Oooooh, yeh……. I’ve finally gotten around to reading Joris-Karl Huysmans’ A Rebours or, as it’s usually translated, Against Nature. Translated by Robert Baldick because, obvs, I can’t read a whole book in French, I was super excited to launch into an iconic hipstery text.
A Rebours is an infamous badass nineteenth century French book. It’s a corrupting influence on Dorian Gray (who is fictional), and in the Patrick McGuinness introduction to this Penguin Classics edition he quotes from Marianne Faithfull’s 1995 autobiography:
You would ask your date, “Do you know Genet? Have you read A Rebours?” and if he said yes you’d fuck.
This edition includes an appendix of contemporary reviews/references/reactions, all of which speak about the book as a dark, destructive, unreal fantasy. In a much later preface – written after a middle-aged conversation to heavy Catholicism – Huysmans speaks about the importance of the corrupt sexuality in the book as a part of him coming to terms with what he needed to change about himself in order to enter the kingdom of heaven. I first encountered the title of the book as a teen, when it was used as the title of a mediocre indie song by Pete Doherty’s side project, Babyshambles, so when I finally came to the first page of A Rebours, I not only had the idea of the book as a gateway to 1960s sex, I not only had the book as a gateway to fin de siècle, demonic, visceral pleasures a la Oscar Wilde’s anti-hero, but I also slipped back into the teenage memories of youthful experimentation and excitement that I was thinking about with the Leonard Cohen book a couple of weeks ago, this song twisting through my subconscious like a mantra:
I peeled open the first pages, beyond this scintillating introduction promising me racy sex, jewel-encrusted tortoises, biting satire and exploration of Catholicism and literature and art and interior design and the mindset of the time (it was originally published in 1884), but I crept in, step by step, page by page and what I found was… errr…
Pointless, boring, bullshit.
A Rebours is about Des Esseintes, a party boy aristocrat who decides – once his dick stops working due to overuse/infection – to retire to a peaceful cottage in the suburbs and amuse himself with intellectual, sensuous, pursuits. He eats and he drinks luxuriously, he surrounds himself with the most beautiful paintings of the era, the most beautiful poetry and prose from throughout history, all of it rebound in splendid colours. He decorates his house so as to feel as little influence from outside as possible, making his servants move almost silently about him. He buys real flowers and fake flowers, he reminisces on old sexual exploits, he thinks about Latin, about classical music, about poetry, about the Netherlands, about England, about watercolours and paint, as well as – in an incredibly objectifying manner – about women’s bodies.
Des Esseintes is an unattractive character, and he is the only one in this book. When this is flagged up in the introduction and in the blurb, I presumed it meant that not a single other person is mentioned in the book, but that isn’t the case at all. There are lots of other people here (the omnipresent silent servants, tradesmen and delivery boys, local poor people Des Esseintes stares at from his garden, cab drivers, train porters, bartenders, as well as the memories of anonymous women), but none of them have a soul: Huysmans hasn’t written a novel with a single central character on purpose, it feels, but rather he has written one that evidences a complete lack of ability to do anything else. Other “characters” that appear are mere foils to Des Esseintes’ sword (i.e. his cock and other appetites), they do not feel like they are ignored in order to dramatise the way the protagonist interacts with them, but rather that the writer has no idea how to evoke personality, character, soul, in the mind of a sex worker, an engineer, or a butler.
his cock and other appetites
The book is filled with pages and pages of in-depth art and literary criticism, which is fair enough and fine in itself, but why couch them within a novel? These passages are dry, as too are a lot of the passages that aren’t even meant to be dry. There’s an engaging section on how “taverns” have replaced “brothels”, because men no longer want a straightforward economic transaction as part of their casual sex, but instead want to feel like they have “seduced”, though this – again – is very, very cynical and also denies any female agency or sexual desire. Sometimes women want to have sex with a man for purposes other than money, Huysmans; maybe there was a reason why no women wanted to have sex with you for non-financial gain? Or am I projecting the character onto the author? No, I’m not, because Huysmans’ later preface – as well as the contemporary reviews – make it very clear that Huysmans lived the life fantastique that his character runs away, up until a few years after the book was published. The real-life Huysmans didn’t become a Catholic until, one presumes, his dick also stopped working due to overuse.
The book is uninspiring, it is the dull, introverted thoughts of a dullard who thinks he is the only interesting person in the world. It reduces everyone he encounters into nothing but a blurry background, and elevates the engagement of art above all else… A Rebours paints society as corrupt but essential, and when – at doctor’s orders – Des Esseintes returns to Paris at the book’s end, it is with a wry authorial wink: what kind of a loser wants to read books alone when he could be partying in town?
Huysmans’ own opinions are mixed and messy, but they ferment and solidify over time and it becomes clear that he, like all of the fucking moralising filth writers of all time, hates himself because he loves the pleasures of the flesh.
Fucking hell, guys: only have sex with people you acknowledge as people and you don’t have to feel guilty about dehumanising them because you haven’t. It’s not fucking complex, is it?
You can still enjoy food and sex and intoxication without the sex making you feel ashamed of all the rest. This isn’t a sexy book, this isn’t a corrupting book, this is a boring book that I feel has only been considered “cool” for so long because people feel ashamed to say that they found it boring.
There are better books about sexuality, there are better books about art, there are better books about removing the self from society, there are better books about books.
If anyone ever demands you read this before they fuck you, it’s not gonna be worth it. An old school, uninventive, tired, missionary-position bore. The book and, I imagine, anyone who loves it.