A book with no plot, just a deeply unsympathetic main character whose defining feature is his overwhelming malaise. In some ways it felt like an aristocratic, erudite precursor to "The Catcher in the Rye"
I started a book club with two friends from high school and we chose the theme "classic literature about dissolute young men." We've read everything from Satyricon to American Psycho. It turns out that many of these works are part of an interconnected canon, subtly in conversation with each other. One name in particular kept popping up - Huysmans. Whether it was Houellebecq in his Submission or Oscar Wilde speaking through Dorian in A Picture of Dorian Gray, Huysmans seemed to be a constant presence in the minds of our literary bad boys. Clearly this fellow merited further investigation.
And so we read Huysmans's famous "Against Nature" ("À rebours" for you fancy French folk). As described in the extremely helpful introduction to my Penguin edition, the book is "a kind of Symbolist or Decadent Heart of Darkness." It's a book with no plot, just a deeply unsympathetic main character whose defining feature is his overwhelming malaise. In some ways it felt like an aristocratic, erudite precursor to "The Catcher in the Rye" (a book which I despise). Yet somehow Huysmans's book struck a chord within me. Des Esseintes's combination of cynicism and brutal honesty was strangely endearing. I also appreciated the Huysman's literary innovation:
For me, that was what struck me most at the time, the need to suppress the traditional plot, to abolish even love, womankind, to concentrate the spotlight on a single character – at all costs to do something new.
But as mentioned in the book's introduction, Huysmans's creation was "self-exhausting genre, a one-off." And for all the anti-religious sentiment and sexual depravity in "Against Nature," Huysmans went on to become a Catholic monk at the end of his life! A strange man and a strange book indeed. Worth a read for the more literary among us.
My highlights below
...the outrage and the marvel Against Nature provoked when it appeared in May 1884. In France and across Europe the book was read as the most flamboyant expression of what came to be known as ‘the Decadence’. It was held up by some as a cautionary tale and by others as a manual of modern living; it was read as a moral fable and as a chilling case study of crisis and debauchery. Many felt that it marked the end of the novel, while a few saw it as the beginning of a new way of writing.
Against Nature is a brazen enough title in English, but in fact Against the Grain would better have captured the suggestive range of its French original, A Rebours, a far more open-ended title.
The novel has retained its cultish hold, as Marianne Faithfull recalls in her autobiography: ‘You would ask your date, “Do you know Genet? Have you read A Rebours?’’ and if he said yes you’d fuck.’
HUYSMANS, ‘DECADENCE’ AND AGAINST NATURE
Yet there was something wilfully self-dramatizing about all these decadent attitudes – after all, the nineteenth century had known extraordinary technological, political and scientific advances, and all of these had happened at breathtaking pace. While many embraced these changes, others saw them in unambiguously negative terms: ‘we have spent the nineteenth century splitting hairs; how shall we spend the twentieth? Splitting them into four?’ asked one of Huysmans’ contemporaries.
Perhaps the belief that there was nothing new was itself a necessary prelude to creating the new.
One of the great formative novels of French Romanticism, Chateaubriand’s René (1802), had helped define what came to be called the ‘sickness of the century’ (mal du siècle) felt by the rootless, aimless, self-indulgent aristocrats in a world which seemed not to need them. ‘Alone in the great desert of men’ was how René, ‘last of his race’, put it: it was a historical, sexual and cultural dispossession, but it gave the Romantic writer opportunity to explore the mysteries of the infinitely desiring but finite self.
Huysmans’s boldness and innovation stem from the fact that he managed to remain a confirmed hedonist under the worst possible conditions... The decadents did not like reality, but they did know reality, and that is what distinguishes them from the romantics.
HUYSMANS AND AGAINST NATURE
Joris-Karl Huysmans was born in 1848, the revolutionary year in which Flaubert set part of L’Education sentimentale (Sentimental Education), the novel Huysmans claimed in his 1903 preface had most influenced him.
Huysmans’ first novel, Marthe, histoire d’une fille (Marthe: Story of a Prostitute), was published in 1876. According to his biographer (and the translator of this edition of Against Nature), Robert Baldick, it was the first novel to deal with prostitution in licensed brothels, memorably described as ‘slaughterhouses of love’.
Huysmans was attached to the bureaucratic life. It gave him time to write as well as subjects to write about; but above all it kept the world at bay. When in 1893 he retired from his ministry he kept the headed notepaper, doctoring it so that it read ‘Ministry of the Interior [Life]’.
For Des Esseintes, language, like meat, is at its tastiest as it is turning – as, on the cusp of rotting, the flavours are released. It is one of Against Nature’s recurrent analogies: between food and language, and if the reader finds Huysmans’ style ‘hard to swallow’ or ‘hard to keep down’ this is as it should be.
Although Against Nature is unique, it forms part of a series of novels of retreat that occupied Huysmans up to and including his extraordinary tale of satanism and sadism Là-Bas (The Damned) of 1891.
WRITING AGAINST NATURE
The discussion in chapter III of Petronius’ Satyricon is tellingly framed in this respect: Des Esseintes reads it as a ‘realist novel’, a ‘slice cut from Roman life’ (echoing the famous Naturalist dictum that a novel must be a ‘slice of life’), but also emphasizes the fact that it is a ‘story with no plot’. This genre-defying satirical feat of documentary imagination might be a clue to what Against Nature is attempting.
Des Esseintes predicts rather than reflects artistic tastes
One reviewer wrote that Des Esseintes’s selection of authors would, once their flashing fame had died, ‘date the book and limit its future value’. What promised to ‘date’ Huysmans’ novel in 1884 is one of the elements that keeps it modern.
THEMES AND STRUCTURES
Among the specific models for Des Esseintes was the eccentric King Ludwig II of Bavaria, who designed an artificial forest with mechanical animals, but there were also Baudelaire himself, Edmond de Goncourt and a variety of fictional characters such as Samuel Cramer in Baudelaire’s Fanfarlo and Charles Demailly in the Goncourts’ eponymous 1868 novel. The most obvious model, however, was Count Robert de Montesquiou-Fezensac, an aesthete and eccentric who provided the model for Proust’s Baron Charlus in A la recherche du temps perdu (Montesquiou was a relatively capable poet and critic and not wholly ridiculous or mad).
it gives some indication of the strange times Huysmans lived through to recall that one of the book’s most implausible episodes – the jewel-encrusted tortoise – is based on fact.
Des Esseintes is also impotent, and, like his creator, a misogynist. We should not refine this fact away: in Against Nature, as in so many ‘Decadent’ works, the misogyny is not incidental but in built.
We notice how, despite his tirades against the ‘American century’, modern consumerism and ownership, he takes advantage of all of these.
He is also a book fetishist, in whom the bibliophile – the lover of the book as object – overcomes the reader. Des Esseintes does not read, preferring instead to wax lyrical about paper quality and bindings.
Early on in Against Nature Des Esseintes expresses his preference for the artificial over the natural, one of the defining attitudes of Decadence. ‘Nature... has had her day’, he muses, seeking the copy or the mechanically produced, not as a substitute for the natural but in preference to it. His is an artificial world: abstracted and decontextualized, full of gadgets and refined objects, custom-built and chemical.
For Baudelaire, nature was what pushed human beings to kill and brutalize each other; the authority and civilization that maintained humane values were themselves artificial: laws, religions, moral codes.
One of Huysmans’ achievements in Against Nature, regardless of the double-dealing evident in his letters to Mallarmé and Zola, is to have imagined – or predicted – an alternative literary canon.
Huysmans was proud of his reading of Mallarmé, and his pages on Edgar Allan Poe are among the finest accounts of the French debt to the American poet who cast his spell over several generations of poets and prose writers.
In Flaubert’s Bouvard et Pécuchet (posthumously published in 1881), Bouvard and Pécuchet retire to a country house to become great scientists and scholars. They read books, perform experiments and discuss big subjects, but the problem is that they understand nothing. New knowledge and new ways of knowing simply lead to new ways of being stupid. Ahead of our era of artificial intelligence, Flaubert exposed the era of artificial stupidity, and there is an element of Bouvard and Pécuchet in Des Esseintes.
Against Nature was a self-exhausting genre, a one-off.
It is a kind of Symbolist or Decadent Heart of Darkness in its thwarted dreams of isolation, power and discovery. Like Heart of Darkness it analyses the deadly game of self-fulfilment and self-escape; like Conrad’s great novel it ends with a snarl of pessimism both at the world and at the counter-world forged in its stead – forged in the sense of faked as well as newly created.
Even more than these dowagers, the men gathered round their whist-tables revealed an unalterable emptiness of mind.
These gay young men were mad on races and operettas, lansquenet and baccarat, and squandered fortunes on horses, cards, and all the other pleasures dear to empty minds.
His contempt for humanity grew fiercer, and at last he came to realize that the world is made up mostly of fools and scoundrels.
Already he had begun dreaming of a refined Thebaid, a desert hermitage equipped with all modern conveniences, a snugly heated ark on dry land in which he might take refuge from the incessant deluge of human stupidity.
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.
On the invitations, which were similar to those sent out before more solemn obsequies, this dinner was described as a funeral banquet in memory of the host’s virility, lately but only temporarily deceased.
Travel, indeed, struck him as being a waste of time, since he believed that the imagination could provide a more-than-adequate substitute for the vulgar reality of actual experience.
The main thing is to know how to set about it, to be able to concentrate your attention on a single detail, to forget yourself sufficiently to bring about the desired hallucination and so substitute the vision of a reality for the reality itself. As a matter of fact, artifice was considered by Des Esseintes to be the distinctive mark of human genius. Nature, he used to say, has had her day; she has finally and utterly exhausted the patience of sensitive observers by the revolting uniformity of her landscapes and skyscapes.
In fact, there is not a single one of her inventions, deemed so subtle and sublime, that human ingenuity cannot manufacture; no moonlit Forest of Fontainebleau that cannot be reproduced by stage scenery under floodlighting; no cascade that cannot be imitated to perfection by hydraulic engineering; no rock that papier-mâché cannot counterfeit; no flower that carefully chosen taffeta and delicately coloured paper cannot match! There can be no shadow of doubt that with her never-ending platitudes the old crone has by now exhausted the good-humoured admiration of all true artists, and the time has surely come for artifice to take her place whenever possible.
The author he really loved, and who made him abandon Lucan’s resounding tirades for good, was Petronius.
In Gustave Moreau’s work, which in conception went far beyond the data supplied by the New Testament, Des Esseintes saw realized at long last the weird and superhuman Salome of his dreams. Here she was no longer just the dancing-girl who extorts a cry of lust and lechery from an old man by the lascivious movements of her loins; who saps the morale and breaks the will of a king with the heaving of her breasts, the twitching of her belly, the quivering of her thighs. She had become, as it were, the symbolic incarnation of undying Lust, the Goddess of immortal Hysteria, the accursed Beauty exalted above all other beauties by the catalepsy that hardens her flesh and steels her muscles, the monstrous Beast, indifferent, irresponsible, insensible, poisoning, like the Helen of ancient myth, everything that approaches her, everything that sees her, everything that she touches.
Here she was a true harlot, obedient to her passionate and cruel female temperament; here she came to life, more refined yet more savage, more hateful yet more exquisite than before; here she roused the sleeping senses of the male more powerfully, subjugated his will more surely with her charms – the charms of a great venereal flower, grown in a bed of sacrilege, reared in a hot-house of impiety.
There were, in his opinion, only two ways of arranging a bedroom: you could either make it a place for sensual pleasure, for nocturnal delectation, or else you could fit it out as a place for sleep and solitude, a setting for quiet meditation, a sort of oratory.
In short, although he had no vocation for the state of grace, he was conscious of a genuine fellow-feeling for those who were shut up in religious houses, persecuted by a vindictive society that cannot forgive either the proper contempt they feel for it or their averred intention of redeeming and expiating by years of silence the ever-increasing licentiousness of its silly, senseless conversations.
It was true that, after careful thought, he still regarded the Christian religion as a superb legend; a magnificent imposture; and yet, in spite of all his excuses and explanations, his scepticism was beginning to crack.
‘Dammit, I’m going crazy,’ Des Esseintes said to himself. ‘My dread of the disease will bring on the disease itself if I keep this up.’
It is true that this admission of social corruption had his entire approval, but on the other hand, his mind revolted against the vague remedy of hope in a future life.
This admirable artistry had long enthralled him, but now he dreamt of collecting another kind of flora: tired of artificial flowers aping real ones, he wanted some natural flowers that would look like fakes.
‘It all comes down to syphilis in the end,’ Des Esseintes reflected,
‘There’s no denying it,’ he concluded; ‘in the course of a few years man can operate a selection which easy-going Nature could not conceivably make in less than a few centuries; without the shadow of a doubt, the horticulturists are the only true artists left to us nowadays.’
This exchange of sex between Miss Urania and himself had excited him tremendously.
No, there was certainly nothing of the sort to be seen at present. Holland was just a country like any other, and what was more, a country entirely lacking in simplicity and geniality, for the Protestant faith was rampant there with all its stern hypocrisy and unbending solemnity.
As for prose, he had little respect for Voltaire and Rousseau, or even Diderot, whose vaunted ‘Salons’ struck him as remarkable for the number of moralizing inanities and stupid aspirations they contained. Out of hatred of all this twaddle, he confined his reading almost entirely to the exponents of Christian oratory, to Bourdaloue and Bossuet, whose sonorous and ornate periods greatly impressed him; but he was even fonder of tasting the pith and marrow of stern, strong phrases such as Nicole fashioned in his meditations, and still more Pascal, whose austere pessimism and agonized attrition went straight to his heart.
As a crowning disaster, several pious females had decided to try their hands at writing, and maladroit sacristies had joined with silly salons in extolling as works of genius the wretched prattlings of these women.
These lymphs it had made so much of and for whom it had exhausted the goodwill of its press, all wrote like convent schoolgirls in a milk-and-water style, all suffered from a verbal diarrhoea no astringent could conceivably check.
The truth of the matter is that if it did not involve sacrilege, sadism would have no raison d’être; on the other hand, since sacrilege depends on the existence of a religion, it cannot be deliberately and effectively committed except by a believer, for a man would derive no satisfaction whatever from profaning a faith that was unimportant or unknown to him. The strength of sadism then, the attraction it offers, lies entirely in the forbidden pleasure of transferring to Satan the homage and the prayers that should go to God; it lies in the flouting of the precepts of Catholicism, which the sadist actually observes in topsy-turvy fashion when, in order to offend Christ the more grievously, he commits the sins Christ most expressly proscribed – profanation of holy things and carnal debauch.
Des Esseintes had done no more than dip into the Malleus Maleficorum, that terrible code of procedure of Jacob Sprenger’s which permitted the Church to send thousands of necromancers and sorcerers to the stake; but that was enough to enable him to recognize in the witches’ sabbath all the obscenities and blasphemies of sadism.
After all, what did their lives amount to but impetigo, colic, fevers, measles, smacks and slaps in childhood; degrading jobs with plenty of kicks and curses at thirteen or so; deceiving mistresses, foul diseases and unfaithful wives in manhood; and then, in old age, infirmities and death-agonies in workhouses or hospitals?
What madness it was to beget children, reflected Des Esseintes.
The symptoms were indeed plain and undeniable; the licensed brothels were disappearing, and every time one of them closed its doors, a tavern opened in its place. This diminution of official prostitution in favour of unofficial promiscuity was obviously to be accounted for by the incomprehensible illusions to which men are subject in affairs of the flesh. Monstrous as this might appear, the tavern satisfied an ideal. The fact was that although the utilitarian tendencies handed down by heredity, and encouraged by the precocious discourtesies and constant incivilities of school life, had made the younger generation singularly boorish and also singularly cold and materialistic, it had nonetheless kept, deep down in its heart, a little old-fashioned sentimentality, a vague, stale, old-fashioned ideal of love. The result was that nowadays, when its blood caught fire, it could not stomach just walking in, taking its pleasure, paying the bill and walking out again. This, in its eyes, was sheer bestiality, like a dog covering a bitch without any preamble; besides, a man’s vanity obtained no sort of satisfaction in these houses of ill fame where there was no show of resistance, no semblance of victory, no hope of preferential treatment, no possibility even of obtaining liberal favours from a tradeswoman who measured out her caresses in proportion to the price paid. On the other hand, to court a girl in a tavern was to avoid wounding all these amorous susceptibilities, all these sentimental feelings. There were always several men after a girl like that, and those to whom she agreed, at a price, to grant a rendezvous, honestly imagined that they were the object of an honorary distinction, a rare favour. Yet the staff of a tavern were every bit as stupid and mercenary, as base and depraved, as the staff of a brothel. Like the latter, they drank without being thirsty, laughed without being amused, drooled over the caresses of the filthiest workman and went for each other hammer and tongs at the slightest provocation. But in spite of everything, the young men of Paris had still not learnt that from the point of view of looks, dress and technique, the waitresses in these taverns were vastly inferior to the women cooped up in the luxurious sitting-rooms of licensed houses.
This idiotic sentimentality combined with ruthless commercialism clearly represented the dominant spirit of the age; these same men who would have gouged anybody’s eyes out to make a few coppers, lost all their flair and shrewdness when it came to dealing with the shifty tavern girls who harried them without pity and fleeced them without mercy. The wheels of industry turned, and families cheated one another in the name of trade, only to let themselves be robbed of money by their sons, who in turn allowed themselves to be swindled by these women, who in the last resort were bled white by their own fancy men.
Over the whole of Paris, from east to west and north to south, there stretched an unbroken network of confidence tricks, a chain of organized thefts acting one upon the other – and all because, instead of being served straight away, customers were kept waiting and left to cool their heels.
The fact was that human wisdom was essentially a matter of spinning things out, of saying no first and yes later; for the best way of handling men has always been to keep putting them off.
By dint of passing them through the critical apparatus of his mind, just as a metal worker passes strips of metal through a steel drawing-machine, from which they emerge thin and light, reduced to almost invisible threads, he had found in the end that none of his books could stand up to this sort of treatment, that none was sufficiently hardened to go through the next process, the reading-mill.
The fact is that when the period in which a man of talent is condemned to live is dull and stupid, the artist is haunted, perhaps unknown to himself, by a nostalgic yearning for another age.
Better perhaps than anyone else, Poe possessed those intimate affinities that could satisfy the requirements of Des Esseintes’s mind. If Baudelaire had made out among the hieroglyphics of the soul the critical age of thought and feeling, it was Poe who, in the sphere of morbid psychology, had carried out the closest scrutiny of the will.
Of all forms of literature, the prose poem was Des Esseintes’s favourite. Handled by an alchemist of genius it should, he maintained, contain within its small compass and in concentrated form the substance of a novel, while dispensing with the latter’s long-winded analyses and superfluous descriptions.
The fact was that this indulgent attitude, ostensibly intended to attract the faithful and really intended to attract their money, had promptly resulted in a crop of arias borrowed from Italian operas, contemptible cavatinas and objectionable quadrilles, sung with full orchestra accompaniment, in churches converted into boudoirs, by barnstormers bellowing away up in the roof, while down below the ladies waged a war of fashions and went into raptures over the shrieks of the mountebanks whose impure voices were defiling the sacred notes of the organ.
The odd thing was that Des Esseintes’s ideas on music were in flagrant contradiction with the theories he professed about the other arts.
Commercialism had invaded the cloisters, where, in lieu of antiphonaries, fat account-books lay on the lecterns. Like a foul leprosy, the present-day greed for gain was playing havoc with the Church, making the monks pore over inventories and invoices, turning the Superiors into confectioners and medicasters, the lay-brothers into common packers and base bottle-washers.
Appendix I - Preface, Written Twenty Years After the Novel
I believe that all literary people are like me, that they never reread their works once they have been published. Indeed, there is nothing more disillusioning or more painful than to look over one’s sentences after so many years.
Books with no documentary value, books which teach me nothing, no longer interest me.
No one will change my opinion that the critical works of the late Nettement are imbecilic and that Mrs Augustus Craven and Miss Eugènie de Guèrin are flabby bluestockings and sterile bigots.
There were many things that Zola could not understand; first of all, my need to open windows, to escape from an atmosphere which was stifling; then, the urge which possessed me to shake prejudices, break the limits of the novel, to bring art, science, history into it; in short, no longer to use the novel form except as a frame in which to set more serious work. For me, that was what struck me most at the time, the need to suppress the traditional plot, to abolish even love, womankind, to concentrate the spotlight on a single character – at all costs to do something new.
Against Nature appeared in 1884 and I entered a Trappist monastery to be converted in 1892; nearly eight years passed before the seeds sown in this book germinated; let us say two years, three even, for the muffled, obstinate, sometimes palpable work of Grace to go forward.
In all this hubbub, only one writer saw clearly, Barbey d’Aurevilly, who moreover did not know me. In an article in the Constitutionnel dated 28 July 1884, which has since been published in his book, Le Roman contemporain, he wrote: ‘After such a book, the only choice left open to the author is between the muzzle of a pistol and the foot of the cross.’ The choice is made. J.-K. Huysmans (1903)