I first read the infamous 'Messe Noir' scene from this novel in a Peter Haining anthology during my 1970s boyhood and by the age of 20 had sought out this most unusual and exquisite work in the Dover edition and devoured it with avidity and fascination - I still love it, along with all the Master's novels (which form an integral whole) and they are amongst my all-time favourite books. Joris Karl Huysmans' 'La Bas' (Down There) is a novel set in the night-shrouded Paris of the fin-de-siecle imagination, the nocturnal facade of darkness behind which the deathless power of Evil lurks in strange places. Our hero Durtal is wearied by the positivistic modern world and the crass materialism and vulgarity of his age - he retreats into the High Middle Ages, absorbed in the life of the mass-murderer, paederast, pervert and demoniac Gilles de Rais about whom he is writing a biographical study - thus throughout the novel we are treated to the episodes of De Rais' career and infamies, a dark Symboliste evocation of the medieval world of Tiffauges, illuminated with exquisite literary artistry and in essence constituting a prolonged spiritual meditation upon Evil and the Satanic principle. Other episodes are set at those wonderful homely banquets on snow-swept nights in the tower of the bell-ringer Carhaix, an eccentric Catholic in the austere mediaeval mould - what one would give to have been present at those wintry evening gatherings with Durtal, Des Hermies and company...their erudite conversations are a pure delight. The other tale running through the book is that of Durtal's erotic affair with the glacial, seductive and feline Madame Chantelouve who at length and reluctantly introduces our hero to the sordid diabolistic underworld of Paris, a descent which leads to the most famous scene of the novel, a uniquely powerful description of the celebration of the Black Mass and its squalid celebrants, for which the book is justly renowned. We are drawn into the nighted subterranea of Paris with Durtal and into the devilish domain of the sinister Canon Docre, against whom is pitted the power of the white magus Dr Johannes. All these intertwined narratives are replete with pleasures in profusion but throughout we find the most delicious disquisitions, arch aesthetic contemplations, incisive analyses of modernity and its ills and drily acute observations upon the world and human nature which only a supreme novelist and art critic like JKH could unfold - for example Durtal's reverie on money in the first chapter and those magnificent passages on Matthias Grunewald's 'Crucifixion' - these are but a few of the nocturnal delights of Huysman's 'black novel' La Bas - the necessary precursor to his 'white novel' 'En Route', for as Huysmans said himself it was the 'supernatural of evil' which led him ultimately to the 'supernatural of good' and thus to his eventual spiritual home within the bulwark of traditional Catholic orthodoxy...
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