Sigh. With the often-painful recognition that I have only a finite tenure on this planet, wastes of literary time are especially disappointing. Maybe I should have known better, but J.K. Huysmans’ Against the Grain was a sparkling exemplar of just the sort of stuff that populates said category.
I picked up the thing at a massive charity-benefit sale, thinking it was a perfect time for me to cease limiting myself to secondary knowledge of the guy’s work and just dive in and see what all the fuss had been about long ago.
Pessimism, decadence, aestheticism, yadda yadda; I knew I’d be in for a cheesy treat with the preface, in which Huysmans rambles with self-deprecating justification about the work he’d produced twenty years before, assuring us that he’s since come to Jesus and/or the one true church, so please, Reader, be indulgent with the author-as-reformed-sinner.
The book mostly entails the narrator prissily cataloguing a world-weary and hyperaesthetic misanthropist’s literary, artistic, and decorative stock. Faced with descriptions of the hermitage our protagonist, Des Esseintes, has established for himself, I often felt subjected to the verbal assaults of an insecure grad student, the sort who drops names in order to make up for a lack of personal substance, pouring on venom or praise, depending on whichever he believes will point him up as most refined.
And I really didn’t get the sense that Huysmans was parodying the sort of oversensitive waifs found in some nineteenth-century literature. While asking myself whether these types– those whose emotional states would send them into swooning spells from which they woke draped over divans and unable to bear the thought of food or air or bad humors– really existed, I also couldn’t keep myself from laughing at the realities that probably would have ensued when someone shuts himself into a dark house and just lingers there. I’m probably the very sort of harsh denier of beauty Des Esseintes condemns (after all, I’m a mere female)– but what kind of vitamin D deficiency must this guy have had? (Hey! Maybe the swooning does have an explanation.)
There were also points in the story at which laughter was not, I think, intended, but where it was unavoidable. When a guy decides to have gems carved into a living turtle’s back, and the thing crawls a few feet and then dies on his carpet, how can the absurdity be met with anything but at least a few chuckles?* And in an attempt to let no detail go unnoticed, the author’s description of the effects a hot day was having on Des Esseintes brought out the honorary third member of Beavis & Butthead who makes an appearance in my head every few years– behold, the snigger-worthy assurance that our man was suffering from a “perspiring perineum.”**
Before concluding, I’ll leave you with a one-sentence example of what was contained in the travesty I forced myself to finish:
Next, following on this sensitiveness, this irritability of soul, on this ferocity of bitter reflexion that repulses the importunate ardour of acts of devotion, the benevolent insults of charity, he saw arise little by little the horror of those passions of age, those loves of maturity, where one is still ready to comply while the other remains aloof and on guard, where lassitude claims of the pair filial caresses whose false juvenility seems a something new, or maternal fondlings whose gentleness is so restful and affords, as it were, stimulating remorse of a vague sort of interest.***
A professor once commented on a friend’s paper, “Your logic is like a spinning wheel.” Replace “logic” here with “style,” and I think we’ve nailed it. The comfort here is that I don’t think whatever I read next could get much worse; things are looking up literarily from here, and at this point, that fact is enough to drive me to a little dance of thanksgiving. Join me, readers, in following James Brown’s imperative, and “Get on up!” in a bit of celebration.
* “It lay quite still; he touched it, it was dead. Accustomed no doubt to a sedentary life, an uneventful existence spent under its humble carapace, it had not been able to support the dazzling splendour imposed on it…” J.K. Huysmans, Against the Grain (A Rebours), introd. Havelock Ellis (New York: Dover, 1969), 48-9. I can’t remember the last time I reacted in the exact opposite fashion the author intended, but it may have been when the bad-boy protagonist of the horrible nineties film, A Kiss Before Dying, gets run over by a train. Come to think of it, the entire theater exploded in laughter at that one.
** ibid., 153.
*** ibid., 134.