Thursday, August 7, 2014

À Rebours by Joris-Karl Huysmans

Duc Jean des Esseintes in
À Rebours 
Joris-Karl Huysmans
(from the 1931 illustrated edition)

Okay, this is probably the weirdest, albeit fascinating, book I have ever read. It was mentioned in Alain de Botton's The Art of Travel and I thought I would give it a go.

The book is À  Rebours (translated as Against Nature or Against the Grain) by Frenchman Joris-Karl Huysmans. It was published in 1884. It is the story of Duc Jean des Esseintes, "a frail young man of thirty, nervous and anaemic, with hollow cheeks and cold, steel-blue eyes, a straight nose with flaring nostrils, and dry, slender hands." He is the solitary descendant of a wealthy and once thriving aristocratic family.

His personal motto could be Satre's comment that "Hell is other people."

He has grown bored with the vulgarity of modern life. He has lost interest in activities and romance and the banal conversations of his companions.

In response to his malaise, he buys and moves to an isolated property outside of Paris. He builds a house that insures he will not be bothered by noise, society, or servants. He goes about furnishing the house in exquisite colors, and with materials and items that are elegant, expensive, and all to his own aesthete tastes.

For most of the book's 180 or so pages, we learn what those tastes include in literature (mostly Latin books with a few modern French ones thrown in), music, art, and poetry. Beauty is his watchword. He even goes so far as to have the shell of a live tortoise gilded and set with jewels. A very quiet companion, indeed.

When he is not paging through his books or staring at his art, Des Esseintes is thinking about past love affairs, the strange events of his childhood, his school days with the Jesuits, and his Parisian escapades.

I will admit that many - okay, most - of the works he references were unfamiliar to me. But, as someone who has spent time curating her own furnishings, collections, art, and activities, I can appreciate Des Esseintes's desire to be surrounded by only those things he loves and that he deems beautiful.

I read this while in a drug-induced swoon brought on by antibiotics and antihistamines prescribed to treat a sinus infection. I pretty much just let the words roll over me and now that my head is beginning to clear, I think perhaps the book might be worth rereading.

I don't know if I could actually recommend this book to you. But if you can get over the obscure cultural references (there are explanatory notes in the Oxford Classic edition for those who would bother to read them) then perhaps this is the tale for you. I guarantee it will make quite an impression.


  1. I've got this on my shelf as I quite like a bit of 'decadent' literature every now, so I really must read it now. I like how you connected to this book through another book - like a 'one degree of separation'!

    1. Well, Vicki, let me know what you think after you read it. The book caused quite a stir in 1884. I can see why. Definitely different!

  2. I hope you're feeling better now. How miserable to have a sinus infection.

    But thank you for introducing me to two interesting books. I've got both now and have started The Art of Travel.

    1. Thanks, Joan, I am recovering nicely. Usually when I am sick I find it difficult to read but for some reason I plowed through a bunch of books. Not sure I remember all I read, but it was a pleasure to get so much reading done.

      I would love to hear what you think of "The Art of Travel" and "A Rebours." Keep in touch. I also finished de Botton's "The Architecture of Happiness" which was full of info and gives me a new way to look at buildings and bridges and all sorts of walls and halls.