Saturday, April 14, 2007

Against Nature (A Rebours) by Joris-Karl Huysmans

From the favourer: "another adolescent read that made an impression on me. I tried the same kinds of exorbitant decorations in my own room, but it's not quite the same if you don't have your own chateau and endless supply of money."

How can you not immediately be attracted to a book where in the prefacing "Note on this translation" you are advised by the translator that "it is only fair to warn the reader that he may find [this book] is best taken in small doses."

This is definitely the kind of book that is hard to read in your lunch break, surrounded by Commerce students, carpet tiles and artificial lighting. So I was forced (it was tough I tell you) to read most of it seated in the window at Rue Bébélons, tumbler of house red in hand, feeling as if I really should have taken up smoking to complete the Bohemian ensemble.

Des Esseintes, the main character, is a bit decadent. Just a bit. Overwhelmed by his immense horror of Parisien societé and its near-complete lack of "people with delicate eyes who have undergone the education of libraries and art-galleries", he retreats to his country mansion where he sleeps during the day and at night sets about immersing himself in sensual pleasures - the essence of jewels, perfumes, flowers, literature, painting and music. He's fulfilling Spike Milligan's dearest wish: "All I want is the chance to prove that money doesn't make you happy."

It's very florid writing. I was ready for that (thanks to the translator). But I wasn't expecting the book to have a sense of humour. Early on Des Esseintes (when he is still hosting the occasional richly themed social event) holds a dinner party modelled on an eighteenth-century funeral feast, complete with a black-draped dining room, the garden strewn with charcoal, the fish-pond filled with ink, black waitresses "wearing only slippers and stockings in cloth of silver embroidered with tears", and black-coloured food (including olives, caviare, black pudding, liquorice sauces, truffle jellies, chocolate creams, mulberries, black cherries, coffee and walnut cordials). We are initially told the event is "to mark the most ludicrous of personal misfortunes." As the evening draws to a close, we are told that the funeral feast was in fact held "in memory of the host's virility, lately but only temporarily deceased." Heh heh.

He then plunges himself into his interior decorating, buying a large tortoise whose shell he has covered in gold leaf and sets to walk around on his carpets, in order to set off the colours of their weave. (This doesn't work, so then he has the tortoise's shell covered in an exquisite array of jewels...which doesn't go so well for the tortoise, god rest his soul).

He acknowledges the beauty of women, but asks us "Does there exist, anywhere on this earth, a being conceived in the joys of fornication and born in the throes of motherhood who is more dazzlingly, more outstandingly beautiful than the two locomotives recently put into service on the Northern Railway?" He recreates a sea voyage using only a perfect combination of perfumes. He embarks upon a fabulously cruel, Miss Havisham-style social experiment on a Parisién urchin which doesn't quite go as planned. He drinks wine by the "hogshead" (whatever that is - next time I'm going to go to King & Godfree and ask for a hogshead of wine). He re-reads all his books and in my favourite, Monty-Pythonesque moment marvels at the instructional volume "where a miracle-worker expounds a most peculiar method of discovering, with the aid of a lettuce, whether a girl is still a virgin."

Is there anything you can't acheive with the aid of a lettuce?

But we all know the result of extreme decadence - a nervous stomach disorder. Des Esseintes' fate looks grim. As he lies unable to eat, read or move, his doctor gives him the facts - he must choose between death (in his current lifestyle), or...return to Parisién societé.



Mum said...

I really am going to love this book, I can tell!! It must be that my own life lacks decadence...
I think the person who nominated this book would enjoy 'Serious Pleasures - the life of Stephen Tennant' by Philip Hoare. I've printed out your review, Anna, to read properly with a glass of something tonight.

Colleen said...

I must say Anna, that I am rather pleased you are conducting this little survey as I have never read a novel that has not come recommended by someone I know. Unfortunately, all my friends are currently very boring and reading non fiction. The only problem left is getting my hands on the book. Are you starting up a lending library too?

Anna said...

I'm using the glorious Rowden White Library as the source of most of these books...of course Melb Uni graduates can JOIN the RWL for $99 a year (I don't know which uni you attended, but I'm sure you and Sean could work out some kind of arrangement).

bernard caleo said...

Ah, 'A rebours', studied as part of a "decadence" course taken by K K Ruthven (then English Department head from memory) at Melbourne University circa 1990. Boy was I disappointed when the content of the course turned out to be books.

Nah, not really. gad, a glorious time to be alive, literary and prefereably Parisian or at pinch Londoner. The 1890s I mean. Not the 1990s. All that Derrida and Foucault, ow.

Huysmans even gets a walk-on role is Jack Hibberd's great musical, 'Odyssey of a Prostitute'.

thanks for reminding me of the tortoise.

Anna said...

I think the students who studied "Art, Pornography, Blasphemy, & Propoganda" at Melbourne Uni might have felt a similar disappointment!