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Against Nature

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With a title translated either as Against Nature or as Against The Grain, this wildly original fin-de-siècle novel follows its sole character, Des Esseintes, a decadent, ailing aristocrat who retreats to an isolated villa where he indulges his taste for luxury and excess. Veering between nervous excitability and debilitating ennui, he gluts his aesthetic appetites with classical literature and art, exotic jewels (with which he fatally encrusts the shell of his tortoise), rich perfumes, and a kaleidoscope of sensual experiences. The original handbook of decadence, Against Nature exploded like a grenade (in the words of Huysmans) and has enjoyed a cult readership from its publication to the present day.

242 pages, Paperback

First published January 1, 1884

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About the author

Joris-Karl Huysmans

252 books590 followers
Charles Marie Georges Huysmans was a French novelist who published his works as Joris-Karl Huysmans. AKA: J.-K. Huysmans.

He is most famous for the novel À rebours (Against Nature). His style is remarkable for its idiosyncratic use of the French language, wide-ranging vocabulary, wealth of detailed and sensuous description, and biting, satirical wit.

The novels are also noteworthy for their encyclopedic documentation, ranging from the catalogue of decadent Latin authors in À rebours to the discussion of the symbiology of Christian architecture in La cathédrale. Huysmans' work expresses a disgust with modern life and a deep pessimism, which led the author first to the philosophy of Arthur Schopenhauer then to the teachings of the Catholic Church.

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Profile Image for J.G. Keely.
546 reviews10.2k followers
January 19, 2016
The hipsters are right: society is trying to destroy you--not your body, or your mind, but you, the part which makes an individual. That's what society is: the aspect of human life that is not the self, but is communal, the part that causes humanity to behave like a colony of ants.

As brilliant Nietzsche scholar Rick Roderick pointed out, advertisement is the opposite of psychotherapy. The idea of therapy is to take things that are hidden within your brain--biases, prejudices, hangups, fears, habits--and to bring them to the surface, to make you aware of them so they can be processed, or even gotten rid of.

The idea of advertisement is to plant in your brain things you don’t realize are there, but which change the way you think. We conflate Coca Cola with comfort and familiarity, the Nike swoosh with athletic ability, Mickey Mouse with childhood; our idea of how relationships work is based on yoghurt commercials.

Today, we marvel at the idea that people used to memorize The Iliad and recite it aloud--but when you’re ninety years old, you’re still going to remember songs about alka-seltzer, plastic dolls that pee, cartoon ninjas, and the theme tune of your local water park. Think for a minute just how much space in your brain is devoted to information like that, stuff you don’t know you remember until suddenly, you hear it again. Now, think of how else that space could have been used: what would you rather know instead of those jingles? French? Greek philosophy? How to rebuild a carburetor?

That’s how culture gets to you: it surrounds you all the time, trying to make you into a copy of itself, and you and everyone in that culture are a part of that system. We shame other people, we guilt them, we tease them, we make suggestions, we tell them little infectious phrases that are supposed to be helpful. Look over the comments on Goodreads some time and you’ll see it at work: people trying to shut up dissent, repeating mantras and plugging their ears, and who clearly think that insulting and belittling people is the same as discussion. But why shouldn’t they? It’s how they were socialized.

Then, when people confirm our biases--when they align with our groupthink--we listen and nod, we praise them, we tell them ‘it’s so nice to talk to a person who understands’. It’s the confirmation of that tribal need to all be in the same boat together, on the same course.

Then there are systems within that society--churches, military complexes, corporations, stores, entertainment industries, political groups--all of which are trying to sway you, trying to sway society, promoting their own best interests as if there were nothing artificial about it. It’s why we accept inequality, why we accept the massive scale of deaths every day from car accidents and untreated addicts and poor people who can’t afford medical treatment--we may not always like it--but we still accept it.

Really, it’s pretty remarkable that we retain any individuality at all. I mean, how strong must that impulse be to reject all these things that people tell us we are supposed to be? We are reminded of this shit every day by books, movies, adverts, and assholes on the bus. Sure, we internalize it to some degree, but for a lot of us, we retain an iconoclastic streak that stops us from being taken over completely.

As Roderick describes it, the mind is constantly under siege: we put up walls to keep out the overwhelming force of culture. Sure, some gets in, but our defenses keep a lot out. Ideas can be infectious, they can be viral, they prey on our hopes and fears, our prejudices and insecurities, but over time, we build up better and better defenses to recognize and root out these ideas.

So when hipsters reject something popular, there’s a reason they have that knee-jerk reaction: they feel society’s fingers reaching into their skull and they instinctively flinch. That's why they don’t want to look like other people, or listen to their music, they don’t want to be advertised to or pandered to. They have constructed a sense of identity for themselves--what makes them them--and when they see someone else doing the same thing, it threatens their sense of identity.

They’re wrong, of course, but their response makes a certain kind of sense. They’ve traded one aspect of culture for another. They are a subculture, but one that still feeds into and supports the main culture. They are rampant consumers, early-adopters who are constantly looking for new ways to spend their money because as soon as other people start liking what they like, they have to dump it all and buy new stuff. Every subculture becomes co-opted and sold back to the people for a profit, and the way corporations have maneuvered hipsters is brilliant. If they stop consuming fashion, products, information, politics, music, and craft materials, they lose their identity. And so, of course, we see that they are just as dominated and defined by the culture as the ‘sheep’ they so assiduously mock. They are conformists.

That’s always been the problem, though, way back to the Dadaists: if you are obsessed with rejecting mainstream culture, that means you have to follow mainstream culture closely enough to know what it is doing, so you can then reject it. All your actions are defined by that culture, it’s just that instead of following the example, you do the opposite, which makes you just as predictable--which means you are just as useful to the culture. Predictable ants are useful ants.

But of course, the real iconoclast doesn't identify themselves with certain bands or aesthetics, with clothes or objects. They create identity based around ideas--and society doesn't want to co-opt ideas. When society takes a movement and sells it back to us, the ideas are the first things stripped out.

The iconoclast doesn’t look left and right to see what everyone else is doing before they act, because their actions aren’t defined by conforming to or rejecting what others do. They have an internal motivation, a philosophy which tells them what is worthwhile and what is not, and why.

Real iconoclasts are cool. They are fucking amazing. They change the world, they have an ineffable magnetism. They control minds, they guide fashion, so that in a century, you can look back and say ‘we think the way we do, write the way we do, dress the way we do, because of a handful of people’. And what tends to define them when they are alive is a near-complete lack of recognition. Society attacks them in all the standard ways: guilt, mockery, critique. Society is uncomfortable, it wants to invade that mind, to break the siege and to remake the person as a useful ant under the status quo. This often kills the iconoclast, or drives him mad, or makes him bitter and misanthropic--sometimes all of the above.

But misanthropy and bitterness are mind-killers. They halt thought. They turn the thinker into a self-prejudiced creature who is no longer willing to think or change, who has been so embroiled in the frustrating stupidity that surrounds him that it stops him in his tracks. That is the trap into which Des Esseintes falls in Huysmans' experimental novel, called A Rebours in the French, variously translated in English as Against the Grain or Against Nature.

Des Esseintes is the false iconoclast, the man who is obsessed with being different for its own sake, but who does not know himself. The long lists of his preferences and dislikes that fill the book are, for the most part, empty opinions. They do not point to some grander philosophy or understanding.

Again and again, he tells us that he despises this or that thing because a merchant's wife likes it. His sense of identity is threatened--he has built it around these objects and movements, and his fondest wish is to keep them all for himself. That is why he locks himself away, alone, and refuses to see anyone. Yet, even then, even in complete isolation, it is still not enough to let him discover himself. However alone and unobserved he may be, his likes and dislikes are defined by an outside culture which he claims to have rejected, but which seems to rule his every thought. His attempted iconoclasm becomes mere contrarianism. It is the misanthropy of the problem child who does things he knows he mustn't do--not because he enjoys them, but out of a desire to betray the image of authority he has created in his mind.

One of the more curious threads in the book is the effect which his religious education has had on him: though it has not made him a faithful man, it has inspired him to reject man and the world as worthless and flawed, and to instead spend his time living for another world, a false world which exists only in his mind.

He is the prototype for the man who sits and plays Warcraft alone all day, every day, until he loses his job, his friends, and his family. Des Esseintes harps again and again on a desire to live in an artificial world of his own making--a virtual world. It does not really give him pleasure, it is just a way from him to avoid the world. It is a life without risk, a life where he does not have to confront anything uncomfortable or challenging, which will never hazard upsetting or drawing judgment from anyone--a pointless life of perfect safety which he romantically paints as fraught and challenging, because it allows him to imagine himself as the noble struggler against hardship--but solely on his own terms.

Yet, ironically, he also complains about how there is 'nothing genuine' left in the world, how it is all artificial (for which he decries it) despite the fact that he spends the rest of his time trying to live in another artificial world of his own making. Clearly, artificiality is neither the problem nor the solution, but a mere cover-up for the real issues.

His aesthetics are a replacement for faith, which explains why his house is filled with religious iconography repurposed into furnishings for his museum to himself--and yet, not himself, for throughout the text, though he spends his fortune to pursue every idea which seems to him easing at the time, none of it satisfies him--indeed, it drives him mad, makes him sick, destroys him. He is not pursuing his own desires, he is not following his own thoughts and needs, and so he is never satisfied. Instead, he tries again and again to create identity through external trappings, like a college girl who wears a beret in order to feel worldly.

These trappings invariably break down around him--they disappoint him, they do not live up to his hopes. He sits and recites opinions he already holds, and fearing disappointment, seeks nothing new. The whole situation is summed up in the fact that, when he thinks on the horror of being forced to return to society, he laments that he will not be able to meet any men like himself, men who share his opinions. He is not interested in engaging conversation, or in intelligence or brilliance, he does not despair of meeting remarkable people, he is upset because he cannot meet himself--or rather, the self he imagines himself to be.

Indeed, he will almost certainly meet himself when he rejoins society, for it is full of people just like him, who put on a false front to try to convince themselves that they are interesting, but who live hollow lives, providing nothing to the world, leaving nothing of worth to the future, and doing nothing in which they can take the least pride. The unexamined life is not worth living--which is why it destroys him.

If this had been a send-up of such a ridiculous fool, it could have proven a remarkable and wondrous work--it worked well enough for Carlyle, Cervantes, and Sterne--but, though there are certainly moments of irony and contradiction throughout, overall, the message seems to be that Des Esseintes is meant to be taken in earnest--that we are meant somehow to respect or find interesting the cobbles of his life, his scattered opinions, his false identity.

Again and again, the text harps on these facts, repeats them, wallows in them. Each book Des Esseintes mentions is described by its color, the make of its binding, the type of dye used, the provenance of the ink within, the typeset, but all this detail is to no purpose. It is not like reading a treatise of William Morris' and coming to understand a particular aesthetic of how a book should be bound and why--it is a mere litany of excess, the dull and trashy kind of overspending which marks the parvenu.

Certainly, there are some interesting scenes within the book--the famous tortoise episode actually achieving some real insight (and satire), but overall, the book is terribly dull--a piling on of detail upon detail without much central notion to hang them on. Some might argue that the theme is the gross emptiness of decadence, but I don't think the work's scattered repetition does very much to explore it.

It isn't surprising that the work proved influential to men like Wilde, who had come to concentrate so fully on form over function that their wit consisted mostly of switching about common words in convoluted ways until they no longer meant much at all, an absurd style which lacks real bite--and that was the overwhelming impression I took away from Huysmans' work: that for all the fine words and lengthy lists and precise descriptions, there simply wasn't enough conceptual structure underneath to make it hang together. It was a pile of Gothic trappings whose sheer weight broke through the roof of the old church to lay all in a shambles on the floor.
Profile Image for Bill Kerwin.
Author 1 book81.9k followers
August 22, 2020

Did I really read this book forty years ago? Or did I just read the passages about the "perfume organ" and the jewel encrusted turtle and later assumed I had read the rest? If I did read it, I was completely wrong in my evaluation of this as a static, effete precursor to Dorian Gray, a work marooned in the vanished aesthetic of the late nineteenth century. No, no. "Against the Grain" is much, much richer than that.

For starters, it is an accomplished work of realism that turns realism on its head. Huysman--just as effectively as the Goncourts or Dreiser--knows how to accumulate a wealth of detail to convey the physical reality of the situation he wishes to describe. Just because he's describing the fantastically decorated and furnished apartment of an extremely wealthy aesthete concerned with pleasing no one but himself is irrelevant to this particular aspect of the "novel."

I say "novel" because--in spite of its sound realist credentials--I'm not sure it really is a novel at all. It resembles more the philosophical treatise/fictionalized autobiography of Confessions of an English Opium Eater, Sartor Resartus, or Marius the Epicurean. In total effect, Huysmans' work has more in common with De Quincey, Carlyle, and Pater than it does with Zola, Frank Norris, or Dreiser.

It also reminds me of that great short story of Flaubert's, "The Temptation of St. Anthony," for Des Esseintes--the novel's protagonist--is a saint of the senses, and on his path to enlightenment he encounters demons, delusions and disease. Indeed, the spiritual aspect of this book is so strong--particular in our hero's love for the fullness of the Catholic tradition--that I'm almost surprised at the reaction to the book in conservative circles. In hindsight, it is easy to see that Huysmans is on the road back to Rome.

And yet . . . the book is wickedly funny too. Huymans views his protagonist with devastating irony, particularly in the frequent juxtaposition of grandiose schemes with physical illnesses and practical and psychological failings. In addition, in more than a few passages--Des Esseintes scheme for making a murderer out of a street boy is the most remarkable example--Huysmans obliquely reveals a consciousness of the plight of the poor that suggests a world of Christian compassion and duty beyond all this preciousness.

This is a deep, rich work, and--although it is a classic representative of the fin de siecle--it transcends its age and has the ability to speak to ours as well.
Profile Image for Glenn Russell.
1,377 reviews12k followers
November 29, 2020

“Already, he was dreaming of a refined solitude, a comfortable desert, a motionless ark in which to seek refuge from the unending deluge of human stupidity.”
― Joris-Karl Huysmans, Against the Grain

Against the Grain (alternately translated as Against Nature) is a slim novel (110 pages) where French author Joris-Karl Huysmans (1848-1907) employs a torrent of baroque descriptions and unending streams of rococo linguistic curlicues to write about a bored, jaded aristocrat by the name of Des Esseintes, who uses his inherited wealth to seal himself off in a custom-made, artificial world where he can live his entire life on his own aesthetic and highly refined terms. There really isn’t any dialogue or other characters, nor is there any plot or storyline in the ordinary sense of the term, rather, the novel describes the details of Des Esseintes’s life as a monk of the sensual.

We read how Des Esseintes forced his servants to wear heavy felt covers over their shoes so he wouldn’t hear the sound of their feet up on the 2nd floor; how, in dealing with the weakened state of his stomach, he planned his meals at the beginning of each season; how his senses were titillated and stimulated: his sense of smell by perfumes and scented powders, his taste by rare wines and all variety of liquors, his eyes by carefully chosen colors and exotic flowers, his hypersensitive touch by silks and cottons and many other fine fabrics. We are also provided exquisite detail of, among other luxurious, lavish, plush, extravagant belongings, his vast library of rare books, ancient and modern, and his marvelous collection of paintings and prints.

My words above are relatively plain, not even close to the style of Huysmans’s ornate, exaggerated language. As by way of example, here is Des Esseintes reflecting on two modern authors he enjoys: “Baudelaire and Poe, these two men who had often been compared because of their common poetic strain and predilection for the examination of mental maladies, differed radically in the affective conceptions which held such a large place in their works; Baudelaire with his iniquitous and debased loves – cruel loves which made one think of the reprisals of an inquisition; Poe with his chaste, aerial loves, in which the senses played no part, where only the mind functioned without corresponding to organs which, if they existed, remained forever frozen and virgin. This cerebral clinic where, vivisecting in a stifling atmosphere, that spiritual surgeon became, as soon as his attention flagged, a prey to an imagination which evoked, like delicious miasmas, somnambulistic and angelic apparitions, was to Des Esseintes a source of unwearying conjecture.”

And here is the reaction of Des Esseintes when forced to encounter others on the street, “The very sight of certain faces made him suffer. He considered the crabbed expressions of some, insulting. He felt a desire to slap the fellow who walked, eyes closed, with such a learned air; the one who minced along, smiling at his image in the window panes; and the one who seemed stimulated by a whole world of thought while devouring with contracted brow, the tedious contents of a newspaper.”

Here's a description of one of the many flowers he purchased, “A new plant, modeled like the Caladiums, the Alocasia Metallica, excited him even more. It was coated with a layer of bronze green on which glanced silver reflections. It was a masterpiece of articiality. It could be called a piece of stove pipe, cut by a chimney-maker into the form of a pike head.”

That’s enough quotes as I’m sure you get the idea. This is the arched, over-the-top language a reader will find on every page. Either this novel is to your taste or it is not. But there’s something about this cult-favorite of decadent prose that is so intriguing and fascinating. Perhaps it is reading about a lover of the senses and literature and all things aesthetic who has the money and resources to create his very own virtual reality. For me, I love it, finding the lavish, ornate language and many of the descriptions laugh-aloud hilarious.

Although my own life and level of wealth differs greatly from Des Esseintes, I can see part of myself in his immersion in the worlds of art and literature and his absolute revulsion for much of the general run of society and its coarse values (as I write this I have a mental picture of a smirking potbellied husband and his obese wife in their white pants and gold chains waddling into a Las Vegas casino). So, in a way, I am laughing at myself as much as I am laughing at Des Esseintes.

One further note: I chose this translation by John Howard since the audiobook is available through LibriVox (available on-line, free-of-charge). For me, listening to this reading of Against the Grain was a lush, rich, glorious experience, reminding me of listening to Frans Brüggen on alto recorder playing Variations on La Follia by Corelli. Fortunately you don’t have to be a wealthy decadent French aristocrat to indulge in this sumptuous feast of words.

Profile Image for Vit Babenco.
1,465 reviews3,618 followers
January 31, 2022
I don’t know intentionally or not but Against Nature is an absolute opposite of Walden by Henry David Thoreau and it is a complete denial of nature.
Nature, he used to say, has had her day; she has finally and utterly exhausted the patience of sensitive observers by the revolting uniformity of her landscapes and skyscapes. After all, what platitudinous limitations she imposes, like a tradesman specializing in a single line of business; what petty-minded restrictions, like a shopkeeper stocking one article to the exclusion of all others; what a monotonous store of meadows and trees, what a commonplace display of mountains and seas!

Endeavouring to “rejoice beyond the bounds of time…” and to make the world shudder at his joy the main hero turns his life into a perfect diamond of decadence… But the decadent ways take their toll.
Profile Image for Orsodimondo.
2,192 reviews1,816 followers
February 16, 2022

Gustave Moreau: L’apparition. 1876. Museée d’Orsay, Parigi.

Dopo un libro come questo al suo autore non resta altro che scegliere tra la bocca di una pistola e i piedi della croce.
È una frase che mi è rimasta dentro sin da quando ho letto il romanzo di e su Des Esseintes.
Sembra la madre di tutte le frasi di lancio, il re di tutti i blurb, su me ha fatto presa rapida e duratura come nessun’altra.
In realtà, è la conclusione cui giungeva un collega di Huysmans, Barbey d’Aurevilly, recensendo questo suo libro.

Odilon Redon: Una maschera suona la campana funebre (litografia dedicata a Edgar Allan Poe). 1882, Art Institute di Chicago.

Joris-Karl Huysmans aveva gli elementi giusti per attrarmi con il suo romanzo: stima reciproca con Baudelaire, che in quel periodo della vita era uno dei miei idoli letterari – capacità di condensare in queste pagine, quasi a mo’ di manifesto, l’essenza del decadentismo. Des Esseintes è il dandy per eccellenza, la quintessenza del motto “l’arte come vita”. In aggiunta, quando fu dato alle stampe À rebours fu criticato per la sua immoralità. Tutti aspetti con cui andare a nozze.
Oggi credo che anche nel caso di Huysmans, il suo romanzo abbia raggiunto un posto nella storia della letteratura che travalica il suo oggettivo valore, e ancor di più quello dell’autore.
Perfino lo stesso autore nella prefazione a una nuova edizione, vent’anni dopo la prima del 1884, prende le distanze dal suo romanzo, sembra quasi sconfessarlo (certo, pesa che nel frattempo Huysmans si sia convertito al cattolicesimo con tutta la foga bigotta dei neofiti).
Ma all’epoca, come dicevo, l’ho coltivato come fosse una preziosa bibbia.

Come non pensare anche al divino Oscar?

Des Esseintes è un aristocratico di trent’anni, orfano di entrambi i genitori e cresciuto dai gesuiti. Annoiato, ma soprattutto disgustato dal mondo che lo circonda, popolato di superficiali e stupidi, rifiuta la città e la società borghese che l’ha creata.
Rifiuterebbe anche la cultura borghese se ritenesse che la borghesia fosse in grado di esprimere cultura.
E quindi, si ritira, “via dalla pazza folla”, va a vivere in una magione agreste che diventa il suo eremo (compagnia della servitù a parte), e che man mano trasforma secondo i suoi canoni estetici.
In quest’opera di arredamento concentra tutte le sue energie.

Giovanni Boldini: Ritratto del conte Robert de Montesquiou. 1897, Musée d’Orsay, Parigi.

La storia di un solitario che disgustato dal trambusto dell’era moderna vive “lontano dal secolo”, dedica il suo tempo a rievocare epoche trascorse, per lui più cordiali, meno vili.
Ogni capitolo diventa occasione per riassumere particolari argomenti del passato, dall’arte delle gemme, dei profumi, dei fiori, di musica, canto, eccetera.

L’intreccio è tutto qui, e pertanto si può dire che manca trama, ancor di più mancano accadimenti, azione. Il personaggio è uno solo e À rebours si configura come la storia di una nevrosi, il diario della malattia di un essere umano disgustato dal mondo.

Jean Floressas Des Esseintes inizia a vestirsi dai calzini e ne sceglie un paio color “foglia secca”. Dice al domestico che
non poteva dirgli quando sarebbe stato di ritorno, se tra un anno, un mese, una settimana o anche prima.
Mentre tutti pronunceremmo questa frase nell’ordine temporale inverso, Des Esseintes/Huysmans da qui letteralmente voce all’altro senso con cui intendere il titolo del romanzo, “al contrario, “a rovescio”, non solo “controcorrente”
Des Esseintes scioglie in bocca confetti contenenti una sostanza che simula l’essenza femminile, sceglie la tappezzeria in base al colore che assume sotto la luce artificiale non quella naturale del sole, fa dorare il carapace della sua tartaruga per farlo amalgamare al colore del tappeto sul quale vuole tenerla… E via andare con amenità eccentriche del genere.

Gustave Moreau: Salomè danza davanti a Erode. 1876, Armand Hammer Museum of Art and Collection, Los Angeles.

Non so quando il concetto di controcorrente è andato fuori moda, quando è esattamente diventato un’immagine e uno stato da evitare: quand’è che improvvisamente essere integrati, parte della massa (e quindi anche del branco) ha cominciato a riempire i nostri cuori di soddisfazione.
Perché prima, andare e essere controcorrente era considerato cosa buona e giusta. Era considerato fico.

Odilon Redon: Alsazia o monaco che legge. 1914, Kunst Mueseum, Wintherthur.
Profile Image for Ruby Granger.
Author 3 books46.8k followers
June 9, 2021
I read this as a companion to The Picture of Dorian Gray (this book was hugely influential for Wilde, and the Decadence movement in England more generally. It very much resembles Chapter 11 in Dorian, with its trailing descriptions of things and ideas and art).

This book is filled with poetry. Huysmans provides an alamac of art, music, architecture, theology and poetry. Chapter-by-chapter, Des Essentiales, alone in his solitary French house, absorbs himself in his him intellectual pursuits and invites the reader to join him. It is a slightly chaotic and wonderfully languid form of study, interlaced with philosophical food for thought. It is also beautifully written. His descriptions of paintings are like paintings in themselves.
Profile Image for Steven  Godin.
2,489 reviews2,373 followers
April 9, 2020
After feasting on an excessive orgy of oysters, smoked salmon, quail eggs, marinated lobster, rare partridge breast, honey glazed pig trotters and spiced wine, I followed with a desert consisting of apple strudel with clotted cream and sticky chocolate pudding in a warm orange sauce, I took to the sofa in front of the open log fire while stretching my feet out on the Persian rug, keeping my fine Turkish cigarettes and bottle of plum brandy close at hand I finished reading 'À rebours'
(Against Nature).

A rich and decadent novel featuring just one man, the jaded aristocrat Des Esseintes, who leads an isolated life fuelled by his passions for excess and self-indulgence. Referring to society early on as "frightful clodhoppers", this would become the one and only time I laughed, because even though the overall mood is charming and elegant, there is also a lingering sadness for the solitude Des Esseintes chooses. He governs a life's philosophy with the desire to subvert, and even supersede, nature. surrounded by art and a library of books at his fingertips, he takes to the works of Poe, Balzac, De Sade, voltaire, along with poetry and historical readings of the church, religion and medieval ramblings. As we are stuck with Des Esseintes for the whole duration of the book, It would certainly be beneficial to take him to heart, however I loved and loathed him in equal measures.
Thus it was difficult to like this anymore than I did.
For those who deem it a masterpiece, that's understandable, for those who think it's nothing more than nonsense, I could agree. as it's always a read to divide opinion, but I will sit on the fence, comfortable.

Joris-Karl Huysmans, who no doubt has a great pedigree for writing, does take the reader to far off places in the mind, there are episodes which are so arrestingly parabolic that they stand out when looking back at the text. Images like a jewel-encrusted tortoise perishing under its own weight have a mythic quality and chapters can seem like individual exercises, tied together by the Des Esseintes plot (such as it is), like the master narrative of the Arabian Nights or a collection of Dickensian short stories. Huysmans is at his strongest in passages of sensual pleasure. If I was to re-read in 20-30 years time, my views would probably change for the better.

Now, where did I leave those liquor truffles!
Profile Image for Fergus, Quondam Happy Face.
1,029 reviews17.7k followers
September 17, 2023
Had Huysmans simply woken up, he woulda seen his habits in fact are very much in agreement With, and not Against Human Nature! Poor man.

I read this short, claustrophobic novel in the hot 'n steamy summer of 1968.- You may remember that summer. Riots were erupting in the US as Richard Nixon seemed headed to certain victory in the election for the term that ended with the Watergate burglary.

So, with his ironclad security as Prez, quite soon we "wouldn't have Dick Nixon to kick around anymore!" Instead he would kick first. Until the debacle that brought him down.

But that summer day was a day for trying to get some much needed R and R. I sat in the shade with this book - a library loan.

You see, I was curious about the fictional character of Jean des Esseintes, the lugubrious layabout to whom Huysman's more famous contemporary fellow writer Mallarme dedicated a long lamenting meditation on the unreality of the Sensual World - Prose For Des Esseintes.

In it, he comes out with the revelation that Huysman's Towering Stamens and Pistils NEVER EVEN EXISTED. Ergo, he dreamt them all up!

Mallarme portrays this character as one ridiculously obsessed with these too-gigantic flowering Irises, to the laughter of his pensive ancestor, who only sees the perfection of each imperfect day, which is perfectly sufficient for his quiet and subtle needs.

Don't we all wish we could be like that ancient soul, and just "seize the day, leaving to tomorrow its own cares?"

But - ironically - that's exactly what Jean des Esseintes tries to do. And fails to do, miserably. if a beautiful Moonrise is pointed out to him, he looks at the fleshy finger pointing - rather than the spectacularly large moon.

He lives for his flesh and will suffocate and die In his flesh, as befits the idle rich.

No, Jean des Esseintes woulda been far better off -

Feeding the Poor People of Paris with all his inherited lucre -

And simply waking up in appreciation of the gloriously imperfect present.

Perhaps then he would have better appreciated what little time he had on this planet.
Profile Image for Manny.
Author 30 books14k followers
September 23, 2014
It must have been so exciting to be a novelist in the second half of the nineteenth century. You weren't limited to just creating a novel; if you were talented, you could create a whole new kind of novel. Here, Huysmans has written the first example known to me of the novel where nothing happens. Frail, sickly des Esseintes has dissipated a good part of his inheritance on various kinds of vice (there is a memorable passage early on about the mirrors in his bedroom). Now he's tired of it. He resolves to withdraw to a specially designed house in the country where he will live a life of contemplation, as far removed from reality as he can arrange.

The rest of this review is available elsewhere (the location cannot be given for Goodreads policy reasons)

Profile Image for ArturoBelano.
99 reviews291 followers
November 7, 2018
Tersine, nihayet bitti dediğim kitaplardan biri oldu, bir daha da cebir ve şiddet altında dahi olsam dönüp yüzüne bakmam. Tersine ile aynı günlerde Karatani’nin Transkritik: Kant ve Marx üzerine adlı kallavi bir kitabına başlamıştım. Benim iki kitabı aynı anda okurken rutinim şudur; kuramsal eserden yorulduğumda romanın sıcak kollarına sığanır, orada dinlenirim biraz. Ancak bu sefer Tersine’den kaçıp kurama sığındım varın sıkıcılığı siz düşünün. Bu sıkıcılığın üstüne bir de Tahsin Yücel çevirememesini ekleyin. Bu öztürkçeci abimiz mesaisini kitap okunmasın diye harcamış sanki, sinirce kelimesini okurken bir yerden sonra buhranlar geçirmedim değil. Umarım bir gün başka bir çevirmen el atar da bu kitaba sıkılacak okur sadece yazarın derdiyle sıkılır, burjuvanın öztürkçe karşılığının kenter sınıfı olmasıyla falan uğraşmaz.

Buraya kadar yazdıklarım yetmediyse el artırayım biraz, 2018 yılında bu kitabı okumanın eğer sadece kendi halinde bir okursanız hiçbir karşılığı yok. Kendi halinde okurdan kastım şu; eserin yazıldığı dönem, koşullar ve edebiyat tarihinde kapladığı yere takılmadan salt eserden, eserin kendi total varlığından edebi tat almanın peşinde olan insan ve kendi halinde bir okur yani bu tadı arzulayan yanımla keyif namına kefil değilim bu eserin. Bir iki yerde Tristriam Shandy Beyefendinin Hayatı ve Görüşleri’yle karşılaştırıldığını gördüm ama onun yanına yazılacak bir kitap değil bence, Tristriam Shandy zamana, mekan yenik düşecek bir eser değil, herkese her koşulda gönül rahatlığıyla öneririm.

Ama ve lakin sezarın hakkı Sezara; Tersine Avrupa edebiyatı içinde büyük ve önemli bir roman, bu öneme vurgu yapmamak haksızlık olacaktır.

Huysmans’ın Tersine’yi yayınladığı 1884 yılında Fransız edebiyatı başını Zola’nın çektiği doğalcı akımın etkisinde, tek tip edebiyatın hayatın ve olayların oldukları gibi anlatıldığı ultra gerçekçi bir iklimin etkisinde can çekişiyordu ki Huysmans da bu etkinin altındaydı. Tersine bu edebiyat ortamına karşı yazılmış bir manifestodur adeta. Bu yanıyla belki bir proje roman da denebilir. Başka türlü anlatmanın tüm olanakları zorlanmış, bu zorlama ile gelenek ile tüm bağlar koparılmıştır. Konu, içerik ve biçem daha önce hiç işlenmemiş bir şekil almış ve geleneğin kalıpları tahribata uğratılmıştır.

Yazar kitaba Açıklamalar bölümüyle başlar; biz bu bölümde Des Esseintes karakterinin soylu aile geçmişi, yaptıkları, ettikleri, sıkılması, topluma yabancılaşıp genç yaşta bir eve kapanmasını görürüz. Romanda burada, bu evde başlar. Açıklamalar bölümü “ Edindiği eve duvarcılar getirdi, sonra bir gün, birdenbire, tasarılarından hiç kimseye söz etmeden, eski eşyalarını elden çıkardı, uşaklarına yol verdi ve, kapıcıya hiçbir adres bırakmadan,ortadan kayboldu” ile biter. Bu aslında Zola!cı bir sondur, bir eski soylunun çöküşü olarak okunup, boşluklara olay, karakter, kurgu, dram eklendiğinde 19. Yüzyıl romancılığının başyapıtı olarak ayakta bile alkışlanabilir. Ancak Huysmans bu girizgahla eski okuluna son bir selam verip yeni bir romana geçis yapar. Doğalcılığın ipi ile ineceğiniz kuyu buraya kadardır der gibidir.

Açıklamalar bölümünde görürüz ki Des Esseintes soylu bir ailenin çöküş döneminin son ferdidir. Soylu sınıfın çöküşünün miladı kapitalist üretim ilişkileri olsa da bu çöküş “ erkeklerin dişileşimi gittikçe daha bir belirginleşmişti” ile açıklanır. Konumuzun dışında olmakla birlikte bu dişileşim ya da efemine karakteri Tanzimat ve türk edebiyatının ilk döneminde de sık görürüz. Demek ki elimizde Dekadan bir karakter var, soylu kan bozulmuş buna toplumsal çürüme, yozlaşma da dahil olmuştur. Bu yoz ortamın bağrında iş tutan soylumuzun eh yeter dediği yerde kitabımız içe yani eve kapanır ve biz yaklaşık 200 sayfa boyunca evi ve evin olanaklarının el verdiği bir anlatıya maruz kalırız ki Tersine bu dekandanlığın kült metnidir, doğalcı gelenek sembolizme öncülük edecek bu esere ve yazarına bu payeyi hakkıyla vermiştir.

Kahramanımızı kapandığı evde eylemden uzak salt düşünür ve düşlerken buluruz. Madem ki çöküş kesin ve toplum bir irin ve ruhun Baudelarie’cı cevabı any where out of the world ise yapılacak tek şey devinimden imgeleme sığınmaktır. “Söylediği gibi doğa gününü doldurmuştu artık, görünümlerinin ve göklerinin tiksindirici tekbiçimliği nedeniyle incelmiş dikkatli sabrını kesinlikle tüketmişti.” İmgelemde gerçek olandan yapaya geçişin ya da gerçekliğe müdahalenin bir çok örneğini görürüz. Yapay çiçekler, kokular ve kaplumbağaya yapılan müdahale gibi. Sanat da bu gerçeklikten kaçışın bir parçası olur, Latin yazını,Goya resimleri ve Fransız edebiyatı tartışmaları kitabın derdini açık eden ve aynı zamanda en yorucu,sıkıcı bitse de gitsek bölümlerini oluşturur. Lakin kitapta her şey dönemin tersine işlemektedir, kitabı yazarken inançsız olan Huysmann’ın karakteri bıraktığı dini ikilemler aydınlanmacı, pozitivist aklın dönemdeki hakimiyetine karşı yaptığı reddiye olarak görülmelidir. Paris’den ve Paris yaşamından kaçtıkça sığınağı çok da adlandıramadığı din ve din refaranslı eserlerden bulmaya başlar, Salome’a ilgisi kösnül bel kıvırmalarının felaketleriyle ilgilidir. Kendini gerçekliğin dışına atmasında bir keşisin mağarasına çekilmesinin belirtilerini görür. Ama şu da var, sadece yaşamdan değil anılarından da kaçan bir karakterimiz var ve ne zaman mağarasının sınırından dışarı taşsa düşünmeleri, Latin incelemeleri ile pozisyonunu tekrar kurar.

Her ne kadar iki sessiz uşağı ile beraber çekildiği bu izbede sanatsal( simgeciler, gerçeküstücüler ve ölü Latin dili incelemeleri) İsevi( ilk günah ve dünyaya atılmış olma) olaylar değil nesneler dünyası ve hatta Schopenhauer ( Yeryüzünde yaşamak gerçekten bir düşkünlük) gibi sağlam gerekçe ve referansları olsa da Des Esseintes son kertede dönemin zehirlediğ bir karakterdir ve içine kapandığı tecrit hali sağlık sorunlarına yol açmaya başlar. Başına koyduğu bavulları ile yaptığı Londra gezileri de derman olmaz derdine ve modern tıp teşhisini koyar; topluma karışın mösyö Des Esseintes.

“İyi ya, yıkıl ey toplum! Geber, eski dünya!”

Yani demem o ki, ben bu kitabı bir daha okumam, Tahsin Yücel çevirisinden kesseler okumam ama kitap da kitaptı ha! Oscar Wilde ve Anglo sakson dekadansları boşa cebelleşmemiş velhasıl. Kafası hala karışık bir okur olarak benden buraya kadar, okuruna şimdiden kolay gelsin.
Profile Image for Aubrey.
1,358 reviews794 followers
September 17, 2014
If Proust composed his In Search of Lost Time without having read this book, I'll eat my hat. Of course, the similarities may have been unavoidable when considering that both authors concern themselves with the period of haute couture and Faubourg Saint-Germain culture, and even chose the same aristocrat to model their own wildly eccentric characters on, the Comte de Montesquiou-Fezensac inspiring both Huysmans' Des Esseintes and Proust's Charlus. And it could have been sheer coincidence that Huysmans' delving into the cyclic throes of obsession and boredom seem almost a basic structure for Proust's cathedrals of thought and memory. Still, the semblances are striking, although the differences forbid any possible thoughts of one author relying too heavily on the other. For while Proust is gorgeous and light and understanding of almost every nuance of the human condition, Huysmans is, well.
Looking on the bright side of things, I hope that, one fine day, he'll kill the gentlemen who turns up unexpectedly just as he's breaking open his desk. On that day my object will be achieved: I shall have contributed, to the best of my ability, to the making of a scoundrel, one enemy the more for the hideous society which is bleeding us white.
That's Des Esseintes for you, speaking of a boy-child he had granted three months of bi-weekly brothel visits to, for no other reason but a sudden whim to conduct a viciously abhorrent sort of social experiment. He doesn't get any better through the course of the book; he is as capable of dwelling on the most beautiful of conjectures in full possession of his educated faculties, as he is of condemning the smallest aspect of life with all the spite and bigotry a human could possibly muster.

So what can redeem this spoiled and sickly creature, fully equipped with a substantial fortune, disgust with the whole of the human race, and access to the whole range of what culture, from the loftiest of heights to the most depraved (in his day, at least) of lows and everything that mixes that two, has to offer? For one, the fact that this contrary soul is indeed human despite the weirdly grotesque passions that power it, and through all the oddities Des Esseintes surrounds himself one can still see the insolvable human condition that plagues every one of us. He may be as easy to hate and be disgusted with as easily as he hates and is disgusted with everything beyond his luxuriously painted and perfumed bower, but he does have some measure of taste that one cannot help but take note of, and perhaps even sympathize with.
He wanted, in short, a work of art both for what it was in itself and for what it allowed him to bestow on it; he wanted to go along with it and on it, as if supported by a friend or carried by a vehicle, into a sphere where sublimated sensations would arouse within him an unexpected commotion, the causes of which he would strive to patiently and even vainly to analyse.
He'll pursue this ideal through sight in painting and horticulture, through taste in mouth organs and strenuous dilutions, through smell in perfumes and twisted senses, from the most ancient annals of religion to the newest source of physical debauchery that only those with a sensibility honed by years of monetary excess can hope to afford. That unwholesome mix of artificiality posing as the real thing is fully expressed in the prose itself, metaphors that don't bother to limit themselves to one side of the equation and fully immerse themselves in delight and disgust.
…and the Cypripedium, with its complex, incoherent contours devised by some demented draughtsman. It looked rather like a clog or a tidy, and on top was a human tongue bent back with the string stretched tight, just as you may see it depicted in the plates of medical works dealing with diseases of the throat and mouth; two little wings, of a jujube red, which might almost have been borrowed from a child’s toy windmill, completed this baroque combination of the underside of a tongue, the colour of wine lees and slate, and a glossy pocket-case with a lining that oozed drops of viscous paste.
Oftentimes, he'll box himself up in snooty prejudices and hypocritical ideologies, but occasionally one will recognize measures of contemporary thought within his reminisces and desires, one of the most surprising instances occurring when he dwells upon the issue of abortion. At other times he will think on qualities of pieces that at his point in time had not yet been composed, accrediting his thoughts that those who concern themselves with certain ideals will not find themselves content with the current age.
Sensitive to the remotest affinities, he would often use a term that by analogy suggested at once form, scent, colour, quality, and brilliance, to indicate a creature or thing to which he would have had to attach a host of different epithets in order to bring out all its various aspects and qualities, if it had merely been referred to by its technical name. By this means he managed to do away with the formal statement of a comparison that the reader’s mind made by itself as soon as it had understood the symbol, and he avoided dispersing the reader’s attention over all the several qualities that a row of adjectives would have presented one by one, concentrated it instead on a single word, a single entity, producing, as in the case of a picture, a unique and comprehensive impression, an overall view.
He may have enjoyed the works of Faulkner, whose The Sound and the Fury accomplishes just that. Or he may have spurned the work that occupies itself with trivial mundanities and contains not the slightest hint of elevated passions or feverish splendor. The world will never know.
Profile Image for Gary.
39 reviews76 followers
February 1, 2016
"The world is too much with us; late and soon," Wordsworth wrote in 1802, "getting and spending, we lay waste our powers." Joris-Karl Huysmans' fin de siècle novel, Against Nature (À Rebours), tells the story of an aristocratic dandy who finds the realities (more specifically, the vulgarities) of everyday life so insufferable that he decides to lock himself away in a house at Fontenay-aux-Roses, "far from the incessant deluge of human folly," to live a solitary life through books, paintings, art and music. Des Esseintes is an eccentric, a decadent, a misanthrope, and an aesthete, who is also obsessed with death and decay. It has been noted that this is the novel which "poisons" Dorian’s mind in The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890), and it is indeed tempting to imagine Des Esseintes as Oscar Wilde. À Rebours is a fantastic book about what it means to be an aesthete, and it remains just as relevant today as when it was first published in 1884. It will appeal to anyone with an appreciation for good literature, art, and music.
Profile Image for Flo.
276 reviews85 followers
November 9, 2022
Reading literature ... such decadence.

I respect this book, but it bored me to death. Of course, in real life, I'm gonna pretend that it's better than Dorian Gray.
Profile Image for Warwick.
842 reviews14.6k followers
July 28, 2014
An ornate, sickly, claustropobic book, full of fascinating discussions about art and literature, and studded with items of outré vocabulary (I still haven’t worked out what mœchialogie means). It is a novel for people who like talking about novels – the plot itself is slim and of little importance. I’ll summarise it quickly: des Esseintes, a rich, effete aristocrat, retires from a life of excess and debauchery to live in his retreat at Fontenay outside Paris, where he shuts himself off from the rest of the world and ekes out an existence in a cloying, hypochondriac, lamplit environment that has been elaborately constructed to meet his own aesthetic requirements.

Basically, he’s a proto-hipster, who has had enough of dealing with Other People and wants to lock himself away from public opinion. Anything that's popular with anyone else is out – Goya gets taken down from his walls for being not obscure enough.

Cette promiscuité dans l’admiration était d’ailleurs l’un des plus grands chagrins de sa vie ; d’incompréhensibles succès lui avaient à jamais gâté des tableaux et des livres jadis chers ; devant l’approbation des suffrages, il finissait par leur découvrir d’imperceptibles tares, et il les rejetait….

[This promiscuity of admiration was one of the most distressing things in his life. Incomprehensible successes had permanently ruined books and paintings for him which he had previously held dear; faced with widespread public approbation, he ended up discovering imperceptible flaws in works, and rejecting them….]

Although he has given up interpersonal relationships himself (even his servants have to wear felt slippers, so he doesn’t hear them walking around), he often reminisces about his previous conquests. I particularly loved the early description of his old bachelor pad, decorated in pink and lined with mirrors, which had been

célèbre parmi les filles qui se complaisaient à tremper leur nudité dans ce bain d’incarnat tiède qu’aromatisait l’odeur de menthe dégagée par le bois des meubles.

[famous among the girls who had been pleased to soak their nudity in this bath of warm carnation infused by the smell of mint given off by the furniture.]

His view of women in general is distinctly un-modern, but often weirdly fascinating. I liked the strange little anecdote of his liaison with a US circus performer, which read like an Angela Carter short story. (Unfortunately, in a complaint soon to become a cliché among European male writers, his American girlfriend turned out to have une retenue puritaine au lit). Des Esseintes moves on to date a ventriloquist, whom he makes lie out of sight and enact odd, symbolist dialogues between statues of a chimera and a sphinx that he bought for the occasion.

There are even some aesthete-esque hints towards des Esseintes’s homosexual urges, with vague references to a young man who made him think about ‘sinning against the sixth and ninth of the Ten Commandments’.

Other senses, too, get close examination. An entire chapter is given over to various exotic scents and perfumes which des Esseintes is trying to create. When it comes to taste, our hero has what he calls a ‘mouth organ’, which consists of several dozen barrels of alcoholic liqueurs ranged side by side, which he mixes-and-matches to create a variety of gustatory symphonies or harmonies to suit his current mood.

The language all this is described in is deliberately rich and unnaturalistic. Huysmans’s basic approach is outlined when des Esseintes explains the kind of writing he admires among Latin authors – full of

verbes aux sucs épurés, de substantifs sentant l’encens, d’adjectifs bizarres, taillés grossièrement dans l’or, avec le goût barbare et charmant des bijoux goths….

[purified verb extracts, nouns that reek of incense, bizarre adjectives rough-hewn from gold, with the barbaric, charming appeal of Gothic jewels….]

I came to Huysmans via Barbey d’Aurevilly, and it was nice to see that des Esseintes thinks so highly of Les Diaboliques that he had a special copy made, printed sacrilegiously on ecclesiastical parchment. Barbey reviewed À Rebours when it came out, and made a surprisingly perceptive comment that its author, like Baudelaire, would have to choose between la bouche d’un pistolet ou les pieds de la croix ‘the mouth of a pistol or the foot of the Cross’. What is it about these Decadent authors – Baudelaire, Huysmans, Barbey himself – that despite their obvious dislike of religion, they all ended up going back to the Catholic faith? Suffice to say that this novel draws its power to shock and delight from its willingness specifically to go against (à rebours) the ideals and principles of a Catholic culture – not that that prevents a more secular modern reader from being shocked and delighted in his or her own right.

And they should be, it’s worth it. This book can be oppressive, but it’s a wonderful experience.
Profile Image for StefanP.
163 reviews79 followers
July 20, 2021

Po ovom svijetu još jedino raste sjeme nepravde i žetva gnusobe.

Vrlo viješto odmjeren i isklesan roman. Veliku prisnost sam imao dok sam čitao ovo Uismansovo dijelo. Uismans ima tako suptilan senzibilitet da pred čitaoca izvodi jednu pisanu majstoriju koja jemči čist vazduh kontemplativnog života. Svjedočeći u duhu dokolice, pisac nam pruža i neke slike života svoga vremena. Možda ćete se tokom čitanja pitati kakvu to sposobnost Uismans posjeduje pa da sve tako jednostavno prija tokom čitanja. Koje li ga struje vode da određenim stvarima na takav način daje važnost. Kod njega je sve nekako blago a istovremeno bode svojom oštrinom. Kakva samo delikatnost rečenica, kakva uzvišena otmjenost, kakav prefinjen način izražavanja! Roman ima takvo bogastvo jezika i njegova estetika samo budi zadivljenost.

Nasuprot je diskurs o piščevim nenaklonostima prema određenim piscima ali istovremeno i veliko apologetsko raspoloženje prema pjesnicima i piscima poput Flobera, Poa i Bodlera itd. Zatim je to kritika tendencije modernizovane umjetnosti, društvena antipatija, izvođenje egzibicija sa cvijećem stvarajući samo njemu znane mirise, putovanja itd. Junak ove knjige podsjeća na Manovog Hansa Kastorpa. Bolešljiv, sklon dokolici i neumoljivim hobijima, izolovan od svijeta, eksperimentalan u svom naumu. Osjetno je piščevo saznanje iz medicine, dragog kamenja, botanike, umjetnosti i srednjeg vijeka te čovjeka sa svojim psihološkim svojstvima i bolestima. Čime će se kroz lik Dezesenta i baviti u ovoj knjizi. Kod Uismansa nema fantaziranja već odanost prema onome što je Tvorac već uspostavio. On crpi materiju iz stvarnosti i bogati je svojim riječima, držeći je u svojoj arhetipskoj formi. Daje joj boju, zvuk i jednu egzotičnu evokaciju. Naročito se to vidi kod flore. Ono što su boje kod slikara, to su riječi kod Uismansa.

Ako budem zaželio da se sladim nečim odista lijepim i dobrim, posegnuću ponovo za ovaj roman.
Profile Image for Geoffrey.
639 reviews13 followers
June 4, 2007
The ideal novel for people who hate novels. And other people.
Profile Image for Ian "Marvin" Graye.
874 reviews2,267 followers
February 21, 2016
Decadent Rants and Harangues

This 1884 novel is a wonderful assemblage of prescient and decadent rants.

Something Huysmans says of another book of rants could apply equally to his own work:

"Conceived as harangues, they contained a certain strong muscular energy and were astonishing in the intolerance of their convictions."

Scoundrels and Imbeciles

Jean Des Esseintes (I'll call him Des E for short) fills his life with literature, art, music, furniture, jewelry, flowers, perfumes, food and liquor.

His journey started as a child:

"Immersed in solitude, he would dream or read far into the night."

Educated by Jesuits, he acquires a "bold and independent spirit".

He grows to scorn his fellow man:

"His contempt for humanity deepened. He reached the conclusion that the world, for the most part, was composed of scoundrels and imbeciles...Already, he was dreaming of a refined solitude, a comfortable desert, a motionless ark in which to seek refuge from the unending deluge of human stupidity."


Des E the Eccentric Dandy

Des E's taste is anything but mainstream, even if he's familiar with it. The thing is he has consumed enough to know what he doesn't like and to be able to discriminate.

He becomes an eccentric dandy. Huysmans writes about the sensuous with a style that has both an economy and a sensuality of its own:

"Out of black-edged plates they had drunk turtle soup and eaten Russian rye bread, ripe Turkish olives, caviar, smoked Frankfort black pudding, game with sauces that were the color of licorice and blacking, truffle gravy, chocolate cream, puddings, nectarines, grape preserves, mulberries and black-heart cherries; they had sipped, out of dark glasses, wines from Limagne, Roussillon, Tenedos, Val de Penas and Porto, and after the coffee and walnut brandy had partaken of kvas and porter and stout."

Whatever we might think of Des E, that's a meal I'd love to have shared with him!

Artifice against Nature

One consequence of Des E's lifestyle is that, the more he discriminates, the more he moves away from other people, until eventually he lives an almost hermit-like existence on the outskirts of Paris, surrounded only by the objets of his own immaculate taste and artifice. It's almost as if his subjectivism has become a form of solipsism.

His aesthetic opposes the artificial against nature. It elevates the dreamlike above the realistic, fantasy above naturalism:

"The secret lies in knowing how to proceed, how to concentrate deeply enough to produce the hallucination and succeed in substituting the dream reality for the reality itself. Artifice, besides, seemed to Des Esseintes the final distinctive mark of man's genius...Nature had had her day...Really, what dullness!...There is not one of her inventions, no matter how subtle or imposing it may be, which human genius cannot create..."


Gustave Moreau - Study of Salome for "Salome Dancing before Herod"

The Consoling Beacons of Ancient Faith

90% of the novel documents Des E's taste. We learn exactly what he likes and what he dislikes. From a literary point of view, you could assemble from the details of his library a reading list more erudite and filled with "the consoling beacons of ancient faith" than anything compiled by den Grossenlistengenerator Steven Moore

Nevertheless, the choice of books for his "breviary of decadence" compounds a sense of what can only be described as narcissism:

"...they lifted him far above this trivial life which wearied him so. In them he entered into a perfect communion of ideas with their authors who had written them when their state of soul was analogous to his own."

The Cowardly and the Servile

Inevitably, it seems, the last 10% of the novel witnesses his rapid decline in health. It's almost as if his discrimination is the cause of a social illness, his individualism the cause of a quasi-syphilitic social disease, and he must return to bourgeois Paris, the Church and its conformist flock, in order to cure his hallucinations, nightmares, melancholia, and ennui.

Towards the end, Des E proclaims, "I am certainly on the road to recovery."

Yet, as in many cases of mental illness, recovery comes at the cost of authenticity and individualism:

"...nowadays, nothing genuine exists, since the wine one drinks and the liberty one boldly proclaims are laughable and a sham...For what could [I] hope, if not new disillusionments...?

"To think that all this is not a dream, to think that I am going to return into the cowardly and servile crowd of this century!"

The Consolation of Long Forgotten Books

How little has changed! Maybe we, too, are in need of the "consoling beacons of ancient faith" contained in long forgotten books.

Only, Huysmans leaves us with a scintilla of doubt as to whether these very books are not the cure, but a cause, of Des E's dissolute condition.

Still, I'm confident they contain more tonic than virus.

Huysmans' 1903 Postscript/Preface

"As result of this brief review of each of the special articles exhibited in the show-cases of 'Against the Grain' the conclusion is forced upon us - the book was priming for my Catholic propaganda, which is implicit in it in its entirety, though in embryo...

"In all this hurly-burly, a single writer alone saw clear, Barbey d'Aurévilly, who... wrote:-

"'After such a book, it only remains for the author to choose between the muzzle of a pistol [and] the foot of the cross.'

"The choice has been made."

J.-K. Huysmans

[Huysmans converted (or reverted) to Catholicism in 1892.]



"Yo, this is Des E, don't call me with any guest list requests, that ain't my department. Anything else, leave a message."
Profile Image for Sketchbook.
679 reviews225 followers
January 30, 2022
A dense drug trip. This celebrated work (1884) offers sensual and philosophic ruminations. There's no story. Each chapter has a theme: art, religion, literature, society, etc. Huysmans lauds painters
Gustave Moreau and Odilon Redon; writers Baudelaire, Mallarme, Poe. On a Symbolist "high," the reclusive hero seeks "new perfumes, ampler blossoms, untried pleasures." He arranges obscure words like exotic flowers as he speaks of a mistress "who loved to have her nipples macerated in scents."

Between dreams and nightmares he recalls Miss Urania, an androgynous - "muscles of steel" - acrobat who fills his mind with strange notions. Having children is madness. What have they to look forward to? "...hard knocks, degrading jobs, vile diseases, unfaithfulness, a painful death.." When sick his recipe for an enema mixes cod-liver oil, beef-tea and burgundy with the yolk of one egg. (You understand why it took me some weeks to digest Huysmans).

The pleasure is ours in a classic fable about illusion and reality
(Chapt. 11) The hero readies for a trip to London, hoping that unlike a visit to Holland it will not be a disappointment. In Paris he buys a London guidebook. Then, onward to an English tavern where he sees Brit ladies with "teeth big as tombstones" and men with "pork-butcher faces." There are bisquits, stale cakes and plates of mincepie. He thinks of Little Dorrit and Bleak House. But he must hurry to catch the London boat-train.

He cannot move: he's in the London of his imagination. The 'other' London will only offer disillusionment. He quietly returns home, "having seen what he wanted to experience" -- and feeling the fatigue of a long journey. The artistic temperament has never been more dramatically expressed: "It would be madness to lose by an awkward change of place his imperishable sensations."

Note: Alain de Botton writes that the reality of travel seldom matches our dreams. I stay put.
Profile Image for nastya .
448 reviews287 followers
January 15, 2023
The thought of finding something of yourself in this hero can be quite terrifying. And yet we both love men, books printed on good paper and perfumes.
Last but not least, he hated with all the hatred that was in him the rising generation, the appalling boors who find it necessary to talk and laugh at the top of their voices in restaurants and cafés, who jostle you in the street without a word of apology and who, without expressing or even indicating regret, drive the wheels of a baby-carriage into your legs.

Sometimes we both hate leaving the house, preferring to lie down and rot in our pessimism about the human condition. It is our nature after all and we can hardly fight against it.
‘the fact is that, pain being one of the consequences of education, in that it grows greater and sharper with the growth of ideas, it follows that the more we try to polish the minds and refine the nervous systems of the under-privileged, the more we shall be developing in their hearts the atrociously active germs of hatred and moral suffering.’

And yes, this is a 200+ pages long whinge fest. I hope you enjoy wallowing in misery.
‘Seeing that nowadays there is nothing wholesome left in this world of ours; seeing that the wine we drink and the freedom we enjoy are equally adulterate and derisory; and finally, seeing that it takes a considerable degree of goodwill to believe that the governing classes are worthy of respect and that the lower classes are worthy of help or pity, it seems to me,’

In a period when literature attributed man’s unhappiness almost exclusively to the misfortunes of unrequited love or the jealousies engendered by adulterous love, he had ignored these childish ailments and sounded instead those deeper, deadlier, longer-lasting wounds that are inflicted by satiety, disillusion and contempt upon souls tortured by the present, disgusted by the past, terrified and dismayed by the future.

So if you are a miserable person who is profoundly disappointed in humanity, this book is a hoot.
Faced with the savage fury of these vicious brats, he reflected on the cruel and abominable law of the struggle for life, and contemptible though these children were, he could not help feeling sorry for them and thinking it would have been better for them if their mothers had never borne them. After all, what did their lives amount to but impetigo, colic, fevers, measles, smacks and slaps in childhood; degrading jobs with plenty of kicks and curses at thirteen or so; deceiving mistresses, foul diseases and unfaithful wives in manhood; and then, in old age, infirmities and death-agonies in workhouses or hospitals?

Or alternatively you can try and fight Des Esseintes within. Do something good, be selfless. Unfortunately the writer chickened out and discovered Church.

As someone who lives in these decadent times, at the end of the century myself (have you seen those kids with their colored hair and Billie Eilish?? By golly, we are doomed! Doomed!), I sympathize. In any case, he did it better than Ottessa.

(by Kaamran Hafeez)
Profile Image for Fionnuala.
791 reviews
February 1, 2022
April 7th, 2016
I finished this book more than two months ago and it’s been lying unreviewed since, partly because I hadn’t time to review it and partly because I didn’t know how to review it. I could have just written a short account of how much I enjoyed reading the book, especially the art and literature sections, but I always like to find a unique angle on the books I review, I like to find something to say, or at least a way to say it, that may not have been thought of before, impossible as that may seem. So this book has lingered on the edges of my consciousness for the last two months, not terribly present but not forgotten either.

This week I read RL Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, an unusual book that made me think a lot while I was reading and reviewing it, and afterwards while discussing it in the comments thread. One of the things that occurred to me in the course of those discussions was a possible parallel between Stevenson’s work and this book, Against Nature, or Against the Grain, as the title is translated in English. I felt sure I had found my unique angle, oblique as it seemed at first viewing.

The hero of this book, Jean des Esseintes, is the last of a line of distinguished aristocrats. The opening scene describes the portraits that still hang at the family ancestral seat, the Chateau de Lourps; the ancestors were all solid, well-built specimens, portrayed at the peak of their health and vigour. All except one. That ancient portrait revealed a very decadent looking individual with a sly, vulpine look on his narrow face (the name Lourps is close to the word for wolves in French: loups).
We are then told that for several generations the des Esseintes family married their cousins so that Jean, the final member of the clan, is a particularly anaemic character, who, as a result of some curious atavistic phenomenon, resembles most closely his sly and vulpine ancestor.
Gradually, we learn more and more about des Esseintes and the depraved life he seems intent on pursuing. No experience is too perverse for him and he seeks out every extreme. It is as if Huysmans had set out to investigate every possible form of orgy our senses can be exposed to, and had created des Esseintes as an alter ego with the aim of living those experiences vicariously through him in a kind of Jekyll and Hyde parallel. Huysmans even gives des Esseintes an interest in chemical experiments just as Dr Jekyll had, and he is passionate about poisonous plants and all sorts of esoteric theories and practices.

But at a certain point in the book, Huysmans makes his character halt and take stock, as if the author feels he has gone too far with the experiment. He brings des Esseintes back little by little from the almost psychotic state he had allowed him to sink into, but not without making him suffer horrible symptoms quite like the ones which Dr Jekyll suffers when he is experiencing his transformations.

The parallels between the two books end there since Huysmans takes his character in quite a different direction to the one Stevenson chose for the finally repentant Doctor Jekyll. Des Esseintes is destined to climb as high as he had previously descended and to explore the mystical side of his nature, hand in hand with his author.


When I had written the previous paragraphs, I wondered if this particular angle on À rebours wasn't a bit too quixotic, too chimeric. Could I really argue for a parallel between the two books? Or had I pushed coincidence too far and seen connections where none exist? I thought perhaps that I ought to have stuck with the original theme that had played on my mind on finishing the book, a kind of Jesuitical meditation on the senses. Or should I have taken the review in the direction of Houellebecq's Soumission, the book I'd been reading when I picked up Huysmans' work. Or even tried to relate it to Proust, given the parallels between the des Esseintes character and Proust's famous Baron de Charlus, both said to be modelled on the real life Robert de Montesquiou.
I opened my copy of the book once again and flicked through the forty page introduction by Marc Fumaroli. I'm not a great reader of introductions unless they are by the author or by the translator in the case of translated works. As I scanned the pale grey tiny italic font of this one, the names Jekyll and Hyde jumped out at me from the top of page thirty. Fumaroli had seen the same parallel I had—though I found only that single reference to Stevenson's work in the entire forty pages.
But I did find several references to Proust—and, surprise, surprise, many references to the chimeric Don Quixote!
My reading life is determined to trigger link after link after link..
Only connect

February 4th, 2016
review to come (when I return from a trip) but in the meantime, the interiority of this image to meditate upon:

Odilon Redon Les Yeux Clos 1890 Musée d'Orsay
Profile Image for Théo d'Or .
385 reviews184 followers
August 28, 2023
" I am no longer an artist, I have become a work of art ". These words of Nietzsche haunted me throughout the entire reading of Huysmans, who puts us, in his book, in front of an exacerbated product of passion for art and literature, an immersion so deep in the essence of art, that I could even speak of a dehumanization through art. And I will try to justify this formulation, by talking about the only character in the book, Jean des Esseintes, a last scion of an aristocratic family, in the 19th century.

" Against Nature " - the title itself encompasses the infinity of this character's efforts to reshape reality, according to the principles of a " homo aestheticus ".
The realization of this aspiration implies the rejection of conformity, therefore the advance against the current. Esseintes is portrayed as a young intellectual, in a permanent migration from one social group to another. The empty conversations, the taste for the banal games of society, the inconsistency of his ideas with those of others, and the superficiality of the reception of art - make him realize that his integration in this social context is impossible. The moment he realizes this, he plans his exile from this society, planning to rebuild a universe pleasing to the spirit, away from the " incessant flood of human stupidity ".
Esseintes' singular experience, although it illustrates the author's perfect pessimism, nevertheless takes its place in a progressive order, more precisely - in the aspiration of the evolution of mankind, always dissatisfied with its own creation, the human.
Being a accomplished dandy, the protagonist defies and forces any limit imposed by nature for to achieve aesthetic perfection. The dandy has the tendency to create from existence a show with masks, in which the sisyphean, exhausting approach predominates. The permanent directing of life transforms him - from the main actor of his existence - into a spectator, the experience being replaced by contemplation.

In this context of permanent chiseling, Esseintes can only be physically displayed with the same obsession for refinement.
Thus, he also pays a special attention to choosing the colors and nuances he will surround himself with. The chromatics are analyzed and interpreted for a long time, each nuance being tested in the diffused light of the candle, for to capitalize on his reflections. In his conception, the essence of chromatics and its metamorphoses can be detected "only by the trained eye to enjoy beauty . There is a close connection between the sensual nature of a true artist, and the color that his eyes see in a more vivid way ".

Esseintes' residence in Fontenay - his place of exile - represents, in addition to the gallery of his aesthetic exhibitionism, a timeless bubble of loneliness. The profound aestheticization of existence cannot be accomplished in the useless gear of socialization, but only in a solitude laden with art. In these moments, Esseintes' therapy consists in contemplating some masterpieces. The bored, perfectionist selective spirit ( I know how it is .. ) - allows him to delight only with certain works of art, capable of shaking his inert senses. Gustave Moreau's " Salomé " painting is at the top of the ranking, the fascination for this painting is not only encouraged by the rendered talent, but also due to the decadentism of the character itself.

Esseintes is an ascetic of art, and ends up sacrificing his life by metamorphose it into a work of art, his masochistic devotion draws him to the brink of alienation, intensifying his neurosis.
" Against Nature " - illustrates, in a brilliant writing, models of failure to achieve the aesthetic ideal. The transformation of the sublime into the unsightly, is manifested in Huysmans' book as a natural consequence of the hyperartificialization and hyperaestheticization of existence. Esseintes is not, in fact, trying to isolate himself from nature, but rather to defeat, to punish, and to humiliate nature. And here, I come to what I said at the beginning of the review - to dehumanization through art.
The authentic aesthetic will be reconciled to himself, whenever he can force nature to deviate from its norms and laws.
Profile Image for Annie.
970 reviews317 followers
March 26, 2016
It’s almost short enough to be called a novella but I read Godel, Escher, Bach (~12x this size) a few weeks ago in about half the time it took me to finish this. When I finished, I wanted to faceplant into straight bleach with my eyes open.

I don’t know what prompted me to pick this book up, but it was a mistake. Just a terrible, terrible mistake. If I were a person who ever DNF’d stuff, this would be a prime candidate. However, DNFing gives me such deep lingering doubts and guilt that I end up putting the book back on my to-reads and starting all over again. Which I obviously don’t want to do with this rubbish.

This is just one of those books that should have been the author’s private journal, not to be read by anyone but himself in twenty years.

If Huysmans is making a point with the character of des Esseintes, it’s not a particularly strong or good point, and it’s not one that deserves nearly two hundred pages of drivel. It’s certainly not one I care to think about for more than the seventy seconds it merits.

Actually, I’m not sure if that point is intentional and the character ironic, or if Huysmans pretends it’s ironic to deflect personal criticism when actually he secretly wrote himself into the novel. Des Esseintes isn’t an unbelievable character. I know someone exactly like him. I’m betting Huysmans lied when he swore to his disapproving mentor, Zola (according to Wikipedia) that des Esseintes wasn’t really himself.

One would hope so, because des Esseines’s vibe that “pedophilia is chill as long as they’re aesthetically beautiful enough to warrant predation; alternatively, true aesthetic beauty has no age” is predictable from such a character, but no less easy to stomach.

Maybe some people will find des Esseintes funny. That’s a matter of opinion.It’s like— you know that drunk who slides into the bar on his own vomit only to chip a tooth on someone else’s glass, then steals a bottle from the bartender “for the pain’ and loudly proclaims he’s going to sue the bar for injuries because he’s going to law school next year?

Yeah, there’s something funny about him. I guess. Unless you’re the bartender. Then, he’s just a fucking asshole and not even his abysmally infinite font of un-self-awareness can make you crack a smile. Because it’s just stupid, frustrating, and sickening.

There’s more than that, though. I’m going to make a weird comparison here, but I dislike this book the way I dislike Kerouac’s “On the Road.” They have little in common outside hedonism and the urge to fight the man, aesthetically speaking. And this: I don’t want to say it’s a dangerous book- no books are dangerous, only readers are- but like On the Road, this one gives many of those dangerous readers some smug sense of authority in their own willful ignorance. It spawned and probably continues to spawn generations of deluded dicks running in circles with their arms around themselves.

Sorry, not playing.
Profile Image for Özgür Atmaca.
Author 2 books59 followers
October 26, 2018
Kitabın efsanesi büyük aslında. LoveCraft'a esin olmaktan, Oscar Wilde'i esir ederek balayını mahvetmeye kadar giden bir edebi magazin halinde.
Huysman's Natûralizm okulunun kurucularınan-mış gibi yazılsa da bu eserde tam bir mistisizm havasında takılıyor.
Adeta materyal fetişi, duvarlarla oynaşıp, zihninde eşyaları seviştiriyor. Aslında bunu çok iyi yapıyor. Balzac'tan sonra gördüğüm en detaylı betimlemelere sahip diyebilirim.
Kitabımız Des Esseintes isimli düşmüş karakterin yeni bir evde iki uşağıyla nesnelerin arasından zihin kaçmasıyla bildiği her şeyi sorgulamasıyla akıp gidiyor.
Çok fazla sanat eseri, akımlar, müzik ve edebiyat temalı düşünce savaşları vermiş. Her şeyi birbiriyle dövüştürmüş ve maalesef tamamlanmış hissiyatı yaratan bir havada kalmışlıkla kasık ağrıları yaratan süreci oluşturuyor.
Aslında bunu isteyerek yapmış olduğunu hissetseydim ilgim, saygım daha da artabilirdi ama her dertten yüz gram hesabı beni pek açmıyor.
Dekadans temasıyla bu kadar oynayıp her tutunacak dalı da kırınca çıkış noktasını kaybetmiş gibi.
Sanırım adı geçen tüm o klasik eserlerin hatırına beğeni yıldızıma bir tane de onları için ekliyorum.
Profile Image for AiK.
545 reviews134 followers
August 21, 2022
Этот роман, выпущенный в 1884 году, был идеологической основой декаданса, может быть даже манифестом, у него нет сюжета, нет движения. В нем есть только описание привычек и предпочтений некоего дез Эссента из вырождающегося аристократического рода, некоторые весьма экзотические или эксцентричные. Так например, ему взбрело в голову, что инкрустированная драгоценными камнями живая черепаха неплохо бы украшала его ковры. Только черепаха не выдержала роскоши ее одеяния, подохла.
Дез Эссент получил образование в иезуитской школе, он любит античную литературу, он украсил стены картинами символистов Густава Моро и Одилона Редона, он обожает Бодлера и тонко разбирается во французской поэзии, также его восхищает Вагнер. Эстет и богач, он может позволить себе заказывать ручную печать книг в единственном экземпляре, часто на пергаменте. Представляю, что за сокровища эти книги! В ранней молодости он пресытился развратом и, устав от жизни, истощенный, он уединился, создав свой маленький рай, искусственный рай, в котором тщательно подобранные цвета обстановки были призваны скрасить часы ночного бдения, а живые цветы должны были казаться искусственными. Но... в дело вмешивается природа, он страдает неврозом с обонятельными галлюцинациями, у него проблемы с пищеварением. Возможно, этому сильно способствует перевернутый режим дня, ночное бдение и дневной сон. И врачи советуют ему ехать в Париж, развлекаться (хотя, скорее всего, там тоже был бы ночной образ жизни). Тем, кто хочет понять, с чего началось движение декадентов в литературе, стоит прочитать этот роман.
Profile Image for MJ Nicholls.
2,049 reviews4,117 followers
March 5, 2012
Some top reviews on here already, let me point you towards Manny, Lee, and Nate for excerpts and analysis. I feel no need to review this one, so I shan’t trouble you for likes (Mike—I mean it!) In short, I loved the ornate, glissading descriptions of art, music, perfume, theological texts, peptone enemas, and the fabulous namedropping of French writers such as the Goncourt Brothers, Villiers de l’Isle-Adam, Charles Cros, Verlaine, Mallarmé, Ernest Hello, Léon Bloy, Barbey d’Aurevilly, and François-René de Chateaubriand, among others. Reminiscent of Gautier’s Mademoiselle du Maupin but with a gloomier fin-de-siècle (fan-de-see-eck-le) outlook. This edition includes reviews from Zola, Mallarmé and critics of the period. (Zola wasn’t impressed).
Profile Image for P.E..
776 reviews558 followers
April 28, 2020
Here is a sort of miscellany of the narrator's tastes and fixations.
Namely, Des Esseintes, a disillusioned esthete and misanthrope.
This book reads as a catalogue, but also as the history of Des Esseintes's increasing estrangement.

Some siblings can be found in The Hound (1922) by Lovecraft, or American Psycho (1991) by Bret Easton Ellis


Une sorte d'herbier de tous les goûts et de tous les attachements du narrateur, esthète désabusé et misanthrope. Ce livre peut se lire comme un catalogue, mais aussi comme le récit du dépouillement progressif de Des Esseintes.

On pourrait facilement voir une filiation moderne, sur un mode léger chez Lovecraft dans The Hound (1922) ou une filiation contemporaine chez American Psycho (1991) de Bret Easton Ellis.
Profile Image for Jayakrishnan.
496 reviews183 followers
July 22, 2021
"When I was in prison, I was wrapped up in all those deep books - that [Leo Tolstoy] crap. People shouldn't read that stuff. When we read those books, what purpose does it serve in this day and time?" - Mike Tyson

Well, sorry to piss off fans of this book. I just had to drop the Tyson quote here. What am I, an Indian, supposed to do after reading Against Nature? I have nowhere to retreat to. There is no escaping the "incessant deluge of human stupidity" as described by Huysmans in this book. I have to listen to vicious dogs barking in the night as I am kept awake in bed by mosquitoes. Loudspeakers play dreadful religious songs. I must stand in long queues with other sweaty Indians to buy a bottle of alcohol. Watch the new woke movies made by amateurs imitating their American counterparts. I am surrounded by the entrails of a slowly disintegrating civilization. You fucked me up, Huysmans. Your protégé Michel Houellebecq had already done a good job on me with his novels. I guess this is the final straw for me. I might get sick like Des Esseintes did in this book, trying to stifle my true feelings and putting up an act.

And not just that. You might have actually encouraged me to convert to Christianity.

"Well, it is all over now. Like a tide-race, the waves of human mediocrity are rising to the heavens and will engulf this refuge, for I am opening the flood-gates myself, against my will. Ah! but my courage fails me, and my heart is sick within me! – Lord, take pity on the Christian who doubts, on the unbeliever who would fain believe, on the galley-slave of life who puts out to sea alone, in the night, beneath a firmament no longer lit by the consoling beacon-fires of the ancient hope!’"

Were you possessed by the Good lord or by Satan while writing this book? Your preface suggests it was the Good lord. Though I am not so sure. While I am comforted by the fact that there were people like you who shared a similar disgust for humanity in more idyllic times, there is a part of me that feels that some doors are best left shut.

I did not get all of it. I have not read 90% of the books and writers that you mentioned in this lament. But thank you for this entertaining novel, Huysmans.
Profile Image for Blair.
1,793 reviews4,428 followers
January 7, 2022
Against Nature (or Against the Grain as it’s also known; I vastly prefer the former, the introduction makes the case for the latter), is famously ‘a novel with only one character’. While that isn’t true in the literal sense, the reader certainly experiences little outside the perspective of Des Esseintes, a neurotic aristocrat who retreats to a small country house to focus on his passion for artificial luxury. Being trapped in this deliberately extreme, increasingly hysterical, almost solipsistic narrative produces an intense, claustrophobic effect, heightened by the sheer volume of description. Many of the chapters feel like self-contained segments ruminating on a topic (art, classical literature, modern literature, flowers, sex, etc), with only a couple of episodes making it feel like a ‘story’, notably a funny one in which Des Esseintes tries to go to London but ends up exhausting himself on food and alcohol in Paris instead. I’m glad I bought this edition: the introduction is enlightening and the contemporaneous reviews/critiques included at the end are, in parts, as good as anything in the novel itself (‘Read this majestically hopeless book, then bury your impossible illusions, drink fresh water, and start loving – anything, even a dog.’)

TinyLetter | Linktree
Profile Image for Nate D.
1,595 reviews1,029 followers
August 17, 2010
Des Essientes, a debauched noble at the end of his line, in rebellion against the modern world, humanity, and nature itself (the title is variably translated as "Aganist the Grain" or "Against Nature"), sells the family manor and retreats to a country house in order to languish in exquisite hypochondria and nervous affectation. What strength is left to him he expends obsessing over art, literature, design, and even gardening, in dissertations on artificiality and garish morbid splendor that compose most of the book. It is clear that, much as Huysmans seems to mock Des Essientes' finicky, maladapted nature at times, protagonist and author share the book's aesthetic inclinations* and these are what makes this 1884 "novel" a defining work of Decadence, of the entire fin-de-siecle era.

As such, it's a terribly useful record of cultural context, but fortunately the book's pleasures extend beyond the academic and into sheer voluptuous descriptive prose. Unsurprisingly, Des Essientes expends much enthusiasm on a few writers whose incidental prose exceeds their overall literary vision, and this may be the case here. The narrative seems to exists mainly (and is indeed sufficient to) entirely submerge the reader in Des Essientes' overwrought decorating daliances, symphonies of liquour and perfume, orchid gardens, and faux ship-cabin dining chambers. And these sections are as absolutely splendid as they should be. Admittedly, the literary discussions, more removed from immediate detail, leave me a little colder. Especially when he veers into Latin Catholic theological manuscripts, a subject of which I have next to no knowledge or interest in. Yet they exert a strange magnetism for both protagonist and author. Of course, as they observe, blasphemy (reading "against nature" as "against god") only has real meaning from one who is at root a believer.

*Aesthetic inclinations which, all too often, I also share to some extent. My own interest in Decadence begins with the fantastic proto-surrealist work of Symbolist painters like Odilon Redon and Gustave Moreau, both of whose paintings are of special importance to Des Essientes. Specifically, he hangs two Moreau renderings of Salome (who danced before Herod to procure the head of John the Baptist for her mother) in his sanctuary. Moreau painted many versions of this scene and story, but I believe this is one of the (amazing) paintings specifically referred to in the text:

I've collected all of the art referenced in this novel that I could find here.
Profile Image for Eddie Watkins.
Author 6 books5,470 followers
October 16, 2014
If the hero of this novel had a more anglo-friendly name, it would be the byword for hyper-neurotic aesthete dandies, as Sherlock Holmes is in the world of detective. I don’t know how to properly pronounce des Esseintes, so I have always referred to him as that guy from Huysmans’ novel. Truth be told I don’t even know how to properly pronounce Huysmans, or rather I think I do but when I do I feel self-conscious. So I usually just spend my time thinking about des Esseintes and Huysmans, rather than talking about them by name, living in my head with them as it were, which of course is appropriate as this book is all about living in one’s head. This on the surface sounds terribly appealing, since I am sure I am not the only person who feels the inside of his head is much more congenial than the outside of it. But don’t jump too fast at this enticement, for while Huysmans sets up a very seductive mise en scene wherein des Esseintes is free to indulge in byzantine aesthetics of his inner world, the large majority of des Esseintes’ enjoyment takes place beyond the confines of this book. In fact this book is a long drawn out account of his fall from inner grace, his slow alienation from the private paradise he assembled before the present day narrative occurs, and his eventual breakdown and expulsion from his dandified Eden. This fall is in fact all the narrative consists of, though the narrative occupies less than a quarter of the book. The bulk of the book is a treatise, in the form of private discourses, on the pleasures of art and literature and sounds and scents, etc. Or at least the pleasures are what the sympathetic reader is inclined to remember… It is just as much about how much he hates everything, and of how even many of his most trusted pleasures ultimately disappoint him. The book is in short a very successful argument for the pursuit of aesthetic pleasures while at the same time being a damning of those very pleasures, which in the end makes it a very powerful book, as des Esseintes is pursuing a spiritual path without completely realizing it; and as I understand it Huysmans charts these pursuits in his subsequent novels.
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