One evening the Abbe V—— of Saint-Sulpice took me to see Huysmans. His apartment near the Bon Marche is small but light. From the windows you see convent gardens and orphan schools, where everything — paths, plane-trees and children — are uniform. A maid like a nun comes and goes, silent and furtive in the anteroom. Along the walls are shelves of white wood full of paper-covered volumes and old books. A man comes to greet the abbe. He is tall and has a powerful neck like that of a wrestler defeated, worn out and shivering. Through the folds of his scarf the weary, drooping head is barely visible. His clenched hands, like an old woman’s, hold a worn, puce-colored dressing-gown drawn around him. His slippers drag with soft hesitation along the parquet floor. He folds the abbe in his arms. We go into the next room, the dining-room, apparently. On the walls are photographs of primitives, descents from the cross, crucifixions and passions, images of dread discolored by the sunshine. On the mantelpiece, between two vases with Jericho roses that look like thistles, is a poor Louis XVI monstrance. The rays of the eucharistic sun have lost their gilt and show the copper underneath. In the lunula, in place of the host, a poor relic is seen through the clouded glass. Above the mantelpiece transformed into an altar hangs a great crucifix of plaster and black wood, with a sprig of box such as one sees in convent parlors. The strangeness of the room breathes that sharp, musty, devotional odor common to sacristies and hospitals.
We sit down before a poor fire made of two wheezy logs.
The conversation turns first on the writer’s health. He no longer believes in doctors. He places himself in the hands of God. Does He not know better than any what we require? He suffers, yes; but perhaps not enough. He has so much to expiate! He tells us of his devotions. He recites the rosary. At first the prayer seemed to him mechanical, but that was because he was still poisoned by literary pride. Manrese of St. Ignatius is fruitful reading. He has changed his confessor; the Abbe M—— was far too worldly and lacking in severity. The new confessor delights him. He is a true rustic, the son of peasants, who drives his flock as his father, a farmer of Beauce, drove his horses and sheep and pigs.
The Abbe presents me to the writer.
“My fellow-countryman, Jean Jacques Brousson. He is the son of the excellent man who was doctor to our seminary of Nimes and to nearly all the religious associations of Gard. Doctor Brousson is a Knight of the Order of St. Gregory.”
On this, the author of En Route seems to become conscious of my presence. He interrogates me:
“You want to go in for literature? My poor young man! First you should assure your salvation. Ah, you have gone as secretary to Anatole France? So much the worse for you! He is a great writer, but he lacks the one necessary thing: faith. Yet he was brought up piously, I have heard, by Christian parents. But vanity, the thirst for applause, the love of paradox — in short, he is in a precarious state. Not for all his fame would I be in his place.”
Here a short pause. Huysmans coughs, spits into the fire, tries to reunite the hopelessly divorced logs, and goes on:
“I used to frequent Anatole France in times past. He was a charming wit if not a man of charm. It distresses me to see him slipping down that incline. In memory of our old friendship say this to him for me:
“Illustrious Master, are you not sometimes a little weary of the adoration of men? Do you feel no giddiness on the superhuman pinnacle to which idolaters have raised you? Have you forgotten the grace of your holy baptism and of your first communion? Dear Master, when night falls, flee from all these courtiers who hide the truth from you with their flattery. Go, as your good mother did, into some ancient church of the people, Saint-Severin, for instance, dip your fingers into the common vessel of holy water, like the simple women and little children of the district. Put off your poor Immortality. Make the ancestral sign of the cross and then kneel down at the end of the apse by the stone palm-tree. There alone with God, under the shadowy light of the stained glass widows, ask if we were created and sent into the world and redeemed by the blood of Jesus Christ to write mere insolence?”
Next day I faithfully related the homily to Anatole France. In a dry voice the Master said to me:
“Poor Huysmans, he is in a sad way. His bigotry is a lamentable sign of his age. When you see him — one attention deserves another — tell him: ‘France advises you to have your water analysed.'”
by Jean Jacques Brousson, author of ‘Anatole France Himself’ (Turtle Point Press, on demand)