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‘Drifting’ (À vau-l’eau) by Joris-Karl Huysmans

À vau-l’eau was originally published in 1882, two years before Huysmans’ more famous novel À rebours (Against Nature). This translation, by Brendan King, was published by Dedalus Books in 2017. This work has been previously translated as Downstream and With the Flow but Brendan King chose Drifting to ‘encapsulate both the literal and metaphorical senses of the phrase’ and is a title that is appropriate as the main character, Jean Folantin, leads an aimless, drifting existence. Google translates the phrase, ‘À vau-l’eau as ‘To the water’ but I’m guessing the phrase means more than just that. I wondered if ‘All at Sea’ might have been a good alternative; however I think Drifting is probably the best title.

Drifting is a short novella of about sixty pages and its subject is the relatively low-paid civil-servant, Jean Folantin. Although he is slightly better off than he was, his wages allow him just enough to pay the rent on his room and enough for his basic meals, but little else. As a bachelor his days are mostly taken up with finding his next meal. There are other worries, such as getting his washing done and heating his room but it is the quest to find some edible food at a reasonable price in Paris that is his main concern. Now this may sound like a miserable little book but it really isn’t. Folantin is at heart quite optimistic but it’s his situation that has beaten him down. We discover that he was born into a poor Parisian family and although he grows up to be intelligent he has low expectations from life.

The fact is that Jean Folantin was born in disastrous circumstances; the day his mother’s lying-in came to an end, his father possessed nothing but a handful of coppers. An aunt, who though not a midwife was expert in that kind of work, helped bring forth the child, cleaning his face with butter and, to save money, powdering his thighs with some flour scraped from a crust of bread in lieu of talcum. “So you see, my boy, you come from humble stock,” his Aunt Eudore would say, acquainting him of these petty details, and from an early age Jean didn’t dare hope for any kind of good fortune in the future.

Folantin has no living relatives and all of his friends have either died, or worse, got married; he can look back on happier days, such as when he was in his early twenties, but even then it is tinged with sadness or regret. Although he now has a bit more money he finds he lacks the enthusiasm for much of life, especially sex.

Happy days! And to think that now he was a little richer, now that he could afford to graze in better pastures and wear himself out in cleaner beds, he no longer felt any desire. The money had come too late, now that no pleasure could seduce him.

Although Folantin makes the occasional effort to be more sociable he usually finds himself being irritated by other people. One of the more amusing episodes in the book is when Folantin strikes up a friendship with M. Martinet whom he had got to know whilst searching for some good food. Martinet persuades Folantin to go to a table d’hôte, a more communal eating experience than Folantin is used to; needless to say it is a disaster as the place is heaving with people, it is thick with tobacco smoke, they have to wait for ages for a table, which is covered with left-over food from the previous customers, and the food is terrible.

The food and the wine were certainly wretched enough, but what was even more wretched than the food and more wretched than the wine, was the company in the midst of which you were consuming it; there were the emaciated waitresses who brought the dishes, wizened women with unfriendly eyes and features that were sharp and severe. A feeling of complete powerlessness came over you as you looked at them; you felt conscious of being watched and you ate uneasily, with circumspection, not daring to leave gristle or skin for fear of a reprimand, and apprehensive about taking a second helping beneath those eyes that sized up your appetite, forcing it back into the depths of your belly.

Martinet then drags poor Folantin to the theatre which irritates him further. When Martinet suggests they meet up on a regular basis Folantin is almost rude in rejecting his offer of companionship. These experiences do, however, make Folantin appreciate being alone.

In another episode Folantin discovers a local place that offers a meal delivery service. He takes up the offer, all at a reasonable price, and gets so excited that he decides, as he will now be spending more time at home, to re-decorate his room. At first he is pleased with his meals and the service but it soon deteriorates to such a degree that he gives up on it.

Folantin is hard to please, he’s bored with the world and things that had once brought him pleasure no longer satisfy him. It’s difficult to determine whether he is just incredibly fussy or whether he is justified with his criticisms. If Folantin sounds similar to Huysmans’ more well-known literary creation, Des Esseintes, from À rebours, then you are not alone as Huysmans noted, in an introductory piece in a later edition of À rebours that he saw Des Esseintes as a richer, more refined counterpart to Folantin. It has been a while since I read Against Nature but I much prefer the character of Folantin to Des Esseintes, as Folantin’s situation lends itself more to humour and empathy. From what I can remember, Des Esseintes mostly annoyed me—though I would like to re-read it somewhen to see if I appreciate it more on a second-reading.

I found Drifting both charming and funny, but it is a dark humour that probably won’t appeal to some readers. In the excellent introduction to the book it is mentioned that the book was largely dismissed by contemporary critics as being grim and pessimistic which rather surprised Huysmans who described his own work as humour noir.

I recently read The Damned (Là-Bas) which is about a writer who is working on a biography of Gilles de Rais and who gets drawn in to a satanic cult—it’s not as shocking as it sounds or as the brilliant Penguin cover suggests. I enjoyed the book and meant to write a post on it but time ran away from me. I found the parts on Gille de Rais more interesting than the satanic cult side of the novel which plodded on quite a bit. Huysmans’ books certainly interest me and as Brendan King has translated many of them for Dedalus Books I may well try some more soon.

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