Against Nature Book Review
À Rebours, Against Nature or Against the Grain 1884 is a novel by the French writer Joris-Karl Huysmans. The narrative centers on a single character: Jean Des Esseintes, an eccentric, based on real life dandy Robert de Montesquiou.
Note: the English version is censored with much material removed. I used the French version on project Gutenberg by clicking the translate to English from French on Google Chrome.
In the beginning of the book we learn that Des Esseintes did not get any love from his parents. They died when he was 17. His education was completed at a Jesuit School. He was unable to focus on subjects that do not interest him. He does well in Latin but fails Greek. He is wealthy so he will never need to work. Therefore the Priests at the school do not try to train him for a career. After leaving school he throws himself into a decadent life of parties and sex with many different women. But as he turns 30 this party life has ruined his health. He decides to move away to the French Countryside so he can self isolate. He has no friends and does not want to see his relatives ever again as they are old and boring.
He buys a house in Fontenay which appears to be located 300 miles from Paris. He sets up the household so the servants can occupy a floor of the house which he does not enter. He will never have to see or interact with them and he can be totally alone. His reasoning for wanting to be alone is his disgust with humanity, but once he has isolated himself he begins to plagued by unhappy thoughts and memories. He decides to order tropical plants such as orchids to be delivered to his house, but gardening does not interesting him enough.
Before he moved away from Paris, Des Esseintes tired to corrupt a young man by buying him nights at a brothel. He has a fantasy that this will cause the young man to become a criminal and kill someone. These parts were left out of the English Translation. Clearly Des Esseintes is delusional. He never knows what became of his plan because he failed to read the papers and has no news of the young man. However, the subtext makes Des Esseintes seem like a terrorist as his motivation was a desire to get back at society.
Des Esseintes thinks about his past lover affairs. He met a woman who was strong and masculine and over time she changes her gender to male. She is gender fluid because she still retains a women’s mind and personality. Then he falls for a women whom is a puppeteer and ventriloquist. But she leaves him for a less complicated man. Then he meets a young man of indeterminate qualities whom he may of had an affair with, as the friendship left him deeply satisfied. Homosexually not accepted at the time and the wording of the affair is therefore veiled. Robert de Montesquiou is considered to have been gay by Wikipedia although there is no evidence.
After reading Charles Dickens to ease his mental suffering Des Esseintes decides to travel to England so he can see it for himself. When he arrives at the train station he orders food to the level of an eating binge. Des Esseintes had been a light eater due to his ill health and lack of appetite. But his strange eating behavior leads to him cancelling the trip to London and returning home. He feels that just the train station experience is enough for him. A sense of hopeless or depression is involved in his decision as he feels the trip is pointless.
Des Esseintes decides to work to create his own perfumes. He works with perfumes until he is overcome by flumes. His health is endangered but he feels healthy at times followed by weakness and decline. His malady is unknown. Doctors are summoned. Des Esseintes is unable to regain his health and faces death. He asks a servant to bring him a mirror and he is shocked by the decline in his appearance. This is said to have inspired Oscar Wilde to write The Picture of Dorian Gray.
The only doctor who has the power to save him tells him he must move back to Paris and live like an ordinary person. Although Des Esseintes does not want to return to Paris, he agrees to do so. The novel ends with Des Esseintes having decided to return to Paris but is no plot resolution. It is unknown if he is able to regain his health.
I decided to consider that his health had been compromised by his social isolation. This could have been resolved in number of ways. He could have married and had children. He could have employed paid companions. The doctor seems to have been more of guru then a real medical doctor. But medicine was highly primitive in those days.
I disagree with Wikipedia’s assertion that Against Nature is merely a book containing descriptions Des Esseintes’s tastes. The colors and styles he chooses are merely ways in which he attempts to distract himself from unpleasant thoughts, nightmares and memories.
Des Esseintes is “against nature” because he wants his flowers to look like artificial flowers. He selects a combination of natural and artificial gem stones to bedazzle his tortoise, but the tortoise can not abide by the added weight and dies. Everything Des Esseintes does is considered to be the opposite of the customs of his time period. Since he does what is unnatural it seems only fitting that he receives his comeuppances at the end of the novel, but he may be able to survive if goes back to Paris and resolves to live a “proper life”.
Perhaps due to his Jesuit education at boarding school Des Esseintes often thinks about Christianity but is unable to find peace of mind by prayer. He sets of a mini sort of Church in his house and then also for a Black Mass. The last thing in thinks of in the book is about the possibility of salvation. At the boarding school religion worked for him because he was trapped at the school, but now he is free he is unable to be religious.
This fascination book was highly controversial at the time of its publication due to the outrageousness of the material. Against Nature is now mostly forgotten and no longer shocking. Yet the corruption of the youth remains a moral issue because Des Esseintes could have helped the boy with money for his education instead of the providing him with paid women. What Des Esseintes needed was mental health help, but nothing existed at the time that would have resolved his issues. Being wealthy certainly did not allow Des Esseintes to live a happy life. Most people in his position would have been grateful and happy.
Des Esseintes unhappiness (which is the core theme of the novel) caused him to self isolate which he thought of as a solution for his boredom and alienation. Yet once he moved to Fontenay his mental and physical health declined even further. In modern times using the Internet would have allowed to maintain contact with humanity had he desired it. But he insisted to his doctor that what makes other people happy would not make him happy. He wants to be away from all other people, but it is not possible to maintain sanity in complete isolation. The author Huysmans died of cancer in what could have been foreshadowed in Against Nature. The description of Des Esseintes illness was similar to the symptoms of terminal cancer. Huysmans is considered to be an important literary figure in the French Decadent Movement. Des Esseintes is a complete narcissist as he is unable to sympathize with other people and worse not even able to make any kind of human connection with anyone. Until that changes he will never be happy.