84. À rebours, Joris-Karl Huysmans (1884)

Definitely one to shelve under ‘youthful enthusiasms’, À rebours (translated as Against Nature) was one of the books to have sticking out of your Oxfam overcoat pocket when I was a pale young thing. (Oh, those Penguin Classics…) It pushes the boundaries of what I’m prepared to consider as a novel, edging as it does into the nauseating realms of ‘prose poetry’, but despite all its ludicrous pomp and pretence (or probably because of those qualities) it made a big impact in my late teens/early 20s. À rebours narrates the peculiar life of Jean Des Esseintes, a misanthropic aesthete who retires from Paris to live a life of the senses in a country house. He spends most of the book in futile but decorative pastimes eg cultivating a garden of poisonous flowers, inventing perfumes and torturing tortoises. The scene that I most loved involves a banquet Des Esseintes organises to mourn the loss of his virility, in which all the food and drink is black, served on black plates by black waiters; I attempted a disastrous homage to it in my north London bedsit days, which sent my guests home with blue tongues. À rebours isn’t the sort of thing I enjoy any more, but, like Lautréamont’s Chants de Maldoror and the works of Genet it reminds me of a happy time when, perhaps, I was more open to artiness.

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Filed under My top 100 novels

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