Thursday, December 29, 2011

J.-K. Huysmans, En rade (1887)

I read Huysmans' most famous work, the anti-novel Against Nature (À rebours, 1884), when I was in college. It wasn't for a class; I was just obsessed with nineteenth-century French literature at the time. What can I say? The book concerns one Jean Des Esseintes, the last scion of a decayed noble family, who gets bored and disgusted with the world and thus decides to hole himself up in the family château to escape human society, as one does. The bulk of the book consists of lengthy catalogues of the art and literature and whatnot that he's brought with him, interspersed with his various efforts at amusing himself, macabre flashbacks, and dream sequences. In the end, this lifestyle proves too unhealthy, and he is compelled, reluctantly, to return to society.

This book blew my tiny mind. You wouldn't necessarily expect to be enthralled by a long list of early Christian philosophy that you have little interest in, but somehow the effect of the whole was really hypnotic. Granted, this was probably in part due to a sort of perverse wish-fulfillment thing that appealed to my more misanthropic tendencies, but regardless, it was just super-cool. So I followed it up by reading his later novel, The Damned (La Bas, 1891--and yes, that translation of the title is pure sensationalism). I don't actually remember it all that well, as I was much less enthralled by it than Against Nature. It's about a guy writing a biography of infamous child murderer (…is there any other kind?) Gilles de Rais who gets involved with Satanism. There's a depiction of a black mass at the end that might have been shocking in the nineteenth century. I didn't dislike the book, but the fact that I didn't love it means that I did not proceed to read this here other Huysmans novel which I had purchased, Becalmed (En rade,--also translated as Stranded, which is more exact, but the other title seems more evocative and thematically appropriate).

But, on a whim, I recently picked it up and gave it a go, and hey, I've gotta say, it's a pretty interesting piece of deviltry. It's about a fellow named Jacques Marles who, having had financial problems in Paris, retreats with his wife Louise into the country, to live in an old château of which her aunt and uncle are caretakers.

As per usual with Huysmans, not a whole lot happens here. The book is all about entropy: the decay of the natural landscape; of the primitive, atavistic peasants; of Jacques' mental state; of his wife, who is suffering from some mysterious wasting illness; and of his relationship with her. All of these things are described in somewhat gruesomely-detailed fashion--and there's your novel.

There are also three dream sequences, emphasizing the disorder of Jacques' mind and the entire milieu. The most memorable of these is one in which, with no warning or transition of any kind, he and his wife are suddenly on the moon--but not a fantastic moon; an arid, real-world moon with no air on which consequently they can't talk. They just wander around, taking in the geographic features, and noting that, in spite of what you'd expect from many of these features' names, they're completely sterile; there's nothing lush or Earth-like about them. I believe that Mishima read Huysmans, and I wouldn't be at all surprised to learn that this sequence was his inspiration for calling his final tetralogy the Sea of Fertility.

The dreams aren't the only fantastic parts; there's also a morbidly funny bit where Jacques imagines how, with the aid of science, ptomaine could be used to flavor food and thus people could eat their ancestors as a special treat. If I have one criticism of the book, it's that it could have used more along those lines. Huysmans obviously had a very idiosyncratic sensibility, and a bit more of the surreal would not have come amiss. In the introduction to my edition of the book, there's a quote in which he accepts criticisms of it and asserts that it would've been better if he'd gone with his original idea of strictly alternating between "real" daytime chapters and nighttime dream chapters. That might've been a bit of overkill, but it sure woulda been something.

Later, Huysmans converted to Catholicism and wrote a number of novels about this (featuring the guy from La Bas, no less). They seem to be fairly well-regarded, but I dunno--it's difficult for me to imagine how a writer this willfully perverse could possibly not be literarily neutered by religion. Maybe one of these days I'll give this later material a look and find out.


Post a Comment

<< Home