Tuesday, 24 September 2013

Review: Against Nature (À Rebours), Joris-Karl Huysmans (1884)

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).

Joris-Karl Huysmans
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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  1. A rebours was indeed part of a 'poisonous' Decadent French literature, and was identified by Arthur Symons as 'the breviary of the Decadence'. However it is important to recognise Huysmans's debt to Baudelaire, as many of the themes and motifs of his book - the egotism, perversity, artificial sensations, finding beauty in 'le mal', the sense of ennui and fatigue - were formulated by Baudelaire in Les fleurs du mal and Spleen de Paris. Just as Dorian reads A rebours in Wilde's novel, Des Esseintes reads Les fleurs, and the scene in which he does so in chapter XII is important for distilling the Decadent character:

    "He [Baudelaire] had revealed the morbid psychology of a mind that has reached the autumn of its experiences, had described the symptoms of a soul conscripted by suffering and licensed by spleen, had exposed the growing decay of feeling after the enthusiasm and belief of youth have evaporated ... "

    Another important French writer of the period, Barbey d'Aurevilly, commented to Huysmans that the only thing left for a man after writing such a book was to choose between 'the muzzle of a pistol and the foot of the cross'. Huysmans, like Wilde and several other English Decadents after him, chose the cross

    Another French text mentioned in Dorian Gray is Theophile Gautier's collection of poems 'Emaux et Camees' (Enamels and Cameos), and it was in Gautier's prefatory 'note' to the 1868 edition of Fleurs du mal that the phrase 'Decadence' was used to describe this literature of the later nineteenth century (it had been used earlier in the century by Desiré Nisard to describe, pejoratively, Latin poets of the late Roman Empire). Gautier described Decadence as a mode which 'endeavours to express the most inexpressible thoughts, the vaguest and most fleeting contours of form, that listens, with a view to rendering them, to the subtle confidences of neurosity, to the confessions of aging lust turning to depravity, and to the odd hallucinations of fixed ideas passing into mania.'

    Gautier himself had significant 'decadent' credentials - just try his 1835 novel Mademoiselle de Maupin!

    PS - Wilde read Huysmans 1895 novel 'En route' in Reading prison; he didn't think much of it.

    1. Thanks Anon! Huysmans is a dream in discussing his influences directly within the text! Makes our job easier...