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The Vatard Sisters

The Vatard Sisters

J.-K. Huysmans
Translated by James C. Babcock
Copyright Date: 1983
Pages: 184
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  • Book Info
    The Vatard Sisters
    Book Description:

    Les Soeurs Vatard, described by its author as a "lewd but exact" slice of life, was J.-K. Huysmans' second novel. Huysmans abandoned poetry and turned to the novel at a time when the works of Emile Zola were intensely controversial;Les Soeurs Vatardis dedicated to Zola by "his fervent admirer and devoted friend."In it, Huysmans vividly depicts the scene that for his generation of French writers stood for the contemporary world: the brutal, teeming life of the industrial quarters of Paris in the 1870s.

    Huysmans' Vatard sisters are "Désirée, an urchin of fifteen, a brunette with large, pale eyes that were somewhat crossed, plump without being fat, attractive and clean; and Céline, the carouser, a big girl with clear eyes and hair the color of straw, a solid, vigorous girl whose blood raced and danced in her veins." The two are part of that "bizarre race of young women" who work as bookbinders, whose lives revolve around the gaslighted bindery works, the gaudy shop windows, and cheap wineshops that Huysmans describes with minute and colorful detail. His precisely observed sketches show that Naturalism as practiced by Buysmans had none of Zola' s emphasis on "scientific" determinism, but centered primarily on the faithful rendering of what he described as "living persons in real milieus."

    The Vatard Sistersis the first English translation ofLes Soeurs Vatard.

    eISBN: 978-0-8131-6347-5
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Preface
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Introduction
    (pp. vii-xiv)

    Charles-Marie-Georges Huysmans was born of bourgeois parents in Paris on February 5, 1848. His father was of Dutch origin, and when the son began writing, he chose to use a Dutch equivalent of his Christian names, signing himself Joris-Karl Huysmans, or J.-K. Huysmans.

    Huysmans’ first literary contacts of any importance were made in Paris during the early 1870s at the “Dîners du Boeuf nature.” At these gatherings he met and exchanged ideas with a small group of aspiring young French poets. The efforts of this short-lived coterie revolved around a single term—“ modernité”—which for them took on the...

  4. Chapter One
    (pp. 1-5)

    A bell tolled. It was 2:00 A.M.

    Deciding to play a silly little joke on her sleeping sister, Céline placed her index finger next to Désirée’s nose and suddenly woke her. “How stupid!” Désirée cried out angrily, tenderly rubbing her injured nose, which smarted in pain from striking against the finger.

    The women split their sides laughing.

    “All right, ladies! Quiet, please!” prompted the woman supervisor.

    A sort of continuous humming sound could be heard, pierced suddenly by a flute-like laugh. Then, backed by the rhythmic clamor of the presses, two voices burst out in a patriotic song. The men’s...

  5. Chapter Two
    (pp. 6-20)

    At the bindery works of Débonnaire & Co., a firm the supervisor liked to refer to as a sieve because of the constant turnover among its employees, four women were employed full-time. Apart from occasional escapades, these four worked quite regularly. Three of them were celibate, the first because she was too old, the second because she was too ugly, the third because she was young and not stupid. The fourth was not really promiscuous: she did change lovers every month, but never had more than one or two at a time. Mme Teston, an ugly old goat of fifty,...

  6. Chapter Three
    (pp. 21-28)

    Céline’s first lover was a tall, dark, handsome young fellow named Eugène Tourte. He had a mocking air, commanding eyes, and his wandering hands and suggestive jokes turned her on. One hot evening the inevitable happened. She flopped down on the edge of a remote road. Nearby, some clumps of trees facing one another swayed in the passing breeze like clowning couples from the dregs of society at the quadrille dances in cheap dance halls. She did not cover her face with her hands as was customary, but simply closing her eyes, fell without flinching and got up without feeling...

  7. Chapter Four
    (pp. 29-36)

    The round wall clock struck six o'clock, seemed to cough, then slowly the gong rang six times.

    Désirée had just swallowed the last turnip of an Irish stew. The shops were nearly deserted; the shop workers, men and women alike, had gone out to find a bit of something to drink in the neighborhood bars. All alone, the women of better character ate their meager meal in the workshop. The supervisor ground some prune pits between her teeth. Céline warmed up some day-old coffee over a small lamp. Old lady Teston sucked the back of a rabbit cooked with potatoes....

  8. Chapter Five
    (pp. 37-47)

    “Come on now! Swallow your spit! Stick your fingers in your nose, if you want, but shut up!”

    “All right! No more fooling around! The match is about to begin. I am Marseille, the one and only Marseille. It is I who fought against the most famous wrestlers of all Europe at the World’s Fair of 1867 in the Le Peletier street arena, and none of those I held in my hands can boast of having remained standing.”

    And some shills, scattered throughout the crowd, shouted, “A glove, give me a glove!”

    “To whom? To you, squirt?”

    “Yes! Yes!”


  9. Chapter Six
    (pp. 48-55)

    The supervisor repeated for the hundredth time in two weeks that she would rather not eat than be deprived of coffee after her meals. A woman close to her nodded her head, and they began a long discussion on how to make coffee water drip through the coffee filter.

    Désirée’s teeth were bothering her and she held her head in a suffering manner against her shoulder while folding pages. She was thinking about the last visit she had made to the dentist on the Avenue du Maine. All her stumps were full of cavities. The dentist had told her she...

  10. Chapter Seven
    (pp. 56-63)

    After Désirée spread a towel over the folded shirts, her father abruptly sat down on the recalcitrant suitcase, an old chest covered in shedding wild boarskin and outfitted with copper latches that needed oiling. Jumping and falling back together, Désirée and Céline threw themselves on top the suitcase with their father. Vatard held the lock spring. The key turned gratingly. As he strapped down the belts, he cautioned his two daughters, “You understand now, don’t you, girls? You take good care of your mother. Mme Teston will come by to keep her company evenings. I’ll write to you as soon...

  11. Chapter Eight
    (pp. 64-72)

    Désirée was not happy with the breakup of her sister and Anatole. Céline had become bad-tempered and sullen, as prickly as a holly leaf. Until now she had considered it quite natural that Déirée stay at home while she ran off to join her man in the night spots of the Montrouge quarter. But now the younger girl also wanted to leave the house to have some fun in the evening. Much wrangling resulted. One evening at supper Céline abruptly declared she would not be able to clear the table or wash the dishes; she had a date at eight...

  12. Chapter Nine
    (pp. 73-82)

    With her hands behind her head, Désirée delicately fished with her fingers for the hairpins hidden in the billowing mass of her hair. As she placed them one beside the other on the simulated marble of the mantelpiece, she kept remembering the Folies-Bobino and the darkened street where Auguste had kissed her. Her eyes grew moist and a shudder ran up her back at the memory of the wet heat of his lips pressed against hers. Whether it had been right or wrong to allow him to hug and kiss her like that, it was none the less true that,...

  13. Chapter Ten
    (pp. 83-91)

    “Oh, wow! Boy, oh, boy! Am I ever glad to be back, my little gals! To have my feet in my slippers, to once again find the little pipes I haven’t used for such a long time, that’s happiness! Phooey on their vinegary beer and praised be good old wine! Hey, I think I’ll have another glass of wine.”

    And, while gulping this nectar that cost all of thirteen sous a liter, Vatard answered his daughters’ questions. “Is Amiens fun? About as much fun as a prison cell! A few streets, a citadel, a huge church with silly statues, a...

  14. Chapter Eleven
    (pp. 92-98)

    “Well, that’s one down!” murmured Céline, very satisfied with the results of her talk with Auguste. “Now for the other.” Success with her father was less certain, so Céline made up her mind to ask old lady Teston for help. Because of her age, her domestic virtues, and her special knack at cooking beans, this woman exerted a very special influence over Vatard. Together, the two of them had a chance of demolishing his objections to Auguste’s proposal for Désirée’s hand in marriage.

    When Céline had told her good friend of the service for which she needed her help, old...

  15. Chapter Twelve
    (pp. 99-107)

    Vatard was not mistaken. His rejection of Auguste was going to be the cause of countless quarrels and result in seemingly endless harassment for himself. One of the first results was that Désirée became absolutely possessed by her passion for Auguste. She never loved him so much. They used the familiar “tu” exclusively in addressing each other now, not as before, sometimes “tu” and sometimes “vous.” They experienced a sort of consolation in their unhappiness and found themselves closer and even more sure of one another ever since they had spoken to each other in this manner. In isolated corners,...

  16. Chapter Thirteen
    (pp. 108-114)

    The evening that Désirée spent on the Rue du Cotentin gave her father three days respite. Although she still did not go about the house singing, at least Vatard no longer had to submit to stifled sobs, silent, angry gestures. His daughter had become calmer. She was eating and drinking almost like normal. She no longer stared out from beneath dark, angry eyes. After the excitement of the previous evening had worn off, she had expected an avalanche of reproaches from her father the next morning, but he had not made any allusions at all to her late-night return. She...

  17. Chapter Fourteen
    (pp. 115-120)

    In effect, what could he have done? Everything was against him. Summer was ending and that ugly time of year was at hand. Autumn brought to the smoking city its faded skies, hazy afternoons, and long rainy evenings. At six o’clock it was dark and lamps had to be lit. Désirée and Céline would come back from the workshop as filthy as pigs and immediately begin to shake off the mud and scrape their clothing so they could leave more quickly after supper.

    It rained constantly. Vatard, with no wish to leave, would sit at the table forever, and Désirée...

  18. Chapter Fifteen
    (pp. 121-127)

    Auguste was miserable. First, his meetings with Désirée had been interrupted; then, other difficulties had developed. His mother’s illness was becoming worse. She could not breathe properly and going downstairs to the street to shop was impossible. She could not cook or tolerate the fumes from smoking embers. Going to do laundry at the wash house was out of the question. In addition, she needed company. She had suddenly come to hate the Rue du Champ-d’Asile. From their apartment window the view of the Montparnasse cemetery, with its lush greenery and the stark whiteness of its tombs, the nests of...

  19. Chapter Sixteen
    (pp. 128-133)

    When Céline had finished her dress and tried it on, she celebrated like a crazy person, jumping up and down in her bedroom, putting her neck out of joint attempting to look at her back. She thought she looked ravishing, somewhat chic even. When she dashed into Cyprien’s studio and sat down in front of him seeking compliments, he was less enthusiastic and limited himself to remarking that the dress did nothing for her figure, and furthermore, as threadbare as it was, the other dress fit her better and made her look more pliant and willowy.

    These remarks, spoken in...

  20. Chapter Seventeen
    (pp. 134-143)

    Sometimes Céline was astonished by her sister’s apathy. One day she remarked to her, “You’re going to be late. Hurry up!” Very unconcerned, Désirée replied, “No, I’m not! I didn’t tell Auguste any certain hour. I simply promised to join him sometime between eight and nine o’clock. It’s only half past. I’ve got lots of time.” Céline left. Désirée waited until the water was hot to wash her hands. That made her lose at least ten minutes, five more to dress and go down the stairs. By the time she crossed the hall and went out the doorway, Auguste had...

  21. Chapter Eighteen
    (pp. 144-155)

    He had all the time in the world now to frequent this home which, with the smug serenity of its happy household, gave peace of mind in place of the anguish and fears that burdened him.

    For some days now Désirée had not shown up at the workshop. Her mother was about to undergo a surgical draining procedure, and Vatard and his two daughters, worried by the thought of the drilling that was going to have to be done to pierce her stomach, were very upset and unable to function.

    So Auguste’s evenings were no longer taken up by meetings...

  22. Chapter Nineteen
    (pp. 156-164)

    As far as Céline was concerned, her decision was made. Her affair with Cyprien was too troubled, too bitter. The last bit of hesitation she might have had had vanished one morning when she spotted Anatole as she was on her way to the workshop. Strutting around showing off his good looks, he greeted her with courteous suspicion when they met.

    She poured out her soul to him that day. Calm at times, at other moments she exploded in fury as she related to him her disappointments with her painter, revealing the entire disarray of her love life at that...

  23. Chapter Twenty
    (pp. 165-168)

    “It’s possible,” replied old lady Teston, “but if you continue to bully me like that, I’ll have the owner fire you.”

    “You wouldn’t dare,” countered Chaudrut, unafraid, leaning back a little with his hands stuck inside the cord he used for a belt.

    Turning her back on him without a moment’s hesitation, old lady Teston headed towards the owner’s office.

    The supervisor, who had left two hours earlier, returned with a heavy basket on her arm. All the women ran over to her, crying out, “Let’s see!” The supervisor lifted the towel covering the wicker basket and revealed, for all...