PUBLISHERS OF LITERARY FICTION SINCE 1983
'Life’s a bitch', Jacques mutters on the first page of Stranded, setting the tone not only for J-K. Huysmans’s pessimistic portrait of life in the nineteenth-century French countryside, but also for Brendan King’s solidly modern translation
Jacques and his ailing wife, Louise, have lost nearly everything. Desperate for a refuge, they abandon Paris in search of something simpler and cheaper, accepting the one barely habitable room of a decrepit chateau of which Louise’s uncle is the negligent caretaker. They soon learn that the family is no protection from their problems, however, and that leaving the city may not lead to savings: the harsh life of the peasant produces only selfishness and cruelty , while the constant thieving they suffer at the hands of even their relations risks ruining them. With their future dependent on the collection of promissory notes, they can only wait and hope.
Like Huysmans’s best-known novel, Against Nature, Stranded offers little plot, emphasizing instead, subjective experience, atmosphere, symbol, and an unorthodox morality that prizes the artificial above all. Contemporary criticism was divided over the work veering between scenes of unflinching naturalism – including a graphic description of the birth of a calf – and a series of long dream sequences with little immediate relationship to the story: Jacques imagines himself a witness to the life of Esther; later he and his wife take a walk on the moon. Modern readers will have to decide for themselves if Huysmans’s quest for symbolism wasn’t better served by the more conventional means he also deployed: the ruined castle representing unguarded civilization eroded by the cold indifference of the natural world, and the dying kitten at the story’s end – an embodiment of the hope and compassion the couple risk losing.
King has written an excellent introduction in which he relates the critical history of this unusual work and highlights the contrasts and creativity that made the era of its publication such a rich one to revisit. His translation is scrupulously accurate.