Huysmans, Joris-Karl

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HUYSMANS, JORIS-KARL (1848–1907), French fin-de-siècle novelist and art critic.

Joris-Karl (Charles-Marie-Georges) Huysmans was the son of a Dutch painter and a French musician. During his life he never ceased to emphasize his parents' joint influence, which he felt was so important to him and that had made him, as he said in his 1885 autobiography, "an inexplicable amalgam of a Parisian aesthete and a Dutch painter." This mixture appeared for the first time in 1874 when Huysmans published a collection of prose poems entitled Le Drageoir à épices (A dish of spices), a volume bearing the name of Jorris-Karl Huÿsmans, a name he thought to be the Dutch form of Charles-Georges Huysmans. Although LeDrageoir is a "skillfully cut jewel" as French poet Theodore de Banville described it, the volume aroused hardly any interest.

Huysmans had more success with Marthe, histoire d'une fille (1876; Marthe), a novel published outside of France, in Brussels, because of its subject matter: the relationship between a young journalist and a prostitute. The naturalist writer Émile Zola, for example, complimented the young writer, saying that he was one of the novelists of the future. With that, a friendship was born. Joris-Karl Huysmans, together with other admirers such as fellow writers Paul Alexis, Henry Céard, Léon Hennique, and Guy de Maupassant, visited Zola every week. But Huysmans never became a true naturalist disciple, his style being, as writer Jean Richepin noted in 1880, far more captivating, idiosyncratic, and colorful than Zola's "pale prose."

Les Soeurs Vatard (1879; The Vatard sisters), En Ménage (1881; Living together), and A Vaul'eau (1882; With the Flow) already suggest the direction in which Huysmans's style would develop, a style indebted to, but at the same time different from, the one defined in the naturalists' credo. Huysmans's was a pessimistic and misogynistic literature, telling of the misery of life, forcing men to flee fin-de-siècle society and seek refuge from the world.

A Rebours (Against Nature), the breviary of the decadent movement that was published in 1884, is often considered to mark a decisive moment in the career of Joris-Karl Huysmans. It was, as Stéphane Mallarmé put it, "the one book that had to be written," a book that scorned conventional aesthetic (naturalist) principles and that became a model for a new generation of decadent writers. However Huysmans sought no disciples and rejected the role as a founder of a literary movement. Thus he described himself in his diary as a "Mère Cigogne n'accouchant que de fausses couches," a fertile child-bearer who produced only miscarriages. But A Rebours also continued on the same pessimistic course—in A Rebours Huysmans expressed, as he told his friend and fellow writer Léon Bloy, a "haine du siècle" (a hatred for his century)—while adding a more supernatural, spiritual dimension, which he saw as absent from naturalist writings.

En Rade (1887; Becalmed), often considered to be an "oeuvre à part" (a separate work), and Là-Bas (1891; The Damned), also are novels in which Huysmans continued his quest for a more spiritual approach to literature, exploring the world of dreams in En Rade and the satanic milieu in Là-Bas. It is also at this point that Huysmans's literature and personal life became more and more intertwined. Therefore, Huysmans's conversion to Catholicism in 1892 could be seen as a direct result of his literary research, first into satanism and then into Catholicism. Huysmans's fascination with these topics gradually led to his embrace of religion.

The literary account of Huysmans's conversion is told in En Route (1895), which was an immediate sales success and motivated other conversions in and outside the country (although some people found his conversion to be highly suspect). From that moment on religion constituted an exclusive theme in Huysmans's writings as well as his personal life. In 1898, shortly after the publication of La Cathédrale (The Cathedral), a celebration of the cathedral of Chartres and a commentary on Christian symbolism, Huysmans retired from the civil service, where he had worked for more than thirty years, and retreated to Ligugé, near the Benedictine monastery, to live as an oblate. Huysmans's refuge in this "oasis," as he called it in his diary, lasted only for two and a half years. The expulsion of the monks in 1901 (due to the new Law on Associations) forced him go back to Paris. L'Oblat (The Oblate of Saint Benedict), published in 1903, is based on Huysmans's experiences in Ligugé, telling the story of a French religious community at the beginning of the century.

Meanwhile, Huysmans had also published the hagiography of a Dutch saint, Sainte Lydwine de Schiedam (1900; Saint Lydwine of Schiedam), and had become the first president of the Goncourt Academy. But slowly his health problems took over his life, forcing him to stay indoors and travel less. One of his last trips led him to Lourdes; Huysmans's experiences there are recounted in the last book published during his lifetime, Les Foules de Lourdes (1906; The crowds of Lourdes). Shortly after having been promoted to the rank of Officier de la Légion d'honneur, Huysmans died on 12 May 1907 of complications of mouth cancer. Huysmans may still be known for his celebrated decadent masterpiece, A Rebours, yet his reputation continues to grow as readers discover his charting the decline of naturalism and the dramatic development of one man's religious faith.

See alsoFin de Siècle; Realism and Naturalism; Symbolism.


Baldick, Robert. The Life of J.-K. Huysmans. Oxford, U.K.,1955

Bertrand, Jean-Pierre, Sylvie Duran and Françoise Grauby, eds. Huysmans, à côté et au-delà. Louvain and Paris, 2001.

Bonnet, Gilles. L'Ecriture comique de J.-K. Huysmans. Paris, 2003.

Borie, Jean. Huysmans. Le Diable, le célibataire et Dieu. Paris, 1991.

Buvik, Per. La luxure et la pureté: essai sur l'œvre de J.-K. Huysmans. Oslo and Paris, 1989.

Cogny, Pierre. J.-K. Huysmans à la recherche de l'unité. Paris, 1953

Lloyd, Cristopher. J.-K. Huysmans and the Fin-de-siècle Novel. Edinburgh, 1991.

Smeets, Marc. Huysmans l'inchangé. Histoire d'une conversion. Amsterdam and New York, 2003.

Smeets, Marc, ed. Joris-Karl Huysmans. CRIN 42. Amsterdam and New York, 2003.

Ziegler, Robert. The Mirror of Divinity. The World and Creation in J.-K. Huysmans. Newark, N.J., 2004.

Marc Smeets

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Huysmans, Joris-Karl

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