a rebours cover

A rebours (1884)


Times Literary Supplement

Against Nature by J-K Huysmans. Translated by Margaret Maulden and published by Oxford World’s Classics, 1998.

Margaret Maulden’s new translation of Huysmans’s "bible of the Decadents", A rebours, is clearly intended to compete with the only other currently available version, that by Robert Baldick, published in the Penguin Classics series. Baldick may have been the doyen of English-speaking Huysmans scholars, and his ground-breaking translation may have set new standards for an author who is probably the least translated — and the least well translated — of the major writers of the period, but there are many reasons for preferring Maulden’s attractively produced edition, not least among them being the critical apparatus that surrounds the text itself. Along with Nicholas White’s introduction and thirty pages of notes, the book also includes Huysmans’s own preface, written twenty years after the novel’s appearance in 1884, and a useful bibliography. By contrast, the unannotated Penguin edition, which has not been revised since its first publication in 1959, is beginning to look a little threadbare.

But it is not just the critical apparatus that gives Maulden the edge, her translation is better, too. As White points out in his introduction, A rebours "offers very particular challenges" to the translator, not only is the text littered with neologisms, archaisms and specialised words, its "highly mannered prose", in which clauses and sub-clauses are often piled up one after the other, is difficult to render into coherent English. Even Baldick, who tried at least to retain Huysmans’s broad vocabulary, tended to smooth out his sentence constructions. The result was something that was easier to read, but which did not truly reflect Huysmans’s style. Maulden reverts back to Huysmans’s idiosyncratic sentence constructions, giving her text a flavour of the intricacies and circumlocutions of the original. Maulden also successfully captures Huysmans’s ironic tone: for all its having been taken up so enthusiastically by the Decadents, A rebours is a very funny book, which at times seems to parody the decadence it so memorably portrays.

Brendan King