Against Nature by J.-K. Huysmans

 “Not for years had he stuffed and swilled with such abandon.”

This was a re-reading of Huysmans’ Against Nature (A Rebours). Stranded: En Rade is due to be published in September 2010 by Dedalus Books, and anticipating that book, I decided to return to Huysmans and refresh my memory. Plus I wasn’t happy with an earlier, shorter review I’d written. My copy is from Penguin with a translation and introduction from Robert Baldick. Baldick notes that Against Nature , a novel of the 19th century Decadent movement is the “keystone of Huysmans’ life and work” and also:

“the keystone of the so-called Decadence, that movement in France and England characterized by a delight in the perverse and artificial, a craving for new and complex sensations, a desire to extend the boundaries of emotional and spiritual experience.”

Huysmans, the son of a French mother and a Dutch father, worked as a junior clerk of the Ministry of the Interior. Initially one of “Zola’s Medan Group of young Realists, or rather Naturalists,”  Huysmans, who saw Naturalism as a  “blind alley,”  developed his own break-away style:

“to shake off preconceived ideas, to extend the scope of the novel, to introduce into it art, science, history; in a word, to use this form of literature only as a frame in which to insert more serious work”. The result was A Rebours.

Against Nature  concerns the last descendant of the once robust des Esseintes family, Duc Jean Floressas de Esseintes. The novel begins with the descriptions of the portraits of various members of the Floressas des Esseintes family:

Imprisoned in old picture-frames which were scarcely wide enough for their broad shoulders, they were an alarming sight with their piercing eyes, their sweeping mustachios, and their bulging chests filling the enormous cuirasses which they wore.

Over the centuries, “a ruinous process”   accelerated by inbreeding has resulted in the last of the Floressas des Esseintes line. The current Duc is a “frail young man of thirty who was anemic and highly strung.”  He suffers from various neuroses, phantom itching, and permanent indigestion. His mother, the late Duchess,  did not have a strong mental or physical constitution, and “had a nervous attack whenever she was subjected to light or noise.”

The book gives a brief history of Jean’s first thirty years. A sickly child, he is educated at a Jesuit school but he remains unfocused. When he reaches adulthood, Jean passes rapidly through several phases–debauchery followed by an attempt to mingle with the intelligentsia. Gradually he becomes completely jaded with humanity and concludes, “the world is made up mostly of fools and scoundrels.” But at the same time, Jean seeks the pleasures of the flesh:

Then he had kept mistresses already famed for their depravity, and helped to swell the funds of those agencies which supply dubious pleasures for a consideration. And, finally, weary to the point of satiety of these hackneyed luxuries, these commonplace caresses, he had sought satisfaction in the gutter, hoping that the contrast would revive his exhausted desires and imagining that the fascinating filthiness of the poor would stimulate his flagging senses.

That last line illustrates how Jean views the hideousness of poverty as a stimulating entertainment, and this need for a careful stimulation of his senses becomes a dominant drive in his life as the story continues. Jean begins to experience encroaching horror at the idea of contact with the masses, and he dreams of a sanctuary where “he might take refuge from the incessant deluge of human stupidity.” Having frittered away most of his fortune in “extravagant follies and riotous living” and with his health ruined (which may have some something to do with “unnatural love affairs and perverse pleasures”), Jean decides to sell the family château, and taking what’s left of his fortune he buys a villa near Fontenay-aux-Roses.  

Jean believes that “Nature…has had her day.” To him, “human ingenuity”   is superior and can manufacture perfection, and so he builds a refuge from the rest of humankind with this idea in mind. Jean goes to torturous lengths to create a perfect world for himself within his villa beginning with elaborate colour schemes and the finest materials. Part of his design is to create illusions, so that, for example, a ceiling appears to harbour a window to the sky (it doesn’t). Another room “resembled a ship’s cabin” which enables Jean to “imagine himself between decks in a brig” while he gazes through a “porthole” housing mechanical fish. These artificial sensations are further enhanced by the subtle addition of smells and cleverly designed lighting. He sets his schedule to avoid any hint of contact with the servants, but just in case he happens to catch a glimpse of them, he requires them to dress in costume to manufacture the  “impression of convent life.” 

In attempting to ‘better’ nature and to re-create nature but without the imperfections, Jean is self-centered and indulges every selfish, peevish whim and fixation. The author’s focus details Jean’s obsessions. 13 pages are spent describing why Jean likes or loathes particular Latin authors, and several pages describe a painting of Salome.  His quest to improve nature even goes so far as having a tortoise “embellished” with a jewel-encrusted shell. While I found this the most revolting of Jean’s actions, the most amusing actions include: his short-lived desire to travel to England, his love affair with a ventriloquist, his reading life, and his obsession with perfumes. The author explores every tiny crevice of artificial sensation in this fascinatingly corrupt and warped study of ennui in the face of manufactured beauty and pleasure. Why doesn’t it surprise me that Jean even gets a cheap thrill from enemas.

Jean’s desire to improve upon nature is in essence a denial of mortality. By perfecting nature, improving upon nature, beating nature, in the process he subconsciously hopes to best his ailments and his looming death in his elegant joust of the pleasures of Decadence vs the sordid realities of the flesh. It’s easy to see why Oscar Wilde loved Against Nature, and indeed the introduction includes the fact that Huysmans’ book came up in the Queensberry trial of Oscar Wilde. Wilde had mentioned a “yellow-backed book” in his novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray.

Wilde identified the book readily enough as Huysmans’ A Rebours, [but] he refused to say anything about its morality or immorality; ‘to ask a writer to pass moral judgement on a fellow writer’s work was,’  he said, ‘an impertinence and a vulgarity’. 

On another note, and certainly one I did not predict when I began this review, I recently watched the French film Home from director Ursula Meier and mulled over once again that the connections in life are peculiar. The film (which stars Isabelle Hupeprt, btw) concerns a family of five who live way out in the boonies off of an abandoned highway. The house in which they live is a mess, complete with a concreted hole that will supposedly eventually be a swimming pool in the front garden. The house is in total isolation, and it’s impossible to tell whether it’s being fixed up or run down. The family more or less runs wild,  playing games on the abandoned highway and watching television outside under the stars. The fun comes to an abrupt end when the highway is reopened and thousands of cars beginning whizzing by the home at breakneck speed. The family members discover to one degree or another, that their sprawl can no longer continue. The inflatable pool next to the highway is eventually abandoned and even lacy underwear is no longer hung out on the line to dry.

It may seem odd to connect Huysmans’ masterpiece of Decadence to this French family. Jean would cringe at the comparison, and no doubt he would find the family hideously appalling. Both Jean and this French gypsy-style clan seek isolation from life, and they both insulate their homes from the noise and pollution of outside culture. Inevitably, however,  ‘civilisation’ such as it is catches up to everyone.

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17 Comments

Filed under Huysmans, Joris-Karl

17 responses to “Against Nature by J.-K. Huysmans

  1. And thanks to Leroy for nudging me back to this one.

  2. It sounds a remarkable book due to its vast scope and multi-faceted themes – your review is as always, excellent and informative without spoiling the book for future readers! I am pleased that Dedalus are bringing this author to our attention again and will look out for Stranded

  3. DKS

    I’ve been looking for a secondhand copy of this for a while, so it’s good to see someone reviewing it. (There’s a translation online, but paper is easier.) Have you tried Lautreamont? He doesn’t write in the same vein, but there’s decadence in him, and something like the same spirit of wilful exaggeration that appeals to me in Huysmans.

  4. I’m embarrassed to say I’ve never heard of this author – or, he rings a vague bell. I love the description of people in the picture frames – but as for the philosophy, it sounds a little too artificial and controlled for me!

  5. But, I should say, I’d be interested to read this as I really haven’t had much exposure to the Decadents.

  6. Gummie: The thing that really underscores the novel is that it epitomizes the philosophy of the Decadents and the idea that artifice is the ultimate in opposition to the Romantics’ view of the world.

    Jean carries everything to extremes, and there’s a sort of fascination (at least for me) in just how far he’s willing to go. (All the way)

    I’m a big fan of Decadence. Reading about it, I should add.

    If you want to start with Huysmans, I’d recommend With The Flow which is, I think my favourite so far. It’s the story of a minor clerk who lives on a pittance. The clerk, Folantin, is just as petty and picky as Jean, but in Folantin’s case he’s poor, so he can’t go off and build some sort of hothouse Disneyland. This makes his days and his limited, meagre choices exquisitely painful.

  7. DKS: I’ve seen the name Lautreamont but haven’t checked it out. Will do now. Thanks for the nudge.

  8. WG,

    There’s another Huysmans writeup here and there’s one over at mine. I’m very fond of him as an author.

    Guy, The Flow, I don’t know that one. Is there a particular translation you’d recommend?

  9. Max: You’ll be pleased to know there’s a Hesperus edition with a translation by Andrew Brown.

    It’s also translated as Downstream by Robert Baldick (Turtle Point Press), and since he wrote a bio on Huysmans (which I haven’t read yet), this is something to think about.

  10. leroyhunter

    Guy, I was less successful nudging myself: I intended to have this read by the time you reviewed it, but the only copy in my habitual bookshop was badly battered so I didn’t pick it up. I never got myself in gear to just order it online so am suffering for my own “peevishness” now.

    The link to Wilde is, I guess, an obvious one, but still interesting to have it confirmed. I don’t remember it being mentioned in the Ellmann bio we talked about before but it must be in there.

    Huysmans’ “break-away style” as you quote seems very similar to some currently fashionable “manifestos” for the novel, eg Tom McCarthy. So nothing new under the sun.

  11. Well the link made me think I should get around to the Ellmann bio.

    The funny thing about the Huysmans/Zola connection is that I am about 2/3 of the way through Debacle and it’s difficult to align Huysmans with Zola. I have this image of Zola lecturing about the novel and Huysmans sitting there with his own ideas. Anyway, good thing Huysmans broke away. Who needs faux-wanna-be Zolas running around. Back to that artificial thing again….

  12. leroyhunter

    I looked out Ellmann and turns out Wilde actually read the (just published) book on his honeymoon in Paris. He was particularly taken by the description of the Salome picture you mention

    I saw a brilliant production of Wilde’s Salome many years ago, and the links are clear: lust, death, etc. I remember that Herod lists the exotic possibilities that he will reward Salome with in lieu of her demand for Jokannan’s (John the Baptist’s) head…the list reads like a Huysman-ian manifesto of sensuality and excess.

    Dorian Gray also apparently reads a book clearly modeled on A Rebours.

  13. Thanks for looking that up. I could see Wilde and Huysmans as kindred souls.

    All I can think of is the Ken Hughes film Salome’s Last Dance

  14. A central text for me, of course.

    I’m almost sure it is mentioned, albeit obliquely, in The Picture of Dorian Grey.

    You might find the biography of Huysmans of interest – search my site for a post. He was one of the leaders in the realism-to-naturalism movement, believe it or not. I guess his story of satanism, in La Bas, tells how he got off track.

    I have always been very fond of the chapters on his library and gallery. I love they way he discusses the evolution of late Roman Latin literature, comparing it to a mutilated corpse thrashing about. And he is one way I was introduced to Odilon Redon.

    Perhaps you know of these books, but for dreamers of decadence, there’s nothing like Mario Praz’s tome, The Romantic Agony, or Phillipe Julien’s popular overview, dedicated to Praz, called…Dreamers of Decadence. I would never have survived high school without them.

  15. Yes, the book is mentioned in the Picture of Dorian Grey.

    You did nudge me to the Huysmans bio a few months back, and it’s on my list. I read something the other day about him being full of contrasts, and it seems as though he would be a great source of material.

    I particularly liked the passages about his (Jean’s) reading life.

  16. If you are in NYC, stop in at the Frick, and you can see Le duc’s portrait by Whistler. Not the one on the Penguin cover, though.

  17. Pingback: Symbolist Movement « thomasmoulson

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