Tag Archives: J.K. Huysmans

He was overcome by an immense sense of discouragement

With the Flow, by Joris-Karl Huysmans and translated by Andrew Brown

Guy Savage alerted me to Huysmans’ With the Flow. A bored clerk wanders the streets of Paris eating a series of dismal meals and generally having a miserable time. It’s a tremendous study of depression (melancholy) that somehow manages to be relentlessly glum and extremely funny at the same time.

The novella opens with M. Folantin taking a waiter’s recommendation as to which cheese is best. It’s the Roquefort, but when it comes Folantin is unsurprised to find that what’s on his plate appears to have been “cut out of a cake of Marseilles soap.”

He’s unsurprised because that’s how his life is. He’s a government clerk, but it’s not a job that pays well and his early hopes of rapid promotion have long since slumped. Folantin is intelligent and as a youth won scholastic prizes, but his family were poor and he is without connections. What place is there for him in this new Paris of wide boulevards in which the old neighbourhoods are being abolished?

Folantin eats his dinner, and drinks his wine that tastes of ink:

His feet frozen, squeezed into ankle boots that had started to warp in the deluge and the puddles, his cranium white-hot under the gas burner hissing over his head, M. Folantin had hardly touched his food, and even now his bad luck refused to let go of him; his fire faltered, his lamp grew sooty, his tobacco was damp and kept going out, staining the cigarette-paper with a stream of yellow juice.

Folantin is unmarried. He has no friends, because the friends he once had did marry, and as a bachelor he had less and less in common with them. He’s, well, not happy to be unmarried but he comforts himself that things would be even worse with a woman to support and to have to spend all his time with. He’s not a sociable sort. He doesn’t even use prostitutes anymore – his libido has flickered out. His only real human contact now is indifferent waiters and troublesome household staff:

… he had at least got rid of his housekeeper, Mme Chabanel, an old hag, six feet tall, with moustachioed lips and obscene eyes set into her face over her sagging jowls. She was a sort of camp-follower who ate like a horse and drank like a fish; she was a lousy cook, and over-familiar to an impossible degree. She would plonk the plates onto the table any old how, then sit down opposite her master, hoist up her skirts and chatter away, laughing and joking, her bonnet askew and her hands on her hips.

It was pointless to expect her to serve him properly; but M. Folantin would perhaps have put up with even this humiliating lack of ceremony, if the amazing old girl hadn’t stripped him of his possessions like a highway robber; flannel waistcoats and socks would vanish, old shoes would go missing, spirits would evaporate into thin air, and event he matches seemed to light themselves.

Widow Chabanel had been replaced by the concierge, who pummelled the bedclothes into shape with his fists, and made pets of the spiders, whose webs he looked after.

Huysmans loves his comic servants, but he does do them very well.

Folantin’s problem is money. He has just enough to support himself, but not enough to live at all well. He regularly changes restaurant hoping to find one he can afford which has halfway decent food, but it’s all disgusting. He gets meals delivered, but he’s so meek he’s taken advantage of by the delivery staff. Worst of all are Sundays when he doesn’t even have work to keep him occupied and must somehow eke out the long day’s nothing until the time comes for bed.

It all sounds grim. It is grim. Folantin bemoans his own lack of passion. He wishes he cared about women, the office, dominos or cards, but he doesn’t. He doesn’t care about anything except having a pleasantly quiet life and the hope of one day having a decent meal. He wishes he were religious, because they at least have the delusion (as he sees it) of another life to help console them for how awful this one is.

In modern terms Folantin is suffering from depression. Huysmans though is as ever just a hugely gifted comic writer (something he never seems to get credit as) and there’s a relentless quality to Folantin’s misfortunes that makes it impossible not to laugh. One shouldn’t, but I certainly did.

The irony is that if he had money Folantin would be another of Huysmans’ decadents – his bored nobles exploring the boundaries of experience. Folantin though can’t afford to be decadent. Decadence, like a decent steak, is reserved for those with money. Instead Folantin’s existence leads to chapters opening with the words:

One evening, as he was picking at eggs that smelt of pooh…

The Hesperus edition of With the Flow comes accompanied by an interesting little short story titled M. Bougran’s Retirement. M. Bougran is another clerk, but a more senior one. Not so senior though that he can protect his job when he finds himself made redundant to make way for some ministerial favourite.

Pensioned off M. Bougran finds himself completely at a loss. Work defined his existence, and without it he just doesn’t know what to do with himself. One day though he has a brilliant idea – if he can’t go to work anymore perhaps he can make it as if work were coming to him…

I won’t say more. Again it has that mix peculiar to Huysmans of desperation and comedy. The intricacies of civil service procedure and etiquette are beautifully observed (unsurprisingly, given Huysmans was a clerk himself) and it’s all incredibly easy to imagine. Huysmans has that great nineteenth century gift of crafting almost photographic pictures from words.

In one of the two forewords translator Andrew Brown talks of M. Bougran as a sort of anti-Bartleby and there’s some truth to that. M. Bougran would prefer to, but he is no longer required to. He is pointless, and perhaps always was. It’s a beautifully crafted little tragedy which sadly still remains fairly relevant today.

Ultimately neither of these are among Huysmans’ best works. There’s a reason they’re not as well known as The Damned or Against Nature, but they’re subtle and well written and Andrew Brown is as effective a translator as ever. It’s also all up to Hesperus’s usual high standards in terms of the actual physical quality of the book.

I’ll end with a slight note of caution. The two forewords, the Andrew Brown one and the other by Simon Callow, are both very good but they do contain spoilers. If you do decide to read this you might be better off reading the forewords after the two stories themselves.

As I wrote this I discovered that Guy has actually reviewed this too, which I hadn’t originally realised. His review is here.


Filed under 19th Century, Brown, Andrew (translator), French, Huysmans, J.-K., Novellas

I write what I see, what I feel, and what I have lived, writing the best that I can, and that is all.

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.


Filed under 19th Century, French, Huysmans, J.-K., King, Brendan (translator), Paris