By Joris-Karl Huysmans, Patrick McGuinness
The hero of this curious novel is des Esseintes, a neurasthenic aristocrat who has grew to become his again at the vulgarity of recent existence and retreated to an remoted kingdom villa. the following, observed in simple terms via a number of silent servants, he pursues his obsessions with unique flora, infrequent gemstones, and intricate perfumes and embarks on a sequence of more and more unusual aesthetic experiments, beginning with the choice to provide his great puppy tortoise a jewel-encrusted shell...
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Bougran a retired ministry clerk misses his job so much that he has his flat decorated exactly like his former office and pays a retired office boy to bring him the letters he has posted to himself the previous day. He drafts tedious reports in his most bureaucratic French and is eventually found dead at his desk having scribbled a few last words of ministerial jargon. Huysmans’ books are full of retreats: to the office, the bedroom, the library, the past, the monastery. The working title of Against Nature had been ‘Seul’ (‘Alone’), but in a sense all of his novels and stories had explored solitude, the aspirations of the yearning individual in a valueless world.
Not for him the rounded education, the balanced mind and healthy body. His tastes are for the quirky, the difficult, the outrageous. He savours the Latin Decadents, he enjoys the sense of the language losing its clarity, becoming complex and strange, ‘a pagan tongue as it decomposed like venison, dropping to pieces’. Des Esseintes is also impotent, and, like his creator, a misogynist. 18 Des Esseintes has sought ever richer, more dazzling and dangerous pleasures; ever more eccentric, artificial or stage-managed sexual encounters – his literary and artistic tastes are exclusive and his sexual tastes eclectic.
These two ways of organizing and narrating time are projected across the book’s treatment of genealogy and biology, in its use of political and cultural history, and its assessments of literature and art. This in turn is reflected in Against Nature’s structure: a narrative that progresses in a linear manner but is driven by ruptures, flashbacks and recollections that erupt unpredictably and often destructively into a nearstatic present. Des Esseintes attempts to recall certain memories by means of various stimuli, but he is also victim of memories he cannot control or does not want to revisit.