Tuesday, April 12, 2016

more fictional French interior decorating from Against Nature by J.-K. Huysmans - to enhance the vivacity of its colors

I want to continue my exploration of furniture design and interior decorating in the French novel with À rebours (1884) or Against Nature by J.-K. Huysmans, the touchstone of future Decadents.  Nana (1880) and Bouvard and Pecuchet (1881) both had a lot of material about interior design, so that’s three novels in a short time.  Kind of an undramatic path for the novel to go down, you might think, correctly.

In English, the Huysmans novel is best known as the source of the infamous Chapter 11 of The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890), in which Dorian Gray describes his horrible crimes, which include cultivating orchids and mixing perfumes and worst of all reads (“Dorian Gray had been poisoned by a book”), maybe a little disappointing for readers expecting something a little less aesthetic.  Good readers, more than one, have told me that Chapter 11 is unreadable – it is certainly skippable – so now imagine that chapter puffed into an arch, plotless novel, with its own entire chapters devoted to orchids and perfumes and books, the tedious nadir of which is a long inventory of 19th century French Catholic writing, “an enormous mass of insipidity” (Ch. 12, 166).

The protagonist, des Esseintes, is an enormously wealthy aesthete suffering from nervous complaints who retires to the countryside to furnish the perfect house.  Most famously, hoping “to enhance the vivacity of [the]colours” of an oriental carpet, des Esseintes acquires a tortoise, but no, “the carpet was still too gaudy, too showy, too new.”  He has the tortoise gilded and encrusted with rare gems, soon killing the poor beast, which “hadn’t been able to bear the dazzling luxury that had been imposed on it” (Ch. 4).

This reminds me that des Esseintes’s mother had “died of exhaustion” (“Notice,” 36), which came from doing nothing at all.

Des Esseintes decorates with books.  He decorates the dining room in a sea theme, with the sunlight entering the room through an aquarium containing mechanical fish and “the odour of tar” sprayed into the room;  the crowning touch is “a table on which rested a single book, bound in sealskin, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, specially printed for him on laid paper of pure linen with a seagull watermark, each sheet of which was selected by hand” (Ch. 2, 52).

The great tension of the novel is the distance between the genuine opinions of the author, which are eccentric, and the nonsense of the protagonist, who is way way out there.  The book is one of the source documents of 1890s Decadence, but is at the same time a parody of Decadence, an attack on the very ideas it advocates.

For Huysmans, the book was a turning point, a first step towards his return to the Catholic Church and transformation into a genuine religious writer.  He writes in a “Preface, written twenty years after the novel” that is took him eight years to understand the path the novel had put him on, although Zola, “shrewder than the Catholics,” saw it right away and urged Husymans to stop undermining Naturalism, whatever that means.

The translation, ornate and sharp, is Brendan King’s.  Maybe I’ll write one more post, about the books, of course, the books, what else.


  1. Nathalie Sarraute's The Planetarium is a lot about interior decoration, if that's your thing. I never got very far with this book; the kind of novel, I felt, you don't need to read all of.

  2. "Des Esseintes decorates with books."

    As Anthony Powell - or, rather, his character "Books" Bagshaw - said: "Books do furnish a room."

  3. Is Powell the originator of that quotation? So recent! It's funny how literally des Esseintes takes it. There are two scenes in the novel of the character organizing his books.

    I have mentally noted The Planetarium - never read a Sarraute novel - it just does not seem like it ought to be much of a tradition, furniture fiction.

    You could definitley pick out the pieces of After Nature of highest interest and skip the rest. Botanists can read the chapter about flowers, etc.

    1. A lot of late nineteenth century writers were obsessed with books. There's a book - The Pataphysician's Library - about the (real) books owned by the (fictional) Dr Faustroll. When did Logan Persall Smith say "People say life is the thing, but I prefer reading."?

    2. Helps keep your book alive, flattering the bookish.

  4. This is so funny. I just read the Houellebecq novel "Submission", in which the protagonist is a Huysmans scholar. But the novel gives only a vague sense of what Huysmans work is like, at least, this blog post makes it a lot more clear. It sounds fun to read. I think I would really like some vintage decadence.

  5. A Huysmans scholar! A good gag. Huysmans's move from materialism - even Satanism of the French literary sort - to orthodox, if aestheticized, Catholicism seems relevant to Houellebecq's concept.

  6. I'm currently reading Gabriele D'Annunzio's deliberate impersonation of À rebours, Il piacere (Pleasure), so this is a hoot. There hasn't been a jewel-encrusted tortoise yet, but I'll almost be surprised if I get to the end of the book without finding one. There are, however, plenty of books lying about in gaudily-decorated rooms.

  7. Oh good, I can compare notes, then. I have wondered about that D'Annunzio book.

    More on the books later today. Canon formation. Dickens as deconstructionist aphrodisiac. That sort of thing.