Friday, February 29, 2008

A Rebours (Against Nature) by J K Huysmans

In at the last gasp of February (good job it's a leap year!), one last Outmoded Authors read and my February My Year of Reading Dangerously book, A Rebours by Huysmans (Penguin Classics ISBN:0-140-44763-6).

I picked this for the latter challenge because of the profoundly depressing effect that I found La Bas by Huysmans had on me; it really made me not want to read any more by him. The description of this book - a book with basically one character locking himself away from the world and giving in to all his obsessions - led me to expect it to have the same effect. I was pleasantly surprised to find that it did not.

In fact I grew very fond of Des Esseintes, the main character, despite being firmly convinced that if he were a person stood in front of me I would want to slap him for his self-obsession, but from the safety of the written page I found parts of his personality to empathise with and like. He comes across as a rather pedantic, highly intellectual man with a tendancy to be a bit whiney but not essentially dangerous or unlikeable. And despite this being a major text of the decadent movement at the end of the nineteenth century, Des Esseintes' obsessions are quite sophisticated and socially acceptable - mostly ones you could talk about with your grandmother - not at all what I was expecting from the reference to the book in Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray.

The structure of the book is deliberate and slow. Here are plot spoilers for some of the main action in the book: Des Esseintes reads a book, gets a tortoise, has a drink, is ill, remembers some stuff, rearranges his library... This is not a book for thriller lovers! Each chapter looks at a particular aspect of his personality and explores it. For example, it looks at his library: why he reads the books he does, what attracts him to them, why he has turned his back on other aspects of literature. It does it in great depth and the effect is almost hypnotic. The personality of Des Esseintes surrounds you as you read and you are drawn into the hushed world he has created for himself, looking at his obsessions in detail. You may not agree with why he likes or dislikes something but you can appreciate his thought processes, and perhaps consider you own views on the subject in response.

He drank this liquid perfume from cups of that Oriental porcelain known as egg-shell china, it is so delicate and diaphonous; and just as he would never use any but these adorably dainty cups, so he insisted on plates and dishes of genuine silver-gilt, slightly worn so that the silver showed a little where the thin film of gold had been rubbed off, giving it a charming old-world look, a fatigued appearance, a moribund air.

After swallowing his last mouthful he went back to his study, instructing his man-servant to bring along the tortoise, which was still obstinately refusing to budge.

Outside the snow was falling. In the lamplight icy leaf-patterns could be seen glittering on the blue-black windows, and hoar-frost sparkled like melted sugar in the hollows of the bottle glass panes, all spattered with gold.'

Although Des Esseintes is the main character and the book concentrates on exploring his thoughts, beliefs and feelings there are others present, either in the action (such as it is) or in his memories so it does not become too claustrophobic. His servants, for instance and a doctor appear at times.

It was a self-indulgent book to read, I felt. I didn't feel that I learnt anything in particular from the discussions, although there are a few Latin authors mentioned I would like to get hold of. I enjoyed it though, similarly to the way I enjoy Proust; I like to immerse myself in someone else's life and mind once in a while.

Cross-posted at Eloise by the Book Piles


For The Birds said...

I recently had a situation similar to your own in relation to Huysmans. I read 'A rebours' a couple years ago and found it difficult to complete. Now, I don't really think I gave it enough attention, because after the fact I've found a lot to love about it. In fact, it's been a constant reference point for me since, but I remember having a difficult time with it. I read 'La-Bas' last week, and was instantly drawn to it. The book is admittedly more conventional than 'A rebours,' for one thing, it does have a forward-moving story, even it is a slow one. I wouldn't rank 'La-Bas' as highly I would 'A rebours,' though, as it has definitely gained a spot in my heart. Perhaps its about time to reread it?

Anonymous said...

Huysmans and his literature. Amanda Nebiolo and her pictures. Dandy and art. Amanda Nebiolo was born in Turin in 1973. Artistically, she doesn't express herself only with painting: she is also the author of poetry (she has won literary prizes and has been published in anthologies) and her first novel, "Il recinto", has been published by TraccEdiverse in 2005. She also acted in films and fictions. Her artistic style use different techniques to elaborate every subject, that is produced as charcoal drawing with chalk and ochre on parcel paper, as well as oil painting with metal leaves on canvas. Her paintings portray almost exclusively people: soft, sensual women, with intense faces and eyes; elegant men with undefined faces (the dandies inspired by Oscar Wilde).