Huysmans’ Against Nature is a novel about one man (the rich but jaded aristocrat Des Esseintes) and the isolated life he crafts for himself – a life governed by aesthetic considerations and the desire to subvert, and even supersede, nature. Like many English readers, my first exposure to the novel was in an editor’s note to Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890) - À Rebours is widely believed to be the novel which ‘poisons’ Dorian’s mind. But the text is definitely worthy of attention in its own right (and not just in considering Decadence and the Fin de Siecle).
For general readers: The opposite of a lot of the Victorian literature I like and write on, Against Nature is low on plot and deals with only one real character. This is a novel about the workings of someone’s mind – someone who probably isn’t that likable or relatable. I don’t find this a problem as such (though I know some might), but I did find that my natural inclination was towards episodes which did include other people, however faintly sketched – the Englishmen dining in a Paris eatery, the poor boy treated to a night in a high class brothel, the brutal but effective dentist. There are some episodes which are so arrestingly parabolic that they stand out when looking back at the text. Images like a jewel-encrusted tortoise perishing under its own weight have a mythic quality and chapters can seem like individual exercises, tied together by the Des Esseintes plot (such as it is), like the master narrative of the Arabian Nights or a collection of Dickensian short stories. Huysmans is at his strongest in passages of sensual description (rendered beautifully in the Robert Baldick translation I was using). The chapter on scents in which Des Esseintes fills his house with exotic plants brings this to a climax for reader as well as character – his collapse seems understandable given the density of sensation evoked by the text. There’s no getting around the fact that this is a hard read – flicking to the notes might give you some idea of the range of esoteric references –but it’s a rewarding one and the best bits don’t need a glossary to make them intelligible.
For students: For those students who’ve ever felt cheated as Dorian’s decadent lifestyle is quickly skimmed over by Wilde, this is the answer – this is a text about Des Esseintes’ aesthetic life choices. Yet, this is much more than a novel to read for background. The text can be especially appealing depending on the level of knowledge you possess surrounding the areas discussed. I found the chapters on classical literature and theological questioning a joy to read, as I got the ‘Des Esseintes’ view on topics I already knew about, whereas chapters on particular orthodox Catholic writers or visual artists I didn’t know left me a little cold. Beyond its treatment of decadence, the text is a good example of the relative freedom of French literature at the time, when compared to English writing (especially when it comes to sexual and scatological discussion), and of different approaches to narrative and the ‘novel’ as a form in the nineteenth century.
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