The French author found Amsterdam ‘a dream’, and the Netherlands ‘the land of art’

The French author Joris-Karl Huysmans (1848-1907), famous for his decadent ‘breviary’ À back when), had a Dutch father. Although he lost his father at the age of eight, he also wanted to express his father’s ancestry in his first name. And then it became Joris-Karl, instead of the original Charles-Marie-Georges.

A brother of his father made him aware that Karl was a German name and that it had to be Karel, but that apparently made no impression on Huysmans (who could not even speak Dutch). In his younger years, he still got along well with this uncle Constant, art teacher at Rijks-hbs in Tilburg. He visited him more than once, and the Nijmegen novelist Marc Smeets found ten unknown letters to Uncle Constant in the archives, one of which (from 1879) is especially worth reading because Huysmans defends his ‘personal’ naturalism in it and the absolute proponents ‘the freedom of art’.

Dutch painting

Smeets discusses a few things in his finest book A Parisian Dutchman. Joris-Karl Huysmans, where the relationship between Huysmans and Holland is mapped in an entertaining and exhaustive way. With separate chapters on the reception of Huysmans’ work in Holland and on the Dutch presence in that work. That his father’s country of birth did not leave him indifferent is also evident from Huysmans’ ardent admiration for Dutch Golden Age painting, which in his own words had stood in the cradle of his writing career. Especially the ‘divine Rembrandt’ attracted his attention, and he tried it in his first prose poems chiaroscuro to match. IN À back It is no coincidence that the eccentric protagonist Des Esseintes takes a number of Rembrandt’s plugs with him to the house, in which he wants to entrench himself against modern times. Stranger is the presence of engravings by Jan Luyken depicting gruesome images of tortured Anabaptists (a Protestant sect that was fiercely opposed in the sixteenth century), not bene in this aristocrat’s boudoir, which is not without perversion.

Des Esseintes had also visited Holland once, we read À back, but it ended in disappointment: Reality did not fit with the art. Huysman’s own experiences were different, as evidenced by an enthusiastic article (‘En Hollande’), which he published in 1877. He believed that Holland was ‘the land of art’ par excellence, Amsterdam ‘a dream’ and The night watchman an ‘invincible and glorious masterpiece’. Only the future he looked gloomy because the ‘taste of Paris’ went more and more forward. Soon the Parisian taste gripped him too, as he embraced Zola’s naturalism and began to defend the new “independents” (Impressionists like Degas, Manet and others). Although Rembrandt remained an honorary name, the Dutch painters disappeared into the background. And after Huysmans converted to Catholicism in 1892, Rembrandt’s place of honor was increasingly occupied by his favorite saint, Lidwina van Schiedam, about whom he published a modern hagiography in 1901.


The reception in the Netherlands, which Smeets largely reconstructs, largely follows this development. Huysmans enjoyed the interest in naturalism among Jan ten Brink, Lodewijk van Deyssel and Alphons Diepenbrock, among others, although he also provoked enmity in Willem Kloos, who even wrote a sonnet against this ‘rapist of the beauty of the world century’. It was gradually realized that he À back (1884) and la-bas (1891) could not really be counted among Zola’s spirit families, but had embarked on a separate course. In his Catholic days, when he achieved his greatest successes in France, the interest came mainly from Dutch fellow believers. With the great exception of the author Arij Prins, whom Huysmans corresponded with from July 1885 until his death in 1907, after Prins had sent him an admiring letter with an article on Huysmans’ novel. and menage

Both became friends and visited each other more than once. In their correspondence published in 1977, which quickly became extremely confidential, we read a lot about Huysmans’ private life, about his deep boredom in the ministry where he worked, about his prostitution (in the company of Prince when he visited Paris), approx. his difficult relationship with most other women. All such a messy but also often comic misanthropy that one immediately understands why Michel Houellebecq has given him such an important role in his novel. submission from 2015. Its protagonist composes a Pléiade part with Huysmans’ novels. Four years later, it actually appeared, though with other editors, of course. In short, there seems to be a – modest – Huysmans revival these days: the ideal context for Smeets’ study, in which a lesser-known aspect of this intriguing author gets all the attention it deserves.

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