Against the Grain (or A Rebours, in French) is the most famous work by French novelist and art critic Joris-Karl Huysmans. Oscar Wilde declared that it was what inspired him to write The Picture of Dorian Gray and, though it remains unnamed, it is clearly recognizable as the yellow-bound book Dorian reads over and over again with unwavering admiration. Wilde was not the only one who saw a kindred spirit in Huysmans: Against the Grain is still considered the embodiment of the Decadent aesthetics.
Yet at first glance it is rather difficult to see why this book should have exerted such a powerful fascination over its readers. Its hero, the thirty-year-old duke Jean des Esseintes, is sickly, neurotic, asocial, and misogynistic. Moreover, there is no plot whatsoever: des Esseintes, having given himself over to every conceivable form of debauchery in Paris, and still suffering from an incurable ennui, decides at the beginning of the novel to retire to a small house in the country outside Paris and live frugally, dedicating himself to purely aesthetic pursuits. At the end of the novel, after spending six months or so living as a recluse, his health deteriorates to such an extent that the doctor orders him to return to Paris. Voilà. End of story.
The entire book consists in cataloguing des Esseintes’ very specific tastes, which all go “against the grain”: in vitriolic manner, des Esseintes rejects everything that can be linked to the prevalent interest in science and progress, everything that is fashionable, everything that is bourgeois, and therefore vulgar. With equal passion, he endorses not merely what is luxurious, but what is aristocratic, rare, and able to be appreciated only by a handful of fortunate initiates endowed with the same highly-refined aesthetic sense. His pronouncements constitute a veritable guide-book for the fin-de-siècle dandy in matters of interior decoration, literature, flowers, fine wines, and painting.
The key to understanding des Esseintes’ – and through him, Huysmans’s – Decadent aesthetics lies in the comparison between the end of the nineteenth century and the last days of the Roman Empire, when, fatigued by conquest, satiated with power and luxury, the last emperors grew fat and idle, lolling about in baths of ass’s milk and rose petals and giving themselves up nightly to ever more refined, ever more perverted, orgies, meanwhile leaving the empire vulnerable to the onslaughts of barbarians and Christianity. Des Esseintes postulates that the same climate of elegant decay, the same rank, gamey smell of refined degeneracy permeates the upper classes of the end of the nineteenth century, affecting not just their mores, but their artistic achievements. Far from condemning this trend, des Esseintes sees in it a source of ineffable charm.
Huysmans’s loathing for the realist movement, as embodied by the novels of Emile Zola, colours his judgment of his contemporaries. Yet, as biased as his opinions are, they are at least consistent. And the admiring pages he devotes to Baudelaire and Poe, the two deities in his literary pantheon, and to such Symbolist poets as Stéphane Mallarmé and Paul Verlaine, are full of interest (indeed, it was his analysis of their work that first brought Mallarmé and Verlaine to the attention of the general public).
It is as an art critic, however, that Huysmans is at his very best, in my opinion. Much thought is put into the choice of paintings that are to adorn the walls of des Esseintes’ study and bedroom, and they are described in great detail. Two, in particular, occupy a special place in his affections: an oil painting and an aquarelle by Gustave Moreau, the first depicting Salomé dancing for King Herod, and the second showing her receiving with horror the severed head of John the Baptist as her reward. I had never seen the paintings in question, yet as I read the passage describing them I could see them take shape before my eyes, I could see the colours spring vividly to life as if from the brush of the painter himself, and the figures, far from being frozen in stylized poses, were swept away in a whirlwind of energy, were endowed with movement, emotion, and intent. Naturally, a great deal must be attributed to the genius of the artist, but just as much is owed to the writer capable, not only of rendering the impression made upon him, but of seizing the imagination of the reader and rendering in words the unique vision of the painter. I read those pages with a sensual pleasure that could not be satisfied with a single tasting, but had to go back and repeat the experience a second, and even a third, time, and each time I marveled the more. The book is worth reading for those pages alone!
Several other episodes stand out in the novel: des Esseintes creating perfumes, like Doctor Faustus in his laboratory; des Esseintes ordering a whole cargo of tropical plants in an access of enthusiasm, only to throw them all away again when a sudden terrifying vision transforms their splotched, rubbery leaves into syphilis-riddled limbs; des Esseintes recalling how he placed a black marble sphinx and a polychrome earthenware chimera on either side of the hearth in the bedroom of one of his mistresses, miss Urania, a circus acrobat who was also a ventriloquist, so that she could make them speak riddles to him while he made love to her. Another famous episode is the one in which des Esseintes decides something living is needed to emphasize the colours of the carpet in his study and buys an enormous turtle, which he then turns into a living jewel by having its shell gilded and incrusted with precious gems. Needless to say, the poor animal does not survive long: no sooner is it delivered to des Esseintes’ house and placed on said carpet, than it quietly expires.
If I have a single reproach, a single regret, it is that Huysmans did not devote as much time and attention to the subject of music as he did to that of literature. There is a chapter, towards the very end of the book, in which des Esseintes talks of his tastes in music, and extols the beauty of Gregorian chant over all other sacred music, but you can tell that Huysmans has less patience with this particular topic, and his analysis is sketchy, as if he wanted to get it over with as quickly as possible. I was expecting some mention of the great nineteenth-century composers, of Chopin, perhaps, and Wagner, the giant who dominated the second half of the century, and maybe also Debussy, who was a friend of Huysmans’s and whose music was so closely linked to the Symbolist movement – but I was destined to be disappointed. It is a minor disappointment, however, when compared to the rest of this varied, highly accomplished work…
© Florence Berlioz 2011