Friday, August 26, 2016

Against Nature, or Against the Grain by Joris-Karl Huysmans

Splendid isolation
Against Nature, or Against the Grain (neither English title seems to be more commonly used than the other), a novel by Joris-Karl Huysmans, was originally published in 1884 under the French title of À rebours. This eccentric work of literature is an intimate portrait of the life, home, and habits of Jean des Esseintes, who is essentially the only character in the book. He is the descendant of robust aristocratic ancestors who distinguished themselves in battle and business. Generations of wealthy indulgence and idleness, however, have reduced the once powerful blood line to an anemic trickle. The last remaining vessel of this noble gene pool, Jean des Esseintes is an effete, effeminate aesthete resigned to a life of self-indulgence and decadent dissipation. Decadence, as portrayed in this book, does not take the form of sex, drugs, and rock-and-roll (though unnamed “perverse pleasures” are briefly alluded to). Rather, des Esseintes’s personal decadence revolves around art, literature, and furnishings. Exhausted and disgusted by society, he holes up in a house in the country which he molds into a rich cultural man-cave designed to indulge his five senses. Though occasionally des Esseintes ventures forth from his fortress, mostly the book is a catalog of everything he eats, drinks, reads, and collects.

Huysmans was a disciple of the author Emile Zola, leader of the literary school of naturalism. Though this book was Huysmans’s declaration of independence from that school, venturing off into symbolist territory, the influence of his former master can still be felt. The book is loaded with beautiful descriptive passages written in the naturalist mode. When taken alone, any page in the book is a vivid linguistic treat (at least that’s true of the English translation by John Howard), but together it all adds up to a rather dull and lifeless mess. The book is more a character study than a novel. Like the opening passages of some epic drama, the setting has been richly and intricately described; it’s just waiting for a plot. Instead, Huysmans merely uses the character of des Esseintes to express his own tastes. For example, there are at least four grueling chapters about books—ancient Latin literature, later Christian literature, modern French literature, some praise for Edgar Allen Poe—that you almost need a PhD to get through. If one wants to write literary criticism, then write it. Don’t dress it up as fiction and call it a novel. Authors like Zola, Victor Hugo, or Balzac would occasionally insert an essay into a novel, as an expository interlude, but Against Nature feels like a jumble of essays unsuccessfully masquerading as a novel.

Huysmans seems to be making two points here (and I’ll admit I may be grasping at straws): First, through centuries of wealthy indulgence and slothful entitlement the nobility have long lost any former claim to greatness they may once have had. Second, the culture itself—from literature to the Catholic Church—has likewise decayed to a despicable shell of its former self. Huysmans makes these points adequately in the first and last chapters. The rest is just a series of illustrative examples that beat the dead horse. The book has the feeling of a protomodernist manifesto in which Huysmans advocates striking out in a new cultural direction and rejecting past glories, except of course for those choice few past glories that the author himself deems worthy.

This book does have its fans, but to me it came across as a boring, failed experiment. Huysmans’s prose, however, does exhibit the makings of a great naturalist writer, so I’ll probably seek out more of his novels, perhaps earlier works more in keeping with Zola’s aesthetic. Hopefully one of them has a plot.
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