La Bas – JK Huysmans

La Bas is a disturbing book. The hero is writing a biography of Gilles de Rais, commonly and incorrectly thought of as being the origin of the ‘bluebeard’ legend and a thoroughly nasty piece of work. Durtal meets one of the most bizarre creations of a femme fatale ever attempted in literature- Mme Chantelouve.

There appears to be no depths of depravity she doesn’t plumb, culminating in the attendance of a black mass which is truly horrific. Probably as a result of this, Durtal re-assesses his beliefs and eventually repents his old ways sufficiently to convert to Catholicism. In En Route, he has to confess his participation – an event which would fill any reader brought up as a Catholic with dread. Like all Huysmans’ books there are constantly snippets of historical facts of an interesting nature and he provokes minds to wander down many dark recesses.

La Bas is well worth a read by anyone interested at all in fin-de-siecle Paris. I would recommend the Penguin edition translated by Terry Hale. It has an introduction which I would suggest is compulsory reading for anyone embarking on the voyage of discovery through the decadence of nineteenth century Paris.

Huysman’s prediction for the future isn’t entirely optimistic – the book ends with the following gem. Giving his assessment of the future generation judging by the sins of the present he speculates:

‘They will turn out,’ replied Durtal, ‘just the same as their parents. They will stuff their guts with food and evacuate their souls through their bowels.’