Book Review: Against Nature by J.-K. Huysmans

Nothing is simple about this novel, not even its title. “Against Nature” is the one the translator of the edition I own went for, but it has also been known as “Against the Grain”. Some English speakers, if required to refer to it, just throw their hands up in despair at translation and use the original French title, “A Rebours.”

It was written in 1884 by a Frenchman with a Dutch name I have never been able to pronounce, Joris-Karl Huysmans, about another Frenchman with a Spanish (?) name I also tend to pass over quickly, Duc Jean Floressas des Esseintes (bless you!). If you’re thinking, “Oh, no, a Victorian novel – must be a doorstopper with a hideously involved plot and a cast of thousands”, then be reassured. It’s about 200 pages, des Esseintes is for all practical purposes the only character and as for the plot, well, here’s the plot of “Against Nature”.

Arty French aristo decides modern life is rubbish, locks himself away with a bunch of art and books in a house outside Paris, thinks a lot about things and suffers from an ill-defined disease that’s implied to be mental in origin at some points and venereal at others, although the symptoms don’t sound much like either to me. Eventually those symptoms get bad enough that his doctor decides that if he doesn’t go back to living a normal life he faces “insanity speedily followed by tuberculosis” (which isn’t how TB works either, but whatever). Lamenting his fate, des Esseintes returns to the lamestream. That’s it. Really, the weird and unexplained disease is about all “Against Nature” has in common with a writer like Dickens, who des Esseintes, incidentally, doesn’t rate.

People who write about literature call des Esseintes an aesthete (true). They call him a Decadent, also true in that he comes from a novel which is part of the Decadent movement of the 1880s-90s, all purple prose and self-conscious reaction against Victorian morality in favour of aesthetics. If you’ve ever read “The Picture of Dorian Gray”, you may remember the nameless “novel without a plot” which obsesses Dorian so. That novel’s based on “Against Nature”, Oscar Wilde being a huge fan, and there are elements of des Esseintes in Dorian.

However, if I wanted to describe des Esseintes for the internet generation I’d put it this way – he is the Ur-Hipster, the ancestor of every pretentious twerp who claims you’ve probably never heard of his favourite band because it’s so obscure and complains how “mainstream” his hobbies are getting. Popular things that des Esseintes doesn’t like, largely because they are popular, include Oriental rugs, Nature, democracy, diamonds, pearls, roses, “the rising generation” -*shakes fist* “Millennials!” – Moliere, Voltaire, Cicero, newspapers and the colour blue.

At the same time, though, des Esseintes is also the Best Hipster. He may be an elitist misanthropic snob, but he does have the intellectual weight to back up his eccentric opinions. He’s exactly the sort of classy gent that the guys in fedoras in all the mocking image macros wish they were.  Huysmans is also a good enough writer to keep you reading his character’s extended rants about what he hates (and loves) and why, primarily by way of lashings and lashings of purple prose.

For example, des Esseintes dislike of blue comes out in the four or so detailed pages that Huysmans devotes to his decisions on what colour to paint his living room and how to furnish it. Des Esseintes takes thirteen pages over his opinions on Latin literature, nineteen or so over his views on French literature, eleven on making perfume and (I swear I am not making this up) four on how exactly to gild and bejewel the shell of his pet tortoise so that it makes just the right contrast with his rug.

Well, it really ties the room together.

I have to admit, though, that I have a personal reason for liking this novel and this character, in spite of the absence of everything I would normally say is important in a work of fiction – character development, a plot and so on. Leaving aside his aesthetic opinions, des Esseintes faces a lot of the same struggles I face all the time. Can I live  with the people around me, and if I can’t, whose fault is that? Is the society I live in as big a mess as it looks, and if so was it ever better in the past? Can I really accept the Christian faith or not, and if I accept it, can I live up to it? Des Esseintes, in theory an atheist but highly attracted to Catholic artistic traditions, agonises about the last one a lot, probably reflecting Huysmans’ own struggles ahead of his eventual conversion a few years later.

Des Esseintes’ own solution to his problems, retreating from the world, is one I have found tempting in the past. It doesn’t work for him, but I can identify with the desire. I could see myself doing what he does if I had the money, the classical education and the fantastic art collection (I don’t), and I’m honestly not sure if “ending up like des Esseintes” would be an apotheosis or a terrible mistake.

Every time I read “Against Nature” I’m faced with this question of whether the main character is me at my best or me at my worst, and I suspect that’s what draws me back to it. Nothing makes for great art like ambiguity, and “Against Nature” is a book towards which I have a lot of mixed emotions.

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