ends hurriedly, anticlimactically even. It is not a perfect work by any means, Goncourt criticised Huysmans for sometimes using flashy language or archaisms and in doing so killing a scene. It’s a fair criticism, as is Zola’s comment that the tone overall could in places usefully be lighter. But fair also are Goncourt and Zola’s respective compliments, that Huysmans is exceptional at bringing small scenes to vivid life, the daily routine of Léo and Marthe when they live together, a description of a wineseller, Marthe’s memories of her time within the brothel. This is a small book, almost a novella, and it is not perfect, but it contains many rewards and having read it my affection for Huysmans as a writer is if anything enhanced. I look forward to further of Mr King’s translations, and hope he has many more of them in him.
Marthe. I have linked, of course, to the Dedalus edition. The link is worth clicking for the marvellous and wholly apposite cover, a Degas painting, alone.