THE REDEMPTION OF DURTAL
HUYSMANS has treated the subject of repentance;
rarest of all perhaps in pure literature. The degree
of the treatment, if such an expression may be used,
makes the new book peculiar; certainly as prose and
fiction: the penitent being a man of profound baseness;
the spiritual progress being narrated both as far as an
author dare, and as exhaustively as skill and patience are capable.
The friends between whom he isolated himself intellectually, des Hermies
and Carhaix, dying within two months one of the other, Durtal is thrown
upon silence and solitude. From the desolation immediate upon his loss,
by way of a projected life of Blessed Lidwine, he comes to a point of
spiritual uncertainty, that is to say, to the only spiritual situation possible
for him. Then begins the story of any conversion in the world’s memory,
not restricted to the era of grace.
Durtal, with his history of the Maréchal Gilles de Rais, Durtal, who
goes the length of digging up the Satanism of the Middle Age from
modern cloaques of revolting depravity, whose vanity it would have been
to be the last possible recipient of grace, is the object of an “attouchement
divin.” This is the spiritual crisis well known to what is called Mysticism,
the science which, for want of a name, has taken this most misleading of
all names. The germ once planted grows with irresistible force, so assumes
the direction, so absorbs the attention, of Durtal, that suddenly he is aware
only of the fact that he believes, as he says, with not a trace in his memory
of any step by which he has passed from the lethargy of decay to the
anxieties of a living growth.
Then it is a ravenous pursuit of all the spiritual writings the Romance
languages hold, from Saint Denys the Areopagite to Father Faber (a
reservation later), a restless pilgrimage through all the churches of Paris.
The torment ensues; the struggle of habit with the inexorable, unknown
impulse; till agony drives Durtal to an earlier acquaintance, the abbé
Gévresin. Follow the conferences of the two men, the one deeply skilled
in the malady, the other floundering in all the helplessness such a patient
can exhibit. The great stage is reached when, through means of the
abbé’s monitions, Durtal, at length pushed by a power he feels has taken
possession of his very will, goes into a retreat with the Trappistes, makes
his confession, is absolved and communicates. The ten days passed at
La Trappe occupy half the book.
The record is closely consecutive; digressions are few and under the
direct warranty of M. Huysmans’ art. The bridge-work from LÀ-BAS
is such as might be expected from so accomplished a writer; the
solidification of the setting in which Durtal has to move bears the cachet
of the Magician. Elaborate information, pitiless visual observation, a
rare sensibility, under the play of an obstinate method, which advances
fearlessly upon the longest category, ready at each shift with a more
*J. K. Huysmans, “ La-Bas.” Paris : Tresse & Stock, 1891. J. K. Huysmans, “ En Route.” Paris : Tresse & Stock, 1895.
exasperated epithet, lacerate every scene, make nervous and vibrant each
of the panorama before which the haggard, despicable hero is for ever
Above all, what is seen is through the eyes of Durtal; the comments
upon the scene are those of the deteriorated Sensitive. M. Huysmans
has not hesitated, in the enthusiasm of his subject, to expose the genus
scriptor as few who know the truth have the courage to do, priggish,
vulgar. Here is the perfection of the attempt less perfect before, to present the
baggage of the écrivain with his finical person; M. Huysmans evidently
agreed with his friends’ verdict on LÀ-BAS in this feature, for now
complete fusion has repaired the earlier fault.
Choice must be recognised in the circumstance of Durtal’s conversion
being brought about in the lap of the Church. Hence (and of course
it could have been effected directly) applause falls to the judgment
of M. Huysmans. What a bait to his talent the modern, actual aspect
of the Church, its agglomerations of styles and traditions ! The sen¬
sitiveness of Durtal discerns a whole new facet of a mysterious gem
at any moment when he is set down to assist at an office. Hearing
the voice of a priest whom he cannot see, he can speak of “la vaseline
de son débit;” and at the same time find the due expression of the
plain-chant a worthy pursuit of a life-time. Its architecture and
structural accessories; its images, music, liturgies ; the orders of religious,
their dress, rules, even pronunciation; the amount of light, the smell,
the quality of the worshippers; nothing about the Church which is not
of deep interest. But nearer yet to the author’s purpose the Church is of
vital importance to Durtal; during the period of his spiritual conval¬
escence it gives him something to do. Without its insinuations, its
constant allurements, its demands upon the laborious attention of the
sufferer, it is safe to say EN ROUTE could not have been written; as it
is M. Huysmans is obliged to resort to a fully pardonable deceit, and
simply omit to mention what Durtal did with the great part of his day.
Having chosen the Church, M. Huysmans shows further wisdom in
keeping his hero to an orthodox route. Here again he tacitly asks
indulgence of the interested reader, and surely not in vain. As a matter
of fact, Durtal, as we have been brought to know him, could not have
been kept away from the Heresies. M. Huysmans’ caution, in view of
this certainty, is extreme. Though one or two German mystics (out of
scores) are named, Dr. Tauler, Suso, the two Eckharts and Catherine
Emmerich, not one (save the last) is suffered more than a mention by
Durtal, for the reason that these are the door of ceremony to the most
absorbing of the heresies. Durtal among die Brüder des freien Geistes!
Durtal with the history of der Gottesfreund vom Oberland in that valise
of his, with the chocolate and the laudanum! The most remarkable
“attouchement ” ever recorded, that of Tauler, cannot be alluded to.
Catherine Emmerich, for reasons, falls across the hard boundary; she is
almost alone in this century a mediaeval visionary and stigmatisée; the
passion of her life and utterances is all an excuse, in face of a tactic
however severe. But doubled discretion has to forbear carefully from
mention of Clemens Brentano; lest Durtal, studying the voluminous diary
of nine years’ daily intercourse with the illuminated sister, should recog-
nise himself in Clemens, himself with more aplomb, more verve, and lose
his road beyond hope.
The whole scheme of this history required a certain harshness, dryness,
poverty. Much had to be sacrificed to the purpose of making a novel
of such a subject. This accounts for here and there the begging of a
question. M. Huysmans holds the novel form to be almost as exacting
as that of the sonnet. The length of the book determined from the
outset within the limit of half a page, the need for proper balance of
all the considerations the novelist has to bear compels him to set his
face sternly against any but the most urgent situations. Add to all the
proper restrictions of the form M. Huysmans’ deliberate rejection of the
symbol. This is the writer of MARTHE, EN MÉNAGE,the unflinching
realist, whose faith is that his system can employ all possible subtlety.
One example of dexterity in turning humble circumstance to beauty,
of skilful determination, by simple refinement of observation, of the
hour, the vibration of the atmosphere, the pulse even of the supposed
observer: Le temps était tiéde, ce matin-là; le soleil se tamisait dans le
crible remué des feuilles ; et le jour, ainsi bluté, se muait au contact du
blanc, en rose. Durtal, qui s’apprêtait à lire son paroissien, vit les pages
rosir et, par la loi des complémentaires, toutes les lettres, imprimées à
l’encre noire, se teindre en vert.
One brilliant episode suffers quotation by its shortness:
II faisait nuit noire; à la hauteur d’un premier étage, un œil de bœuf
ouvert dans la mur de l’église trouait les ténèbres d’une lune rouge.
Durtal tira quelques bouffées d’une cigarette, puis il s’achemina vers la
chapelle. II tourna doucement le loquet de la porte; le vestibule où; il
pénétrait était sombre, mais la rotonde, bien qu’elle fût vide, était illuminée
par de nombreuses lampes.
Il fit un pas, se signa et recula, car il venait de heurter un corps; il
regarda à ses pieds.
Il entrait sur un champ de bataille.
Par terre, des formes humaines étaient couchées dans des attitudes de
combattants fauchés par la mitraille; les unes à plat ventre, les autres à
genoux; celles-ci, affaissées les mains par terre, comme frappées dans le
dos, celles-là étendues les doigts crispés sur la poitrine, celles-là encore se
tenant la tête ou tendant les bras.
Et, de ce groupe d’agonisants, ne s’élevaient aucun gémissement, aucune
This can only delight, not surprise, coming from the master of this mode.
And though it will inform no one, the flawlessness must be noted of the
nevropathy which is so important a feature of the book.
Of the study of Durtal himself one feels that, isolated, it would have
been more interesting than the whole presentment as it stands. The frag-
ment of a spiritual career is exact enough to support the application of the
gauge, the maxim actually cited : La Mystique est une science absolument
exacte. It is necessary to remember that what is given us is really only a frag-
ment ; not, as the ignorant are certain to say, the whole course and exhaustion
of spiritual operation in a man; a fragment, to speak truly, quite elementary,
and scarcely spiritual at all in results.
All through, Durtal remains deeply ignorant of what is taking place,
when a very small amount of insight in the study of the books with which he
thinks himself saturated should at least sometimes inform him. All the
utterances of the saints he has the fortune to fall among are servilely
reported by him, with never a word of spiritual criticism on his part, not
even the most rudimentary. We do not find him ever admitted to the
simplest “communion of saints; “the impulse within him, the “touche
divine,” the “angelic influx,” the “Kingdom of God,” Goethe’s “dämon-
ische,” to cite a few of its thousand names, never says to Durtal directly
anything more complicated than: Do what this man tells you. He is always
in the wretchedness of his spiritual beggary. What really surprises is that
he should not blunder upon the first truth of an awakening, that he must
go back over the way by which he came. Usually this is easy to a man
who has been so wicked as Durtal; the keen quest of infamy being extra
physical in some aspects, a mode of inverted spiritism, in a manner to make a
spiritual process seem known already the moment it is suggested.
He is found constantly looking, stupidly, for a miracle to take place in
him, a violent destruction of his past, the swift summoning to being of
some fruit of long, laborious growth. The “attouchement” is not miracle
enough for him. He craves, in his peculiar vulgarity, in the vanity of his
worthlessness, a theatrical sign, an explosion of redemption and miraculous
repair, an alchemistic operation in favour of his rag of spiritual disposition.
The only reflection he can make upon the contemptuous refusal of the
abbé to work in his behalf as he considers himself entitled is a culinary:
tons ses conseils se réduisent à celui-ci; cuisez dans votre jus et attendez.
Herein is seen the fidelity of the author already remarked, not to let
wriggle out of sight the radical vulgarity of Durtal. His basest sophistry
does not make him contemptible enough; the real bitter drop he is forced to
swallow again is his vulgarity: . . . ces messes gargotées comme l’on en cui-
sine tant à Paris . . . ils me verseront à pleins bols leur bouillon de veau
pieux! . . . Ses chantres y barattent une margarine de sons vraiment ranees!
Durtal has much to say upon all the graces and exquisitenesses, a great
deal about the Primitives; for every sound he will have an epithet at all
hazards, often drawn from a mute source. But at every few pages the
reader falters upon the reiterated signature of one of these unpleasant
metaphors. Durtal, further, had exhausted the paregoric virtues of the
Gospels. Saint Bonaventura condense en unesorte d’of meat des modes pour
méditer sur la communion. The reward of translating this criticism upon
Saint Bonaventura is the image of a little tin box containing a disgusting
The Trappistes were right who told Durtal that every wonder was small
beside the fact of his being in any disposition of penitence soever. The
great thing for Durtal was to be kept ignorant of his real state and pros-
pect; it would have been very little encouraging for him to know. His
confessor at La Trappe told him that he had been so sick that one might
say of his soul: Jam fœtet; he did not tell him that no other thing could
be said of his body. The body of Durtal is as lost as is possible; there
is no more hope for that. The soul of Durtal has to make a journey so
long that a view of it would ruin him. At the point of utmost progress
in EN ROUTE he is at the beginning of the purgative life. In a very long
time he will still be at the beginning.
Gray, John. “The Redemption of Durtal.” The Dial, vol. 4, 1896, p. 7-11. Dial Digital Edition, edited by Lorraine Janzen Kooistra, 2019-2020. Yellow Nineties 2.0, Ryerson University Centre for Digital Humanities, 2020. https://1890s.ca/dialv4-gray-redemption