J. K. Huysmans, La-Bas (Dover, 1891)
[originally posted 5Jun2001]
Ah, Huysmans, the author who pioneered the novel of “two people spending a whole chapter talking about things that have absolutely nothing to do with the plot, theme, or story.” La-Bas (translated, Down There) is billed by the blurb-writer who did the back cover as “the classic of Satanism” thanks to a description (I warn you, it comes very, very late in the book; those seeking a quick fix of prurience should certainly look elsewhere) of a Black Mass. One thinks that perhaps the blurb writer has been living in a cave for fifty years; Huysmans’ black mass is about as scandalous today as a Jennifer Lopez dress. Even Ernest Borgnine got more sacrilegious in The Devil’s Rain. Sheesh.
The story (what there is of it) revolves around a young French writer named Durtal and his best friend, Des Hermies. Durtal is working on a sensationalized biography of Gilles de Rais, Joan of Arc’s main lieutenant who later inspired the Bluebeard legend (or so common wisdom has it; Durtal counters that argument at one point in the book). Des Hermies suggests that Durtal’s research might go better if he uncovered various occult sciences still extant in fin-de-siécle Paris, and the two of them, aided unwittingly by a monastic bell-ringer named Carhaix and an ancient astrologer named Gevingey, set out to do so. They are also helped along by Durtal’s rather odd relationship with a fan (anonymous in her first letters to him in the book, and so not revealed here) who has indirect connections with some practicing Satanists in the Catholic church (hmm, a bit of anti-Catholic bias in Paris in the 1890s? Who’d’athunk?).
All of it could have made for a fine adventure story, the kind of thing A. Merritt and G. A. Henty were writing a few years after this; unfortunately, Huysmans turns it into endless conversations. A few fast-moving scenes where Durtal is imagining pieces of Rais’ life as he’s writing save the book from utter despair, but ultimately, the fact that La-Bas is Huysmans’ best-known novel these days is a disservice to the man; other books would be a better starting point for him (especially Against the Grain). **