Hailed as one of the greatest masterpieces of literature’s decadent era and written during the fin de siécle this novel has been on my reading list for far too long.
The only reason it took me so long to get to this book is because it was so hard to find and it took me even longer to actually read it because of how chaotic life has been lately. Usually I hold out for a special, finely bound edition however after many months of searching I had no such luck, in fact I only came across one vintage hardback copy in several months and it wasn’t pretty enough to warrant the price tag. So I settled for a paperback and it is this which I shall review however if I do manage to get my mitts on a half decently bound copy of this book I will be sure to tell you!
I will be reviewing the Penguin Classics 2003 paperback edition of Á Rebours by Joris-Karl Huysmans translated by Robert Baldick FRSL and with an introduction and notes by Professor Patrick McGuinness.
Something I always like in Penguin’s classic series is the introductory research. At the beginning of every book they have a concise biography of the authors life which can sometimes help put the story into context and can also spark interest in authors’ lives.
The introductory biography of Huysmans in this book actually surprised me however it did put a lot of the events in the story into context, for example; Huysmans was able to write extensively on the effects of particular illnesses because he had suffered them first hand. Usually with any kind of offbeat literature you find the author behind the story more often than not has a very wild or excessive life however this seemed not to be the case with Huysmans. In fact his life was so seemingly dull that it only warranted a single paragraph. Although Huysmans indeed did not lead the excessive life of his notorious creation Jean Des Esseintes he had said that this work was the journey of a “wild and gloomy fantasy”.
Our protagonist Jean Des Esseintes is rumoured to be the portrait of Robert de Montesquiou the aristocratic aesthete, dandy and French poet, pictured below.
Robert de Montesquiou’s home furnishings’ have a strong resemblance to those in Des Esseintes’s house:
In 1883, to his eternal regret, Montesquiou admitted Stéphane Mallarmé [to his home]. It was late at night when the poet was shown over the house, and the only illumination came from a few scattered candelabra; yet in the flickering light Mallarmé observed that the door-bell was in fact a sacring-bell, that one room was furnished as a monastery cell and another as the cabin of a yacht, and that the third contained a Louis XV pulpit, three or four cathedral stalls and a strip of altar railing. He was shown, too, a sled picturesquely placed on a snow-white bearskin, a library of rare books in suitably-coloured bindings and the remains of an unfortunate tortoise whose shell had been coated with gold paint. According to Montesquiou writing many years later in his memoirs, the sight of these marvels left Mallarmé speechless with amazement. ‘He went away’, records Montesquiou, ‘in a state of silent exaltation […] I do not doubt therefore that it was in the most admiring, sympathetic and sincere good faith that he retailed to Huysmans what he had seen during the few moments he spent in Ali Baba’s cave.’
Robert Baldick: The Life of J.-K. Huysmans (originally published 1955; revised by Brendan King, Dedalus, 2006) Page 122-123
Á Rebours really does epitomise the decadent era of literature not only in it’s pursuit of absolute aesthetic perfection but also in it’s thick, heady descriptions. This novel is heavy with eccentric language and decadent themes therefore it can be quite difficult to find one’s way through the thicket of vocabulary however for the determined reader what awaits is a picture of Huysmans’ fantasy in all of it’s magnificence.
Barbaric in its profusion, violent in its emphasis, wearying in its splendor, it is – especially in regard to things seen – extraordinarily expressive, with all the shades of a painter’s palette. Elaborately and deliberately perverse, it is in its very perversity that Huysmans’ work – so fascinating, so repellent, so instinctively artificial – comes to represent, as the work of no other writer can be said to do, the main tendencies, the chief results, of the Decadent movement in literature.
Arthur Symons, The Decadent Movement in Literature
This masterpiece encompasses all that I adore in decadent literature. If you can push through the seemingly endless throng of descriptive vocabulary then you will emerge in the most surreal place; Des Esseintes’ mind. I can scarcely dream of a more intoxicating place!
I don’t want to give all of the fun away but I am excited to tell you about my experience in reading chapter ten. I usually burn essential oil whilst I read because I like to create a mood and whilst reading Á Rebours I chose to burn pure frankincense because of it’s intoxicating nature. Come chapter ten and Des Esseintes has turned his hand to perfumery and the picture that Huysmans paints is simply surreal and, at the risk of being cliché, it really puts you right there in the moment.
To be honest I cannot chose just one paragraph to demonstrate my point so i’m going to type the whole page:
First he made some tea with a compound of cassia and iris; then, completely sure of himself, he resolved to go ahead, to strike a reverberating chord whose majestic thunder would drown the whisper of that artful frangipane which was still stealing stealthily into the room. He handled, one after the other, amber, Tonquin musk, with it’s overpowering smell, and patchouli, the most pungent of all vegetable perfumes, whose flower, in it’s natural state, gives off an odour of mildew and mould. Do what he would, however, visions of the eighteenth century haunted him: gowns with panniers and flounces danced before his eyes; Boucher Venuces, all flesh and no bone, stuffed with pink cotton-wool, looked down at him from every wall; memories of the novel Thémidoor, and especially of the exquisite Rosette with her skirts hoisted up in blushing despair, pursued him. He sprang to his feet in a fury, and to rid himself of these obsessions he filled his lungs with that unadulterated essence of spikenard which is so dear to Orientals and so abhorrent to Europeans on account of it’s excessive Valerian content. He was stunned by the violence of the shock this gave him. The filigree of the delicate scent which had been troubling him vanished as if it had been pounded with a hammer; and he took advantage of this respite to escape from past epochs and antiquated odours in order to engage, as he had been used to do in other days, in less restricted and more up-to-date operations.
At one time he had enjoyed soothing his spirit with scented harmonies. He would use effects similar to those employed by the poets, following as closely as possible the admirable arrangement of certain poems by Baudelaire such as L’Irréparable and Le Balcon, in which the last of the five lines in each verse echoes the first, returning like a refrain to drown the soul in infinite depths of melancholy and languor. He used to roam haphazardly through the dreams conjured up for him by these aromatic stanzas, until he was suddenly brought back to his starting point, to the motif of his meditation, by the reoccurrence of the initial theme, reappearing at fixed intervals in the fragrant orchestration of the poem.
At present his ambition was to wander at will across a landscape full of changes and surprises, and he began with a simple phrase that was ample and sonorous, suddenly opening up an immense vista of countryside.
With his vaporisers he injected into the room an essence composed of ambrosia, Mitchum lavender, sweet pea and other flowers – an extract which, when it is distilled by a true artist, will merits the name it has been given of ‘extract of meadow blossoms’. Then into this meadow he introduced a carefully measured amalgam of tuberose, orange and almond blossom; and immediately artificial lilacs came into being, while lindentrees swayed in the wind, shedding on the ground about them their pale emanations, counterfeited by the London extract of tilia.
Once he had roughed out this background in its main outlines, so that it stretched away into the distance behind his closed eyelids, he sprayed the room with a light rain of essences that were half-human, half-feline, smacking of the petticoat, indicating the presence of woman in her paint and powder – stephanotis, ayapana, opopanax, chypre, champaka and schoenanthus – on which he superimposed a dash of syringa, to give the factitious, cosmetic, indoor life they evoked the natural appearance of laughing, sweating, rollicking pleasures out in the sun.
Next he let these fragrant odours escape through a ventilator, keeping only the country scent, which he renewed, increasing the dose so as to force it to return like a ritornel at the end of each stanza.
The women he had conjured up had gradually disappeared, and the countryside was once more uninhabited. Then, as if by magic, the horizon was filled with factories, whose fearsome chimneys belched fire and flame like so many bowls of punch.
A breath of industry, a whiff of chemical products now floated on the breeze he raised by fanning the air, though Nature still poured her sweet effluvia into this foul-smelling atmosphere.
Des Esseintes was rubbing a pellet of styrax between his fingers, warming it so that it filled the room with a most peculiar smell, an odour at once repugnant and delightful, blending the delicious scent of the jonquil with the filthy stench of guttapercha and coal tar. He disinfected his hands, shut away his resin in a hermetically sealed box, and the factories disappeared in their turn.
Á Rebours – Page 109-110
Do you see my point? It is easy to become lost in Des Esseintes’ world and that is due to the flair and tenacity of Huysmans’ bold, decadent writing style. You can see the artificial, yellow light of the chandelier and the fog that surrounds you whilst you can smell each and every rich scent Des Esseintes decants and for me, personally, this particular scene was so potent that when Des Esseintes conjured up his industrial smell it actually made me wheezy!
The aforementioned extract is indicative of the way in which the rest of the book has been written although this book is weighed down by obscure vocabulary and complex sentences however if you’re looking for an engrossing read then this would not be a drawback, I would just recommend to keep a dictionary handy.
As the extract demonstrates our protagonist is excessive and lavish in his ways and this kind of self centred experience is basically the only nod at anything like a plot this story has, this novel is like a journal of the day-to-day life of an introverted, philosophical recluse. I do not say these things negatively however I think it is a wildly exciting idea that really turns the idea of the novel as we know it, well and truly on it’s head and furthermore as testament to the innovative nature of this novel; Duke Jean Des Esseintes is in fact the main and the only character in the novel.
Literature and perceptions have, of course, changed with the times but try to imagine the reception this novel would have got in 1884, here is what Huysmans thought:
Huysmans predicted his novel would be a failure with the public and critics: “It will be the biggest fiasco of the year — but I don’t care a damn! It will be something nobody has ever done before, and I shall have said what I want to say…” However, when it appeared in May, 1884, the book created a storm of publicity. Though many critics were scandalised, it appealed to a young generation of aesthetes and writers.
I wonder whether he would be pleased that his book is still read today or if he would be saddened that in a time when decadent literature seems more relevant than ever it is almost entirely overlooked.
Decadence has its roots in texts such as Petronius’s Satyricon, which date from as far back as the fall of the Roman empire. But the movement was picked up centuries later … particularly in the writing of Baudelaire, Huysmans and Wilde. The defining work of this period is Huysmans’s Against Nature, famously thought to be the “poisonous French novel” referred to in The Picture of Dorian Gray. Toby Litt notes that its protagonist, Des Esseintes, a man whose life is given over entirely to the pursuit of sensual pleasures, is “more likely to attract one when one is an adolescent”; certainly as a teenager I found it hard not to love decadent literature, with its emphasis on artifice, deliberate perverseness, art-for-art’s sake, sensuality and degeneration. All of this, couched in frequently beautiful and sometimes frankly purple language, was heady indeed: a shot of absinthe courtesy of literature’s Green Fairy.
John Lucas writing for The Guardian 2010