- En ménage
Huysmans's third novel, En ménage (1881), probably features on few if any university degree programmes, for its blend of Zola's naturalism, the Goncourts' aestheticism and Flaubert's pessimism is likely to make it seem both derivative and inaccessible to all but the most dedicated readers. Its static, circular plot and bleak account of the sexual politics of domestic life and the predictable failure of relationships and ambitions are partly counteracted by the author's caustic black humour and bravura passages of descriptive writing, though it lacks the zestful inventiveness or stylized concision which make its successors A rebours and A vau-l'eau far more appealing. [End Page 279] Gilles Bonnet's introduction deftly situates En ménage in crashing the wider context of Huysmans's evolving relationship with Naturalism's modernist project, while stressing the 'drames de la répétition délétère' which effectively subvert the notion of the plot-driven novel (since the dramas invariably prove to be devoid of significant effect). His substantial annotations (conveniently provided as footnotes) include examples of textual variants between the 1881 edition and the manuscript version sold at the Hôtel Drouot in 1959 (though this manuscript is apparently now inaccessible, since his information actually derives from the notes copied by Pierre Lambert into an edition of the novel rather than the original manuscript). Contemporary reviewers who affected dismay at Huysmans's scatological fancies might have been gladdened to discover from such variants that generally he toned down vulgarities (such as a passage about a woman using a chamber pot); on the other hand, 'puer de la gueule' was compressed and reinforced as 'schlinguer'. As always, one is impressed by Bonnet's command of detail and extensive knowledge of the secondary literature. He notes, for example, that Huysmans's mockery of the self-important petty bureaucrat Désableau and his frustrated aspiration to beget a dynasty of clerks is possibly self-directed, since the writer solicited his own post at the Ministry of the Interior by stressing the eighty-two years of loyal service offered by his ancestors. Although Bonnet suggests that En ménage is a 'roman à clés', on the quirky grounds that Huysmans's cat Barre-de-Rouille has a walk-on part, it is a mistake to pursue biographical parallels. Unlike his industrious creator (who combined writing with work as a civil servant, journalism and managing a book bindery), the main character, André, is a layabout, who has abandoned journalism and earns nothing from his dilatory efforts at writing fiction, while living meagrely off a private income and expecting his wife or mistress to subsidize their household. It is also difficult to read the novel's relentless misogyny as ironic: when a woman is described as 'une vache puissante et pacifique', this is meant as a compliment (though the exploitation and belittling of women, a constant refrain throughout the book, do at least subvert the narrator's discourse about the parasitical nature of 'l'éternel féminin'). While Gilles Bonnet serves the scholarly community well with this edition, one suspects that En ménage is likely to remain a half-forgotten novel.