June 21, 2011

French Decadence

À rebours by Joris-Karl Huysmans
reviewed by Courtney

À rebours, the classic French decadent novel published in 1884 by Joris-Karl Huysmans, is the epitome of fin de siècle literature, influencing its contemporary symbolist and decadent poets and novelists as well as the artistic, literary, and musical movements that followed. Widely believed to be the unnamed "poisonous book" that contributes to the ruin of Dorian Gray's character in Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray, Huysmans' novel had immediate and significant effects on the literary landscape of the time, and is still relevant, cited as a favorite among musicians like Patti Smith and Richard Hell of the early New York Punk scene, and even referenced by name in the title of a 2005 song by British band Babyshambles.

Huysmans had been an unremarkable writer in the naturalist school of literature until the publication of À rebours, and his move towards decadence and embrace of symbolism was controversial among his contemporaries. The novel has no real plot and only one significant character, Jean Des Esseintes, the aging and disillusioned final surviving member of a declining aristocratic French family. With failing health, growing dissatisfaction with his decadent lifestyle in Paris, and disgust for society and the people he interacts with, Des Esseintes purchases a mansion in the countryside and endeavors to create for himself an entirely artificial and solitary existence.

À rebours has been translated as both "Against the Grain," and "Against Nature," and in his careful construction of his environment, Des Esseintes attempts entirely to reject the natural and societal constraints he finds so oppressive. He reverses his sleep schedule and arranges his surroundings in such a way that he is never forced to interact with anyone, living an entirely artificial existence in which he is free to conduct lengthy and opinionated surveys of poetry, art, literature and philosophy. These surveys are injected into the narrative itself, and Huysmans frequently interrupts the story to give detailed arguments in praise of Baudelaire and Schopenhauer, or against the romantic poets. This technique of interspersed literary criticism with more humorous or distressing passages concerning Des Esseintes' memories and circumstances has been echoed by modern authors (see for example the comically amateur music criticism of Patrick Bateman in American Psycho that offsets his most gruesome murders).

Des Esseintes' attempts to create and maintain his artificial paradise vary from the absurd (one chapter details his attempt to replace a pet tortoise's shell with gold and jewels to match the carpet, another sees him, having tired of fake flowers that appear real, selecting real flowers that appear fake), to the comical (one episode concerns an elaborately failed trip to the city), to the upsetting (one long memory tells of an attempt to corrupt a young boy through psychological manipulation). Huysmans takes decadence to its logical conclusion, presenting a kind of absolute solipsism, exaggerated to a comic extent that is disturbing in its appeal. It is easy to see how À rebours could have served as inspiration for novels like The Picture of Dorian Gray, and it is equally unsurprising that Huysmans later experienced a religious conversion that led him to reject À rebours and much of his other earlier work; the pessimism of the novel is overwhelming.

À rebours is considered to be a classic because of its role in the literature of the Belle Époque, the artistic movement that arose at the end of the 19th century in France, but it is also a remarkably engaging novel. Huysmans writes beautifully about the world that Des Esseintes creates. One gorgeous passage describes his transcription of musical symphonies into taste through the careful combination of expensive liquors: "Once these principles had been established, and thanks to a series of erudite experiments, he had been able to perform upon his tongue silent melodies and mute funeral marches; to hear inside his mouth crème de menthe solos and rum-and-vespetro duets… But tonight Des Esseintes had no wish to listen to the taste of music…". Its influence alone ensures À rebours a lasting readership, but it would be a mistake to relegate the novel to a purely academic interest. The musicality of Huysmans' writing, and the seductiveness of the decadent solipsism he embraces make À rebours a fascinating and compelling read even for those with no interest in historical French literary movements.

Posted by at June 21, 2011 01:47 PM
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