Nate D's Reviews > Against the Grain

Against the Grain by Joris-Karl Huysmans
Rate this book
Clear rating

by
406701
's review
Aug 17, 10

bookshelves: read-in-2010, fin-de-siecle, france, favorites
Read from August 11 to 17, 2010

Des Essientes, a debauched noble at the end of his line, in rebellion against the modern world, humanity, and nature itself (the title is variably translated as "Aganist the Grain" or "Against Nature"), sells the family manor and retreats to a country house in order to languish in exquisite hypochondria and nervous affectation. What strength is left to him he expends obsessing over art, literature, design, and even gardening, in dissertations on artificiality and garish morbid splendor that compose most of the book. It is clear that, much as Huysmans seems to mock Des Essientes' finicky, maladapted nature at times, protagonist and author share the book's aesthetic inclinations* and these are what makes this 1884 "novel" a defining work of Decadence, of the entire fin-de-siecle era.

As such, it's a terribly useful record of cultural context, but fortunately the book's pleasures extend beyond the academic and into sheer voluptuous descriptive prose. Unsurprisingly, Des Essientes expends much enthusiasm on a few writers whose incidental prose exceeds their overall literary vision, and this may be the case here. The narrative seems to exists mainly (and is indeed sufficient to) entirely submerge the reader in Des Essientes' overwrought decorating daliances, symphonies of liquour and perfume, orchid gardens, and faux ship-cabin dining chambers. And these sections are as absolutely splendid as they should be. Admittedly, the literary discussions, more removed from immediate detail, leave me a little colder. Especially when he veers into Latin Catholic theological manuscripts, a subject of which I have next to no knowledge or interest in. Yet they exert a strange magnetism for both protagonist and author. Of course, as they observe, blasphemy (reading "against nature" as "against god") only has real meaning from one who is at root a believer.

*Aesthetic inclinations which, all too often, I also share to some extent. My own interest in Decadence begins with the fantastic proto-surrealist work of Symbolist painters like Odilon Redon and Gustave Moreau, both of whose paintings are of special importance to Des Essientes. Specifically, he hangs two Moreau renderings of Salome (who danced before Herod to procure the head of John the Baptist for her mother) in his sanctuary. Moreau painted many versions of this scene and story, but I believe this is one of the (amazing) paintings specifically referred to in the text:



I've collected all of the art referenced in this novel that I could find here.
12 likes · likeflag

Sign into Goodreads to see if any of your friends have read Against the Grain.
sign in »

Comments (showing 1-8 of 8) (8 new)

dateDown_arrow    newest »

message 1: by Tom (new)

Tom Meade Let me know what you think of this. I started reading it a few months ago, and even though I really loved the idea but the reality didn't really grab me. I'm trying to figure-out if it's worth another go.


Nate D Actually, your review (where'd it go?) was my introduction to this book, though I'd heard of Huysmans in relation to Decadence. So far, his vividly weird descriptions are occasionally captivating, but it can also be extremely ponderous (I just finished the entire chapter discussing Des Esseintes' oppinions of Latin texts in chronological order -- which, okay, actually did make me want to read Petronius a little, but other than that was entirely wasted on me). But I'm interested enough in this period, and familiar enough with the decadent identifiers that Huysmans helped define from their resurgence in 70s cinema, so I definitely need to read this just for context. Hopefully it will be good and useful, though!


Patrick I love this book! I found its languorous prose and unrelenting ennui quite intoxicating. But I think it's the sort of thing that if you're not in the right mind-space to read something utterly plotless it just becomes agitating.


Nate D Yeah, I'm really savoring this now. It casts an opulent synaesthetic spell, even when it's in danger of becoming a catalog of extravagances (though there's enough of a narrative progression to the obsessions as to keep it moving, albeit in a drifting pace without exertion of any kind). I'm not even as annoyed with Des Essientes as I feel I probably should be as the book frequently seems to acknowledge the ridiculousness of his phantasms and caprices.


Patrick Aha! Now it is my time to correct your review in the same breath that I praise it. Unless you are suggesting Against the Grain is some sort of paranoid glimpse of the future, I believe you meant to say it was published in 1884.


Nate D Ah yes! I'd like to say that I left that there just for you, but in fact I have received due comeuppance.


message 7: by Andrew (new) - added it

Andrew Walter Many thanks for assembling the collection of Des Esseintes favourites.


Nate D Glad they've been useful to more besides me!


back to top