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Timothy Lane on Drifting (À vau-l’eau) by J.-K. Huysman

A brief description of Drifting’s plot could easily lead one to think that is it a short minor work, only worth the time of academics and completists. This would be a mistake, as this little book creates a vein of characteristic Huysmans black comedy. I would go as far as to place it amongst my favourite of his works. It is the last piece that Huysmans wrote in his first period of major prose writing, defined by a more naturalistic approach. It was followed by his most famous and successful novel À rebours, as such it is hard not to make comparisons between the two and see foreshadowings of À rebours’ radical departures from naturalism.

Jean Folantin is a middle aged middling clerk working for the Ministry of the Interior in Paris. Although occupying an unexceptional position in the Civil Service, it is certainly a major improvement on the poverty of his ancestors. Despite some intelligence, industry and ambition, Folantin quickly learns that merit has little to offer one in procuring advancement in the Ministry, the right connections are indispensible if one wishes to move up.

His career stasis is complemented by a dissatisfactory Bachelordom. A short-lived period in his youth of visiting the very cheapest prostitutes with his limited funds, is followed by a disappointed attempt to build a more lasting relationship with a young working girl. This relationship ends with her absconding and leaving him with an unspecified venereal disease. Lacking the charm or social graces to woo a woman and lacking the funds sufficient to keep a mistress, Folantin comes to accept a dull loneliness in addition to his dull career.

It is at this stage in his life that we meet Folantin as he is in the process of ordering cheese at the end of his meal. Amidst a table of empty wine bottles and congealed leftovers Folantin picks at a Roquefort that was predictably awful. As he walks home his thoughts are anxiously preoccupied with whether on this cold evening there will be a warm fire waiting for him. Much to his chagrin he comes home to a freezing apartment and in between grumblings at the difficulty of finding reliable housekeepers, he begins to review the terrible day he has had at work and the awful meal after. Falling into a deep gloom he begins to, “review his forty-year way of the cross, stopping in despair at each station.”

Folantin is on a quest. He would like to find a reasonably priced restaurant where he can enjoy a good meal, or even just a fairly good meal. Every evening after work he debates with himself whether to return to the below average to poor restaurants he knows are consistent in their mediocrity, or to be more adventurous and risk the truly awful and inedible, in the dim hope of the enjoyable. Every available type of restaurant he has tried in every part of Paris he has frequented, has sufficient drawbacks to make his choice of restaurant utterly hopeless. In a rare sociable mood, he dines with a friend, the experience cures him of his desire for sociable dining.

Folantin’s past is never divulged but in one clear passage of biography, we get snippets of his life between his wretched meals, indeed his quest for a decent meal matters significantly more to him than anything else in his life. An edible meal has a positively transformative effect on his outlook. On the occasions his bachelordom particularly needles him, it is the vision of a woman to make decent home cooked food that especially taunts him. Maupassant, praising the book, described it as a ‘Ulysses of the eatery’. But while Homer allows Odysseus to see his family and his native Ithaca again, Huysmans has Folantin dolefully paraphrasing Schopenhauer after a depressing tryst with a prostitute.

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