Robert's Reviews > Là-Bas

Là-Bas by Joris-Karl Huysmans
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's review
Jul 03, 11

Read in July, 2011 — I own a copy

Written in Huysmans' customarily languid and pompous prose, La Bas (The Damned) is a pessimistic novel about Satanism and obsession, told through the experiences of a frustrated writer named Durtal. A thinly-veiled analogue of Huysmans himself, Durtal desperately wants to write an entirely new kind of novel, one which will evoke the same kind of awe as religious art, but without resorting to any of the conventions of the genre. He eventually settles on a biography of the mass child-murderer and Satanist, Gilles De Rais.
The format of the novel alternates between Durtal's researches into his appalling subject, depicted in the most graphic and repugnant manner, and his encounters with a pious but obsessive bell-ringer named Carhaix and the Satanist Mme Chantelouve. While Durtal remains strictly on the side of the secularists he becomes fascinated by his subject matter, consorting with a renowned astrologer and eventually - at the book's climax - attending a Black Mass conducted by a Satanic Priest named Docre, again depicted in the most gruesome terms purely for the titillation of the reader.
Densely descriptive in style, Huysmans goes to great lengths in order to prove his erudition to the reader which is forgivable when the result is so immensely enjoyable. Huysmans can take two pages to tell you about Durtal's cat awakening but his way with language is so inventive that he transforms even the most mundane into the most epic.
Ultimately Durtal learns that obsession is a dangerous thing, though he notes that Satanism will most likely survive Catholicism and that in future mankind will be doomed by mediocrity to live under the thrall of dishonest politicians, duplicitous Popes and the mundanity of one another. Only the artist, the dandy and the reactionary who still insists on practising the religion and occultism of the middle-ages earn Huysmans' seal of approval.

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