Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Reading Huysmans (assigned)

JORIS-KARL HUYSMANS, Against Nature/ A Rebours (required; any edition)

[Some biographical details: Charles-Marie-Georges Huysmans (February 5, 1848–May 12, 1907) was a French novelist and bureaucrat born in Paris to a Dutch father, Godfried Huysmans, who was a lithographer by trade, and a French mother who had been a schoolteacher. He published his works as Joris-Karl Huysmans, using an approximation of the Dutch version of his given names to emphasize his roots.

For thirty-two years, he followed the precept “keep the day job,” faithfully toiling as a civil servant for the French Ministry of the Interior. His first major publication was a collection of prose poems, heavily influenced by Baudelaire and called Le drageoir à épices (1874). They attracted little attention, and the writer turned to writing novels, adhering to the Naturalist current championed by Emile Zola. Marthe, Histoire d'une fille (1876) is story of a young prostitute. This early period climaxed with À vau-l'eau (Downstream or With the Flow), a grim account of a downtrodden clerk, Monsieur Folantin, and his quest for a decent meal.

Then Huysmans decided to reinvent himself as a novelist, publishing his “decadent” masterpiece, À rebours (Against Nature) in 1884. This book led to an inevitable break with Zola, who was appalled at the defection of his erstwhile acolyte. Moving away from the Naturalists, Huysmans found new friends among the Symbolist and Catholic writers whose work he had praised in À rebours, including Jules Barbey d'Aurevilly, Villiers de L'Isle Adam and Léon Bloy. Stéphane Mallarmé, then little known, was so pleased with the publicity his verse had received from the novel that he dedicated one of his poems, "Prose pour des Esseintes" to its hero.

In 1891, with the publication of Là-Bas (Down There), Huysmans turned to Satanism.

Then, in a final reinvention, he converted to Catholicism. En Route depicts the central character’s spiritual struggle during his stay at a Trappist monastery. La Cathédrale finds the protagonist at the Cathedral Chartres. This novel has long passages expounding symbolism in the traditional sense-—the figures of the saints and theological concepts expressed in medieval art.

Huysmans was also known for his art criticism. He was an early advocate of Impressionism, as well as an admirer of such Symbolists as Gustave Moreau and Odilon Redon. During his last, religious phase he rediscovered the great German artist Grünewald.]

Sometimes termed “the breviary of decadence,” A Rebours is both more and less than that. Jean Floressas des Esseintes is the effete scion of a noble French family; he devotes himself mainly to eccentric pursuits in the suburban house that he treats as a kind of sanctuary. Through the prism of his antihero Des Esseintes, Huysmans presents a number of facets of an ultrarefined sensibility. While the concept of decadence is never stated overtly, it does undergird many themes of the novel.

[The usual English translation “Against Nature” is not quite right—or rather it goes a little farther than Huysmans would seem to be going. “Against the grain” is a little closer to the French. Literally, the expression à rebours means “in reverse; backwards.” There is also a connotative aura, for since the Middle Ages the expression has served to suggest sexual irregularity--not unlike the later term “inversion.” (There is a surfer adaptation of Dante’s Divine Comedy. Perhaps a surfer version of Huysmans’ novel would be called “Ass-backwards.”)]

As has been noted, Des Esseintes is the last, degenerate specimen of an ancient family of French aristocrats. With his death the family will be extinct. Des Esseintes embodies not only individual degeneration, with its characteristic ill health and neurasthenia, but also the melancholy sense that France itself is in decline. The degenerate microcosm and the degenerate macrocosm are in synch.

Still, there is a silver lining, for Huysmans offers many indications of the exquisite aesthetic perceptions that, paradoxically, illuminate this sad state. “A song at twilight” might be another possible rendering of the book’s theme.

Chapter Five shows Des Esseintes’ preferences in painting. He has a particular predilection for Gustave Moreau (whom Huysmans had praised in print as early as 1880. He is also fond of Odilon Redon and, precociously, El Greco (“Theotocopouli"). The lengthy account of the two works owned by the hero reveals Huysmans’ obsession with Moreau, who (to judge by a critical piece) had first come to his attention in 1880, four years before the appearance of the novel.

As we learn in Chapter Three, the hero’s favorite reading comes from the late Roman Empire and the earlier part of the Middle Ages, typical decadent eras. His favorites among modern writers are few, but he does like Baudelaire, Mallarmé, Verlaine, and Villiers de l’Isle Adam, Symbolists all. See Chapters Twelve and Fourteen. In Chapter Fifteen the composer Richard Wagner makes a de rigueur appearance, somewhat anomalously in view of Des Esseintes’ other tastes.

Apart from reading he spends his time with such toys as the liquor organ and cultivating perverse flowers. Increasingly reclusive, he has given up his dinner parties. We learn of a notable occasion in Chapter One, the Black Dinner. All the cuisine and liquor are of a dark hue. Naked black women serve the guests, while a hidden orchestra discretely plays funeral music. This chapter also contains an account of Des Esseintes’ color preferences. All these preoccupations are laden with synaesthesia, owing something to Baudelaire’s influential sonnet “Correspondences” (reproduced with commentary in Dorra, Symbolist Art Theories).

A misanthrope, Des Esseintes tends to avoid human contact, so that the servants must be invisible to him. He ventures into Paris mainly for his jaded sexual couplings. Sadistically inclined, he delights in spoiling the lives of others, as in Chapter Six, where he encourages a friend to wed, only to sabotage the marriage, and where he corrupts a teenage boy.

A Rebours appeared two years before Moréas’ Symbolist manifesto. Accordingly, many of its Symbolist features are still couched in terms of decadence. Implicitly, Huysmans made the comparison between Symbolist art and Symbolist literature.

See the entry on “Decadence.”


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