“Every condition has its anxieties and hassles.”
The novella With the Flow by Huysmans follows the miserable existence of a minor office clerk, Jean Folantin. Folantin is a middle-aged, unmarried Parisian. He employs a slovenly, thieving servant–Mme Chabanel, “an old hag, six feet tall, with moustachioed lips and obscene eyes.” In Folantin’s youth, he frequented prostitutes with disastrous consequences to his fragile health, and now, the only dilemma left in Folantin’s life is the question of where he should eat his next evening meal. Folantin earns just enough to allow him to eat at restaurants every evening, but unfortunately, he is doomed to a series of disgusting, unpalatable meals. In an attempt to improve his life (and his meals) Folantin begins haunting various establishments throughout Paris–trying to discover a decent meal for a cheap price.
From the description of the novella, it might seem that With the Flow is relentlessly depressing and full of despair. I agree entirely with that–With the Flow should be depressing–but it isn’t. I actually found the story quite hilarious as poor, pathetic Folantin veers from one disgusting meal to another. The poor man really tries valiantly to swallow the most disgusting slabs of suspicious meat and eggs “that smelt of pooh.” I’m not quite sure why I found this all so amusing, but I did. Folantin is almost a comical character as he continues to accept slovenly service, and yet he rather valiantly attempts to persevere. The writing is superb, and the descriptions of the meals presented to Folantin were incomparable in their nauseating details.
A short story M. Bougran’s Retirement accompanies With the Flow. M. Bougran is a middle-aged civil servant who is unfairly forced into early retirement with the label “psychological infirmity undetectable by men of the medical art.” M. Bougran has no choice but to accept a dreary, boring retirement. I enjoyed the short story. It was excellently done, and certainly gave me pause for thought, but With the Flow was the superior of the two.