Wednesday, December 12, 2012

509. Against the Grain - Joris–Karl Huysmans

History: À rebours (translated Against Nature or Against the Grain) was written in 1884. Joris-Karl Huysmans is most famous for this novel Against Nature and he predicted it would be a failure with the public and critics: "but I don't give a damn! It will be something nobody has ever done before, and I shall have said what I want to say." The book created a storm of publicity; though many older critics were scandalised, it appealed to the young generation. 
The painter Whistler called it a "marvellous" book. Oscar Wilde regarded it as his "Bible and bedside book." It was to him "one of the best I have ever seen." It was reviewed everywhere as the guidebook of Decadence.
Against Nature is the "poisonous French novel" that leads to the downfall of Dorian Gray in Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray. The book's plot dominated the action of Dorian, causing him to live a life of sin and hedonism.
The best-known example of fin-de-siècle decadence, this novel has been banned and expurgated for years. À rebours marked a watershed in Huysmans's career. His early works had been Naturalist in style, being realistic depictions of the drudgery and squalor of working- and lower-middle-class life in Paris. However, by the early 1880s, Huysmans regarded this approach to fiction as a dead end
Plot: Jean Des Esseintes is the last member of a powerful and once proud noble family. He has lived an extremely decadent life in Paris, which has left him disgusted with human society. Without telling anyone, he retreats to a house in the countryside.
He fills the house with his eclectic art collection (which notably consists of reprints of paintings of Gustave Moreau). Drawing from the theme of Gustave Flaubert's Bouvard and Pecuchet, Des Esseintes decides to spend the rest of his life in intellectual and aesthetic contemplation. Throughout his intellectual experiments, he recalls various debauched events and love affairs of his past in Paris.
He conducts a survey of French and Latin literature, rejecting the works approved by the mainstream critics of his day. Amongst French authors, he shows nothing but contempt for the Romantics but adores the poetry of Baudelaire and that of the nascent Symbolist movement of Paul Verlaine, Tristan Corbière and Stéphane Mallarmé, as well as the decadent fiction of the unorthodox Catholic writers Auguste Villiers de l'Isle-Adam and Barbey d'Aurevilly. He studies Moreau's paintings, he tries his hand at inventing perfumes, and he creates a garden of poisonous flowers. In one of the book's most surrealistic episodes, he has gemstones set in the shell of a tortoise. The extra weight on the creature's back causes its death. In another episode, he decides to visit London after reading the novels of Dickens. He dines at an English restaurant in Paris while waiting for his train and is delighted by the resemblance of the people to his notions derived from literature. He then cancels his trip and returns home, convinced that only disillusion would await him if he were to follow though with his plans.
Eventually, his late nights and idiosyncratic diet take their toll on his health, requiring him to return to Paris or to forfeit his life. In the last lines of the book, he compares his return to human society to that of a nonbeliever trying to embrace religion.
Review: Huysmans himself thought the public would have no interest in it. Chapters that do nothing more than expound upon Des Esseintes's favorite painters or Latin writers amount to little more than reader abuse, endlessly fascinating regardless. No doubt part of this was nothing more than shocked delight at the sheer perversity of the little experiment--Huysmans is actually quite a good, and Des Esseintes's whims, desires, and recollections are often so extravagantly bizarre as to be quite funny. And then, of course, there's the 'plants' chapter, which is quite probably the most grotesque and macabre thing I've ever read. It's a bit of a shame that it's stuck right in the middle of the book, as it does make the subsequent material seem a bit anticlimactic, but then again, if Huysmans had any sort of regard for narrative structure, he wouldn't have written this diabolical piece of work in the first place. If Zola was Pink Floyd, Huysmans was the Sex Pistols.
Opening Line: "More than two months slipped by before the time came when Des Esseintes found it feasible to immerse himself definitely in the peace and silence of his house at Fontenay; purchases of all kinds still kept him perambulating the Paris streets, tramping the town from end to end."
Closing Line: "Ah; but my courage fails me, and my heart is sick within me!--Lord, take pity on the Christian who doubts, on the sceptic who would fain believe, on the galley-slave of life who puts out to sea alone, in the darkness of night, beneath a firmament illumined no longer by the consoling beacon-fires of the ancient hope."
Quotes: “Immersed in solitude, he would dream or read far into the night. By protracted contemplation of the same thoughts, his mind grew sharp, his vague, undeveloped ideas took on form.”
Rating: No comment

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