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Joris-Karl Huysmans (1848-1907) - original name Charles-Marie-Georges Huysmans


French writer and art critic, who was first associated with Émile Zola and the naturalist group and then joined the French Decadent Movement. Huysmans "was a greater artist than Zola," wrote Ford Madox Ford in The March of Literature (1938), "left the cathedrals and highways of this world in 1907, and I do not suppose that once in any year you will hear his name mentioned where people talk of books." Huysmans' conversion through Satanism to Catholicism, from obsession with bizarre sensations to the search of spiritual life, can be followed in such works as À Rebours (1884), Là-Bas (1891), and La Cathédrale (1898).

"Indeed, each liquor corresponded in taste, he fancied, with the sound of a particular instrument. Dry curaçao, for example, resembled the clarinet in its shrill, velvety tone; kümmel was like the oboe, whose timbre is sonorous and nasal; crème de menthe and anisette were like the flute, both sweet and poignant, whining and soft. Then to complete the orchestra come kirsch, blowing a wild trumpet blast; gin and whisky, deafening the palate with their harsh eruptions of cornets and trombones; liqueur brandy, blaring with the overwhelming crash of tubas, while the thundering of cymbals and the big drum, beaten hard, evoked the rakis of Chios and the mastics." (from À Rebours)

Joris-Karl Huysmans was born Charles-Marie-Georges Huysmans in Paris of mixed parentage. On his father's side he was of Dutch descent; his mother, Elisabeth-Malvina Badin, was a French. After Huysmans' father died, Elisabeth-Malvina married Jules Og, a Protestant businessman. The early loss of his father remained a traumatic childhood experience for Huysmans. He faithfully kept some of his painting his father had been a commercial artist. Huysmans studied at the Lycee Saint-Louis, receiving in 1866 his baccalaureate. At the age of twenty, he obtained a post at the Ministry of the Interior; there he remained for 32 year, combining writing with work. Huysmans' first book, Le drageoir aux épices (1874, A Dish of Spices), was a collection of prose poems in the manner of Charles Baudelaire. When it was rejected by several publishers, he finally printed it at his own expense under the name Joris-Karl Huysmans. Later he invented the famous initials "J.-K.". The book received attention of major writers, including Emile Zola, and was followed by a number of naturalistic novels, such as Marthe (1876), Les soeurs Vatard (1879), and En ménage (1881). During the Franco-Prussian war of 1870, Huysmans served in the army. The novella Sac au dos (1880), based on his experiences from this period, was published in Les Soirées de Médan with other war stories written by members of Zola's 'Médan' group.

Early in 1877 Huysmans met Zola, who had admired the former's review of his L'Assommoir (The Gin Palace). Huysmans shared Zola's idea that a work of art is a "corner of nature seen through a temperament." Huysmans started to publish art critics in the 1870s and defend such Symbolist painters as Odilon Redon and Gustave Moreau. Of Puvis de Chavannes's painting The Poor Fisherman, in which the tonality is uniformly grey, he wrote: "It is dry, hard, and as usual, of an affected naive stiffness. I shrug my shoulders in front of this canvas, annoyed by this travesty of biblical grandeur achieved by sacrificing colour to line. But despite this disgust which wells up in me when I stand in front of the painting, I cannot help being drawn to it when I am away from it." For Moreau and Huysmans, the sensual and innocent Salome became the embodiment od feminity. Salome was the obsessional subject matter of Moreau's paintings, and Huysmans used them in a scene in A Rebours.

With A Rebours Huysmans turned his back to naturalism, flirting with "decadent" mentality. It was the "poisonous" yellow book to which Oscar Wilde's Dorian Gray refers, and whose protagonist Dorian imitates. In the blackly comic story a wealthy aesthete, the Duc Jean des Esseintes, experiments with exotic pleasures, mostly erotic. He lives in his house as in a monastery and dreams of the progress of syphilis down the ages. Finally he is welcomed into the embrace of a femme fatale, whose genitalia are made in the image of a Venus flytrap. Des Esseintes seals himself off from the world so hermetically, that he does not even dare to go on a journey he is afraid of being disappointed by reality. He has surrounded himself with works of art, "which would transport him to some unfamiliar world, point out the way to new possibilities and shake up his nervous system by means of erudite fancies, complicated nightmares and suave sinister visions." In one of the most famous parts, he decides to have his tortoise's shell gilded.

However, Huysmans could not fully accept his protagonist's eccentricities because he makes des Esseintes wonder, whether the only salvation might not be in a return to faith. "At the time when I was writing Against Nature," he said later, "there must undoubtedly have been a shifting of the soil, a drilling of the ground, to put in the foundations, of which I was not conscious. God was digging holes to lay his wires, and he worked only in the dark reaches of the soul, in the night." The work had a tremendous impact in decadent circles, but also the Catholic novelist Barbey d'Aurevilly paid attention to it. Of A Rebours, Oscar Wilde wrote: "The heavy odour of incense seemed to cling about its pages and to trouble the brain." Arnold Hauser sees the character in The Social History of Art as the prototype of all Dorian Grays. "The age of nature," says Des Esseintes, "is past; it has finally exhausted the patience of all sensitive minds by the loathsome monotony of its landscapes and skies."

In his later novels Huysmans recorded the spiritual quest of a man named Durtal, a writer, his fictional alter ego. Là-Bas was a highly stylized novel of black magic practiced in contemporary Paris. In the story Durtal decides to write a biography of Gilles de Rais (1404-1440), the French marshal, who was accused of Satanism and was briefly associated with Joan of Arc. Durtal is taken to a Black Mass, but he finds the experience disappointing. During his flirtation with Satanism, Durtal has an affair with Hyacinthe Chantelouve, a member of the active Satanist Canon Docre. A pious bell-ringer, Louis Carhaix, aids Durtal in his reserch, but the disillusioned aesthete remains unable to embrace Carhaix's simple faith. Durtal feels that overanalyzation of his faith and feelings has left him without values.

Là-Bas was accepted at face value by many readers. The book became a key work promoting the sensational mythology of the Black Mass. Durtal's historical researches had much in common with Jules Michelet's book La Sorcière (1862), a study about the witch-hunts and sorcery trials of the Middle Ages. It is possible that Huysmans never saw a Black Mass, although some of the occultists of the fin-de-siècle Paris are mentioned in the text. Among Huysmans' friends was the Abbé Joseph Boullan (1824-1893), who served as the model for Dr Johannès. He is portrayed as a priest who practises magic to counter Satanism. Willian Beckford's (1760-1844) autobiographical fantasy Vatek offered another source of influence. Composed in the style of an Arabin Tale, this novel portrayed a licentious caliph, absorbed in occult pursuits and sensual pleasures. At the end he enters a hell, ruled by the Demon named Eblis. The additional 'Episodes' intended for the book contained homosexual tales.

Huysmans remained unwed throughout his life. He maintained that he was not a "true homosexual," and confessed in a letter, that he once spent several evenings in "the sodomite world," to which he was introduced by "a talented young man whose perversities are common knowledge." In the early 1890s, Huysmans underwent the crisis that led to his conversion and started his religious or mystical phase. He was readmitted in 1892 into the Catholic church. In 1895 Huysmans went to the Trappist monastery of Issigny to spent there a week. En route (1895) expressed the author's longing for monastic life. In La Cathédrale Huysmans moved from doubts to the full acceptance of Roman Catholicism. The work was both an account of a conversion and a detailed examination of medieval art.

After resigning his post at the Ministry, Huysmans retired to Liguge in Poitou, where he lived two years as a Benedictine oblate. When the monks were expelled, he returned to Paris. Huysmans was one of the founders of the Goncourt Academy, and in 1900 he was elected its president. Huysmans died of cancer of the mouth on May 12, 1907 he had complained of toothache for years and eventually it was diagnosed that he had incurable cancer. Most of his life Huysmans had been a hypochondriac, but it is said that his final sufferings Huysmans took with Christian resignation. During the last days he was afflicted with an affection of the eyes and it became necessary to sew his eyelids shut.

Huysmans' own spiritual history reflected the successive phases of the intellectual life of the late 19th-century France. He dealt with exoticism, eroticism, and spirituality and wrote of his protagonists' experiences in a rich, intoxicating style. "Art is the only clean thing on earth, except holiness," he once stated. The Catholic church regards him as one of its apologists.

For further reading: L'estetique de Huysmans by H. Trudgian (1934); The Life of Joris Karl Huysmans by Robert Baldick (1955); The First Decadent by James Laver (1955); Des ténèbres à la lumière by P.-M. Belval (1967); Joris-Karl Huysmans by George Ross Ridge (1968); Reality And Illusion In The Novels of Joris-Karl Huysmans by Ruth Antosh (1986); Joris Karl Huysmans: Novelist, Poet, and Art Critic by Annette Kahn (1987); The Image of Huysmans by Brian R. Banks (1990); Joris-Karl Huysmans and the Fin-De-Siecle Novel by Christopher Lloyd (1991); The Mirror of Divinity: The World and Creation in J.-K. Huysmans by Robert Ziegler (2004) 

Selected works:

  • Le Drageoir à épices, 1874 - A Dish of Spices (translated by S. Putman, in Down Stream and Other Works, 1927; Paul Oldfiel, 2005)
  • Marthe, histoire d'une fille, 1876 - Marthe (translated by S. Putnam, in Down Stream, 1927) / Martha, Story of a Prostitute (tr. 1948) / Marthe: The Story of a Woman (translated by Samuel Putnam, 1948) / Marthe (translated by Robert Baldick, 1957) / Marthe: The Story of a Whore (translated by Brendan King, 2006)
  • Les soeurs Vatard, 1879 - The Vatard Sisters (translated by James C. Babcock, 1983)
  • Sac au dos, 1880
  • Les Soirées de Médan, 1880
  • Croquis parisiens, 1880 - Parisian Sketches (translated by Richard Griffiths, 1960; Brendan King, 2001)
  • En ménage, 1881 - Living Together (translated by J. W. G. Sandiford-Pellé, 1969)
  • A vau-l'eau, 1882 - Down Stream (translated by Samuel Putman, 1927; Robert Baldick, 1952) / With the Flow (translated by Andrew Brown, 2003)
  • L'art moderne, 1883 - Critical Papers (translated by S. Putman, in Down Stream and Other Works, 1927)
  • À Rebours, 1884 - Against the Grain (abridged, translated by John Howard [pseud.], 1922; John Howard, 1924; anon., 1930; with an introd. by Havelock Ellis, 1931; anon., 1931; anon., 1936; anon., 1946) / Against Nature (tr. anon. 1936;, Robert Baldrick, 1959; Margaret Mauldon, 1998; Breandan King, 2008) - Vastahankaan (suom. Antti Nylén, 2005) - film: Ventriloquio, 1970, prod. Radiotelevisione Italiana (RAI), sc. & dir. by Carmelo Bene, starring Carmelo Bene (as Des Esseintes), Lydia Mancinelli (as Ventriloqua)
  • En Rade, 1884 - Becalmed (translated by Terry Hale, 1992) / Stranded (translated by Brendan King, 2010)
  • Certains, 1889 - Critical papers (translated by S. Putman, in Down Stream and Other Works, 1927); 'Rops' (translated by Rosemary Lloyd, in Revolutions in Writing, 1996)
  • Là-bas, 1891 - La Bas or Down There (translated by Keene Wallace, 1924; Alfred Allison, 1930) / La-Bas: A Journey into the Self (translated by Brendan King, 2001) / The Damned: Là-Bas (translated by Terry Hale, 2001)
  • En Route, 1895 - En Route (translated by Charles Kegan Paul, 1896)
  • La Cathédrale, 1898 - The Cathedral (translated by Clara Bell, 1898)
  • La Bièvre et Saint Séverin, 1898 - The Bievre River (translated by Darius Halpern and Ellen Moerman, 1986) / La Bièvre (bilingual edition, translated by Rob Swigart and Danielle Trudeau, 2005)
  • Sainte Lydwine de Schiedam, 1899 - Saint Lydwine of Schiedam (translated by Agnes Hastings, 1923)
  • De Tout, 1901
  • L'Oblat, 1903 - The Oblate (translated by Edward Perceval, 1924)
  • Les Foules de Lourdes, 1905 - The Crowds of Lourdes (translated by W.H. Mitchell, 1925)
  • Trois Primitifs: Les Grünewald du Musée de Colmar, 1905 - Grünewald (translated by Robert Baldick, 1958)
  • Trois églises et trois primitifs, 1908
  • Down Stream and Other Works, 1927 (translated and edited Samuel Putman)
  • uvres complètes, 1928-34 (23 vols.)
  • Correspondance: 1896-1903 / J.-K. Huysmans et Cécile Bruyère, 1950 (edited by Philippe Barascud) 
  • Lettres inédites à Émile Zola, 1953 (edited by Pierre Lambert, introduction by Pierre Cogny)
  • Lettres inédites à Edmond de Goncourt, 1956  (edited by Pierre Lambert, introduction by Pierre Cogny)
  • Lettres  inédites à Camille Lemonnier, 1957 (edited by Gustave Vanwelkenhuyzen)
  • Lettres inédites à Jules Destrée, 1967 (edited by Gustave Vanwelkenhuyzen)
  • Une étape de la vie de J. K. Huysmans; lettres inédites de J. K. Huysmans à labbè Ferret, 1973 (edited by Élisabeth Bourget-Besnier)
  • Lettres inédites à Arij Prins, 1885-1907, 1977 (edited by Louis Gillet)
  • Lettres à Théodore Hannon, 1876-1886, 1985 (edited by Pierre Cogny and Christian Berg)
  • The Road from Decadence: From Brothel to Cloister: Selected Letters of J.K. Huysmans, 1989 (edited and translated by Barbara Beaumont)
  • Écrits sur lart, 1867-1905, 2006 (edited by Patrice Locmant)
  • Écrits sur la littérature, 2010 (edited by Patrice Locmant)

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