Published in 1884, A Rebours, translated as Against the Grain or Against Nature, is arguably the most important work to emerge from the movement we know as The Decadence. With its minute cataloguing of the peculiar and rarified tastes of its protagonist, the book represents a sort of Industrial Culture Handbook of turn-of-the-century tastes. Every aspect of culture, from love to liqueur, from painting to gemology, is examined in the light of Huysmans' decadent aesthetic. It could be described as a series of thumbnail reviews papered over a skeletal plot. It was the unnamed novel which corrupted Dorian Gray, which Oscar Wilde described as "the strangest book hehad ever read...There were in it metaphors as monstrous as orchids, and as subtle in colour. The life of the senses was described in terms of mysticla philosophy. One hardly knew at times whetheer one was reading the spiritual ecstasies of some medieval saint, or the morbid confessions of a modern sinner."
The novel in question represented both a triumph and a turning-point for Joris Karl Huysmans, as well as a new literary style. His earlier novels had been in the realist style popularized by Zola, which for the first time in French literature, offered heroes and heroines from the slums and workingclass districts. As Huysmans put it, it took love out of the parlors and palaces and into the real world. He was still dissatisfied with the plots, however, which generally were tales of adulteries and courtships. He envisioned a book which laid out a banquet for the senses, a potpourri of sound, smells and pictures. And thus was A Rebours born.
The novel is subtitled "A Novel Without a Plot", and there was little plot for the average reader of the 1880's to sink his teeth into. Des Esseintes, a character modelled after the Comte Robert de Montesquiou and Huysmans himself, decides to move from Paris to an isolated village. Fearing that his health is deteriorating from over-stimulation in the metropolis, he resolves to turn his new home into a restful shrine to his aesthetics. Most of the book is devoted to an in-depth survey of how he decorates his house. A chapter is devoted to Des Esseintes' taste in classical literature, another to his modern favorites. His taste in music and art is discussed in two other chapters.
A Rebours defines the decadent spirit as one of simulation-that the idea of a thing is purer-and therefore more desirable-than the thing itsself. This is best illustrated in one of the most famous chapters where, after a lengthy reverie into the merits of various gemstones, Des Esseintes decides that the best way to display his favorite jewels would be to have them set into the shell of a living tortoise. The jeweler finally returns with the encrusted tortoise, which takes about two steps and dies from the immense weight of the stones. The entire decadent movement was imbibed with this sense of embellishing and improving the natural, and no single book encapsulates the decadent/symbolist aesthetic like A Rebours.
A Rebours is also unique in its frank, albeit veiled, portrayal of deviant depictions. Des Esseintes' library is filled with De Sade, Petronius, and other pornographic classics, and Huysmans lingers lovingly in his descriptions of them. There are orgies, and several gay trysts. Although the times forbade the sort of graphic depiction of sex that we are accustomed to, Huysmans devotes page after page of thinly veiled references to his protagonist's obvious bisexuality. The doctor also seems to diagnose him as syphilitic at the novel's end. Des Esseintes may well be the first openly bisexual protagonist in modern literature.
After the publication of A Rebours, Huysmans spent several years dabbling in Satanism and the occult, finally running afoul of several powerful satanist groups. Reviewing the book in 1884, fellow Decadent Barby d'Aurevilly commented that after such a novel as A Rebours, Huysmans really only had two options remanining, the muzzle of a pistol or the foot of the cross. Huysmans chose the latter, and joined a Trappist monastery, continuing to write novels of his progress through the order. When Oscar Wilde and Aubrey Beardsley travelled to Paris on a pilgimage to meet their idol, they were shocked and disappointed to find him cloistered; he refused to see them and cautioned them against the Decadent path.
Although his conversion may seem odd, it is not at all out of character; his first love was for the medieval age, and Des Esseintes' existence is very cloistered and monklike. Aubrey Beardsley also made a conversion to Catholicism shortly before his early death, and begged for all his artwork to be destroyed. Many of the Decadents died of syphilis, and few lived long and happy lives. The division between Good and Evil was in sharper relief then, and the choice to live a life outside the constrictions of society was a lot more far-reaching and courageous than it is for decadents of our age.
The illustrations by Arthur Zaidenberg are scanned from the 1931 Illustrated Editions issue of A Rebours.