Book Review: Against Nature (A Rebours)

Des Esseintes at Study - Zaidenberg Illustration
Des Esseintes at Study - Zaidenberg Illustration

A while ago, our esteemed book editor, Phil Kirby, put a picture of his latest book purchase on Twitter. In the spirit of sharing, I tweeted my own picture of two books I’d bought that day. Phil asked if I could do a review of one of them, so here it is, my review of Against Nature (A Rebours) by Joris-Karl Huysman.

Against Nature, published in 1884 to great acclaim, is regarded as a fine example of the Decadent movement, which was big in France during the fin de siècle. Writers like Baudelaire reacted against authors who extolled the virtues of nature, and instead wrote about artificiality. They were influenced by the Gothic novel and Edgar Allan Poe and liked writing about dandies, rich young men with nothing to do but be eccentric, weird and, well, decadent.

(I knew nothing about Joris-Karl Huysman before I read the book, by the way. Nor the Decadent movement, or what exactly fin de siècle meant. So I write from an impressive position of ignorance. I hope this comes across.)

Against Nature is an unusual novel. There’s only one character, and nothing happens. There’s no plot. He just sits in his house, thinking and reliving old memories. He is Duc Jean Des Esseintes, the last of an ailing line of Parisian aristocrats. He is a comitragic neurotic mess, a rich arsehole, with nothing to do but spend his money. He is an insufferable elitist snob, hating everyone in the world and all they do, despising the majority of art and literature and liking only a very few painters and authors.

He reminded me of lots of other characters I’ve read about. He’s a less psychotic hybrid of Hannibal Lecter and Jean-Baptiste Grenouille from Perfume; or the enfeebled offspring of H.P. Lovecraft and Patrick Bateman.

He is a night owl, having his breakfast at 5pm after sleeping all day. Like Lecter, Des Esseintes has a rich inner life. The sociopath cannibal has his mental palace stuffed full of fine art, through which he walks in his imagination. Des Esseintes conjures up pretend worlds for himself too, with the aid of perfumes which he mixes together to make powerfully suggestive scents. Through smell alone he manufactures, for instance, a meadow filled with lilacs with a sweating woman in its centre.

He is a French Lovecraft, wishing to escape the here and now in dreams. Des Esseintes likes exotic, fantastical paintings and books as they help him flee the vulgar drudgery of everyday life.

And whereas the American Psycho, Patrick Bateman, filled page after page with his thoughts on the band, Genesis, Des Esseintes devotes entires chapters to Latin literature and French writers, discussing at length why he detests Homer (plaigiarist) and Virgil (boring), and lamenting the fall of Rome and the resulting decline of Latin writers. He exhaustively details how he chooses the colours of his rooms by comparing pigments under candlelight (orange is best), the furnishings, the pictures he hangs up, the music he enjoys (or rather, doesn’t enjoy).

But he is likeable, in a way, getting up to detestable and eccentric things. He lines a tortoise with gold so it will go with his carpet, but when that doesn’t work he encrusts it with obscure gems (diamonds and pearls are just too vulgar). The tortoise dies. There’s no mention of him ever feeding it. He fills his rooms with perfumes and almost suffocates his stupid self, fainting across his window sill and falling ill. He is the intellectual who knows all about Baudelaire and venerates Moreau’s paintings of Salome, but doesn’t have the common sense to feed his pet or open a window to let some air in.

Everything about him fits the bill of a true dandy. He is upper class and wealthy, the last of a degenerating line of inbreeding toffs, whose mother died of nervous exhaustion, his father of ‘some obscure illness’. He himself battles as a child with scrofula, fever, chlorosis. He tries hashish, opium, and laudanum as an adult. If Huysman had mentioned gout and pistols at dawn he would have had a Full House.

There were some priceless phrases sprinkled in by Huysman, whose very style is Decadent, all flair, wordy, no action or character development, language for language’s sake. When describing Des Esseintes suffering from a hot day, his ‘sodden perineum’ illustrates his sweatiness. We’re told about the symphonies he composes on his ‘mouth organ’, a line of casks of different liquors, each one representing a musical instrument. Des Esseintes imagines ‘gin and whisky raising the roof of the mouth with the blare of their cornets and trombones; marc-brandy matching the tubas’. He is able ‘to hear inside his mouth creme-de-menthe solos and rum-and-vespetro duets’.

Is it any good, this story about a man pottering about his house, living in his head, his imagination feeding off itself, slowly going mad? Yes. Aside from the difficult chapters about literature, it’s very entertaining, drawing you into a unique, intimate, bizarre world. He’s a swooning misanthrope, a cad with OCD over the arrangement of his books on their shelves, an over-educated recluse. He doesn’t learn anything, he has no insights. It’s a book about nothing. It’s like an episode of Seinfeld featuring no one but Kramer reminiscing about past mischiefs and schemes. (It’s not like an episode of Seinfeld.) It made me want to drink port and sashay about in a silk dressing gown. Always the sign of a good book.