Against Nature

J.-K. Huysmans cover

Translated with an introduction and notes by Brendan King.
Published by Dedalus Books, 2008. Price £8.99



AFTER the sale of his goods, des Esseintes retained the two old domestics who had tended his mother and who filled the offices of steward and concierge at the Château de Lourps, which remained untenanted and empty until such time as it was put up for auction.

He brought this couple to Fontenay, accustomed as they were to the job of sick-nurse, to the regularity of distributing, hour by hour, spoonfuls of medicine and herbal infusions, to the rigid silence of cloistered monks who had no communication with the outside world and lived in rooms with barred doors and windows.

The husband was charged with cleaning the rooms and getting provisions, the wife with preparing the meals. He gave up the top floor of the house to them, forced them to wear thick felt slippers, had them put silencers on their well-oiled doors and cushion their floorboards with heavy rugs so that he would never hear their footsteps above his head. He also came to an understanding with them about a system of bell rings, settled on the meaning of certain chimes according to their number, their brevity or their length; he indicated on his desk the exact place where, once a month, they should place his book of accounts while he was taking a nap; in short, he arranged things in such a fashion so as to not often be obliged to speak to them or see them.

Nevertheless, since the woman occasionally had to walk past the house to reach the shed where the wood was stored, he wanted to ensure that her shadow, as she passed his windows, wasn’t threatening and he had a costume made for her of Flemish faille with a white bonnet and a large hood, hanging low and black, like those still worn by women in the beguinage at Ghent. The shadow of this headdress passing in front of him in the twilight, gave him the sensation of being in a cloister, recalled those hushed and devout little communities, those dead neighbourhoods that are often confined and concealed in some quiet corner of a lively, bustling town.

He also drew up an unvarying timetable for meals, which in any event were quite plain and scanty, for the weakness of his stomach no longer permitted him to digest elaborate or heavy foods.

In winter, at five o’clock in the afternoon after the light had faded, he would have a light breakfast of two boiled eggs, toast and tea; then he would have dinner at eleven o’clock; he would drink some coffee, or occasionally some tea or wine, during the night; then he would pick at a little supper at about five o’clock in the morning, before going to bed.

He would take his meals, which were planned and ordered once and for all at the start of each season, on a table in the middle of a small room, separated from his study by a padded corridor that was hermetically sealed, allowing neither smell nor sound to filter into either of the two adjoining rooms.

This dining room resembled the cabin of a ship with its vaulted ceiling furnished with semi-circular beams, its bulkheads and its floorboards of pitch pine, and its little casement window opening in the wainscotting like a porthole. Like those Japanese boxes that fit one inside the other, this room was inserted into a larger one, which was the actual dining room built by the architect.

This larger room was pierced by two windows, one, now invisible, hidden by a partition which could, however, be lowered at will by a spring in order to let in fresh air through the opening, which could then circulate around the pitch pine box and ventilate it; the other was visible, for it was placed directly opposite the porthole cut into the wainscotting, but didn’t open; in fact a large aquarium occupied the entire space between the porthole and the genuine opening window in the outer wall. The daylight, in order to illuminate the cabin, had therefore to pass through the window whose leaded panes had been replaced by plate glass, through water, and lastly through the glass of the porthole.

In the autumn, when the samovar was steaming on the table and the sun was about to disappear, the water in the aquarium – glassy and murky during the morning – would redden and speckle the pale wood of the partitions with fiery gleams like glowing embers.

Sometimes in the afternoon, if des Esseintes happened to be up and about, he would work the taps on the pipes and conduits in order to empty the aquarium and refill it again with pure water, and then he would pour in drops of coloured essences, thus creating, according to his mood, a range of the green or grey, opaline or silvery tones that real rivers have, depending on the colour of the sky, the more or less intense heat of the sun, and the more or less imminent threat of rain, depending, in a word, on the state of the season and the atmosphere.

He imagined himself to be between decks, on a brig, and, fascinated, he would study the marvellous mechanical fish, wound up like pieces of clockwork, which passed in front of the porthole or clung to the artificial sea-weed; or better still, inhaling the odour of tar which was sprayed into the room before he entered, he would examine the coloured engravings hanging on the walls, representing, as in the offices of steamship agencies and at Lloyd’s, steamers bound for Valparaiso and Río de la Plata, and the framed notices on which were listed the itineraries of the Royal Mail Steam Packet line and the Lopez and Valéry Companies, together with the freight charges and ports of call of the Atlantic mail boats.

Then, when he was tired of consulting these guides, he could rest his eyes by looking at the chronometers and compasses, the sextants and dividers, the binoculars and maps scattered over a table on which rested a single book, bound in sealskin, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, specially printed for him on laid paper of pure linen with a sea-gull watermark, each sheet of which was selected by hand.

Finally, he could take in his fishing rods, some nets browned with tannic acid, a few rolls of russet sail-cloth, and a tiny anchor made out of cork, painted black, all thrown in a heap, near the door that communicated with the kitchen via a passage lined with wadding, which absorbed, like the corridor that connected the dining room to his study, every odour and every sound.

In this way he could quickly, almost instantaneously, procure, without moving a muscle, the sensations of a long sea voyage, and since, in truth, the pleasure of travelling only exists in retrospect and almost never in the present, at the very moment it’s being experienced, he could savour it fully, at his ease, without fatigue, without fuss, in this cabin whose studied disorder, whose transitory appearance and seemingly temporary furnishings corresponded almost exactly with the fleeting excursions he made there, given the limited time he spent on his meals, and which contrasted in such an absolute fashion with his study, a permanent, ordered and well-established room, equipped for the steady maintenance of a stay-at-home existence.

Besides, movement appeared futile to him and it seemed to him that the imagination could easily replace the vulgar reality of things. In his opinion, it was possible to appease certain desires reputed to be the most difficult to satisfy under normal conditions – and that, what’s more, by a subtle subterfuge, by an approximate simulation of the object of those very desires. For example, it’s well-known that nowadays every gourmet delights in drinking, at restaurants celebrated for the excellence of their cellars, fine wines that have been confected out of cheap plonk treated according to the process of M. Pasteur. For whether genuine or imitation, these wines have the same aroma, the same colour and the same bouquet, consequently the pleasure experienced in tasting adulterated and artificial wines is absolutely identical to that which one would get in savouring a pure and natural wine, which it would be almost impossible to buy now, even for its own weight in gold.

By transposing this specious deviation, this adroit deceit, into the realm of the intellect, there is no doubt that you could enjoy – and just as easily as in the material world – imaginary pleasures resembling the real thing in every aspect; no doubt, for instance, that you could indulge in long expeditions by your own fireside, stimulating, if need be, the restive or sluggish mind by reading some evocative account of distant voyages; no doubt, too, that you could – without stirring from Paris – obtain the beneficial sensation of a swim in the sea; it sufficed, quite simply, to go down to the Vigier baths, situated in a boat in the middle of the Seine.

There, by salting the water of your bath and, following the formula of the pharmacopeia, mixing it with sodium sulphate, hydrochlorate of magnesia and of lime; by taking from a box, carefully sealed by a turn of a screw, a ball of twine or a very small piece of rope that you have specially searched for in one of those great rope-manufacturers whose vast warehouses and basements exude the smell of the sea and the harbour; by inhaling these odours which the twine or the rope-end should still contain; by eagerly reading a Guide Joanne describing the attractions of the seaside resort where you want to be, and consulting an accurate photograph of its casino; by letting yourself be rocked in your tub by the waves raised by the eddy of the bateaux-mouches as they pass the pontoon baths; and finally, by listening to the groans of the wind being sucked under the arches, and the rumbling of the omnibuses passing two feet above you on the Pont Royal, the illusion of the sea is undeniable, overpowering, absolute.

It’s all down to knowing how to do it, knowing how to concentrate your mind on a single point, knowing how to abstract yourself sufficiently to bring about the hallucination and therefore substitute the dream of reality for reality itself. In short, artifice seemed to des Esseintes to be the distinctive stamp of man’s genius.

‘Nature has had her day,’ as he put it, ‘she’s finally worn out the mindful patience of the man of refinement through the sickening uniformity of her landscapes and her skies. At bottom, what were they but the platitudes of a specialist confined to her own petty sphere, the narrow-mindedness of a tradeswoman prizing a particular article to the exclusion of all others, what was she but a monotonous storehouse of meadows and trees, a banal purveyor of mountains and seas! ‘Moreover, there’s not a single one of her inventions, reputed to be so subtle and so grandiose, that human ingenuity cannot create; no forest of Fontainebleau, no moonlight that some theatrical scenery flooded with electric light cannot reproduce; no waterfall that hydraulics cannot imitate to perfection; no rock that papier-mâché cannot be made to look like; no flower that specious taffetas and delicately painted papers cannot equal!

‘There can be no doubt about it, this eternally repetitive harridan has now worn out the indulgent admiration of the true artist and the moment has come when it’s a case of replacing her, wherever it’s possible to do so, by artifice. ‘And then, when you really look at those of her works that are considered to be the most exquisite, that creation of hers whose beauty is, in the opinion of everyone, the most original and the most perfect – woman – hasn’t man, for his part, created, single-handedly, an artificial animate being who is fully her match from the point of view of plastic beauty? Does there exist here below a being, conceived in the joys of fornication and born amid the pangs of childbirth, whose figure and whose form is more dazzling, more splendid than that of those two locomotives adopted by the Northern railway line?

‘One, the Crampton, is an adorable blonde with a shrill voice, her long delicate body imprisoned in a glittering corset of copper, as supple and sinewy as a stretching cat, a showy, gilded blonde whose extraordinary grace is frightening, when, stiffening her muscles of steel, beginning to sweat on her warm flanks, she sets in shuddering motion the immense rosette of her slender wheels and springs forward, eagerly, across hill and dale!

‘The other, the Engerth, is a dark and monumental brunette with a deep husky cry, her brawny loins constrained by a cast-iron girdle, a monstrous beast with a dishevelled mane of black smoke, and six low, coupled wheels, what a crushing force she has when, making the earth tremble, she slowly, ponderously pulls the heavy tail of her goods-wagons! ‘Certainly there’s nothing to match such delicate slenderness and terrifying force in the dainty beauty of the blonde and the majestic beauty of the brunette; one can surely say that man, in his own way, has done as well as the God in which he believes.’

These reflections would come to des Esseintes whenever the breeze carried to his ears the faint whistle of the toylike train that circled between Paris and Sceaux; his house was situated only about twenty minutes from Fontenay station, but the height on which it was set and its isolation prevented the brouhaha of the filthy rabble, who are inevitably attracted to the neighbourhood of a station on Sundays, from penetrating within.

As for the village itself, he barely knew it at all. One night he had contemplated through his window the silent landscape stretching out, sloping down as far as the foot of a hill, on top of which stand the batteries of the Verrières wood.

In the gloom, to the left and to the right, indistinct masses rose up in tiers one above the other, dominated in the distance by other batteries and other fortifications whose high embankments seemed, by the light of the moon, to be painted in silvery gouache against a darkening sky.

Reduced in size by the shadows cast by the hills, the plain seemed, in the middle, to be powdered with potato starch flour and smeared with white cold cream; the warm air, fanning the faded grasses and distilling a faint perfume of spices, ruffled the pale leaves of trees scumbled in chalk by the moon and multiplied their trunks, their shadows barring with black stripes the plaster-like earth on which stones sparkled like shards of broken plates.

Because of its painted look and its artificial air, this landscape did not displease des Esseintes; but ever since that afternoon spent in the hamlet of Fontenay searching for a house, he had never, during the day, walked its streets; besides, the verdure of this country inspired no interest in him because it didn’t even offer him that delicate and doleful charm exuded by the sickly and pathetic vegetation that sprouts up, with great difficulty, in the wastelands of the suburbs near the ramparts. Then he had noticed, that day in the village, the big-bellied, bewhiskered bourgeois and mustachioed men in uniform who held their faces – the faces of magistrates and military types – aloft as if they were the holy sacrament; and since that encounter, his horror of the human face had increased still further.

During the final few months of his stay in Paris, weary of everything, worn down by hypochondria and crushed by melancholy, he had arrived at such a state of nervous sensibility that the sight of an unpleasant object or person etched itself so deeply on his brain it took several days even to begin to efface the impression, and the touch of a human body brushing against him in the street had been one of the most excruciating tortures.

He positively suffered at the sight of certain physiognomies, seeing the kindly or ill-tempered expressions of some faces almost as an insult, feeling an urge to slap this gentleman who walked along, eyes closed, with such a learned air, or that one who swayed from side to side smiling at his reflection in the windows; not to mention the one who seemed to be engaging in a whole world of thought, all the while devouring, with furrowed brow, rambling editorials and scraps of gossip in his newspaper.

He detected a stupidity so inveterate, such a detestation for the ideas so dear to him, such a scorn for literature, for art, for everything that he adored, so deep-rooted and anchored in the narrow minds of these merchants, exclusively preoccupied with swindling and money-making and accessible only to that base distraction of mediocre minds, politics, that he returned home in a rage and locked himself up with his books.

Lastly, he hated, with all his energy, the younger generation, that class of frightful louts who feel the need to speak and laugh at the top of their voices in restaurants and cafés, who knock you off the pavement without saying sorry, and who, without even an excuse me, without even noticing you, ram the wheels of their baby carriages against your legs.

Copyright © 2008 Brendan King