An ‘unpublished’ letter from J-K Huysmans to Myriam Harry.
In 1932 Myriam Harry published a volume of literary memoirs, Trois ombres, which, alongside her reminiscences of Jules Lemaître and Anatole France, included a frank and detailed account of her friendship with J.-K. Huysmans during his final years. The memoir contained a number of dramatic disclosures and it has come to be relied on by so many of Huysmans’ subsequent biographers that the revelations it contains have become an established part of the Huysmans’ myth. Anyone who has read Robert Baldick’s life, for example, will be familiar with the broad outline of the story: after Huysmans initially mistakes Harry for a male writer, a tentative introduction between the literary lion and the young tyro leads to a deep friendship between the two, and in a series of frank tête-à-têtes, Harry’s feminine charm elicits the kind of personal admissions from the older writer — thoughts of suicide, tearful regrets over lost loves and so on — that he confided to few if any of his more long-standing male friends and colleagues.
A few examples from biographies and studies published since 1932 will suffice to show how some of these claims have been elevated to the status of accepted fact merely through repetition. Harry’s recollection that, during an intimate talk, Huysmans had broken down in tears and confided that he had wasted his life, is repeated by Guy Chastel, H. M. Gallot, Fernande Zayed, Robert Baldick and Paul Leautaud, among others; and her claim that Huysmans considered suicide while living at the rue Monsieur is repeated by Georges Veysset, Robert Baldick, and Christopher Lloyd. Whether one is writing history or biography, no single source should ever be unequivocally relied on, but again and again in biographical accounts of Huysmans’ life it turns out that the sole source for Harry’s striking claims and assertions turns out to be Harry herself.
Unfortunately, there are strong reasons for doubting Harry’s testimony — and her chronology — in her various and varying memoirs. Indeed one could go further, the evidence proves conclusively that she not only fabricated stories to pad out her memoirs of Huysmans, which she constantly re-edited and repackaged over the course of more than 40 years, but she also deliberately altered the documents she did possess in order to make her relationship seem of longer standing than it actually was.
In order to show the extent of Harry’s misinformation and manipulation I intend in this essay to rely only on contemporary sources and authentic documents for which the originals are known to exist, rather than on unsupported assertions. The most obvious place to look for supporting documentary evidence about the friendship between Harry and Huysmans is in the letters that the two writers exchanged. This would not only provide a superstructure of dates and other factual references, but also give a sense of the level of intimacy between the two correspondents. However, for a number of reasons this first line of research is not quite as fruitful as one might have hoped. The Bibliothèque de l’Arsenal, though it is furnished with the originals of a significant portion of Huysmans’ correspondence, actually holds no originals of letters from Huysmans to Harry. The library catalogue refers to the letters, but the microfilm contains only a typed transcript of those that Harry herself reproduced in her various memoirs. The transcript of these letters has been annotated by Lucien Descaves and it is clear that he had his own doubts about Harry’s integrity as a witness, as his notes point out a number of anomalies between the different printed versions, a catalogue of variations, omissions and additions that Harry inflicted on the letters either for dramatic or narrative effect. Noting, for example, that the same letter had been printed with different dates in two different publications, Descaves resigns himself to the laconic observation that ‘les deux dates me paraîssent douteux, l’une et l’autre’.
The problem for Descaves was that he did not have the originals to hand in order to compare them with the published versions. Logically the next place to look for the originals of Huysmans’ letters to Harry, if they still exist, is in Harry’s own literary archive. However, this approach also leads to an impasse. Harry’s archive is apparently in the possession of her adoptive son and he has consistently denied researchers access to them. Harry’s most recent biographer, Cécile Gaudin, strongly suspected that Harry had been somewhat economical with the truth and had, at the very least, ‘arranged’ her memoirs, but having been denied access to the material in Harry’s archive she found it difficult to obtain any hard documentary proof.
However, a letter from Huysmans to Harry has recently come to light, and a comparison with the version of the same letter as it appears in Trois ombres reveals that the history of the friendship between the two writers needs to be rewritten. It is probably useful here to reprint Huysmans’ letter as it was published in both the 1908 and 1932 versions of Harry’s memoirs. In them, the letter marks a significant point in Harry’s relationship with Huysmans; following the publication of her first novel, Petite Épouses (1902), Harry says she sent Huysmans a copy of the book and that she received a letter from the older writer thanking her and praising her work. (This claim can itself be shown to be false by looking at the chronology of events: Harry says she sent Huysmans a copy of the book while he was at Ligugé and that he wrote back to her from there, however, by April 1902, when Petites Épouses was published, Huysmans had already been back in Paris for six months.) Harry then claims they corresponded several times, and that on his return to Paris, Huysmans sent her the following letter:
60 rue de Babylone.
Paris, le 4 décembre 1902
Mon cher confrère,
Je suis tout à votre disposition pour vous aider à trouver, si je le puis, les renseignements dont vouz avez besoin pour votre livre, et ce n’est, mais oui, qu’un très juste dû du plaisir que m’ont procuré, en un temps où la disette des oeuvres d’art s’affirme, vos exquises Petite Épouses.
Je suis chez moi toutes les après-midi jusqu’à quatre heures. Vous êtes donc bien sûr de me trouver dans la lanterne de la rue de Babylone tous les jours de la semaine.
Je suis rentrée avec une âme qui pluviote. Apportez des parapluies spirituels pour vous abriter.
Cordialement votre tout dévoué,
The first thing that is striking about this letter is its date, 1902, which is relatively early on in Harry’s literary career, her first collection of short stories having been published in 1899. The second thing that is noticeable is Huysmans’ friendly tone, with his open invitation for her to visit him whenever she likes at No. 60 rue Babylone. Although Huysmans is frequently thought of as an irascible character, it is nevertheless true that he was often generous to other writers, especially those at the beginning of their careers. In her memoirs, Harry says that following this invitation she immediately made her way to Huysmans’ apartment in the rue Babylone, which she describes in some detail, and their friendship blossomed until the older writer’s illness and death intervened.
We can now compare the published version to the original letter:
Paris, 1er 8er, 1904
Ma chère confrère, votre lettre me trouve à ma rentrée à Paris. Sauf mardi, je ne vois pas que j’ai à bouger dans l’après-midi jusqu’à 3 heures; vous étés donc bien sûre de me trouver dans la lanterne de la rue St Placide tous les jours de la semaine.
Je suis rentrée avec une âme qui pluviote — apportez des parapluies spirituels pour vous abriter.
Bien respectueusement votre dévoué,
A number of differences are immediately apparent. In the first instance, there is no address at the top of the letter and it is dated almost two years later, in 1904. This is important because in March 1904 Huysmans moved from the rue Babylone to the rue St. Placide. Harry has therefore deliberately placed the rue Babylone address at the top of her letter and substituted it in the body of the letter to give the impression that she was a regular visitor to Huysmans from late 1902 onwards.
The original is addressed to ‘Ma chère confrère’, which shows that Huysmans knew that Harry was a woman, while the letter in Trois ombres opens ‘Mon cher confrère’, implying that Huysmans was still under the impression that Harry was a male writer. This ‘misunderstanding’, which Harry makes much of, is suspiciously reminiscent of a documented occurrence where Huysmans mistook a female correspondent for a male one. The story is given in Joseph Daoust’s J.-K. Huysmans: Directeur de conscience, lettres inédites à C Alberdingk Thijm (Durand et Fils, 1953). In default of any supporting evidence for Harry's version, it seems more likely that she simply appropriated this anecdote after having heard it either from mutual friends or directly from Huysmans himself. It remains a possibility that Huysmans wrote to Harry in December 1902, and even that this letter was headed ‘Cher confrère’, but his response is more likely to have been the kind of courteous and formal reply he reserved for his numerous correspondents, especially to those requesting information. In any event, not content with deliberately changing the address in the letter she reproduces, it is clear that Harry fabricated the 1902 letter in Trois ombres out of one or more other letters.
It is significant that the letter Harry presents as Huysmans’ second letter to her should actually have been written in late 1904. The possibility that Huysmans’ first meeting with Harry took place in either late 1903 or early 1904, not in 1902 as she claims, is supported by other documentary evidence. Abbé Mugnier was one of Huysmans’ close confidantes during this period, and his Journal, published in the 1950s, refers to numerous conversations with Huysmans. The first reference that Mugnier makes to Harry in relation to Huysmans is in a journal entry dated 25 April 1904, in which he writes:
Huysmans nous parlait, hier soir, de Myriam Harry qu’il connait. Une Allemande et une Orientale tout ensemble. Elle est née à Jérusalem. Elle a l’horreur de protestantisme, elle est païenne et ne croit qu’à la chair. C’est une allumeuse. Son livre la Conquête de Jérusalem renferme de vraies pages d’art.
The implication of this is that their friendship is of a fairly recent date. Ironically, Harry herself recalls Huysmans telling her that he had talked to Mugnier about her (Trois ombres, p. 51), but while she places this incident early on in their relationship, i.e between December 1902 and November 1903, we can see from the journal that this conversation actually took place at the end of April 1904. However, there is a more conclusive proof for their friendship having commenced at a later date than the one Harry claims, and that is Huysmans’ own assertion, made in a letter to Léon Leclaire of 12 March 1904, in which he states that his relationship with Harry began ‘il y a déjà des mois, sous le couvert de visite de petite confrère’.
Further proof of Harry’s unreliability, if not her downright mendacity, becomes clear once one starts checking her statements against the factual evidence. Unfortunately, even though the falsity of some of her stories can be proved simply by checking the dates of publications she mentions and so on, not one of Huysmans’ biographers seems to have done so. Instead, they have reprinted her fabricated version of events unchecked. For example, in various versions of her memoirs, Harry claims that she sent Petites épouses to Huysmans while he was still in Ligugé, and makes him say that while he was at Ligugé he thought she was a male writer, but that when he came back to Paris he found out she was a woman, after having seen a photograph of her on the cover of a magazine dressed in Chinese robes. Harry goes on to say that at this point, after mentioning this periodical, Huysmans then pulled it out of the drawer of his desk (Revue de Paris, 1908, Trois ombres, p. 23-24). However, by checking the dates one can see that Pétites épouses was published in 1902, and that Huysmans had returned to Paris from Ligugé in November 1901, so he could not have read the book there or be under any delusion there that she was a man. Conclusive proof that the story is a total fabrication lies in the reference to the photograph on the cover of the magazine: while Harry sets the incident in 1902, during her significant — and surely memorable — first meeting with Huysmans, the picture of Harry dressed in Chinese robes actually appeared on the cover of La Vie heureuse of April 1904.(1)
Having proved that Harry deliberately made false and misleading claims about the chronology of her friendship with Huysmans, I want to turn now to three contentious assertions that Harry makes in the course of Trois ombres and see how well they stand up to a more rigorous scrutiny. Firstly, the claim that Huysmans travelled to Belgium with the Countess de Galoez, otherwise known as ‘La Sol’; secondly, that Huysmans considered committing suicide in 1901; and thirdly, her claim to have visited Huysmans just before he died.
As regards Huysmans’ supposed trip to Belgium with La Sol, Harry gives a highly theatrical account of this expedition. She recounts that during the journey 'la tentation était trop forte; ils ne pouvaient plus se contenter d’une platonique amitié…': La Sol came to his room that night, and 'tout sa gâta'. They separated not wanting to see 'leur rêve ravalé à de basses réalities charnelles.' (Trois ombres, pp. 67-8). However, despite Harry’s dramatic recollection of the incident, there is absolutely no evidence that Huysmans ever travelled in Belgium or Germany with La Sol. Harry is most likely misremembering somethings she has either heard or been told by Huysmans, as in a letter to Cécile Bruyère of 30 July 1899 he says that La Sol went to Bruges in 1897 to solicit help from ‘un affreux prêtre démoniaque que j’ai peint dans Là-Bas, sous le nom de chanoine Docre’ (Rancoeur, p. 22). The Bibliothèque de l’Arsenal contains Pierre Lambert’s annotated copy of Harry’s memoirs and his view of this absurd claim is succinctly summed up by the double lines and a question mark inscribed next to the text.
This notion that Harry picked up pieces of information from other people who knew Huysmans and then reused them, often incorrectly, in her own memoirs seems to be echoed in another of Harry’s claims, that Huysmans contemplated suicide in 1901. It is unlikely that, given his views on the subject of suffering and the will of God, Huysmans would have seriously considered suicide at this period, and he gives no hint of such feelings in letters to two of his closest friends, Arij Prins and Léon Leclaire. In the Abbé Mugnier’s Journal, we can see several entries covering the period when Huysmans lived at the rue Monsieur address. Mugnier mentions several times that Huysmans was unhappy there — mostly because it was so cold — and complained about it all the time, but gives no hint that it was depressing Huysmans so much he actually considered suicide. He does, however, refer to the subject of suicide in a conversation he had with Huysmans in 1892, during which Huysmans said that ‘influences diaboliques’ had urged him to kill himself. Although Mugnier’s Journal itself wasn’t published until many years after Harry’s death, it is perhaps no coincidence that this passage about suicide was published for the first time in René Dumesnil’s La Publication d'En Route (1931), just a year before Harry’s own book came out (Dumesnil, i, p. 88; Mugnier, ii, p. 76). Significantly, although several of the claims made in Trois ombres also appeared in earlier versions of Harry’s memoirs, the reference to Huysmans’ thoughts of suicide doesn’t appear in any of the memoirs published before Dumesnil’s book. Interestingly a reference to suicide does appear in one of Harry’s ‘memoirs’ of Huysmans published before Dumesnil’s book, the version that appeared under the guise of fiction in Le Tendre Cantique de Siona (1922). However, here it is Siona, the Myriam Harry character, who initiates the subject in the course of a conversation about the difficulties of writing. Siona says to Mirmans (the Huysmans character) 'Il y a des jours où, réellement, j’ai songé à me suicider pour une phrase incomplète,' to which Mirmans replies, 'J’ai connais ça!'. In any event, whether she was imitating the revelations in Dumesnil’s book or misremembering her own conversations, there is no supporting evidence for her suicide claim, and a considerable weight of evidence to suggest that it was an anecdote she herself fabricated.(2)
The last claim I want to look at here is that involving Harry’s supposed visit to Huysmans just before he died. In Trois ombres, Harry provides a moving account of going to visit Huysmans in early 1907 only months before his death on 12th May 1907. She recalls how thin he seemed, and she congratulates him on having received the légion d’honneur. They talk for a while, but she has to leave because of the arrival of the doctor, and as Huysmans opens the door for her, he calls her by her Christian name for the first time. As she walks down the stairs, she looks back and sees him still standing by the door. Tears spring into her eyes and with a pounding heart she wishes him a loving adieu. This heartfelt scene would indeed be one of the most moving of Huysmans’ life, but for the fact that it is completely fabricated, conjured up some twenty-five years after the writer’s death. If we look at Harry’s account written in 1908, a year after Huysmans’ death, we get a much starker, and much truer picture of events. Harry left Paris for Tunisia sometime after April 1906. She describes visiting Huysmans before she left, and then she says, in her own words, ‘Je ne devais plus le revoir’. She was away for about a year, during which time she says that he sent her a copy of Les Foules de Lourdes and wrote her a letter, dated 5 January 1907. Harry’s 1908 memoir concludes with a statement that she only learned from ‘Madame Bavoil’ that Huysmans was dead the day after his burial.(3) In other words, writing a year after the novelist’s death she makes no reference to having seen him before he died, and indeed explicitly states that the last time she saw him was in 1906. Harry wrote another article on the third anniversary of Huysmans’ death, published in the Revue des Temps Présent, of 2 April 1910, and yet again, there is no mention of a final visit. Indeed there is no reference to a ‘last visit’ until after 1927, the year in which Huysmans’ secretary Jean de Caldain died, as he was the only person who could have refuted her story. Although her accounts in the Revue de Paris and Revue des Temps Présent so dramatically contradict the one she gives in Trois ombres, the fabricated memoir has remained unchallenged since its first appearance and has now regrettably passed into literary history.
Taken together these instances of factual innaccuracy, half-truths and out-and-out fabrication, place a large question-mark over Harry’s trustworthiness as a witness to the events of Huysmans’ life. It is to be hope that more letters between the two writers will come to light in the future. It is only by gaining access to the originals of Huysmans’ letters that researchers will be able to map out a factual chronology of his relationship with Harry and begin to correct her numerous errors that have not only gone unchallenged, but have unfortunately worked their way into the official narrative of Huysmans’ life over the last 100 years.
(1) Harry also recounts an anecdote during this period, supposedly in 1903, in which she refers to Charles Deremme’s book La Tempête, eliciting a witty comment from Huysmans. The book wasn’t published until 1906.
(2) In an article published in Candide in 1932, Harry again imputed thoughts of suicide to one of her biographical subjects: Anatole France. She reports France’s wife and former mistress, Emma Laprevotte, saying: “Oh ! vous ne sauriez croire combien nous étions malheureux, désemparés, abandonnés de tout le monde. M. France, sans amis, sans bibelors, sans livres, accusé de toutes sortes de forfaits, a sérieusement songé, je vous assuré, au suicide...”
Harry betrays herself again here in that Julie Thibault, the model for Madame Bavoil, had left Huysmans’ service in 1899, years before Harry’s first visit to the writer. Anyone who knew Huysmans well would have known that his housekeeper up until the time of his death was not the Madame Bavoil of his novels.
Dumesnil, René. La publication d'En Route de J.-K. Huysmans. Societé Française d'Editions Littéraires et Techniques, 1931.
Harry, Myriam. Revue de Paris, 15 May 1908.
Harry, Myriam. Revue de Temps Présent, 2 April 1910.
Harry, Myriam. Le Tendre Cantique de Siona, Fayard, 1922.
Harry, Myriam. Trois ombres, Flammarion, 1932.
Mugnier, Abbé. Journal 1879-1935, Mercure de France (1985).
Rancoeur, René. Correspondance de J.-K. Huysmans avec Madame Cécile Bruyère, Abbesse de Sainte-Cécile de Solesmes. Paris: La Pensée Catholique 13, 1950.