Sunday, 26 January 2014

The poisonous French novel

From Wikipedia

A while back I read Joris-Karl Huysmans’ short novel À rebours. According to Wikipedia :-

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.

Much of this “poisonous novel”, which Wilde of course greatly admired, consists of long passages of lyrical descriptive prose about a reclusive phase in the life of the only significant character Jean des Esseintes.

It depicts his somewhat neurotic quest for a sensory world of his own making, incidentally delivering himself from the need to travel. After all, there is no need to visit the sea if the aroma of the seashore can be created at home – or so des Esseintes believes.

Wikipedia summarises the plot :-

À rebours (translated Against Nature or Against the Grain) (1884) is a novel by the French writer Joris-Karl Huysmans. Its narrative concentrates almost entirely on its principal character and is mostly a catalogue of the tastes and inner life of Jean des Esseintes, an eccentric, reclusive aesthete and antihero who loathes 19th-century bourgeois society and tries to retreat into an ideal artistic world of his own creation.

À rebours contains many themes that became associated with the Symbolist aesthetic. In doing so, it broke from Naturalism and became the ultimate example of "decadent" literature.

I found it well worth reading and not at all poisonous, which may or may not be a comment on modern times. However, in spite of some luscious prose, a thin plot and unsympathetic character made me wonder if I’d finish it. Fortunately it isn’t a long novel and there is a free Kindle version. Here are three passages.

On perfumes :-

He handled this collection, formerly bought to please a mistress who swooned under the influence of certain aromatics and balms,—a nervous, unbalanced woman who loved to steep the nipples of her breasts in perfumes, but who never really experienced a delicious and overwhelming ecstacy save when her head was scraped with a comb or when she could inhale, amid caresses, the odor of perspiration, or the plaster of unfinished houses on rainy days, or of dust splashed by huge drops of rain during summer storms.

There is some ferocious social/political commentary too – giving us the reason why des Esseintes feels compelled to become a recluse.

After the aristocracy of birth had come the aristocracy of money. Now one saw the reign of the caliphates of commerce, the despotism of the rue du Sentier, the tyranny of trade, bringing in its train venal narrow ideas, knavish and vain instincts. Viler and more dishonest than the nobility despoiled and the decayed clergy, the bourgeoisie borrowed their frivolous ostentations, their braggadoccio, degrading these qualities by its lack of savoir-vivre ; the bourgeoisie stole their faults and converted them into hypocritical vices.

And, authoritative and sly, low and cowardly, it pitilessly attacked its eternal and necessary dupe, the populace, unmuzzled and placed in ambush so as to be in readiness to assault the old castes.

Even a comment on the “impious tabernacle of banks” :-

It was now an acknowledged fact. Its task once terminated, the proletariat had been bled, supposedly as a measure of hygiene. The bourgeoisie, reassured, strutted about in good humor, thanks to its wealth and the contagion of its stupidity. The result of its accession to power had been the destruction of all intelligence, the negation of all honesty, the death of all art, and, in fact, the debased artists had fallen on their knees, and they eagerly kissed the dirty feet of the eminent jobbers and low satraps whose alms permitted them to live.

In painting, one now beheld a deluge of silliness; in literature, an intemperate mixture of dull style and cowardly ideas, for they had to credit the business man with honesty, the buccaneer who purchased a dot for his son and refused to pay that of his daughter, with virtue; chaste love to the Voltairian agnostic who accused the clergy of rapes and then went hypocritically and stupidly to sniff, in the obscene chambers.

It was the great American hulks transported to our continent. It was the immense, the profound, the incommensurable peasantry of the financier and the parvenu, beaming, like a pitiful sun, upon the idolatrous town which wallowed on the ground the while it uttered impure psalms before the impious tabernacle of banks.

The illustration above, taken from the 1931 edition, shows des Esseintes with a tortoise he had covered in gold and studded with jewels. It died.


Sackerson said...

The Venomous Read?

A K Haart said...

Sackers - not his style I suspect, but do we really know?