Against Nature (A Rebours) Paperback – 20 May 2008
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Top customer reviews
He has the same sensitivity for alcoholic drinks (again carefully listed), and as he has synaesthesia, he associates each drink with a particular musical instrument; in sipping them, he recreates musical compositions upon his tongue. He was also an expert on perfumes and their history, skilled at evoking the associations of each.
His favourite pictures are by the Symbolist artists Gustave Moreau (depicting the sensuous and horrific story of Salomé) and Odilon Redon (with his haunting proto-surrealist works); and he also dwells lovingly on a whole set of engravings of Goya's nightmarish scenes, and on one by Jan Luykens, a little known 17th century Dutch artist who specialized on depicting gruesomely detailed scenes of every kind of torture inflicted on martyrs in the name of religion; for Des Esseintes's taste runs not only to the sensuous, but also to the macabre and perverse.
He had himself been educated by the Jesuits, and although he had no religious belief, he was still fascinated by theological books - the 15 page long discussion of French Catholic literature will mean little to almost all English readers - and he still responded strongly to the aesthetic side of stained glass windows, vestments and the church furniture which also figured in his house: he had fitted out his bedroom austerely like a more comfortable monk's cell.
His taste in flowers is of course exotic; but whilst we might imagine that it would run to the precious and delicate, in fact, contrariwise, he collects grotesque, sinister and diseased-looking plants from all over the world (all named), which then haunt his dreams with surrealistic horrors.
But even his waking hours are now haunted. He has become used to the surroundings he had created; they no longer stimulate him; his solitude ceased to be a balm and became a boredom; and he now recalled the more unsavoury sides of his former life in Paris. He had never been in robust health; now he was more subject than ever to sickly episodes which even laudanum did not assuage, and these lead him to reflect on the pointlessness of the struggle for life.
The book also loses its initial character some time before the end. Having given such remarkable descriptions of the way in which Des Esseintes had organized his life, it becomes more and more a work of literary criticism as it discusses at great length his opinions of 19th century French literature. That may be interesting to those who are familiar with it, but it has become dry and academic. There follows a shorter treatment of the kind of music he likes and (for the most part) dislikes.
In the end, he becomes so ill that he has to consult a doctor, who tells him that the only cure for him would be to give up his solitary existence and return to normal life in Paris. With despair in his heart, Des Esseintes prepares to obey (contrary to what one might expect). He knows that there will be no place for him there. There follow a powerful last few pages in which he visualizes the decadent modern society - all former virtues of which have been replaced by commercialism, vulgarity and philistinism - into which he is about to return. It is an irony that this view of the world should be taken by the literary character who has himself been seen as the archpriest of fin de siècle decadence.
This is quite a short book; but if it is read, as it could be, in a day or two, the unrelenting sensory richness of the detail becomes almost indigestible, and its neurotic nature could wear one down.
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What's the angle here, you might ask? Well, it's as much an extreme experiment in style as a novel. This book is almost 100% in the head of one character, and the only one who gets any dialog. He is a disgustingly rich and idle post-dandy who, having "done it all" and fed up with the coarseness of taste of his society (that being 19th century France, no less) retreats into the cloister of his own mansion to pursue the utmost refinement in all things: ideas, books, art, experiences, objects, etc. Selfish and vain to the nth degree, of course. This unholy cloistering and the attendant intense mental rumination happens to be his one true pleasure, yet increasingly a waning one. Yes, it features the full tour-de-force of cultural literacy that such a reading experience would imply, but the annotations in the back of the book lower the bar considerably for readers. Otherwise, you might be shocked by just how educated and discriminating the author can be, and moreover by how graphic.
This edition is a fine, fine example of modern publishing, with annotations so useful and a translation from French so well done that it's even ... decadent. If my interest as a reviewer was only in that, I would have given five stars. But I don't suffer a heavy dish of bleak cynicism gladly.
This was a fairly chilling book for me to read sometimes because I saw a lot of my neurotic "old man" in the protagonist, yet the 20-years-later preface by the author J.K. Huysmans makes it clear that we are not bereft of hope in the New Man. What I mean is, Huysmans eloquently explains that this novel, while despairing, is the rock bottom from which all his later Christian literature builds up. I must say however, that Huysman's brand of literary gloom-and-doom as a foundation for the hope in Christ to follow is not nearly as compelling as that of Dostoevsky's or Flannery O'Conner's. I never felt the implicit presence of God behind the alienation and despair of this character that I felt in reading of that of Dostoevsky's "Underground Man", for one, even though this book's protagonist obsesses over religion much much more. In my experience, the unbendingly SENSATE indulgence of this character's alienation vis a vis that one, really tarnishes it. If Huysmans as a devout Catholic retains deep-set flaws, it's because he remains snobbish and severe and detached from the gregarious aspect of most any other believers' experience. That's not a great way, either.
I think I will later on read the also-famous novels by Huysmans about the Durtral character (really a skew of himself). However, the first those (The Damned) is focused on the garish debauchery of French Satanism (you read that right) and at least as adult and graphic as anything here, and nary a ray of light. And that one came out well AFTER the author's conversion to the religion of Love. Yes, even as a communing Catholic this author was still quite borked in the head. And here I am reviewing his book. Funny that a person like me born in the Near East, and living in Kentucky, USA, ever bought, read, and reviewed a book like this. Stranger than fiction.
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