Against the Grain
From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
À rebours (translated into English as Against the Grain or Against Nature) (1884) is a novel by the French novelist Joris-Karl Huysmans. It is a plotless novel which concentrates almost entirely on its protagonist, and is mostly a catalogue of the tastes and inner life of Des Esseintes, an eccentric, reclusive dandy, aesthete, armchair traveler and antihero. It is widely believed that À rebours is the "poisonous French novel" that leads to the downfall of Dorian Gray in Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray.
Similarities to American Psycho
- "The text which most fully represents the spirit of Huysmans's À Rebours in recent years, both in terms of its 'nihilism' and its melancholy relationship to it, was published by Bret Easton Ellis in 1991. American Psycho is the fictional account of a New York executive called Patrick Bateman, whose determined retreat from reality is signified by his infatuation with brand name clothing and his slavish adherence to the prescriptions of the apparently inviolable texts such as the Zagat restaurant guide and Bruce Boyer's Elegance: A Guide to Quality in menswear" --Cynicism and Postmodernity (1997) - Timothy Bewes
Robert de Montesquiou is Des Esseintes
Robert de Montesquiou used his wit to shield himself from genuine human emotion, and in this form is remembered as a model for Des Esseintes in Huysmans's À Rebours, and the Baron de Charlus in Proust's À la recherche du temps perdu.
BackgroundA rebours marked a watershed in Huysmans' career. His early works had been Naturalist in style, being realistic depictions of the drudgery and squalor of working- and lower-middle-class life in Paris. However, by the early 1880s, Huysmans regarded this approach to fiction as a dead end. As he wrote in his preface to the 1903 reissue of A rebours:
It was the heyday of Naturalism, but this school, which should have rendered the inestimable service of giving us real characters in precisely described settings, had ended up harping on the same old themes and was treading water. It scarcely admitted - in theory at least - any exceptions to the rule; thus it limited itself to depicting common existence, and struggled, under the pretext of being true to life, to create characters who would be as close as possible to the average run of mankind.Huysmans decided to keep certain features of the Naturalist style, such as its use of minutely documented realistic detail, but apply them instead to a portrait of an exceptional individual: the protagonist Des Esseintes. In a letter of November 1882, Huysmans told Émile Zola, the leader of the Naturalist school of fiction, that he was changing his style of writing and had embarked on a "wild and gloomy fantasy". This "fantasy", originally entitled Seul (Alone), was to become A rebours. (Baldick p.115) The character of Des Esseintes is partly based on Huysmans himself and the two share many of the same tastes, although Huysmans on his modest civil service salary was hardly able to indulge them to the same extent as his upper-class hero. The writers and dandies Baudelaire and Jules Barbey d'Aurevilly also had some influence but the most important model was the notorious aristocratic aesthete Robert de Montesquiou, who was also the basis for Baron de Charlus in Proust's À la recherche du temps perdu. Montesquiou's furnishings bear a strong resemblance to those in Des Esseintes' 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 Quinze 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.'(Baldick pp.122-123)
Though the book is widely believed to have no structure whatsoever, it does tell a relatively simple story. Des Esseintes is the last member of a powerful and once proud noble family. He has lived an extremely decadent life in Paris which has left him disgusted with human society. Without telling anyone, he absconds to a house in the countryside.
He fills the house with his eclectic art collection (which notably consists of reprints of paintings of Gustave Moreau). Drawing from the theme of Gustave Flaubert's Bouvard and Pecuchet, Des Esseintes decides to spend the rest of his life in intellectual and aesthetic contemplation. Throughout his intellectual experiments, he recalls various debauched events and love affairs of his past in Paris.
He conducts a survey of French and Latin literature, rejecting the works approved by the mainstream critics of his day. Amongst French authors, he shows nothing but contempt for the Romantics but adores the poetry of Baudelaire and that of the nascent Symbolist movement of Paul Verlaine, Tristan Corbière and Stéphane Mallarmé (In the 1903 preface, Huysmans writes that he would have included Rimbaud and Jules Laforgue had he known their work at the time.), as well as the decadent fiction of the unorthodox Catholic writers Auguste Villiers de l'Isle-Adam and Barbey d'Aurevilly. He rejects the academically respectable Latin authors of the "Golden Age" such as Virgil and Cicero, preferring later writers such as Petronius and Apuleius as well as works of early Christian literature, whose style was usually dismissed as the "barbarous" product of the Dark Ages. He studies Moreau's paintings, he tries his hand at inventing perfumes, he creates a garden of poisonous flowers. In one of the book's most surreal episodes, he has gemstones set in the shell of a tortoise. The extra weight on the creature's back causes its death. In one of the book's more comic episodes, he spontaneously decides to visit London. When he reaches the train station, he overhears some English visitors, whom he finds disgusting. Feeling that he now knows what London would be like, he immediately returns home.
Eventually, his late nights and idiosyncratic diet take their toll on his health, requiring him to return to Paris or to forfeit his life. In the last lines of the book, he compares his return to human society to that of a nonbeliever trying to embrace religion.
Reception and influence
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.Richard Ellmann describes the impact of the book in his biography of Oscar Wilde:
Whistler rushed to congratulate Huysmans the next day on his ‘marvellous’ book. Bourget, at that time a close friend of Huysmans as of Wilde, admired it greatly; Paul Valéry called it his ‘Bible and his bedside book’ and this is what it became for Wilde. He said to the Morning News: ‘This last book of Huysmans is one of the best I have ever seen’. It was being reviewed everywhere as the guidebook of decadence. At the very moment that Wilde was falling in with social patterns, he was confronted with a book which even in its title defied them.
Huysmans' former mentor, Zola, was less impressed and gave the book a lukewarm reception. Huysmans initially tried to placate him by claiming the book was still in the Naturalist style and that Des Esseintes' opinions and tastes were not his own but when they met in July, Zola told Huysmans that the book had been a "terrible blow to Naturalism", and accused him of "leading the school astray" and "burning [his] boats with such a book", claiming that "no type of literature was possible in this genre, exhausted by a single volume".While he slowly drifted away from the Naturalists, Huysmans won new friends among the Symbolist and Catholic writers whose work he had praised in his novel. Stéphane Mallarmé responded with the tribute "Prose pour des Esseintes", published in La Revue indépendante on January 1, 1885. This famous poem has been described as "perhaps the most enigmatic of Mallarmé's works". The opening stanza gives some of its flavour:
Hyperbole! de ma mémoire
Triomphalement ne sais-tu
Te lever, aujourd'hui grimoire
Dans un livre de fer vêtu...
Hyperbole! Can't you arise
From memory, and triumph, grow
Today a form of conjuration
Robed in an iron folio?
(Translated by Donald Davie)
The Catholic writer Léon Bloy praised the novel, describing Huysmans as "formerly a Naturalist, but now an Idealist capable of the most exalted mysticism, and as far removed from the crapulous Zola as if all the interplanetary spaces had suddenly accumulated between them." In his review, Barbey d'Aurevilly compared Huysmans to Baudelaire, recalling: "After Les Fleurs du mal I told Baudelaire it only remains for you to choose between the muzzle of the pistol and the foot of the Cross. But will the author of A Rebours make the same choice?" His prediction eventually proved true when Huysmans converted to Catholicism in the 1890s.It is widely believed that À rebours is the "poisonous French novel" that leads to the downfall of Dorian Gray in Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray. The book's plot is said to have dominated the action of Dorian, causing him to live an amoral life of sin and hedonism. Although his reputation remains relatively untarnished (perhaps due to his charm and looks), the reputations of his "friends" seem to turn to dust as soon as he touches them. Ellmann writes:
Wilde does not name the book but at his trial he conceded that it was, or almost, Huysmans’s A Rebours…To a correspondent he wrote that he had played a ‘fantastic variation’ upon A Rebours and some day must write it down. The references in Dorian Gray to specific chapters are deliberately inaccurate.
- Robert Baldick: The Life of J.-K. Huysmans (originally published 1955; revised by Brendan King, Dedalus, 2006)
- Huysmans: Romans (Volume 1) ed. Pierre Brunel et al. (Bouquins, Robert Laffont, 2005)
- Huysmans: Against Nature translated by Robert Baldick (Penguin Classics)