Huysmans worked for 32 years in a tedious job at the French Ministry of the Interior but kept writing in his free time. Sales of The Cathedral were so good that the income allowed him to retire early. The main character in the book, a novelist named Durtal, is a thinly disguised version of the writer. Durtal first appear in The Damned (1891), a novel that caused a stir because of its depiction of Satanism in France in that era, and it was banned from sale in railroad stations. The Damned first appeared in serialized form in a Paris newspaper, causing an uproar among the paper's subscribers.
Durtal also appeared in two other Huysmans novels, En route (1895), which tells of the beginning of the character's conversion to Catholicism, and The Oblate, which tells of Durtal's journey to becoming affiliated with a monastic religious community. The book parallels Huysmans own spiritual journey. It explores the nature of suffering and includes a description of the Garden of Gethsemane, where Jesus prayed the day before his crucifixion.
Huysmans' earlier writing was quite different. He had attracted the attention of Emile Zola with his first novel, Marthe, the Story of a Girl (1876), that depicted life of a young prostitute, and The Vatard Sisters (1876), the story two sisters who struggle in life as they work in a book bindery. He became associated with Zola's Naturalist school of fiction. However, within eight years, Huysmans had broken with the tradition and began to write what was to be known as decadent literature. His most notorious novel was Against Nature (1884), in which the main character has an "alluring liaison" with "a cherry-lipped youth." The work influenced Oscar Wilde, and was featured in Wilde's trial on charges of sodomy and gross indecency.
In 1892, Huysmans was made a chevalier in the French Legion of Honor for his civil service. In 1905, he was promoted to officer in the Legion of Honor for his literary efforts. He wrote 29 books.