Against Nature (Penguin Classics) by Joris-Karl Huysmans, Patrick McGuinness

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, followed purely through a few silent servants, he pursues his obsessions with unique vegetation, infrequent gem stones, and complicated perfumes and embarks on a sequence of more and more unusual aesthetic experiments, beginning with the choice to provide his tremendous puppy tortoise a jewel-encrusted shell...

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Many of the elements of Des Esseintes’s interior are based on details of Montesquiou’s lodgings as described by Mallarmé in letters to Huysmans, but it gives some indication of the strange times Huysmans lived through to recall that one of the book’s most implausible episodes – the jewel-encrusted tortoise – is based on fact. Montesquiou had the poor creature customized to his tastes, and when it died wrote a poem in its memory in his collection Les Hortensias bleus (The Blue Hortensias), 1896).

It was obscene, garish, depraved; but it was also a curiously ascetic and inward book. It dwelt fascinatedly on bodily functions, messy ailments and lurid sexual adventures, but it appeared also to strive for serenity and peace. In at least one respect Against Nature can be called a classic: it portrayed its time but also intervened in it. There are poems and stories inspired by or indebted to Against Nature in almost every European language, and Huysmans’ creation even found its way into fiction as every wit, dandy or femme fatale had a copy ready to hand.

In his 1903 preface Huysmans claimed to have sought to break the limits of the novel in order to allow in ‘more serious work’. Against Nature is a hybrid, composed of different modes of writing: catalogue, inventory, case study, encyclopedia and scholarly treatise, while the chapters are arranged as compartments or glass cases. In Flaubert’s Bouvard et Pécuchet (posthumously published in 1881), Bouvard and Pécuchet retire to a country house to become great scientists and scholars. They read books, perform experiments and discuss big subjects, but the problem is that they understand nothing.

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