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Là-Bas: A Journey into the Self

Author: J.-K. Huysmans

Translator: Brendan King   Cover design: Marie Lane   Cover illustration: Aubrey Beardsley  

Huysmans' dark masterpiece, published in the same year as The Picture of Dorian Gray, is a serious, uncompromisingly learned depiction of the Hell through which the search for spiritual meaning must lead. The protagonist, Durtal, is investigating the life of Gilles de Rais, mass-murderer and unlikely - or not so unlikely - companion-in-arms of Joan of Arc. Long meditations on the nature of art, guilt, the satanic and the divine take him to a black mass. This superb new translation by Brendan King vividly recalls the allusive, proto-expressionist vigour of the original; images snarl and spring at the reader. A fine introduction shows where Huysmans's mystical quest ended, and the notes prove vital.

Murrough O'Brien in The Independent on Sunday

Huysmans novel, though it is clearly rooted in the preoccupations of the late 19th century, is remarkably prophetic about the concerns of our own recent fin de siecle. With its allusions to, amongst other things, Satanic child abuse, alternative medicine, New Age philosophy and female sexuality, the novel has clearly a lot to say to a contemporary audience. As with most of Huysmans' books, the pleasure in reading is not necessarily from its overarching plot-line, but in set pieces, such as the extraordinary sequences in which Gilles de Rais wanders through a wood that suddenly metamorphoses into a series of copulating organic forms, the justly famous word-painting of Matthias Grunewald's Crucifixion altar-piece, or the brutally erotic scenes, crackling with sexual tension, between Durtal and Madame Chantelouve. If it is about anything, La-Bas is about Good and Evil. This enlightening new translation will be especially useful to students of literature. Not only does it contain an introduction that puts Huysmans in context for those who are new to his work, it also includes extensive notes to unlock the mass of obscure words that litter the text, and references to a vast array of scientists, false messiahs and misfits whose ideas went into the concoction of this strangely fascinating book.

Beryl Bainbridge in The Spectator

The classic tale of satanism and sexual obsession in nineteenth-century Paris, in an attractive new edition. The novel's enervated anti-hero, Durtal, is writing a book about Gilles de Rais, child-murderer and comrade in arms of Joan of Arc. When he's not swotting up on alchemy, visiting Rais' ruined castle and fantasising about a mystery woman, he is pondering Catholicism with his friends. But his sexual adventures and historical studies mesh when he's invited to witness a black mass. Strong meat for diseased imaginations.

Time Out

Sex, satanism and alchemy are the themes of this cult curio, which understandably caused shock waves in the Parisian literary world when it was first published in 1891.Its antihero Durtal, is researching a book on the 15th-century child murderer Gilles de Rais.Soon enough, his studies lead him to all sorts of unspeakable deeds and occults rituals. This Gothic shocker is not for the faint-hearted.

Jerome Boyd Maunsell in The Times

This Gothic shocker is not for the faint hearted...

The Times

Brendan King’s new translation of Huysmans' gothic cult classic presents a disturbing journey into the hellish depths of late 19th-century society Satanism. Structured around philosophical discussion of ideas of good, evil and spaces in between. Huysmans' novel is an uncompromising expose of devil-worship and ceremonies such as The Black Mass. King's translation is important because it is largely uncensored and often grotesquely graphic, unleashing the book's true purpose and potential.

Rebecca Fenton in The Big Issue

Literally translated as "down there", là-bas is here used by Huysmans in its other sense: Hell. This novel is one of the key texts of the Decadent movement of the 1890s and writhes with satanists, occultists, incubi (male demons), succubi (female demons) and intellectuals.

Durtal is a disaffected, middle-aged writer living in Paris, not unlike Huysmans himself. Working on a biography of Gilles de Rais, a 15th-century nobleman and mass murderer widely thought to be the model for Bluebeard, Durtal researches Rais's obsession with alchemy. Through this, he becomes drawn into the underworld of 19th-century satanic worship.

This sounds racy, and some areas of the novel do not disappoint: several setpieces - the description of a crucifixion, Rais's murderous rampage and the climactic debauched satanic mass - are described in vivid and barbaric prose.

The rest follows the conversations of Durtal's friends over elaborate dinners in a gothic bell tower: peppered with references to historical figures and demonology, the obsessive detail at times verges on the comic. Durtal's friend des Hermies reports in the tones of a gossiping housewife that one devil-worshipping priest "fattens fish on consecrated wafers and toxic substances ... fortified by sacrilegious rites ... [then] leaves them to putrefy and extracts their essential oils".

A precursor to the horror fiction of HP Lovecraft and the nihilism of Michel Houellebecq, Huysman's fascination with evil and gore, history and the gothic is clear, although one can be left with the impression of gutter press themes cloaked in a literary veil. As the first, and the darkest, in a tetralogy about conversion to Catholicism there is at least the hope of redemption to follow.

Sophia Martelli in The Observer

Dealing with child murder, a Black Mass and graphic (for its time) sex, the 1891 novel Là-Bas was so scandalous in its day that it’s only now becoming available in an unexpurgated English translation. Translator Brendan King argues for it being “the cult novel of the 19th century”, the book that marked Huysmans’s break with Naturalism and his embrace of Catholicism, and it shows his central character, Durtal, taking time off from his biography of the bestial 15th-century murderer Gille de Rais to explore the dark side himself. Mourning a bygone era of spirituality and subjectivity in an age of scientific reason, Durtal is drawn to decadence and occultism as part of his journey to the light in a novel that is a philosophical enquiry into evil, a meditation on the state of literature at the tail-end of the 19th century and a profoundly committed spiritual statement, bristling with powerful imagery and shocking even now.

Alastair Mabbott in The Herald

RRP: £9.99

No. of pages: 336

Publication date: 30.11.2020

ISBN numbers:
978 1 912868 41 4
978 1 907650 30 7

Rights: Dedalus World English Language in this translation