Durtal is an atheist who envies the bell ringer, Carhaix's, faith. Des Hermies is a medical doctor with an interest in alchemy and homeopathy, who mourns the loss of traditional remedies and despairs at the specialism of modern medicine. Both feel they would be better suited to life in the middle ages when peasants were simple, gracious and devout.
The story is set in Paris at a time of political upheaval. Democracy, reviled by Des Hermies and Durtal, is what the working classes are fighting for in post-revolutionary France. They talk about the stupidity of the poor while at the same time elevating the old Marshall of France, Gilles de Rais and marvelling at his excesses. They even hold the Satanic Canon Docre in high esteem. Although Durtal has only meagre wealth, both men are very class conscious and their love for the bell ringer is in contrast to their feelings about the rest of Paris's poor population. They see Carhaix as exceptionally well-educated, pious and, perhaps most importantly, satisfied with his life and work.
Durtal's affair with a married woman and its effect on the writer shows how easily he idolises things at a distance and how quickly he becomes disillusioned with reality. It's an odd story, but a fascinating one. Huysmans does the sort of things writers would be hung, drawn and quartered for today, including a four page description of a painting in the first chapter. Some of my favourite passages include -
"Money attracted money, accumulating always in the same places, going by preference to the scoundrelly and the mediocre."
"On bright nights one part of the castle was thrown back into shadow, and the other, by contrast, stood forth, washed in silver and blue, as if rubbed with mercurial lusters, above the Sevre, along whose surface streaks of moonlight darted like the backs of fishes."
"[D]aydream is the only good thing in life. Everything else is vulgar and empty."
"For a man in his state of spiritual impoverishment all, save art, was but a recreation more or less boring, a diversion more or less vain."