I picked this book up again last night, a favorite from grad school, a germinal novel of French decadence. You may know it as the book that corrupts Dorian Gray halfway through Wilde’s novel. Quick precis: the final scion of a long decaying, inbreeding aristocratic family leaves society and shuts himself up in a large house where he lives, eats, and breathes decadently. Nothing really happens. It’s a beautiful book.

I read it in the Robert Baldick translation, from 1959 and put out by Penguin, and as I’d earlier this summer loved Lydia Davis’s new translation of Madame Bovary, I thought maybe I’d see about rereading a newer translation. Searching The Booksmith, I found two: one from the 90s by Margaret Mauldon, and one from the Oughts by Brendan King.

King reviewed Mauldon’s translation for the TLS, favorably, calling it an improvement on the Baldick, so I originally assumed I should go get his translation, which is even newer. Also, I had this feeling that I wanted a queer’s translation. Des Esseintes, the “hero” of Huysmans’s “novel”, screws around with women (as you’re about to see) in his fall into decadence, but once holed up becomes, in ways, a queer hero.

At least, the paper I wrote in grad school about the novel argued so.

I have no idea on King’s sexuality or gender expression, or Mauldon’s for that matter. Or hell, even Baldick’s (queers existed in the 1950s, I sometimes forget). But mostly I was favoring King because his was newer. I have this idea that people are translating old texts better now than they used to; for one, translation studies is growing in academia, and for two, translators are less interested in “smoothing over” some roughnesses or X-ratednesses to attract “sensitive” readers.

In other words, I couldn’t imagine that a 1950s translation could be as decadent as the original, given the goings-on at the time in the US/UK.[1] The newer the queerer the better.

Or so I thought. What I’m going to do now is shut up and show you a paragraph from the book’s prologue (written by Huysmans after the original publication), which prologue summarizes Des Esseintes’s rise and fall. I’ll quote the ¶ in chronological order: first the original (for those who speak French) and then translations by Baldick, Mauldon, and King.[2] Look at the different approaches to style and voice:

Une seule passion, la femme, eût pu le retenir dans cet universel dédain qui le poignait, mais celle-là était, elle aussi, usée. Il avait touché aux repas charnels, avec un appétit d’homme quinteux, affecté de maladie, obsédé de fringales et dont le palais s’émousse et se blase vite; au temps où il compagnonnait avec les hobereaux, il avait participé à ces spacieux soupers où des femmes soûles se dégrafent au dessert et battent la table avec leur tête; il avait aussi parcouru les coulisses, tâté des actrices et des chanteuses, subi, en sus de la bêtise innée des femmes, la délirante vanité des cabotines; puis il avait entretenu des filles déjà célèbres et contribué à la fortune de ces agences qui fournissent, moyennant salaire, des plaisirs contestables; enfin, repu, las de ce luxe similaire, de ces caresses identiques il avait plongé dans les bas-fonds, espérant ravitailler ses désirs par le contraste, pensant stimuler ses sens assoupis par l’excitante malpropreté de la misère.

J-K- Huysmans, 1884

One passion and one only—woman—might have arrested the universal contempt that was taking hold of him, but that passion like the rest had been exhausted. He had tasted the sweets of the flesh like a crotchety invalid with a craving for food but a palate which soon becomes jaded. In the days when he had belonged to a set of young men-about-town, he had gone to those unconventional supper-parties where drunken women loosen their dresses at dessert and beat the table with their heads; he had hung around stage-doors, had bedded with singers and actresses, had endured, over and above the innate stupidity of the sex, the hysterical vanity common to women of the theatre. Then he had kept mistresses already famed for their depravity, and helped to swell the funds of those agencies which supply dubious pleasures for a consideration. And finally, weary to the point of satiety of these hackneyed luxuries, these commonplace caresses, he had sought satisfaction in the gutter, hoping that the contrast would revive his exhausted desires and imagining that the fascinating filthiness of the poor would stimulate his flagging senses.

Robert Baldick, 1959

One passion only, the passion for women, might have restrained him in this universal contempt that was gnawing at him, but that passion too was spent. He had tasted the feasts of the flesh, with the appetite of a capricious man who suffers from malacia, who is beset by pangs of desire yet whose palate rapidly grows dull and surfeited; in the days when he consorted with so-called country gentlemen, he had attended those long-drawn-out suppers where, at the dessert stage, drunken women unhook their gowns and bang their heads on the table; he had also frequented theatrical dressing-rooms, sampled actresses and singers, and had to endure, over and above the innate stupidity of woman, the frenzied vanity of third-rate performers; then he had kept women who were already celebrated whores, contributing to the prosperity of those agencies which provide questionable pleasures in exchange for money; in the end, sated and weary of this unvarying profusion, of these identical caresses, he had plunged down in among the dregs of society, hoping to revive his desires by contrast, and thinking to arouse his dormant senses with the provocative squalor of extreme poverty.

Margaret Mauldon, 1998

A single passion, woman, might have restrained him in the universal contempt that gripped him, but she, too, had palled. He had tasted the feasts of the flesh with the appetite of a capricious man afflicted with bulimia, one who is obsessed by hunger, but whose palate is quickly dulled and surfeited; in the days when he had associated with country gents, he had participated in those protracted suppers during which drunken women unfastened their clothing at dessert and slumped their heads on the table; he had also scoured the wings backstage at the theatre, sampled actresses and singers, suffered, in addition to the innate stupidity of women, the frenzied vanity of third-rate leading ladies; after that, he had kept already notorious whores and contributed to the fortune of those agencies that supply dubious pleasures for a modest recompense; finally, sated, weary of these unvarying lusts, of these identical caresses, he had plunged into the slums, hoping to revive his desires through contrast, thinking to stimulate his deadened senses with the arousing indecencies of poverty.

Brendan King, 2008

Right away we notice a few things. Contempt is either taking hold of, gnawing at, or gripping him. There’s this malacia/bulimia problem of what Baldick calls a “crotchety invalid” (crotchety shows up later in the prologue, I think it’s a pet word for Baldick). Malacia from what I can tell is a softening of tissue and appears nowhere in the original, and bulimia puts far too contemporary a diagnosis for what seems like habits well below a pathology. (The term “bulimia” has existed long before the 20thC diagnosis, but it seems always to have referred to overeating, not so much craving or hunger.)

We can look also at the misogyny in/of the passage: la bêtise innée des femmes. Baldick calls it the innate stupidity of the sex, Mauldon has the innate stupidity of woman, and King has the innate stupidity of women. King’s is surely the worst, which somehow in its plural seems to apply the idea of this innate stupidity to all women as individuals, whereas Mauldon’s “woman” very subtly indicates Des Esseintes’s/our narrator’s misogyny being an idea, a fancy, more than an assertion.

N.B. I think Baldick’s does this too. At this stage, I’m ready to ditch King’s translation. It seems far too loyal, or literalistic. Too transcripted without taking artistry of language into consideration. (In the passage we’re about to look at, his “arousing indecencies” seals it for me.) But when you look at the final sentence (well, it’s 2 sentences, the whole passage, so the final set of clauses I mean), I think Baldick comes out ahead, surprisingly.

I don’t really know French, but what I know of it in reading shampoo bottles and international signs is that it requires more words to say a thing than English does. Push red button for help becomes in French something like “For the assistance of yourself, press you the button of red.” To say nothing of French’s needing two words to express a negative.

This gives translators a choice to make: do you capture the language’s florid syntactic excesses, or do you translate those to a more Anglo-Saxon-based English-language idiom? Do you leave diction in place but alter syntax, or vice versa? At the end here, Huysmans leads us to focus on the objects Des Esseintes hopes to revive himself with: the poor, the gutter, the filth. If you believe in the power of the periodic sentence to save for its end a sentence’s most important or compelling aspect, these objects themselves are stressed, syntactically.

Mauldon is faithful to French syntax. Baldick is unfaithful, stressing instead what’s wrong with Des Esseintes: his exhausted desires, his flagging senses. This is the right move; Des Esseintes is a sickly hero. But also that syntactic choice captures, for me, what the experience of hope feels like and where our focus within hope ultimately lies, once the totems have been found and employed.

Plus, I’ll always prefer “gutter” over “dregs of society”, “flagging” over “dormant”, and “fascinating filthiness” over “provocative squalor.”

Once, in a fiction workshop, another student referred euphemstically to a certain passage in a text we were discussing, a passage on shit if I recall, as “earthy”, and it made me laugh. Life decays in the earth, so I’m going to stick with Baldick this second go-around.

But no translation is perfect. Which is your favorite, and why?

Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. It’s also why I thought the translated title was so terrible. À rebours translates roughly to “backward,” which is great because of the backward-learning accent the title begins with. I’ve read that some have used “Against the Grain” as a translation, but I’ve never seen a book published with this title. It’s for sure an improvement. Maybe the novel is more concerned with The Natural and Des Esseintes going against it (I seem to recall a large turtle he acquires and covers with gold and gems), but to me the title has always ringed (and not in a good way) of “a crime against nature”, that euphemism for gay sex.
  2. For fun, here’s Google Translate’s version: Only one passion, woman, could have kept him in this universal disdain that gripped him, but that one, too, was worn out. He had touched carnal meals, with the appetite of a quintentious man, afflicted with illness, obsessed with cravings and whose palate dulled and grew blatant; at the time when he was companions with the hobereaux, he had taken part in these spacious suppers where drunk women unhook themselves at dessert and beat the table with their heads; he had also gone behind the scenes, dabbled in actresses and singers, suffered, in addition to the innate stupidity of women, the delirious vanity of cabotines; then he had entertained already famous girls and contributed to the fortune of these agencies which provide, for a salary, questionable pleasures; finally, sated, weary of this similar luxury, of these identical caresses, he had plunged into the shallows, hoping to supply his desires with contrast, thinking of stimulating his drowsy senses by the exciting filthiness of misery.