What a stroke of luck to come across another Huysmans novel. The Vatard Sisters is the second novel from Huysmans, and while it’s a great read, it’s also an interesting marker of this remarkable writer’s career. Huysmans is best known for the novel, Against Nature–a quintessential book of the Decadent period. Huysmans’ first novel, Martha places the author closer to Naturalism, and he’s still in the Naturalism phase with Les Soeurs Vatard (The Vatard Sisters), so it’s no surprise that the book comes with a dedication to Emile Zola from “his fervent admirer and devoted friend.” Huysmans is not yet at the height of his talent, and while The Vatard Sisters lacks the social power and observation of Zola’s L’Assommoir, Zola’s influence in this marvellous novel is apparent. Huysmans was initially attracted to the novels of Flaubert and the Goncourt brothers, but in 1875, Huysmans bought the early volumes of the Rougon-Macquart cycle and became a dedicated reader and defender of Zola.
The Vatard Sisters (1879) is a fairly simple story wrapped about the love affairs of two Parisian working-class sisters, Céline and Désirée Vatard. Céline, blonde, bold and vigorously healthy is very different from her dark, quiet, “rougishly attractive,” younger sister Désirée.
Désirée, an urchin of fiteen, a brunette with large, pale eyes that were somewhat crossed, plump without being fat, attractive and clean; and Céline, the carouser, a big girl with clear eyes and hair the colour of straw, a solid vigorous girl whose blood raced and danced in her veins, a great minx who had run after men ever since the first onset of puberty.
It’s the 1870s and the sisters work long, tedious hours as bookbinders. Huysmans brings the Débonnaire company to life with vivid, lively descriptions of the social interactions between the workers:
They all detested each one another and they all, men and women alike, understood one another like thieves at a fair when it came to deceiving the supervisors, but outside the shop, they scarcely ever got together except to exchange blows or scratches. Once the morning work began the sight of a late arrival barely able to drag herself to her place or still wearing heavy, black eyeshadow was cause for great hilarity, with everyone leaping about in rowdy abandon. If the owner, exasperated at seeing some great devil of a guy as drunk as a polack, bouncing from one pile to another, paid him off and fired him, that did not prevent the woman this drunk honoured with his caresses and blows from getting up and leaving, dragging with her the whole group that took her side. This always provoked some booing from the other workers, punctuated by a scattering of doleful remarks from the older, more worldly-wise women who complained “Isn’t she stupid to follow a man who beats her! I would get rid of him!” Ironically, the same older woman would arrive the next day with a black eye or with marks on their faces and then energetically defend their own man when the others called him a thief and coward! Gossip was a way of life in the workshop. So and so was running around like a bitch in heat after a man who did not care at all about her. She whined all day long at her work and ended up tearing out the hair of the other woman who was dishonest enough to have stolen away her lover and tease enough to have put it up to her face. With all these little disputes embittered by stupidity, with all this hatred enflamed by contact with the male population, it was a miracle that ten or twelve of the same women remained at the end of several days. The Débonnaire sieve was not stoppered, like a stream of dirty water all its personnel of men and women rolled in waves to gush out through the hole of its doors into the street.
Huysmans gives us some delicious glimpses into Parisian working class life–both at work and at play. In one scene the company owner is plagued by a bill collector who’s owed money by an employee, and in another, a debt collector comes around with an account book in which he records payments for amounts owed by the workers.
The women worked just enough to allow them to stuff themselves with fried potatoes and buy cheap jewelry. The men worked simply because it allowed them to put away great quantities of white wine in the morning and spend their afternoons lapping up liters of cheap red wine.
Reminiscent, of course, of L’Assommoir, but Huysmans’ picture of working-class life as seen through the lives of the Vatard sisters isn’t as bleak as the life of Zola’s Gervaise. While the married women at the Débonnaire company complain about the drunkards they have for husbands and sport black eyes and bruises to prove it, Désirée and Céline are still unmarried. Marriage may seem to be inevitable, but neither sister is in a hurry to wed. Who can blame them? Not only are they surrounded at work by squabbling spouses, but the Vatard home life isn’t exactly perfect. Madame Vatard is an invalid who spends her days in a paralytic state “like a lump,” and that places the burden of the household onto the sisters. Vatard accepts that Céline is the flightier and more promiscuous of his two daughters and conveniently concludes that “if she wanted to live like a slut, he would rather have her cheerful and not nasty and mean like all those girls embittered by celibacy.” On the other hand, he encourages his favourite daughter, Désirée, who considers herself “a real lady” to remain celibate and set high expectations when contemplating a future husband. Incidentally, Vatard has a vested interest in keeping Désirée at home at night in order to help with household chores. Céline warns Désirée that she’s too picky, and she’ll “end up badly.” Désirée has learned much from Céline’s example, and she’s seen how Céline, quick to offer sex to lovers, has been quickly abused and abandoned by them. Consequently, Désirée is “guarding the flower of her maidenhood, very determined not to lose it except for good cause.”
When the novel begins, Céline’s latest lover in a series of disappointing men is a rather sly, opportunistic character named Anatole–a man who holds great appeal for most women. Céline has the habit of dragging fifteen-year-old Désirée out in the evening in order to make up a foursome with Anatole’s friend, Colombel, but he fails to capture Désirée’s attention. Unlike Céline, Désirée has no intention of having sex until she’s married, and she dreams of a bourgeois paradise complete with the sort of bric-a-brac she’s spied in shop windows:
She wanted a husband who did not have spots on his shirt, who washed his feet at least once a week, a man who did not drink and would permit her at last to realize her dream: to have a bedroom with flowered wallpaper, a walnut bed and table, white curtains on the windows, a pincushion made of shells, a cup with her initials in gold on the dresser, and a nice picture hanging on the wall, perhaps a print of a little cupid knocking on a door.
Into Désirée’s life enters Auguste, a former soldier who takes a lowly, poor paying job at the Débonnaire company. He catches Désirée’s eye, and in turn, she has a definite appeal for him. As for Céline, she tires of Anatole and after listening to another girl bragging about her wealthy lover, she decides to catch a rich, older lover–someone who will buy her presents and new clothes. Céline enters the life of artist Cyprien. And it’s with this character we see a glimpse of Against Nature.
In fact, he was really quite debauched. His taste ran the gamut of all the nuances of vice, provided they were subtle and complex. He had been fortunate enough to have made love to third-rate actresses as well as to the dregs. Frail and excessively nervous, haunted by those unheard ardors that rise from exhausted organs, he had reached the point of no longer dreaming of anything other than sexual fantasies spiced with perverse faces and baroque trappings. Where art was concerned, he understood only the modern. Caring little about the vast-off clothing of old periods, he asserted that a painter ought to render only that which he was able to visit and see. Now since prostitutes made up the bulk of his acquaintances, they were the sole subjects of his paintings.
The Vatard Sisters takes a generous look at the foibles of human nature and is a delight to read with its scenes of noisy cafe life, the Absinthe Hour, tawdry fairgrounds and shabby music halls. Céline and Désirée are on the brink of their lives, poised on the edge of making decisions regarding marriage and children, and they make different choices. Through the lives of these two women, Huysmans examines the development and decline of relationships, the roles of love and sex, the confusion between the two, and adds frank mention of sexual frustration and masturbation. For this reader, the novel’s reaches its apex with Cyprien poignantly reminiscing in bed alone at night–and through this passage, Huysmans allows us to forgive this character who has had a sort of comeuppance.
Overwhelmed by the memory of all those broken liaisons, stirred by all these faces passing before his eyes with their bedroom smiles and the spit they had thrown in his face upon leaving him, he extinguished his lamp.
Translated by James C. Babcock