J K Huysmans:
- Reviewed by Florence Scott
- Published on August 14th, 2011 at 10:01p.m.
The only strong human presence in A Rebours is that of the protagonist Des Esseintes. Tired of the modern ways of late 19th century Paris, he lets permeate his life an appetite of almost sinful decadence and luxury. Satisfied that his own mind can transcend any physical journey he may take, he becomes a recluse and resorts to fantasy, creating his ideal destinations by means of literature, art, and interior design. It becomes apparent however that a lifestyle so charged with richness can only be unhealthy. He becomes affected by bouts of frenetic sickness. A Rebours can be seen as a book of very little or no plot, but also one of almost immoderate beauty.
This is also the book widely believed to be featured in Oscar Wilde’s masterpice A Picture of Dorian Gray, responsible for the corruption of the eponymous main character. Wilde, though, was himself a great admirer of the work. If one of these novels has been read and enjoyed, the other will presumably also appeal to you.
In the interpretation of literature one often encounters the concept of the ‘Mind’s Eye’; a phrase used by Wordsworth to describe the visual aspect of the work’s impact on the reader. Certainly, A Rebours could be considered as a novel at the very pinnacle of visual literature. However, this elaborate description that so lucidly occupies every page is not only that of the visual. Each of the senses is carefully addressed, and the book therefore becomes an incredibly sensual experience, just like those Des Esseintes himself encounters. A welcome difference may be that the reading of A Rebours does not make one ill.
One reason that the reader may not completely see themselves as Des Esseintes is the actuality that, considering he is the only character, he isn’t very likeable. Often, his harshness and asperity towards fellow man may sometimes isolate the reader from the novel, as he engages in selfish and sinful acts to enhance his own pleasure. Some however, may see Des Esseintes as a personification of the sinful desires we can’t ourselves express; the feeling one may have that sometimes it would be a relief to retire from modern life and engage in uncompromising hedonism.
Some of Des Esseintes’ selfish endeavours also act as a source of amusement. In one part, he comes across a giant tortoise, and in order to match it to his carpet has it painted gold and encrusted with exotic jewels. This outlandish and eccentric quality of his character can often provide entertainment where the plot fails to.
The most striking features of the novel is the extensive and beautiful descriptions of Des Esseintes’ lifestyle. A book consisting predominantly of description however may not appeal to everyone. Large sections delve into technical language and concepts that are alien to most readers, for example at one part discussing at length the history of Christian literature. The book is of course unconventional, but this could be it’s main attribute. Some may see it as a method of cultural education, rather than an exciting adventure story.
A Rebours may not be to everyone’s taste, but for some it has the potential to be an extremely interesting and beautiful experience. Whether or not you find A Rebours a good novel, it is unarguably unique.