Huysmans' work is considered remarkable for its idiosyncratic use of the French language, large vocabulary, descriptions, satirical wit and far-ranging erudition. First considered part of Naturalism, he became associated with the decadent movement with his publication of À rebours. His work expressed his deep pessimism, which had led him to the philosophy of Arthur Schopenhauer. In later years, his novels reflected his study of Catholicism, religious conversion, and becoming an oblate. He discussed the iconography of Christian architecture at length in La cathédrale (1898), set at Chartres and with its cathedral as the focus of the book.
Là-bas (1891), En route (1895) and La cathédrale (1898) are a trilogy that feature Durtal, an autobiographical character whose spiritual progress is tracked and who converts to Catholicism. In the novel that follows, L'Oblat (1903), Durtal becomes an oblate in a monastery, as Huysmans himself was in the Benedictine Abbey at Ligugé, near Poitiers, in 1901. La cathédrale was his most commercially successful work. Its profits enabled Huysmans to retire from his civil service job and live on his royalties.
Huysmans was born in Paris in 1848. His father Godfried Huysmans was Dutch, and a lithographer by trade. His mother Malvina Badin Huysmans had been a schoolmistress. Huysmans' father died when he was eight years old. After his mother quickly remarried, Huysmans resented his stepfather, Jules Og, a Protestant who was part-owner of a Parisian book-bindery.
During childhood, Huysmans turned away from the Roman Catholic Church. He was unhappy at school but completed his coursework and earned a baccalauréat.
For 32 years, Huysmans worked as a civil servant for the French Ministry of the Interior, a job he found tedious. The young Huysmans was called up to fight in the Franco-Prussian War, but was invalided out with dysentery. He used this experience in an early story, "Sac au dos" (Backpack) (later included in his collection, Les Soirées de Médan).