En Route

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Category: Classic
Date Published: September 8, 2010 (Originally published in 1923)
Number of Pages: 484
Print Price: $9.99
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En Route is a mystical Catholic novel written by French author Joris-Karl Huysmans. Originally published in 1895, it details a short period in the life of a man that has recently converted to Catholicism after living a life consumed by hedonism and the occult. Although the protagonist, an author by the name of Durtal, has recently resolved to renounce his sinful past, he has yet to fully embrace the sacramental life and struggles in making a clean break with his vices and doubts. After much reluctance, Durtal agrees to go on a week-long retreat at La Trappe Abbey outside of Paris at the urging of a sympathetic spiritual advisor. The week brings him face to face with his own weakness and a spiritual adversary that is trying desperately to keep him from moving forward in his faith.  It also introduces him to a well of Grace on which he needs to learn to rely in order to be set free.

En Route is a challenging work. There are probably books in the Catholic Fiction lists that would be a better fit for someone looking for a breezy read to take to the beach. However, if a reader is willing to invest the time, there is a spiritual depth to this work that likely requires multiple readings to plumb.

Huysmans divides the book into two roughly equal sections. The first deals with Durtal’s confusion after his initial conversion and his fear of taking the next step in his spiritual pilgrimage. The second narrates his week-long retreat with the Trappists. Section one of the book is almost exclusively an internal monologue of the protagonist. It is so lacking in external detail that it is sometimes confusing as to where Durtal is or how he came to be there. This eccentric narrative style is, intriguingly, an extremely effective way for Huysmans to illustrate the self-focus of the character. Clearly, for Durtal, the self is the only thing that matters and, as a result, Huysmans treats the reader to an almost exclusive diet of Durtal’s opinions, thoughts, fears, wants, etc. When Durtal begins his retreat and Grace begins to intervene in his life, Huysmans provides increasingly more visual detail in the narrative and the world begins to come into focus.

Based on the details that Durtal’s spiritual tussles bring to life, it seems that this is a road that Huysmans has travelled himself. It is not so much the grand struggle that suggest this – a perceptive writer can surmise these. Huysmans gets the little things right; he thoroughly describes the subtle evasions, the complex rationalizations, the petty arrogances and genuine fears that a penitent experiences in trying to overcome persistent sin and doubt. The roller coaster of emotional torture that Durtal endures before his confession is likely familiar to any adult Catholic.

Durtal braced himself, fell down at the prie-Dieu, and then completely lost his head. He had vaguely prepared how to enter on the matter, noted the points of his statement, classified his sins in some degree, and now remembered nothing. . . Durtal wished rather to die than speak; he succeeded, however, in mastering himself, and bridling his shame; he opened his lips, but no words came. . .

As one might expect in a work found in a Catholic Fiction list, Catholic themes and assumptions permeate the spiritual journey described by En Route. It touches on topics ranging from the sacraments and saints to sacred architecture and music (on which Durtal is, apparently, something of an expert). Its heavy reliance on Catholic theology, liturgy and mysticism may limit its appeal to general readers. A working understanding of Catholicism is probably required in order to fully appreciate the tale that Huysmans is telling. While themes of overcoming oneself and changing the direction of one’s life are universal, without the Catholic context, En Route would be one brutal slog through obscure saints and strange devotional practices.

On the other hand Huysmans handles his tale with a high degree of artistry. Although Durtal is the only character that Huysmans explores to any great degree, he effectively wraps the reader in his skin and places them behind his eyes so to speak. The reader clearly sees Durtal’s longing to do the right thing and the weaknesses that are pulling him away, “He felt rising in him, and increasing ever more and more, the desire to have done with these strifes and fears, but he grew pale when he thought of reversing his life, once and for all.”

Along these lines it is clear that Durtal’s inner struggles are Huysmans’ primary concern. The narrative does not explore some of the more mundane aspects of his life that many readers might normally expect to see; for example Huysmans tells the reader that Durtal is an author of some sort but does not detail his actual occupation. It is also true that the primary events and actions that move the plot are spiritual in nature. There is quite a bit going on in the work, but the reader needs to look under the surface to see it.

Ultimately, En Route is a dense work that will take some time for a reader to unpack. For one that is willing to put in the effort and has the necessary contextual framework, this book is an extremely intriguing work and a journey well worth taking.

ISBN-13: B003YL4C2O
Original Language: English
Book Dimensions: 11 x 8.5 x 0.6 inches

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1 Comment

Dec 18, 2014 RS

I think Huysmans is difficult to unpack unless you begin by reading La Rebours and La Bas followed by En Route and then La Cath├ędrale. These trace his long & troubled progress from decadent french novelist to benedictine oblate. A long and difficult journey. La bas portrays a black mass that will chill your spine. It is not for the faint of heart.

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