Friday, June 11, 2010

Just finished reading...

...À REBOURS (AGAINST NATURE) by Joris-Karl Huysmans (1848—1907).

Although translated as “Against Nature,” a better translation for À REBOURS would be “Against The Grain.” Huysmans, a Parisian with Dutch roots (hence the name), first began writing in the Naturalist style of literature, aligning himself with Emile Zola, but with the publication of À REBOURS, his tenth work, he had broken with Naturalism and became firmly entrenched in the reactionary Decadent style of literature. Closely related to the Symbolists and inspired in part by the writing of Edgar Alan Poe, Decadence came about during the fin de siècle and À REBOURS, written in 1884, is considered by some to be its first true—and ultimate—example of the genre (others give this title to the works of Baudelaire).

This novel first came to my attention in an article about a recent style phenomenon known as Dark Nostalgia. I blogged about Dark Nostalgia and this particular article in this post. So I thought I would give À REBOURS a try.

Actually a very long character study in which nothing much happens rather than a novel, À REBOURS explores the life and mind of only one man, Jean des Esseintes, an ailing and ornery loner from a faded aristocratic family. Huysmans himself called this novel a “wild and gloomy fantasy.”

After the start of the story, we soon find that our hero, des Esseintes, after a debauched life of excessive food, drink and sex, has retired from social life, finding people, on the whole, to be repellent dolts. He has pledged to live out the rest of his days in intellectual and aesthetic contemplation, far away from the grotesqueries of the world. Organized into chapters around a loose theme, we find out what he thinks of Latin literature (as well as an exhaustive survey of the history and authors of said literature), we delve into his favorite—as well as detested—art and artists, we discover his feelings on French poetry and literature, we follow his train of thought about colors (and what shades to paint the rooms of his home), we wait patiently—or not so patiently—while he relives his Jesuit education and flirts with Christ and Christianity, we suffer through his creation of an indoor garden populated with exotic, hideous—and sometimes carnivorous—plants, and we watch as he creates a “musical instrument” that plays scents instead of notes. The only real “action” in the story consists of two episodes: 1) des Esseintes comes to the conclusion that the patterns on his Oriental rugs would be even better if the patterns moved, so he buys an enormous tortoise and has its shell encrusted with precious stones, which causes the death of the poor creature and 2) des Esseintes decides to emerge from his self-imposed hermitage to visit England, but after taking a cab to the train station in the rain and having a meal near some English tourists while waiting to board, he feels that he has already visited the disgusting, soggy country of England and promptly returns home.

The book is interesting as a piece of literary history, and it is helpful to be able to place it in a context, but it's fairly dry and has little to do with any modern sensibilities or concerns. The universality is simply not there. Much is made of the "startling" language and vocabulary employed by Huysmans, but I can't find it.

In addition, des Esseintes is hardly a sympathetic character. I would be much more interested in someone who collected art, books and plants if there was a true interest and love, a passion for these things—and ultimately, an understanding and application to one’s life, an enrichment. But des Esseintes seems to collect anything odd or unusual—that is, anything that is currently not in favor by the culture at large—not because he is interested in such things, but simply for the collecting and having… the possessing, as if by merely possessing something odd or unusual, he himself would then have some sort of extra value. It is an early form of consumerism and seems very sad. None of his possessions makes des Esseintes a better person, a more likeable person, an intelligent person. He uses them to prop up his empty life and heart. The novel could be construed as a cautionary tale against indulging your every whim, but with Huysmans being very fond of such whims, it is hard to tell. Considering the Jungian idea of psychological “shadow issues,” it is not surprising that, in 1892, Huysmans sought readmittance to the Catholic Church. He devoted the rest of this life to being a devout believer, clearly as some kind of flip-side of the same coin.

As a side note, the character of des Esseintes was based in part not only on Huysmans himself, but in the greater part upon the notorious aesthete and aristocrat Robert de Montesquiou. In addition, Montesquiou also served as the model for the Baron de Charlus in Proust's À LA RECHERCHE DU TEMPS PERDU (or IN SEARCH OF LOST TIME).

Recommend? No, not really.

No comments: