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Against Nature (1884)

by Joris-Karl Huysmans

Other authors: See the other authors section.

MembersReviewsPopularityAverage ratingMentions
3,094643,266 (3.77)147
`It will be the biggest fiasco of the year - but I don't care a damn! It will be something nobody has ever done before, and I shall have said what I had to say.'As Joris -Karl Huysmans announced in 1884, Against Nature was fated to be a novel like no other. Resisting the models of classic nineteenth-century fiction, it focuses on the attempts of its anti-hero, the hypersensitive neurotic and aesthete, Des Esseintes, to escape Paris and the vulgarity ofmodern life. Holed up in his private museum of high taste, he offers Huysmans's readers a treasure trove of cultural delights which anticipates many of the strains of modernism in its appreciation of Baudelaire, Moreau, Redon, Mallarme and Poe. This new translation is supplemented by indispensablenotes which enhance the understanding of a highly allusive work.… (more)
  1. 80
    The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde (roby72, Zeeko, JuliaMaria)
    JuliaMaria: Wie in Wikipedia zu 'Gegen den Strich' beschrieben: "Ein französischer Roman, der den Protagonisten in Oscar Wildes Roman Das Bildnis des Dorian Gray zu dekadenten Ausschweifungen inspiriert, wird häufig als Anspielung auf À rebours gedeutet. Wilde war - wie auch Stéphane Mallarmé - ein Bewunderer des Romans."… (more)
  2. 20
    Bruges-la-Morte by Georges Rodenbach (defaults)
  3. 00
    Eugene Onegin by Alexander Pushkin (TheLittlePhrase)
  4. 00
    Five Novels by Ronald Firbank (uncultured)
    uncultured: Firbank is the bridge between Oscar Wilde and Evelyn Waugh. Huysmans would approve.
  5. 00
    Submission by Michel Houellebecq (JuliaMaria)
    JuliaMaria: In "Unterwerfung" geht es um einen Professor der Literaturwissenschaften mit Schwerpunkt "Huysman". Entsprechend wird auch viel über Huysman gesprochen.
  6. 00
    With the Flow by Joris-Karl Huysmans (arztriper)
  7. 00
    Festins secrets by Pierre Jourde (Eustrabirbeonne)
  8. 00
    Reading Writing by Julien Gracq (Eustrabirbeonne)
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» See also 147 mentions

English (52)  Italian (4)  French (2)  Swedish (1)  Catalan (1)  Finnish (1)  Dutch (1)  All (1)  Portuguese (1)  All languages (64)
Showing 1-5 of 52 (next | show all)
The finest literary ornament ever to be crafted. ( )
  RupertOwen | Apr 27, 2021 |
I was lead to À rebours (the English translation I read was titled Against the Grain as opposed to the more traditional Against Nature) through my recent reading of Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray. À rebours is purportedly the “Yellow Book” that enthralled Dorian.

The focus of the story is Jean Des Esseintes, a nervous and sickly man in his 30s. He held humanity in contempt, referring to people as scoundrels and imbeciles, so he sought refuge and isolation on top of Fontenay-aux-Roses. During his isolation, he rambles on with is opinions about art, literature, food, music and just about anything related to the senses.

The text is incredibly sensual and layered with descriptions typical of decadent writings. As an example, he described his bedroom’s décor with the phrase “women loved to immerse their nudity in this bath of warm carnation [light], made fragrant with the odor of mint emanating from the exotic wood of the furniture.” The book contains luxurious details to the point where you can feel brocade, smell incense and see light reflected from polished and jeweled surfaces. Another example in describing his library: “Between two gilded copper monstrances of Byzantine style, originally brought from old Abbaye-au-Bois de Bièvre, stood a marvelous church canon.”

The book presented frequent anti-naturalist themes and attitudes. (Hence the Against Nature title.) In one chapter, the author described Des Esseintes’ ornate decoration of a tortoise’s shell with gold guilt and jewels and minerals. The motif and materials used for the design are painstakingly described. The fact that this decoration resulted in the death of the animal was only conveyed in one short sentence at the end of the chapter. In another part of the book, Des Esseintes describes how nature’s rendition of flowers is lacking so he recreates them using wire, paper and fabric to a more glorious effect. He then duplicates their fragrances through the art of perfumery. Again, the descriptions are provided in minutiae and the final product is believed to be far better than what can be found in nature. His attitude is best summed up in the line “There can be no doubt about it: this eternal, driveling, old woman is no longer admired by true artists, and the moment has come to replace her by artifice.”

The most difficult chapters were those dedicated to literature. One provides an in-depth comparison of classical Latin writings to which I’ve had little to no exposure. Another provided reviews and critiques of French authors of the day (mid-1880). This chapter did lead me to read some works of Baudelaire with whom Des Esseintes had a strong obsession believing that “the prose poem represented the concrete juice of literature, the essential oil of art.”

There really is no plot to À rebours. Instead, it’s merely a collection of observations presented with beautiful language. Through the story, Des Esseintes’ health continues to decline. His doctor’s advice is to “get a life” and the book ends abruptly with Jean’s return to Paris. ( )
  pmtracy | Mar 15, 2021 |
I think you'll either love this book or hate it. I loved it. But to do so, I had to immerse myself in the details. So, when Huysmans starts talking about a plant, or a scent, or a painter, or an author, I have to go off to Google or Wikipedia to explore it further. I spent probably more time on that than I did on reading the book, but I can't imagine enjoying the book so much otherwise. The plants and the artwork alone make it worthwhile. If you haven't taken time to look at the works on Gustave Moreau, you are missing a world of color and patterns that just has to be seen to be believed.

Yes, this has no plot. The only real story elements are reminiscences of past events. Whole chapters are basically literary criticism, and the authors discussed are largely obscure to an American reader (and probably to most modern French readers as well.) There is an awful lot about Catholicism--that alone would seem to make the book totally irrelevant, for what could be more irrelevant than Catholicism? Actually, I guess as long as some people take it seriously, that makes it relevant, whether I like it or not....

Still, the experience of reading this is a deep, intellectual journey. The central character, the very wealthy Des Esseintes, has withdrawn from Paris society to a remote estate, furnished in an inimitable manner with colors, perfumes, books, paintings, and plants of his own eccentric choosing. Much of the book is a description of these, until it comes to a turning point, when even this private world he has created leaves him empty and sick. True, it was published in 1884, but there is so much here to identify with for any intelligent person who is almost overwhelmed by the stupidity of the world we live in and wishes to just turn off the news and live in a more perfect world of books and music. (I can't begin to keep up with Huysmans on the colors or scents!) But, of course, it isn't that easy.

This is a core work of "decadent" literature, but it is important to understand "decadent" as meaning a time when things are falling apart, when old things, such as language (very important in this book, both in reference to Latin and French) are losing their vigor. "Decadent" doesn't mean debased, although a few of the central character's experiences would fit that category. I could go on, but this is really a book you should read, taking your time to soak in the details. I read a translation from 1931 by John Howard. I thought it was quite good, but more modern ones are available and may better capture some of the book's more extreme elements. It is also important to read Huysmans' own preface to the 1904 edition, where he reflects on the book 20 years later. These days, it is difficult to see what all the fuss was about, but in France at least, literature was taken very seriously and it involved taking sides in the struggle between the church and the state or of naturalism (e.g., Zola) vs. more non-realistic forms of writing (e.g., decadence, symbolism). But you don't really have to understand all of that to get a lot of pleasure from spending time with Des Esseintes and his creator, J.K. Huysmans. It will also point you toward other things you may wish to read--Baudelaire, above all. ( )
  datrappert | Oct 20, 2020 |
This may shock you, but locking yourself in your house and attempting to never leave again typically leads to negative health outcomes.

Jean des Esseintes, the only character of any significance in Against Nature, decides that people, places, and things all suck so badly that he will never deal with them again. He buys a house a decent ways away from Paris and shuts himself in with books, rugs, paintings, and a whole lot of free time, but you don't make it through half a chapter before you pick up on an immediate problem with his plan: he's read all the books and seen all the paintings before.

Des Esseintes considers all the people he used to surround himself with in Paris to be dumb, and that's fine. But occasionally, dumbness confronts you in a way that will at least force you to use your brain in a way you normally don't. If all you do is read the same stuff, look at the same stuff, and think about the same stuff over and over again, even if you consider the ideas held within to be good ones, your brain will turn to mush.

Des Esseintes' brain is no different than ours, so you might think we'd get a book about a fun mental breakdown or some wacky antics springing forth from the guy's cabin fever, but we get nothing at all. All we get the entire book is a long list of the guy's opinions on French literature. None of them ever change at any point during the story. None of them are ever particularly interesting. This goes on for 200 pages.

I don't have any problem with the writing style or anything like that, but Against Nature is the equivalent of me squishing my grumpiest 25 Goodreads reviews together and pretending I made a novel. Joris-Karl Huysmans didn't write a novel here. He wrote an op-ed.

That's not why it's bad, though. There are good op-eds (occasionally), and using a character that may or may not exist can be a useful tool for making whatever point you want to make. That being said, I am 100% sure that there aren't any good op-eds that go on for 200 pages. None of Huysman's arguments here are complicated, and he should have had this baby wrapped up by around page 50.

Obviously, there's nothing wrong with long books. Don't forget though, this isn't really a book. Imagine the Washington Post just being one 200-page George Will column every week.

Now if you've read about the book before, you might be saying to yourself, "Wait! I thought this Des Esseintes guy was supposed to be all naughty and stuff. Isn't that usually interesting?"

Let me rain on your parade really quickly. Here's a description of the kinds of parties Des Esseintes used to attend. Read it several times and let it wash over you. In the days when he had belonged to a set of young men-about-town, he had gone to those unconventional supper-parties where drunken women loosen their dresses at dessert and beat the table with their heads.Loose dresses and massive head wounds? My dick just shot straight to the moon. I'd love to go to that kind of party, or at least read about one, but at the start of this thing, Des Esseintes decides that he doesn't want to do any of that stuff anymore.

Don't worry. He still does some pretty debauched stuff like... like... putting pretty jewelry on top of a turtle. That qualifies, right?

At the end of the book, Des Esseintes gets a tummy ache and is told by his doctor to start doing stuff besides having a narrator tell the reader what books he likes. He whines, and then that's it. Book over. It's all been a pointlessly negative waste of time.

I don't mind ennui and pessimism in literature, but I really get frustrated when they get posed as enlightened viewpoints or concepts worthy of being the center of one's existence. That's obviously the wrong way to look at it, and I don't even think obviously is a strong enough word. Yes, compassion, empathy, love, generosity, synonyms of all those words, etc. won't always make a person happy, but it's the only thing that's ever worked, and I'll say it again, that's obvious. The problem is consistently transforming that knowledge into action, dealing with the potential consequences of doing the right thing when it isn't popular, blah blah blah all the Sunday School stuff you already know. Making a case for this weird autistic hedonism of Des Esseintes is insane, yet Huysmans tries it here anyway. It isn't a particularly valiant effort.

If you're going to buy Against Nature anyway, get the Penguin Classics edition. It's got an Appendix full of contemporary reviews (Emile Zola's is particularly fun), and I think the last line of Emile Goudeau's reflections on the book is a good place to finish. Read this majestically hopeless book, then bury your impossible illusions, drink fresh water, and start loving - anything, even a dog. ( )
1 vote bgramman | May 9, 2020 |
An influential French realist novel/ response to realist novels. The start of the genre of Decadence, which spawned Dorian Gray and and other expressions of hedonism. Though I prefer Wilde's novel for its plot and characters, the author's main concern with Against the Grain, or Against Nature, is depicting the infinite ennui of our richly spoiled narrator, who is not satisfied with the excessive overabundance produced by his fortune because his imagination is limitless and insatiable.

For me, the best parts of the novel were the surreal breakdowns, the insular jaunts, where our Des Esseintes becomes unhinged and casts aside his ephemeral paradise to examine bleak reality and his own insanity. I am reminded of Coleridge's poem, Kublai Khan, and Confessions of an Opium Eater. It is astounding how touches and suggestions of Huysmans' novel arise all over the world of literature.

Des Esseintes hesitating castigation of Catholicism betrays his fascination with it. The way he dismisses literature and art, purity and romance makes one suspect that beyond secretly longing to fulfill an ideal out of reach, he wishes for the solace these worldly things can bring. He cannot make up for his own weakness by coating himself in pretty garb, and he cannot repair the disappointment he feels in himself by throwing nature and humanity into the flames. To the point of absurdity, the main character is unwilling to seriously consider the question of who is in the wrong: society or himself.

Without a hint of plot or side characters to distract us, we can examine Des Esseintes between the lines of his endless descriptions of frills and embellishments. Fighting off boredom has never been such a challenge as when there are too many objects to distract him. We are treated to opinions on Baudelaire and Poe, Rabelais and Boethius, Moliere and even Zola. By throwing other writers under the omnibus, it becomes clear where Huysmans drew his inspiration. Without the richness of the prose, the abundance of fascinating Objet d'art, and the contrived mellifluousness, this would be nothing more than an unreadable pamphlet. Even with the transparent madness of the main character it is still a catalog of antique curiosities, a cabinet of Dr. Caligari, and a masterpiece composed of flowers, perfumes and floral wallpaper.

It is easy to fantasize about Baroque palaces of desire. But when it comes right down to it, dreams are mere vacations from real life. You will get far more meaning by wringing out the contents of a novel by Zola, than if you highlight the important parts of Against Nature. This book is shallow, but that is not to say it does not taunt you, make you think, and entice you with its redolent aroma. ( )
1 vote LSPopovich | Apr 8, 2020 |
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» Add other authors (170 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Huysmans, Joris-Karlprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Ascari, FabrizioTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Baldick, RobertTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Baldick, Robert.Translatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Bo, CarloForewordsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Dèttore, UgoTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Ellis, HavelockIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Jacob, HansTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
King, BrendanTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
McGuinness, PatrickIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Nylén, AnttiTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Redon, OdilonIllustratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Sbarbaro, CamilloTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Zaidenberg, ArthurIllustratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Over two months elapsed before Des Esseintes could immerse himself in the peaceful silence of his house at Fontenay, for purchases of all sorts still kept him perambulating the streets and ransacking the shops from one end of Paris to the other.
If, in a cosy fantasy of cultural influence, one were to present one's young niece or nephew with their first nineteenth-century novel, only the most wicked amongst us would choose Joris-Karl Huysmans's Against Nature (in the original French, A rebours). (Introduction)
Judging by the few portraits that have been preserved in the Chateau de Lourps, the line of the Floressas des Esseintes consisted, in bygone days, of muscular warriors and grim-looking mercenaries. (Prologue)
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`It will be the biggest fiasco of the year - but I don't care a damn! It will be something nobody has ever done before, and I shall have said what I had to say.'As Joris -Karl Huysmans announced in 1884, Against Nature was fated to be a novel like no other. Resisting the models of classic nineteenth-century fiction, it focuses on the attempts of its anti-hero, the hypersensitive neurotic and aesthete, Des Esseintes, to escape Paris and the vulgarity ofmodern life. Holed up in his private museum of high taste, he offers Huysmans's readers a treasure trove of cultural delights which anticipates many of the strains of modernism in its appreciation of Baudelaire, Moreau, Redon, Mallarme and Poe. This new translation is supplemented by indispensablenotes which enhance the understanding of a highly allusive work.

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