Readers unfamiliar with A rebours may prefer to read the below note only after reading the novel.
From the Introduction:
[....] It is fitting therefore that the working title of the novel was Seul (Alone), though this was rejected in favour of the far more perplexing A rebours. This notoriously untranslatable title (variously 'Against the Grain' or 'Against Nature') refers to a contrary and paradoxical motion. Much can be gleaned from its multiple connotations if we cite the dictionary's inventory of some of its French contexts: caresser un chat à rebours, to stroke a cat the wrong way (perverse sexual overtones aside, Huysmans was a great cat-lover, was famously photographed with one of his feline friends, and described himself in a thinly disguised autobiographical text as 'a courteous cat, very polite, almost likeable, but nervous, ready to reveal his claws at the slightest word'9); prendre quelqu'un à rebours, to rub someone up the wrong way, and aller à rebours de la tendance générale, to run counter to the general trend (like the solitary and eccentric Des Esseintes); prendre l'ennemi à rebours, to surprise the enemy from behind (indicative of the aggression and anality of our hero); faire un trajet à rebours, to make a journey the other way round, and prendre une rue en sens unique à rebours, to go the wrong way up a one-way street (like the literal and narratological journeys denied or rerouted in a text which manages, as Huysmans's personal literary hero Flaubert would have it, to 'dérouter le lecteur' or disconcert the reader); and finally, even though the reconditeness of the novel does seem to invite in Stendhalian fashion the élite readership of the Happy Few, there is ironic solace for Huysmans's readers, who are in fact not so Happy and not so Few, in the connotations of feuilleter un magazine à rebours, to flick through a magazine from back to front, and comprendre à rebours, to get the wrong end of the stick! As with the lists articulated in the novel itself, such inventories are skipped over at the reader's peril.
This notion of writing against allows us to situate the novel in the movements and counter-movements which characterize the cultural turbulence of the fin de siècle. We are told in the 'Notice' which accompanied the original publication of the novel in 1884 (and which is translated as the Prologue in this edition) that Des Esseintes is the last in a long line of consanguineously degenerating aristocrats. He sports his sterility as a badge of honour, knowing that he will not add to what he sees as the inanity of biological perpetuation. So as we have seen, Against Nature can be read as a goodbye to the family fictions in which Realist and Naturalist writers continued to indulge. Whereas Zola's cycle, Les Rougon-Macquart, expands with the logic of the family tree from which it takes its shape (from the initial transgressions of La Fortune des Rougon to the procreative incest of its final novel, Le Docteur Pascal), Huysmans's novel ironically eschews such a concern for the crises of family life. It provides a novelistic response to the following dilemma: what type of narrative can we tell after the conclusion of the plot of family procreation? As such Huysmans exposes the delusion which dictates the association between the mimetic readability of Realist-Naturalist texts, family fictions, and the traditional Aristotelian plot. In its aversion to such a plot's presuppositions about the advance of (family) history, Huysmans's adopts the ironically abortive narrative pattern championed by Flaubert's L'Éducation sentimentale (Sentimental Education, 1869) and borrowed by Henry Céard's novel of adultery manqué, Une Belle Journée (A Lovely Day, 1881). As such, description threatens to overwhelm the imperative of plotting and story-telling.
* * *
A Rebours (1884) by J.-K. Huysmans
Hard to imagine a novel with one above-the-title character being ambitious, but A Rebours (1884) by Joris-Karl Huysmans is ferociously ambitious.
It is also ferociously funny. Jean Des Esseintes, the last excretion of an exhausted noble family, decides to turn his back on society and spend the rest of his life in refined aesthetic self-distraction, isolated far from his old haunts of Parisian debauchery.
Each chapter is an acidic thumbnail of his ambitions and what comes of them: interior decoration, a homemade liquor organ, the pet tortoise, his book collecting habits. He recalls fondly some old escapades with a woman trapeze artist and a female ventriloquist, neither of whom could fulfill his desires, no matter how carefully he spelled them out.
His dining room is remodeled into a ship's galley, with authentic fixtures and window art. Tired of the materiality of the country, he orders imitation flowers, gets rid of them and imports exotic species that look like raw meat from an anatomy class. (Perhaps this suggested the carnivorous garden plants on TV's "The Addams Family"?)
When Des Esseintes decides to make his own scent, he nearly asphyxiates himself.
Then it's off to London to savor the Dickensian atmosphere he has been reading about when not studying lithographs of flayed Christian martyrs. Except he only makes it to an English bodega in Paris, then decides physical journeys aren't worth it. So he goes home.
Goes home and quickly binds up his digestive system with quack snake-oil remedies. A local doctor prescribes three enemas a day, which turns out for Des Esseintes to be a sublime aesthetic experience. He decides to create an enema menu from which to order his meals.
Sadly for him and the reader, his local doctor makes him go back to Paris. Prescription: rejoin the human race before you outsmart yourself to death!
A Rebours is a very funny novel. Anyone who ever daydreamed about being able to afford to just stay home will appreciate its macabre and lugubrious drollery.
18 September 2022
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Some favorite passages:
One section of the bookshelves lining the walls of his orange and blue study was filled exclusively with works in Latin, works which are classified under the generic term 'The Decadent Period'* by those intellects which have been tamed into conformity by the deplorable, endlessly reiterated lectures of the colleges of the Sorbonne.*
In actual fact, the Latin language, as it was practised during the period which professors still persist in calling the 'Golden Age', did not appeal to him in the least. That limited language, whose constructions, so few in number, are almost entirely without variation, syntactical flexibility, colour, or nuances, whose seams have been smoothed over and trimmed of the rugged but sometimes picturesque expressions of earlier ages, was capable, at a pinch, of expressing the pompous nothings, the vague platitudes rehashed by orators and poets, but it exuded such a lack of curiosity, such a listlessness, that one had to go right back, in linguistic studies, to the French of Louis XIV's reign, to encounter another style as wilfully enervated, as solemnly wearisome and lacklustre….
[....] the part played by Tertullian as Bishop of Carthage evoked pleasant reveries in him; in reality what attracted Des Esseintes was not so much Tertullian's works as the man himself.
He certainly lived in tempestuous times, times rent by appalling disturbances, under Caracalla, under Macrinus, under that astonishing high-priest of Emesa, Elagabalus, and he calmly went on composing his sermons, his dogmatic treatises, his apologias, and his homilies while the Roman empire was being shaken to its foundations, while the madness of Asia and the filth of paganism were running rampant. With the most admirable self-possession, he continued to advocate carnal abstinence, frugality at table, sobriety of dress, during the very time when Elagabalus, his feet treading on powdered silver and sand of gold, his head encircled by a tiara, his garments studded with precious stones, spent his time, surrounded by his eunuchs, at women's work, giving himself the title of Empress, and every night bedding a different Emperor, preferably chosen from among his barbers, kitchen boys, and charioteers.
This sharp contrast enchanted Des Esseintes; furthermore, the Latin language, having attained its greatest perfection with Petronius, was on the point of dissolution; the literature of Christianity was now establishing itself, bringing, along with new ideas, fresh words, innovative constructions, unknown verbs, adjectives with over-subtle meanings, and abstract terms, which had hitherto been rare in the Roman tongue, and which Tertullian was one of the first to use….
[....] For his part, Claudian—a kind of avatar of Lucan—dominates the entire fourth century with the mighty clarion of his verse; a poet forging dazzling, sonorous hexameters, and amid showers of sparks beating out his epithets with staccato blows of his hammer; attaining a certain greatness, and breathing life into his work with the force of his inspiration. Amid the ever-growing decay of the Western Empire, with the chaos of endless massacres reigning on every side, and the perpetual threat of the Barbarians now pushing in their multitudes against the straining hinges of the gates to the Empire, he brings Antiquity back to life, sings of the Rape of Proserpina, daubs on his vibrant colours and moves past with all his lights brightly shining into the darkness that is encroaching upon the world.
Paganism lives again in him, sounding its final fanfare, raising up its last great poet high above Christianity which will from then on engulf the language in its entirety, which will become, and forever remain, sole master of the poetic art, with Paulinus, the pupil of Ausonius; with the Spanish priest Juvencus, who paraphrases the Gospels in verse; with Victorinus, the author of the Machabaei, with Sanctus Burdigalensis who, in an eclogue imitated from Virgil, shows the shepherds Aegon and Buculus lamenting the ailments that plague their flocks. Then there follows a whole series of saints: Hilary of Poitiers, Defender of the Faith of Nicaea, called the Athanasius of the West; Ambrosius, the author of indigestible sermons, the boring Christian Cicero; Damasus, coiner of lapidary epigrams; Jerome, the translator of the Vulgate, and his adversary Vigilantius of Comminges who inveighs against the worship of saints, the exploitation of miracles, the practice of fasting, and, even in those days, invoking arguments which will be repeated down the ages, preaches against monastic vows and the celibacy of the priesthood….
[....] Des Esseintes's interest in the Latin language remained undiminished, now that it hung like a completely rotted corpse, its limbs falling off, dripping with pus, and preserving, in the total corruption of its body, barely a few firm parts, which the Christians took away to steep in the brine of their new idiom.
The second half of the fifth century had arrived, that horrifying period when the world was convulsed by appalling cataclysms. The Barbarians were ravaging Gaul; Rome, paralysed, sacked by the Visigoths, felt herself grow chill as her life ebbed away, and saw her distant limbs—the East and the West—thrashing about in blood and growing weaker day by day.
Amid the general dissolution, amid the assassinations of the Caesars that follow one another in quick succession, amid the uproar of the carnage that engulfs Europe from end to end, a terrifying hurrah rings out, stifling the clamour, silencing the voices. On the banks of the Danube thousands of men, wrapped in cloaks made from rat pelts and mounted on little horses—horrific-looking Tartars, with enormous heads, flat noses, chins furrowed by gashes and scars, and jaundiced, hairless faces—swoop down at lightning speed, enveloping in their whirlwind the provinces of the Lower Empire.
Everything vanished in the dust from those galloping horses, in the smoke from those fires. Darkness covered the earth and the nations trembled in consternation, as they listened to the dreadful whirlwind passing by with a thunderous roar. The horde of Huns razed Europe, hurled itself upon Gaul, and then broke apart on the plains of Chalons where Aetius routed it in a terrible charge. The plain, surfeited with blood, frothed like a sea of purple, two hundred thousand corpses blocked the way and broke the impetus of this avalanche which, deflected, fell like an exploding thunderbolt upon Italy, where the devastated cities flamed up like hay-ricks.
The Western Empire crumbled under the impact; the failing life it was dragging out in imbecility and infamy was extinguished; the end of the universe seemed to be at hand; the cities forgotten by Attila were decimated by famine and by plague, and Latin in its turn appeared to be collapsing beneath the ruins of the world.
Years went by; the Barbarian tongues began to systematize themselves, to emerge from their sclerosis, to develop into true languages; Latin, saved from the cataclysm by the cloister, remained confined to the convents* and the presbyteries; here and there a handful of poets sparkled, cold and deliberate: the African Dracontius with his Hexameron, Claudius Mamertus with his liturgical verses, Avitus of Vienne; then the biographers, such as Ennodius, the astute, venerated diplomat and upright, vigilant pastor, who relates the miracles of St Epiphanes, or Eugippus who has recorded for us the incomparable life of St Severinus, that mysterious hermit and humble ascetic who, like an angel of mercy, appeared to the weeping masses that were frantic with suffering and fear; writers such as Veranius of Gevaudan who composed a little treatise on continence, or Aurelian and Ferreolus who compiled Church canons, or historians such as Rotherius of Agde, famed for a chronicle of the Huns, now lost….
* * *
[....] He went into the dining-room, where a cupboard built into one of the bulkheads contained a series of little barrels set side by side on minute stands of sandalwood, each pierced by a silver spigot low down in its belly. He called this collection of casks of liqueur his mouth organ.*
A rod linked all the spigots and controlled them with a single action, so that once the apparatus was set up, it only required the touch of a button concealed in the panelling for every tap to be turned on simultaneously and fill the minuscule goblets which stood beneath them. The organ could then be played. The stops labelled 'flute, horn, vox angelica' were pulled out, ready for use. Des Esseintes would drink a drop of this or that, playing interior symphonies to himself, and thus providing his gullet with sensations analogous to those which music affords the ear.
Furthermore, the flavour of each cordial corresponded, Des Esseintes believed, to the sound of an instrument. For example, dry curaçao matched the clarinet whose note is penetrating and velvety; kummel, the oboe with its sonorous, nasal resonance; crème de menthe and anisette, the flute, at once honeyed and pungent, whining and sweet; on the other hand kirsch, to complete the orchestra, resonates in a way extraordinarily like the trumpet; gin and whisky overpower the palate with the strident blasts of their cornets and trombones; liqueur brandy booms forth with the deafening racket of the tubas, to the accompaniment of the rolling thunder of the cymbals and the drum as the rakis of Chios and the mastics strike with all their might upon the skin of the mouth!
He was also of the opinion that the correlation could be extended and that string quartets could perform under the palatal vault, with the violin represented by fine old liqueur brandy, smoky, pungent and delicate; rum, being more robust, more sonorous and rumbling, took the part of the viola; vespetro, heart-rendingly long-drawn-out,melancholy and caressing, was the cello; while an old, pure bitter stood in for the double-bass, vigorous, solid, and black. One could even, if one wanted to form a quintet, add a fifth instrument, the harp, which was very closely imitated by the vibrant flavour and aloof, high-pitched, silvery note of dry cumin.
The correlation could be extended even further: there were tonal relationships in the music of the liqueurs: to cite only one example, Benedictine stands, so to speak, for the minor key of that major key made up of those cordials which commercial specifications designate by the label of green Chartreuse.
Once he had grasped these principles he was able, after some erudite experimentation, to play himself silent melodies on his tongue, soundless funeral marches of great pomp and circumstance, and to hear, in his mouth, solos of crème de menthe, duets of vespetro and of rum. He even succeeded in transferring actual pieces of music to his jaw, following the composer step by step and rendering his thoughts, his effects, and his subtleties, through close associations or contrasts, through roughly estimated or carefully calculated blends of liqueurs.
At other times he himself would compose melodies, performing pastorals with the gentle blackcurrant cordial which filled his throat with the warbling trills of the nightingale's song, or with the sweet cacaochouva which hummed sickly-sweet bergerettes like the 'Ballads of Estelle'* and the 'Ah! mother, shall I tell you?'* of bygone days.
But, that evening, Des Esseintes felt no urge to listen to the taste of music; he confined himself to taking one note from the keyboard of his organ, carrying away a little cup which he had filled with a genuine Irish whiskey. He settled down again into his armchair and slowly sipped the fermented juice of oats and barley; a powerful, unpleasant flavour of creosote filled his mouth.
* * *
[....] Feverishly awaiting the dawn, he determined to endure the most agonizing of operations so long as it put an end to his suffering.
Nursing his jaw, he debated what to do. The dentists he patronized were well-to-do practitioners whom one could not visit at will; the times of appointments had to be arranged in advance. 'That's out of the question,' he thought, 'I can't wait any longer'; he made up his mind to go to any dentist he could find, some poor man's tooth-puller, one of those men with a grip of iron who, though untutored in the (in any case useless) art of treating caries and filling cavities, are skilled at extracting, with unparalleled speed, the most tenacious of stumps; such people open their doors at dawn and there is no waiting. Seven o'clock struck at last. He raced out of his house, and, recollecting the name of an operator who called himself a dentist of the people and lived on a corner by the river, he rushed down the streets, biting his handkerchief and blinking back his tears.
On reaching the house, recognizable by a huge black wooden sign with the name 'Gatonax' spread across it in enormous pumpkin-coloured letters, and by two little glassed-in display cases in which plaster teeth were carefully aligned on pink wax gums and connected in pairs by brass wire springs, he gasped for breath, his forehead drenched in sweat; a horrible panic overtook him, a cold shiver ran over his skin, his pain subsided, his suffering ceased, the tooth fell silent.
He stood there, in a daze, on the pavement; steeling himself, finally, to face the pain, he had climbed up a dark staircase, mounting four steps at a time to the third floor. There, he had found himself before a door on which, in sky-blue letters, an enamel plate repeated the name on the sign. He had pulled the bell, then, terror-struck by the big blood-red gobs of spittle he saw plastering the stairs, he had turned round, determined to suffer toothache all his life, when a harrowing cry pierced the dividing wall, filling the stairwell and riveting him to the spot in horror, just as a door opened and an old woman invited him to enter.
Shame had prevailed over fear; he was ushered into a dining-room; another door had crashed open, admitting a terrible grenadier-like figure dressed in a frock coat and black trousers rigid as wood; Des Esseintes followed him into another room.
From that moment on his feelings became confused. He vaguely recalled sinking into an armchair in front of a window, and stammering, as he touched his tooth with a finger: 'It's already been filled; I'm afraid there's nothing can be done.'
The man had immediately put a stop to his explanations by sticking a colossal forefinger into his mouth; then, muttering into his curly waxed moustaches, he had taken an instrument from a table.
It was then that the drama really began. Clutching the arms of his chair, Des Esseintes had felt a cold sensation in his cheek, stars had swum before his eyes and, in the grip of unbelievable agony, he had started stamping his feet and bellowing like an animal being slaughtered.
A cracking sound was heard: the molar broke in two as it came out; he felt then as if his head was being wrenched off, as if his skull was being shattered; losing all control, he screamed at the top of his voice, frantically fighting off the man who was setting upon him once more as if he meant to shove his arm right down into his belly, but then, suddenly, taking a step back, lifted up the body that was attached to the jaw, and brutally let it fall back into the armchair on its buttocks, while he stood there filling the window-frame, breathing heavily, and brandishing on the end of his forceps a purple tooth dripping with red!
Utterly exhausted, Des Esseintes had spat out a bowlful of blood, waved aside the old woman who, coming in again, offered to wrap his stump in a newspaper for him, and had fled, paying two francs and in his turn expelling bloody spittle on to the stairs, and then found himself once again outside in the street, full of joy and ten years younger, feeling an interest in the most trivial little things.
* * *
[....] Suddenly he had a craving for food, unusual for him, and soon he was dipping slices of toast spread with superlative butter in a cup of tea, an impeccable blend of Si-a-Fayoun, Mo-you-Tann and Khansky – yellow teas brought from China into Russia by special caravans.
* * *
The gentleman bowed and placed his shield upon the pitchpine parquet of the dining-room. Rocking itself and rising up a trifle from the floor, it stretched forth a tortoise's serpentine head; then, suddenly taking fright, retreated into its shell.
This tortoise* was the consequence of a whim of Des Esseintes's, which antedated his departure from Paris. One day, while gazing at a shimmering Oriental carpet and following the sheen of the silvery lights darting about on the woven woollen threads, plummy purple and golden yellow in colour, he had thought: it would be a good idea to place upon this carpet something that moves, and is dark enough in hue to set off the brilliance of these tones.
Wandering haphazardly through the city streets in the grip of this idea, he had reached the Palais-Royal, and in front of Chevet's shop-window had struck himself upon the forehead: an enormous tortoise was there, in a tank. He had bought it; then, once it was let loose on the carpet, he had sat down in front of it and watched it for a long time, screwing up his eyes. Unquestionably, the dark brown and raw Sienna shades of that shell dimmed the play of colours in the carpet without bringing them to life; the overwhelmingly silvery lights now barely even gleamed, deferring to the chill tones of unpolished zinc that edged the hard, dull carapace.
He gnawed at his fingernails, searching for ways to reconcile these ill-matched partners and to avoid the absolute divorce of these tints; he finally saw that his first idea, of trying to enhance the fire of the carpet's colours by the movement of an object placed upon it, was mistaken; in brief, that carpet was still too garish, too undisciplined, too new. The colours had not become sufficiently muted and faded; it was a matter of inverting the idea, of tempering and deadening the tones by contrasting them with a brilliant object which would subdue everything around it, which would cast its golden light over the pallid silver. Put like that, the problem became easier to resolve. He decided, therefore, to have his tortoise's shell gilded.
Once back from the gilder's where it had been lodging, the creature blazed like a sun, shining triumphantly over the subjugated tones of the carpet, radiant as a Visigoth's shield inlaid with scales by an artist of barbaric tastes.
At first, Des Esseintes was enchanted with this effect; then it struck him that this gigantic jewel was still unfinished, and would not be truly complete until it had been encrusted with precious stones.
He chose, from a Japanese collection, a design depicting a cluster of flowers showering out from a slender stalk; he took this to a jeweller, sketched in an oval frame round the bouquet, and informed the stupefied lapidary that the leaves and petals of each of these flowers were to be made of gem stones and set in the actual shell of the tortoise.
Choosing the stones took some time; diamonds have become extraordinarily commonplace now that every tradesman sports one on his little finger; Oriental emeralds and rubies are less degraded, and they do emit a glowing fiery radiance, but they look too much like the green and red eyes of certain omnibuses which display headlamps in those two colours; as for topazes, whether burnt or raw, they are cheap stones, dear to the hearts of the lower middle classes who revel in stowing away their jewel-cases in their mirrored wardrobes; then again, although the Church has perpetuated the hieratic character—both unctuous and solemn—of the amethyst, that stone too has been debased on the blood-red earlobes and tubulous fingers of butcher's wives who seek to adorn themselves, for a modest outlay, with genuine, weighty jewels; of those stones only the sapphire has managed to keep its fires inviolate from industrial and financial absurdity. Its scintillations, flashing out over clear and icy waters have, one might say, preserved the purity of its discreet and haughty lineage. Unfortunately, in artificial light, its clear flame no longer sparkles; its blue waters sink low and seem to slumber, only awakening to glittering life at break of day….
'Brrrr!' he muttered, depressed by the onslaught of these recollections. To free himself from the vision's horrifying spell he rose to his feet and, returning to the present, began to worry about the tortoise.
It was still quite motionless and he felt it with his fingers; it was dead. Accustomed, no doubt, to an uneventful existence, to a humble life spent beneath its poor carapace, it had not been able to bear the dazzling splendour thrust upon it, the glittering cope in which it had been garbed, the gems with which its back had been encrusted, like a ciborium.
* * *
[....] He had had the sitting-room papered in bright red and on each of its walls had hung, framed in ebony, engravings by Jan Luyken,* an old Dutch engraver, who was almost unknown in France.
He owned the series entitled Religious Persecutions by this strange, gloomy, violent, savage artist; these were horrifying engravings that depicted every torture ever invented by religious mania, engravings that screamed forth the spectacle of human suffering, bodies roasted on blazing coals, craniums scalped with sabres, trepanned with nails, hacked at with saws, intestines drawn from the belly and wound round bobbins, fingernails slowly pulled out with pincers, eyes put out, eyelids turned up and pinned back, limbs dislocated, meticulously broken, bones bared of flesh and scraped, very slowly, with a blade. These pictures, replete with abominable imaginings, stinking of scorched flesh, oozing with blood, filled with shrieks of horror and with curses, made Des Esseintes's skin crawl, keeping him riveted to the spot, unable to breathe, when he entered that red room.
But, quite apart from the shudders they occasioned, quite apart from this man's terrible talent and the extraordinary life that animated his figures, one could observe, in his astonishing, swarming crowd scenes, in the waves of humanity captured with a skill reminiscent of Callot's* but with a power never attained by that entertaining dauber, meticulous re-creations of places and of periods; architecture, costumes, and customs from Rome, in the days of the Maccabees when the Christians were being persecuted; from Spain, under the Inquisition; from France, in the Middle Ages and at the time of the St Bartholomew Massacres and the dragonnades;* all observed with scrupulous care and depicted with consummate skill.
These engravings were mines of information; one could gaze at them for hours without wearying; profoundly thought-provoking, they frequently helped Des Esseintes to while away those days when books held no charm for him.
The life of Luyken was for him an added attraction; it explained, moreover, the hallucinating power of his works. A fervent Calvinist, an obdurate sectarian, obsessed with hymns and prayers, he wrote religious poems which he illustrated, he paraphrased the Psalms in verse, and could become so deeply engrossed in reading the Bible that he would emerge ecstatic, hollow-eyed, his mind possessed by gory subjects, his mouth distorted by the curses of the Reformation, by its songs of terror and of rage.
In addition, he despised this world and gave all his possessions to the poor, existing on crusts of bread; eventually he set sail, in the company of an old servant whom he had infected with his fanaticism, going from place to place at random, depending on where his boat came ashore, preaching the Gospel everywhere, trying to live without eating, on the verge of insanity, almost of brutishness.
* * *
18 September 2022