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.