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The Cathedral Paperback – July 1, 2006
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"Crafted with painstaking attentiuon to detail, the novel is both an account of a conversion and a detailed examination of the language of medieval art. So thorough is Huysman's description of the cathedral that the book has even been sold as a guide to the building." -- Dr. Penelope Woolf
"The voice of the main character, Durtal, is as "wicked, witty, [and] self-lacerating ... [as that of] as that of a contemporary scholar with a bad case of mystical anomie. -- Elizabeth Young, City Limits --This text refers to an alternate Paperback edition.
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After the cathedral itself, most of Durtal's attention is focused on the Virgin Mary, to whom he looks for aid with his current spiritual dilemmas. He also supplies the reader with a history of her manifestations in France and descriptions of the sites. Additional sections deal with the religious symbolism of plants, flowers and trees (as Durtal, Gevrasin and Plomb create a hypothetical botanical version of the cathedral), and of animals as well. As always, Durtal also contemplates religious art and the lives of miscellaneous saints.
As can be imagined, this is sometimes tough reading. And the plot itself, you ask? The dramatic tension mostly consists of Durtal agonizing about the "dryness" of his faith, and whether or not this would be helped by making a retreat to the abbey of Solesmes (I won't give away his decision and spoil the ending). Durtal's point of view is both very French and very Catholic.
So is "The Cathedral" worth reading? I think a better question would be if you enjoy the writing of Huysmans. If you read and enjoyed the previous two books, then odds are you will enjoy this as well. If you have followed Durtal's story thus far, then I would recommend this book, if for no other reason than to be able to read final book of the series, "L'Oblat", which is generally a better work. In my opinion, this book is the weakest of the four.
If you are a stranger to the works of Huysmans, then I would suggest you start with "A Rebours" or "La-Bas" instead. If you are interested in Chartres cathedral from a viewpoint of pre-20th century French Catholic mysticism, you might find some enjoyment here. And if you want to know what St. Hildegarde has to say about the spiritual virtues of ferns, then this will be right up your alley. If you have no familiarity or sympathy with the Roman Catholic liturgy or hagiography, then you will be reading with something of a handicap.
"The Cathedral" is not without its pleasures, and some of Huysmans odd detours can be quite fascinating. However, Huysmans continues to reference authors, artists and books that the reader would have either to have lived in 19th century France or been a member of a 16th century religious order to have heard of, as well as an assortment of more or less obscure religious figures and authorities. Also, the dramatic tension of Durtal's spiritual crisis in "The Cathedral" is nowhere near as intense, dramatic and moving as it was in "En Route" - he just seems indecisive here.
The bottom line: "The Cathedral" is not for everybody. Caveat lector!
Those readers who dislike long winding descriptive passages, however, be warned.
Anyone who is interested in French cathedrals would find this book informative. The narrative as a novel is interesting, also.