Là-bas (The Damned)

In Novel on March 25, 2008 at 12:19 am


The Damned/Là-bas (1891)

Author: Joris-Karl Huysmans
Publisher: Penguin Classic
Pages: 320 pages
I had this book on my Amazon wish list for a long time even though I didn’t know much about it except for it to be about Gilles de Rais and satanism. When I visited the fascinating Gustave Moreau Museum in Paris and saw the interesting show on author J.K. Huysmans’s fin de siècle (turn-of-the-century) writings in relation to Moreau’s fin de siècle paintings, I finally picked it up.

There’s not much of a plot to this book, in fact it reads more like nonfiction sometimes. But the subject matter is interesting and shocking for its time, hence quite a page turner. The novel starts with the author’s rambling on his dislike for Naturalism through the main character Durtal, a 19th century man bored with unromantic modern life and delved into writing a biography on Gilles de Rais, who’s also known as the “Blue Beard,” the world first known “serial killer” who tortured, raped and killed more than five hundred young boys during the Middle ages. A large part of the novel devoted to Durtal’s biography on Gilles, chronicling his role in aiding Joan of Arc to the very horrific atrocities he committed for Satanism. Dural also attempted to explain “how an honest soldiers and a decent Christian, could suddenly turn into an evil, cowardly, sacrilegious sadist.” These parts are the most captivating parts of the novel. It’s a good source to learn about Gilles de Rais and the medieval time. The author offered some interesting views on the matter through the characters.

Another interesting portions of the novel is on the dinner parties Dural and his friends held at the bell-tower of St Sulpice. They shared knowledges of alchemy, occultism and satanism throughout the history. What an appropriate topic for a dinner party that’s held at a Gothic church right? ^^;; There’re lots of fascinating historic informations on occult that you’ll never read from history books. I like Huysman’s humorous tone in these scenes, such as describing gruesome details of a satanic ritual like it’s a regular dinner conversation, followed with “want some more mash potatos?”

In between writing about Gilles de Rais and going to dinner parties, Durtal encountered a married woman who sent him amorous fan letters and it turn into an affair. She was later revealed to be a member of a modern satanic cult and led Durtal to witness a real black mass in person. I found this part a bit dragging. Durtal acted like the typical misogynistic man: create a hyper-fantasy for the mysterious woman before he knew who she was and immediately lose interest when he found out her identity, to the point that he had to forced himself to sleep with her just to get it over with. Though I appreciate the fact that the woman was not the typical Femme Fatale whom he couldn’t resist, rather she’s merely a “he’s not that into you” victim. I found the black mass at the end to be quite anti-climatic, especially compare with the black mass we read about in the dinner parties, though that’s probably the point. Fantasy always fail to meet reality.

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