In Joris-Karl Hyusmans’s most popular novel, À rebours (Against Nature or Against the Grain, depending on the which translated edition you’re reading), there is a famous scene where the protagonist, the decadent Jean des Esseintes, starts setting gemstones on the shell of a tortoise. The tortoise, of course, is defenseless to Esseintes, who attaches so many gems that the creature cannot move. Eventually, their weight causes the tortoise to die, and the scene shows how the rich can use their wealth to crush the poor.
In A Dilemma, which was first serialized soon after the publication of À rebours in 1884, Huysmans once again gives us a satirical look at this cruel power. This time, however, the victim is not an animal but a poor, unmarried, pregnant woman named Sophie, the unlucky mistress of Jules—unlucky because Jules died without marrying her or leaving behind a will. Now, Jules’s father (Monsieur Lambois) and grandfather (Maître Le Ponsart) will do anything to protect their fortune and reputation from this woman, who only asked them for a little money just to get by.
Legally, Sophie is not entitled to anything. She’s also not much of a threat to the two men, but that doesn’t stop them from waging war against her. After all, Lambois and Le Ponsart have spent their lives chewing up women and spitting them out, so why should they treat Jules’s mistress any differently? In fact, they’re not convinced that Sophie’s some naïve, innocent girl. In one scene, Le Ponsart, a notary who does most of the dirty work, goes through Jules’s desk to look for a will. Sophie doesn’t know how to handle him, but Le Ponsart takes her silence for scheming:
“Goodness!” thought Maître Le Ponsart, “this cheeky little hussy is tough; she’s afraid of compromising herself by opening her mouth.” He turned his back to her, his belly before the table; he began to feel exasperated, trying to decide where to begin; given the mean he presumed that this woman had adopted, he would have to dot every i, grope his way forward, haphazardly attack an entrenched enemy lying in wait for him. “Could she have a will in hand?” he asked himself, his temples suddenly damp with sweat.
The irony is that despite his ability to make people fear him, Le Ponsart has a weakness for certain types of women. In one of the novella’s more amusing scenes, he spurns the advances of a prostitute but then changes his mind when she decides to go with a younger man. He doesn’t like to lose to anyone else, yet after all is said and done, the prostitute ends up robbing him.
Meanwhile, Sophie turns to Madame Champagne, a so-called “helper of the poor.” (It’s no coincidence, by the way, that she shares her name with an alcoholic beverage: throughout the novella, there are plenty of references to drinking and the artificial good-feelings it can sometimes bring.) Champagne, who thinks her gift of gab and ability to keep track of gossip makes up for a lack of business sense, isn’t much help; in fact, she takes on Sophie’s cause more to serve herself rather than to truly help the woman in need.
Even though the novella is just under 80 pages, it is packed with venom. Although Huysmans’s main target is the bourgeois, he also shows how Champagne’s tactics—and her ignorance of people like Le Ponsart—only end up making things worse. He also exposes the folly of people in Champagne’s circles, such as Madame Dauriette, who “bore the classic characteristics of a leech” and reveres her benefactor as much as she does the Virgin Mary. Even Sophie’s parents, who are only mentioned in passing, and Sophie herself, who ends up placing too much faith and trust in Champagne, are not spared.
Yet, what’s rather surprising is that Hyusmans—who, according to translator Justin Vicari, “thrived on irascible contradictoriness”—tries to balance his attack on Le Ponsart and Lambois with psychological insight into their motives. He also shows how these men, who live in the country, are products of the dog-eat-dog culture that thrives in Paris. For example, as a young man, Le Ponsart started his career in the city and learned that to save money, you have to be cleverer than other people. Later, his son-in-law, a former hosier, lived by the cutthroat ways of the Parisian political system.
It’s this contrariness that makes this novella such an intriguing work, and as Vicari points out in his introduction, set Hyusmans apart from his contemporaries like Gustave Flaubert, who preferred a more journalistic approach to his subjects. Its viciousness may not be for everyone, but for a lesson on how powerful greed can be—a lesson that is still relevant today—one should definitely pick up A Dilemma.