Against the Grain by Joris-Karl Huysmans
October 31, 2002 11:15 AM   Subscribe


 
(pause)
(pause)
(brain kicks in)

Is that the book that Dorian Gray reads which corrupts him, or am I thinking of something else?
posted by redshoes3 at 11:25 AM on October 31, 2002


No longer able to intoxicate himself afresh with the magical enchantments of style, to fall into an ecstasy over the delicious witchery of the rare and well-chosen epithet that, while still definite and precise, yet opens infinite perspectives, to the imagination of the initiate he resolved to complete the decoration of his dwelling, to fill it with costly hothouse flowers and so procure himself a material occupation that should distract his thoughts, calm his nerves and rest his brain. Moreover, he had hopes that the sight of their strange and magnificent colours might console him somewhat for the loss of the fancied or real shades of literary style which his abstention from all reading was to make him forget for the moment or lose altogether.

This is the real stuff, indeed. The so called decadents of the 20th century are but fops compared to Huysmans. People believe today that decadence is indulgence - and it is, but not in life: in death.

Thank you very much, y2karl. That was bliss.
posted by MiguelCardoso at 11:27 AM on October 31, 2002


This book is sickly fascinating. Whole chapters are devoted to the choice of color schemes for apartments, the books that des Esseintes has on his shelves, the flowers he picks... I can't say that I particularly enjoyed reading this book, but I will not forget it.

At the end of the preface, Huysmans quotes d'Aurévilly as writing: "After such a book, it only remains for the author to choose between the muzzle of a pistol or the foot of the cross." Huysmans chose the cross; I might have been inclined in the opposite direction.

Upon reading this book (the e-text in the FPP link), I was moved in a fit of decadence to steal the HTML, convert it to LaTeX, print it on acid-free cotton paper, and have it bound in yellow linen (in an attempt to recreate the volume so highly praised in Dorian Gray). If anyone wants the LaTeX, let me know.
posted by dilettanti at 11:34 AM on October 31, 2002


An all time classic, although it's mostly ignored. Reading this novel will give you a better sense of the Decadent movement than any Baudelaire poem will.

It's a mostly interesting book (I'm sure most people will find at least a few chapters boring, since Des Esseintes' interests are rather esoteric) built around the concept of a rich man, by the name of Des Esseintes, deciding to close himself up in his house, and live amongst all the earthly pleasures he has collected there. While in there, he reflects upon events in his debauched life, including convincing a kid to murder.

The book sort of follows the formula of basing each chapter around a central piece of Des Esseintes life. One chapter will be about his love of plants. Another about paintings and art. So on and so forth. That's why not everyone will enjoy every chapter. Even the most boring chapters (for me, the plants chapter) contain some disturbing yet interesting concepts (ie. The dream with the flower genitals. . .ewww), so it's worth reading everything.

Religion (Christianity, of course) is a key theme in the novel. While Des Esseintes shuns it at first, after his whole self-inflicted ordeal, it's implied that his mind is changing.

To say that it's a novel without a plot (as is commonly said) is a disservice. There's a definite sequence of events, from Des Esseintes sealing himself up in the house, to his time spent in the house, to the events which end this whole ordeal. It's just that a good period of the novel is spent in that middle period, sealed up inside. I'd say the structure of the novel is in itself a mirror of the Decadent philosophy that Des Esseintes lived: It's easy to fall into the trap, but it's going to take a long time, and a lot of falls, to get out of it -- and even when you think you're out, it's still uncertain.

Oh, the book is also one big piece of creepy-ass poetry. J-K Huysmans, and whoever translated my copy of the book (I really forget. . .it's been a while), really had a knack for picking out very visual words, and injecting them with a good dose of almost-Lovecraftian creepiness (without going overboard like Lovecraft, that is).

Finally, I think the title is more commonly translated as 'Against Nature', isn't it?

And yes, this is the book that corrupted Dorian Grey. I believe this novel was also used as evidence in the case against Oscar Wilde.

(forgive all spelling/grammar errors. I'm ina bit of a hurry, but I just had to say something about one of my ignored favorites)
posted by Fahrenheit at 11:34 AM on October 31, 2002


And yes, this is the book that corrupted Dorian Grey. I believe this novel was also used as evidence in the case against Oscar Wilde.

We had to read part of this book in college as background to Dorian Grey. I spent a good minute staring at the words "A Rebours" thinking "Why does this look so bafflingly familiar?" I think you're right that it was evidence at Wilde's trial -- of course its sinfulness was compounded by being written in French.
posted by redshoes3 at 11:43 AM on October 31, 2002


I rather liked the story of his affair with the lady ventriloquist--

Their liaison went on, but before long Des Esseintes' feebleness grew more pronounced; the effervescence of his mental activities could no longer melt the icy fetters that held his bodily powers; the nerves refused to obey the mandates of the will; the lecherous caprices that appeal to old men dominated him. Feeling himself growing more and more inefficient as a lover, he had recourse to the most powerful stimulus of aged voluptuaries uncertain of their powers--fear.

While he held the woman clasped in his arms, a hoarse, furious voice would burst out from behind the door: "Let me in, I say! I know you have a lover with you. Just wait a minute, and I'll let you know, you trollop."--Instantly, like the libertines whose passions are stimulated by terror of being caught in flagrante delicto in the open air, on the river banks, in the Tuileries Gardens, in a summer-house or on a bench, he would temporarily recover his powers, throw himself at the ventriloquist, whose voice went storming on outside the room, and he found an abnormal satisfaction in this rush and scurry, this alarm of a man running a risk, interrupted, hurried in his fornication.

Unhappily these sittings soon came to an end. In spite of the extravagant prices he paid, the ventriloquist sent him about his business, and the same night gave herself to a good fellow whose requirements were less complicated and his back stronger.

posted by y2karl at 11:45 AM on October 31, 2002


(We suggest that readers not undertake this book until they have attained the age of 65!)

Pretty sure I read this many years ago in high school -- guess I'll wait a while before returning to it.
posted by Dean King at 11:46 AM on October 31, 2002


Nice, nice...I may have found a role-model! Thanks for the links.
posted by rushmc at 11:55 AM on October 31, 2002


In my mind I call this book "adventures in interior decorating," which still seems like a largely accurate description. Having read it (a few years back) I found myself somewhat disappointed that it didn't really throb with evil like Lord Henry's gift to Dorian Gray. In fact, going back through the text of Dorian Gray I found that Wilde (wisely) avoids naming the corrupting book; anyone know how it bacame associated with Wilde's fictional book?

It's just as well, because to my jaded 20th century tastes it was full of pathos but fairly mundane otherwise, despite several high points sach as the narrator's descision to have a tortoise encrusted in gems. Ultimately it's a story about alienation, not decadence, or maybe about decadence's powerlessness in the face of alienation.
posted by whir at 12:28 PM on October 31, 2002


In my mind I call this book "adventures in interior decorating," which still seems like a largely accurate description. Having read it (a few years back) I found myself somewhat disappointed that it didn't really throb with evil like Lord Henry's gift to Dorian Gray. In fact, going back through the text of Dorian Gray I found that Wilde (wisely) avoids naming the corrupting book; anyone know how it bacame associated with Wilde's fictional book?

It's just as well, because to my jaded 20th century tastes it was full of pathos but fairly mundane otherwise, despite several high points such as the narrator's descision to have a tortoise encrusted in gems. Ultimately it's a story about alienation, not decadence, or maybe about decadence's powerlessness in the face of alienation.
posted by whir at 12:29 PM on October 31, 2002


It's not only the book that corrupted Dorian Gray, it's also the book that Wilde rather copiously plagiarizes for Chapter XI of The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891 volume version). It's plagiarism with a point, however, since it emphasizes just how unoriginal the purportedly original and "modern" Dorian actually is. Dorian Gray also shows signs of the Catholicism-as-quintessentially-decadent-religion figuring in Huysmans' work here and elsewhere.

Huysmans can be tough going, since whatever else his narratives do, they tend not to, well, "go." Lots of talking and thinking accompanied by slowly accumulating but elaborate detail, not necessarily much plot.
posted by thomas j wise at 12:48 PM on October 31, 2002


dilettanti's comment about binding his book in yellow linen made me think of The Yellow Book, a periodical published by Aubrey Beardsley and Henry Harland at end of the 19th century. "In the 1890s, how one reacted to the literature and art contained in The Yellow Book revealed a set of larger positions regarding Victorian-era modes of culture, gender, and sexuality....

"Indeed, 'The Yellow Nineties' was the most common epithet for 1890s London, and a Victorian’s stance on the color yellow helped define on which side of various cultural lines he stood. Levels of decadence, association with the new guard of writers and artists, even levels of respectability within varying social circles: all could be gauged by one’s reaction to the waves of yellow in London."
posted by Dean King at 1:06 PM on October 31, 2002


In related readings, Jullian Philippe's Prince of Aesthetes about Robert de Montesquiou-Fezensac is a chatty biography. Huysmans modelled Des Essientes on Montesquiou to the latters great dismay.
posted by Seth_Messinger at 1:16 PM on October 31, 2002


haven't read it (or even heard of it at all :) but it sounds like the bennie noakes character in john brunner's stand on zanzibar, like it's interesting the 'decorating the inside of your head' as a simile for life goes back that far! wim wenders also explored this theme in until the end of the world... uh, and i guess so did pier pasolini in salo?
posted by kliuless at 1:42 PM on October 31, 2002


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