Review: Là-Bas (Down Below), J. K. Huysmans, trans. Keene Wallace, 1891, 1928.
While I’m told Huysmans’ À rebours (Against Nature) is considered a jewel of Decadent literature, it’s not clear if this novel is a work of Decadent fiction.
If I’m understanding its definition, Decadent literature, in its English and French varieties, portrays the present as decaying and advocates for enjoying the long fall of civilization with sex and drugs and outré experiences.
This novel votes yes on the decaying society part and no on the pursuit of strange aesthetic pleasures. Rather, it postulates that decay brings mysticism to the fore, and here that mysticism takes on two strains: Catholicism and Satanism.
“It is just at the moment when positivism is at its zenith that mysticism rises again and the follies of the occult begin.”
According to Wikipedia (I doubt Huysmans is sufficiently controversial these days for an editing war to be centered around his entry), a friend of Huysmans said, after À rebours was published, that Huysmans was going to have to eventually chose between “the muzzle of a pistol and the foot of the Cross”. Huysmans would eventually choose the latter, ending up as a Benedictine monk. This considered one of the great novels of “literary Satanism”, but Catholics of a conservative bent (it was one who recommended this book to me) also admire the Durtal trilogy.
Durtal’s progression from Decadent to monk is paralleled by three Huysmann novels featuring the writer Durtal, generally considered to be Huysman’s alter ego. Là-Bas is the first of that trilogy.
Durtal’s newest project is a biography of the infamous Gilles de Rais, French noblemen, defender and champion of Joan of Arc, Marshal of France – and raper, torturer, and killer of hundreds of children. The puzzle Durtal seeks to answer is why Rais, “a brave captain and a good Christian, all of a sudden became a sacrilegious sadist and a coward”. The novel will present the story of Rais throughout and conclude with Durtal’s ideas on the Marshal’s motivations.Continue reading