a rebours cover

A rebours (1884)



March 1923.


AGAINST THE GRAIN (A REBOURS). By J-K. Huysmans. Translated by John Howard. With an Introduction by Havelock Ellis. 8vo. 331 pages. Lieber and Lewis. $3.

I HAVE heard that this is considered a superior translation of a celebrated book, but, as a matter of fact, it is impossible to speak of it very highly. That it must have been a labour is unquestionable, that it was a labour of love is evident, but the liaison between the translator and his subject is not altogether happy regarded as a work of art. The book is bound in black boards with sacerdotal gold lettering, giving something of the air of an actual breviary to a novel which has been called the Breviary of the Decadence. This intention, comprehensible in itself, is marred by the vermilion decorations on the title-page like those of a cheap children’s classic, and by the too many sins of omission and commission due to the translator, or to the timidity of the publishers, or to the ineptitude of the proof-reader, or to a combination of the three. Two entire episodes, one of them that of Des Esseintes and the gamin Auguste are, without any real excuse, dropped from this version. Why the simple word "duke" should appear feudally arrayed in italics as "duc," while the word "sangfroid" is written as if it were English and split in two halves by a hyphen, is not obvious. More serious than these minor solecisms is the treatment accorded to whole passages such as Huysmans’ expressive paragraphs on the Satyricon of Petronius. Surely Mr Howard knows that the bastard Greek names Ascyltos and Eumolpos should not appear in any respectable English translation as Aseylte and Eumolpe. It is like designating the Serpent of old Nile as Cléopatre or the Roman historian as Tite Live. In the same sentence occurs a blunder which can be explained only by the most fundamental ignorance of the subject treated or the language translated. Everyone knows that the word "giton" owes its very existence in the French vocabulary to the sprightliest of Petronius’ male creations. In default of any gamier expression it might be rendered in English as "minion," or as some more colloquial locution, but a glance at the dictionary might have told Mr Howard that it could not possibly be traduced as "depraved little girl’! These are errors of detail, but an accumulation of such errors deepens in the reader a mistaken conviction that this book, at once recondite and a little demoded, should never have been translated at all.

Such an impression would be unfortunate. A Rebours is not only a very precious and remarkable work of criticism, but it has had a singular influence on the literary psychology of a whole gencration, not only in France, but in England. This influence was directed by what might be called the second flight of French writers on a generation succeeding the Pre-Raphaelite and Swinburnian one which had in turn submitted to the delirous magic of Baudelaire. That it was caviar to the multitude and anathema to the cultured and "wholesome" majority is, after all, beside the point. Volumes continue to be written on the English Nineties, the aesthetic period which found its most conspicuous exponent in the late Oscar Wilde, and the single novel by that writer is nothing more than A Rebours diluted into the literary idiom of Oxford University. Personally, we may think The Picture of Dorian Gray very small beer, and its author one of the most overrated of minor comedians, but no less a personage than M Jean Cocteau has declared in cold print that this novel "poisoned" his youth. That the aesthetic arbiter of contemporary Paris should have been poisoned by a book which is, substantially, the Magdalen-cum-Mayfair version of another book now thirty years old, throws an interesting light on a literary aspect of our own time. It is certainly legitimate to revert to Huysmans as the original sinner, and examine the fons et origo of a picturesque disease which is, evidently, not yet extinct.

This malady, whether it bc called aestheticism, or decadence, or l’art pour l’art, or the interior life, is the theme of A Rebours. Like all its author’s productions, it deals with a situation, expanded to its last possibilities, not with the developments arising from a situation, and it has only one character.

The Duc des Esseintes is the last representative of his race. At the age of thirty he has simplified his philosophy into a complete detestation of his fellow-men. In such a case there is, there can be, no novel, for a novel implies action and conflict arising from desire, and Des Esseintes is empty of desire since he is deprived of all vitality save a febrile loathing for mankind. Nevertheless he is not incapable of loving. He loves art — that is, the art of other men and other ages — but even this aesthetic passion is infected by his disease. In the first chapter, he retires to an hermetical house in a desolate suburb where he gives himself up to a kind of ghastly aestheticism, amused by a mouth-orchestra composed of liquors, a concert consisting of perfumes, a mechanical landscape, and a mock sea. He buys a tortoise and incrusts its shell with a sheet of gold and jewels, but the unfortunate animal, accustomed to a quiet life, succumbs under its rutilant cope and dies overnight. The Duke’s bedroom is in white and violet like a monk’s cell, and on the lectern of old iron is a splendidly illuminated altar-canon containing Baudelaire’s prose poem: Anywhere Out of the World.

All this seems dangerously close to satire, conscious or unconscious, and satire of a rather macabre sort is by no means lacking in Huysmans. There are passages in the book which suggest the voluptuary in Punch: "To rise, to take a little opium, to, sleep till lunch, and after again to take a little opium, and sleep till dinner, that is pleasure!" The deliberate extravagance with which it is inlaid found immédiate and perfervid admirers, particularly in England. Compton Mackenzie has a story of an Oxford undergraduate, afterwards a hard-working curate in a slum mission, who decided to go Des Esseintes one better, and appeared on the High Street leading a lobster on a silver chain. If the book had been merely an inspiration for sophomoric fantasies of this sort (among which we should certainly include Mr Wilde’s novel) it need hardly have been resurrected in English after all these years. Its art, its philosophy, identical with those of its illustrious and unhappy writer, are so much more important than any incidentally grotesque symbols of blue china or gilded tortoises, that they are worth a moment’s thought.

"Decadence," we are reminded by Mr Havelock Ellis in a wonderfully penetrating study of Huysmans, "is simply an attitude toward life and art. Technically speaking, a decadent style is only such in relation to a classic style." In short, there can be no Act of Uniformity applied to the dominion of art. A decadent art has only the remotest relation to morality. The classic herring of Horace cannot pretend any moral superiority to the decadent bloater of Huysmans; and despite the enervating harmonies of Debussy, there is nothing specifically immoral in employing the whole-tone scale.

Is there, however, a sense in which the decadence of Huysmans, merging, as it ultimately did merge, into an extreme Christian individualism, can be called immoral? Doubtless, if an aberration of the nervous system, consciously willed and enjoyed, can be considered immoral. Pagan art, the art which can properly be called classic, knew nothing of the morose delectation with which the Huysmanses of this work regard beauty. It has always dealt with candid, sunny tones and elemental things; it has not shrunk from or despised what Mr Ellis finely calls "the adorable mystery of common life and the human love" which are commonplace only to the anaemic. The extreme romanticist, everyone who wishes "to escape from life," rejects these things because he is at once insufficient and afraid. Artist and mystic, agnostic and believer, they are at one in the common sentiment that they deny and hate the world. "Tu connais cette maladie fiévreuse qui s’empare de nous dans les froides misères, cette nostalgie du pays qu’on ignore. . . . There is a country made in your image, where all is beautiful, rich, quiet and honest, where life is sweet to breathe, where happiness is wedded to silence. It is there that we should live, it is there that we should die." How perfect is the identity between people like Huysmans and Baudelaire in the cold squalor of garnis, amid the wet detritus of dead seasons, and the mediaeval mystic, super flumina Babylonis, longing for "the happy city, the celestial vision of peace." All his life, Huysmans was tortured by a longing (it is the reason and secret of his art) for "a real country of Cockaigne, where all is beautiful, clean and shining like a clear conscience . . . a singular country excelling others as art excels nature." Tormented and unhappy, he wandered through a world that was like an obscure wood, a forest bristling with differences, and when he came to his senses he had, in some unknown fashion, reached sanctuary, and found himself in a church.

"In this atmosphere it was good to live; far off, where slower hours contain more thoughts, where clocks strike happiness with a deeper and more significant solemnity."