How delightful to discover a newly-translated work from Joris-Karl Huysmans. It’s A Dilemma from Wakefield Press, and clocking in at 79 small pages, this is a long short story, but what a story. Dripping with obvious disdain for the bourgeoisie, Huysmans shows how, in late 19th century France (the story was published in 1888), the bourgeoisie ruled and woe betide any person who gets in the way of a comfortable life or a good meal.
The story begins with two men, both widowers, Maître Le Ponsart and his son-in-law Monsieur Lambois, discussing Jules, Ponsart’s grandson, the son of Lambois, who has recently died after a brief, unexpected illness, in Paris. Are these two men, one elderly and the other middle-aged mourning, or shedding a tear? No. They’re deciding how to carve up Jules’s estate, so according to the Civil Code, they anticipate getting “fifty thousand francs apiece.”
There’s already something distasteful about this scene. The implication is that the two men have just finished a meal. Little details say a lot:
In the dining room, which was furnished with an earthenware furnace, cane chairs with twisted legs, and an old oak sideboard, made in Paris at Rue du Faubourg Saint-Antoine, that held behind glass panels gold plated chafing dishes, champagne flutes, and a complete white porcelain dinner set edged with gold that had never once been used–there, beneath a photograph of Monsieur Thiers, weakly lit by a hanging ceiling light that glowed down on the tablecloth, Maitre Le Ponsart and Monsieur Lambois folded their napkins, signaled with a glance for the maid to bring them coffee, and fell silent.
I loved the mention of the dinner set that had never been used for it reminded me of how people cover their couches with plastic which seems to arise from the desire to preserve the precious furniture while making it simultaneously uncomfortable and ugly.
But the delicious details continue. Ponsart, a notary, takes a penknife with its mother-of-pearl handle and cuts the tip of a cigar while he coolly discusses the death of his grandson. It’s immediately clear that these two men, initially tied by marriage, share a great deal in common. They’ve both lost their only children, they’ve both lost their wives (there’s something very cold about these two connections) and even more importantly, they are bonded by their shared bourgeois values, and nothing is going to shake their comfort and privilege.
However, “A Dilemma” has presented itself in the form of a young woman named Sophie who lived with Jules and endured the fiction of being his ‘maid’ when Jules’s father visited just prior to his son’s death. Lambois has received a letter from Sophie stating that she is pregnant with Jules’s child and asking for money. Ponsart and Lambois interpret the request to be blackmail. Since Lambois is ill with gout (which according to Wikipedia is also known as “the rich man’s disease,”) Ponsart agrees to go to Paris, remove all of Jules’s furniture and shake the girl free of any claims against the family. The two men discuss the enemy:
“She’s a tall, beautiful girl, a brunette with fawn-colored eyes and straight teeth; she speaks very little, and her discreet and artless demeanor leads me to think she’s a crafty and dangerous person; I fear you have a tough opponent, Maître Le Ponsart.”
“Bah, bah, that little hen would need strong teeth to bite an old fox like me; anyway, I still have that police commissioner friend in Paris who can help me if necessary; as crafty as she may be, I have a number of tricks up my sleeve and I’ll bring her to heel if she makes any fuss; in three days my expedition will be over, and I’ll come back and claim from you, as a reward for my successful endeavors, another glass of this old cognac.”
I’m not going to say a great deal more about the plot, but it’s intriguing to consider the basic premise of this story: two men, one elderly, one in late middle age who’ve survived their children and their wives, and who are now presented with a future illegitimate grandchild. How would this scenario play out with let’s say Dickens, Hardy or Balzac? How will it play out with Huysmans?
The publisher describes this as a “nasty” little tale, and I can’t think of a better word. There’s something so inherently wrong, so distasteful about these two bourgeois men going to battle against a penniless, pregnant girl. While the young woman, Sophie, obviously loved Jules and nursed him through his illness and death, her selfless acts (having sex with Jules and later nursing him without money in the equation) are interpreted in the worst possible light by Ponsart who projects his own materialism onto the unfortunate, defenseless Sophie.
Ponsart fancies himself as a bit of a ladies’ man but really that interprets to Ponsart using the services of prostitutes, and this trip to Paris, far away from the gossips of his home town may afford another opportunity for vice–a repetition of how he spent his youth when studying in Paris.
His instincts already well honed, he wasn’t too stingy in spending his money up to a certain point; if, during his Paris days, he let himself squander all he had on lavish orgies, if he did not scrimp unduly with a woman, he expected to get from her in exchange a dividend of tariffed pleasures prorated to an amorous scale drawn up for his use. “Equity in all things,” he would say; and as he paid out the coins in his pocket, he thought it only fair to apply a penal rate in pleasure to his money, collecting from his debtress such and such percent of caresses, but only after first deducting a carefully calculated number of considerations.
Ponsart salivates over visions of Sophie as he already knows that she’s not a virgin and considers her a “slattern“:
“If I’m to believe Lambois, she’ll be a big, appetizing girl with fawn-colored eyes, a plump brunette; heh, heh, that would prove that Jules had good taste.” He tried to picture her, conjuring up, to the detriment of the real woman whom he must inevitably find inferior to the imagined one, a superb hussy whose burgeoning charms he itemized, trembling.
Huysmans appears to have quite a bit of fun with the character of Ponsart–a man who remains oblivious to, and well-insulated against, the tragedy that plays out under his nose. Huysmans, while ridiculing the trappings of the bourgeoisie lifestyle also illustrates how complex and hypocritical a value system they measure their behaviour against, so we see Ponsart completely unscrupulous when dealing with Sophie and yet worrying about the minutiae of keeping up the appearance of immaculate conduct. And finally I have to mention Madame Champagne, a stationer who rises to Sophie’s defense:
He was surprised, when he entered the room, to discover a large lady behind Sophie.
This lady stood up, gave a slight bow, and then sat back down. “What is the meaning of this?” he asked himself looking at that paunchy woman fit to burst in a dress of hideous ultramarine, upon whose neckline fell three layers of buttery chin.
Seeing the pink coral beads dangling from her crimson earlobes and a Jeanette cross twitching under the to-and-fro of an oceanic bosom, he thought the old lady was a fishwife dressed in her holiday clothes.
While this is a story of the bourgeoisie closing ranks against the poor, it’s impossible to miss that this is also a world managed and dominated by men.
Translated by Justin Vicari who also wrote an informative introduction.