Against Nature by Joris-Karl Huysmans.

1920 edition of Á Rebours.
His eye fell on the yellow book that Lord Henry had sent him. What was it, he wondered. He went towards the little, pearl-coloured octagonal stand that had always looked to him like the work of some strange Egyptian bees that wrought in silver, and taking up the volume, flung himself into an arm-chair and began to turn over the leaves. After a few minutes he became absorbed. It was the strangest book that he had ever read. It seemed to him that in exquisite raiment, and to the delicate sound of flutes, the sins of the world were passing in dumb show before him. Things that he had dimly dreamed of were suddenly made real to him. Things of which he had never dreamed were gradually revealed.
- The Picture of Dorian Gray, Oscar Wilde (1891).
Two very different authors - Oscar Wilde and Émile Zola - are connected by J.-K. Huysmans, the author of Against Nature (Á Rebours, 1884). Huysmans was an admirer and disciple of Zola and his school of Naturalism, and, I didn't mention this in the last post, it seems he was the only one of Zola's friends to write to Zola congratulating him on his achievement in writing The Ladies Paradise (1883), saying in a letter,
I don't know how the devil you extract such variety from subjects that one wouldn't have thought had any. Portraying this ever ebullient store without repeating yourself took some doing... It is, rest assured, a virtuoso performance - the crescendo of sale days to the final blaze of whiteness - that you alone could have completed safely.
Huysmans was also an admirer of Zola's The Belly of Paris (1873), writing,
Day dawning over Les Halles as vegetables rise and bistros flame behind fogged windows and crowds swarm is an absolutely incredible riot of colour! There are still lifes that have the dash and wild palette of a Rubens! And how vividly Zola draws his characters, bringing them to life with some habitual gesture or idiosyncratic phrase... In this volume the pit may be almost imperceptible, but the fruit tastes like nothing else.
However all was not well with Huysmans' relationship with Émile Zola. He had once written to a friend,
You said it - I am a realist of the school of Goncourt, Zola, and Flaubert, etc. In Paris there is a small group of us convinced that the novel can no longer be a story that is more or less true, more or less dressed up, coated in fish paste, like certain pills, to mask the taste. By realism we mean the patient study of reality, achieving an overall impression detail by detail, cruel ones if need be, trivial even, if that helps us strike the right note. As you can see, we are far removed from the days of Alexandre Dumas's novels.
By 1880s however Huysmans had had a change of heart.
We began to wonder [he wrote] whether Naturalism was not advancing up a blind alley, and whether or not we might not soon be running our heads into a wall.
Unpublished frontispiece for Baudelaire's
Les Fleurs du Mal by Félix Bracquemond.
Huysmans, on reflection, admired the aesthetic elements of Zola's works - Zola's symphonies - the symphonies of silk and fashion in The Ladies Paradise, the symphony of cheeses in The Belly of Paris, and the symphonies of flowers in The Sin of Abbé Mouret (1875). In Against Nature (which may as well have been called 'Against Naturalism') he finally broke from Zola's Naturalists and moved into the Decadent Movement of the late 19th Century inspired by Charles Baudelaire, with elements of the Gothic and emphasis on Aestheticism. Some even argue that Huysman's Against Nature was the first, the pioneer of the movement, which Oscar Wilde embraced whole-heartedly. The quote above from The Picture of Dorian Gray refers to Against Nature, which was that strange yellow book that he later identified during his trial. Wilde described it further in Dorian Gray,
It was a novel without a plot and with only one character, being, indeed, simply a psychological study of a certain young Parisian who spent his life trying to realize in the nineteenth century all the passions and modes of thought that belonged to every century except his own, and to sum up, as it were, in himself the various moods through which the world-spirit had ever passed, loving for their mere artificiality those renunciations that men have unwisely called virtue, as much as those natural rebellions that wise men still call sin. The style in which it was written was that curious jewelled style, vivid and obscure at once, full of argot and of archaisms, of technical expressions and of elaborate paraphrases, that characterizes the work of some of the finest artists of the French school of Symbolistes. There were in it metaphors as monstrous as orchids and as subtle in colour. The life of the senses was described in the terms of mystical philosophy. One hardly knew at times whether one was reading the spiritual ecstasies of some mediaeval saint or the morbid confessions of a modern sinner. It was a poisonous book. The heavy odour of incense seemed to cling about its pages and to trouble the brain. The mere cadence of the sentences, the subtle monotony of their music, so full as it was of complex refrains and movements elaborately repeated, produced in the mind of the lad, as he passed from chapter to chapter, a form of reverie, a malady of dreaming, that made him unconscious of the falling day and creeping shadows. 
Cloudless, and pierced by one solitary star, a copper-green sky gleamed through the windows. He read on by its wan light till he could read no more.
Wilde was clearly a fan, and also wrote on its publication, "This last book of Huysmans is one of the best I have ever seen". Zola unsurprisingly was not a fan, saying it had delivered "a terrible blow to Naturalism", it had led "the school astray", and in writing it Huysman had "burned his boats". Despite trying, Huysmans never managed to placate Zola. Wilde was certainly right about one thing - Against Nature is strange, and indeed it is the strangest book I have ever read, too. I've now read it twice but I still can't get to grips with it, though I do very much admire it. I can't review it better than Wilde has done; I can't even come close, but I'll attempt to give a brief summary.

Detail of Salome Dancing Before Herod 
by Gustave Moreau (1876), a painting mentioned
in Against Nature.
Huysmans writes about Jean Des Esseintes, the last of the noble family Des Esseintes. He rejects society and moves to the country, deciding to dedicate his life to art and literature. He writes of tiring of the vulgarities of modern life, and produces an almost encyclopaedic account of the history of literature, from the Ancient Greeks and Romans ("Petronius was the author whom he truly loved and who caused him forever to abandon the sonorous ingenuities of Lucan", for example) to his present day - Dickens ("those charming novels which are so satisfying to invalids and convalescents who might grow fatigued by works of a more profound and vigorous nature), and even Zola (Jean Des Esseintes prefers The Sin of Abbé Mouret to L'Assommoir). Meanwhile, he tries to grow poisonous flowers, kills a tortoise by setting jewels on its shell, and studies the paintings of Gustave Moreau. He, Des Esseintes, is one of the most narcissistic characters I've come across, and this novel meanders, there is little plot, but it is so striking. It's really very pointless to write about the plot in fact because this book at least attempts (and succeeds, I think) to inspire a sensual, visceral reaction. He writes towards the end of the book, anticipating the reception perhaps,
The novel, thus conceived, thus condensed in a page or two, would become an intellectual communion between a hieratic writer and an ideal reader, a spiritual collaboration between a dozen persons of superior intelligence scattered across the world, an aesthetic treat available to none but the most discerning.
In this sense it becomes more like the Modernist literature of the 1920s and 1930s - Joyce and Woolf, but it is very Decadent, baroque almost. Visually it is stunning, but it evokes smells and tastes, and glitters very darkly like Salome's dress pictured above. It is a great achievement, but it is difficult to truly grasp. I think a part of the struggle is not to ask where this is going or what Huysmans is trying to achieve, but simply accept it for what it is - like a visit to a bejewelled opium den simply for the sake of visiting. Wilde wrote, "The heavy odour of incense seemed to cling about its pages and to trouble the brain" - that is about the sum of it. It's a book I want to revisit, but now I'm very eager to revisit The Picture of Dorian Gray and Salome.

As for illustrations - this I struggled with. I found a beautiful edition illustrated by Auguste-Louis Lepère from the 1903 published by Pour les Cent Bibliophiles. Each page is illustrated - there are over 200 in fact, and I found it desperately hard to limit myself. So, here are a selection, far more than I would usually include so I hope you forgive me!

Comments

  1. what Huysmans is trying to achieve - to create a beautiful object.

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    1. Yes, I think I read somewhere that he was very fed up with the ugliness of Naturalism...

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  2. I read this a long time ago in France. And I was fortunate enough to see very often the place where one day in the Fall, he saw the statue of Christ reflecting in the dirty water of a small pool full of dirty leaves. That was the powerful place where he underwent his powerful conversion - seeing where he was coming from, that was quite of a change of heart indeed!

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    1. Indeed! I'll have to read more about Huysmans, he sounds a very interesting chap. I'll have to dig out a biography!

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  3. The move from aestheticism to Catholicism may sound odd, but it was common, among English writers as well as French - see Ernest Dowson, Francis Thompson, etc. The tradition in French literature goes back, at the least, to Chateubriand's The Genius of Christianity (1802), in which Catholicism, in the face of the challenges of the Revolution, is defended not so much for its truth as its beauty, which of course is the same thing as its truth - "of course" for Romantics like Chateaubriand. Baudelaire always insisted that his poems, even or especially those attacked as obscene, were deeply Catholic.

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    1. Thanks for that information, that's very useful. I was thinking about reading some Baudelaire - I read my copy ages ago and didn't do so well with it (I was so disappointed). I'm hoping I might have more luck if I give it another go and its helpful to have a little background knowledge.

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