Joris-Karl Huysmans: Against Nature – A Review of the Literature

Huysmans’, Against Nature, is novel written in Decadent aesthetics and is inspired by many other Decadent authors, like Baudelaire. Huysmans develops a character called Des Esseintes whom has characteristics of a solitary nervous person that reflects on living alone in his house of artifacts. Against Nature is written with a beautifully descriptive setting. The beginning of the book expresses his surroundings from top to bottom; for example Huysmans takes the reader through a sensory pleasing journey through Des Esseintes home. The setting involves all of his decorating schemes and begins to inform the reader about his large library of his most treasured literature; Baudelaire, Edgar Allen Poe, Dickens, Petronius, and many more. Huysmans eventually explains Des Esseintes wide knowledge of literature, art, and trade interests, like perfume manufacturing. His thoughts are always conflicting; for example, he contemplates the importance of Christianity versus Paganism. Throughout the book, he is torn between his knowledge of many conflicting ideas, which mainly leads to his schooling with the Jesuit Priests. Although he is suffering from a nervous disease, he escapes from his illness by reading literature and conversing with his imagination rather than real people.

Des Esseintes is a very melancholy type of man, but little mental desires keep his soul alive during his sickness. One example of a short-lived desire, is his yearning for a tortoise; because of his eccentric imagination, he has the tortoise’s shell covered in his favorable gemstones and he loves the contrast of the animal against his gold flooring. Of course the tortoise dies from a weighed shell and lack of nutrition, but he doesn’t show any emotion towards the death because the tortoise has already grown old to his taste. Like most Decadent writers, the character Des Esseintes is very narcissistic.

His house is covered with expensive literature, fake flowers and art. Des Esseintes especially favors religious paintings by Gustave Moreau and he imagines Salome goddess as being in movement with the other figures in the painting. Salome seems to intimidate him, and he always reflects more towards the art and literature that are threatening. Huysmans also mentions Des Esseintes artwork entitled Religious Persecutions, “These pictures, replete with abominable imaginings, stinking of scorched flesh, oozing with blood, filled with shrieks of horror and curses, made his skin crawl, keeping him riveted to the spot, unable to breathe, when he entered that red room.” (Huysman, J.K., 1884)

As mentioned before Des Esseintes has many short-lived desires that he quickly fulfills; then he begins his boredom conquest for something new. During his boring lifestyle, he conjures up old memories from Paris; one being about a young boy that he tries to mold into a murder. While he was living among society in Paris he meets a young boy, Auguste, which he calls, “the Little Judas.” He introduces Auguste to a night of drinks and sex at a bordello, and he hopes to build the boys sexual frustration to the point of murder. Des Esseintes examines the newspaper for months, waiting to see the boy murder some un-necessary people on the streets, and he is disappointed that his devious plan didn’t work.

Another memory is that of his former mistress; Urania, a ventriloquist that fills his sexual desires of committing adultery, in which she uses her many voices as an illusionary husband ready to knock down the door. As he experiments with aromatics and making perfume, he imagines a mistress that, “…would go into raptures over particular aromatics…a nervous woman who liked to have her nipples soaked in perfume.” (Huysmans, J.K., 1884) during Des Esseintes experiment with aromatics, he faints, which begins the reality and intensity of his nervous illness.

While he is continuing in a dreamlike state, possibly caused from early stages of dying, he takes an imaginary trip to London. The trip is full of eating, conversing, drinking, and observing. Huysmans wrote this imaginary trip with more description than a real vacation might entail. Des Esseintes says, “I would be insane to risk losing, by an ill-advised journey, these unforgettable impressions”, Huysmans explains that his imaginary trip was worth much more than actually taking the trip; He actually felt the exhaustion from the mental vacation as if he would from a real one.

Des Esseintes begins to become bored of his literature, art, and his home. He explains his book collection as if he is supporting his intelligence as he grows weaker. He mentions Baudelaire many times, and he says, “[Baudelaire’s writings]….eventually reaching those regions of the soul in which the nightmare growths of human thought flourish.” Towards the end of the book, he realizes that he can longer take laudanum, opiates, or hashish to enhance his imaginary journeys because his body will reject anything he ingests. At this point of Des Esseintes illness, Huysmans explains Des Esseintes mirror image of himself, which is that of a malnourished man. He calls upon a doctor that prescribes him enemas of certain nutrients, which he is very excited to have, “…eliminated the tiresome, vulgar chore of eating.” (Huysmans, J.K., 1848) The doctor orders him back to Paris, and society, rather than being confined in the walls of his home in Fontenay. Des Esseintes comes to the conclusion that he should reconcile with Catholicism along with his move to Paris, and he explains that he should give up his art of comparing all of the religious skepticism so his mind will be at peace.

In general, he uses his imagination to fulfill his need of pleasure and adventure. It seems that he moved to Fontenay to bring upon self reflection, but during his solitary lifestyle he begins a nervous illness. The reflection on his memories cause him to get caught up in comparison of the knowledge he has acquired in life; from his beginning years with the Jesuit Priests, to his adulthood in a Modern Paris society. Des Esseintes is an artist of critiquing art, literature and societal class. He is a master of religious teachings in comparison of a realistic scientific view. Because of his struggle with collecting his knowledge into truth, he almost dies because of neglecting his basic needs for survival.

Book Review: The Great Gatsby by F Scott Fitzgerald

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald is a classic American novel about life in the twenties. First published in 1925, it is still popular today and will remain a classic for years to come. The narrator of the story is Nick Carraway, a 29-year-old bond salesman from Chicago. The story focuses on the life of his mysterious neighbour, millionaire Jay Gatsby, and his search for wealth and happiness.

Although the book is set in 1922, the story really begins some years earlier. In 1917, Gatsby had fallen in love with a young woman named Daisy while stationed near Louisville. At the time, Gatsby was enlisted in the army as an Army Lieutenant and had to go away to fight in World War 1. While away, Daisy meets a new man named Tom Buchannan who she marries. When he returns years later, Gatsby has become rich and buys a luxurious house close to where Daisy and her husband lives.

One night during one of Gatsby’s parties, his neighbour Nick Carraway comes over and the two of them start talking. They soon become very close friends and during the rest of the novel Carraway remains his only real friend. The events that follow between Gatsby, Carraway, Daisy and her husband ends up changing their lives. In the end some live through it, while others don’t. What happens is a story of greed, betrayal, envy and even murder.

The Great Gatsby is a fantastic work of literature, and I highly recommend reading it. During the roaring twenties, American society enjoyed a high level of prosperity and life was good. The book is well-written and as a reader, you get a very realistic view of what life was like during those prosperous years after World War 1. The story is both exciting and sad, and although the novel did not receive the commercial success of Fitzgerald’s other novels it is by many regarded as his best work.

Book Review – Hemingway – A Life Without Consequences

Book Review: Hemingway-A Life Without Consequences

James R. Mellow ISBN 0-201-62620-9 Houghton Mifflin 1992

Until I read this three-dimensional biography of the American writer who taught the modernists how to write, I thought I knew all I wanted to know about Ernest Hemingway. It’s all in his literature; it’s all in the press and the archives, I thought. But I did not find the man I thought I knew in this biography by James Mellow. Eureka! Biographer James Mellow is as much an artist of life history as the artists he writes about.

For Hemingway buffs, “A Life Without Consequences” is the most enlightening portrait arguably of the most influential writer of the twentieth century. Much of what we already know about the man is documented ad nauseam. That he was and is universally disliked by some, adored and imitated by others can be found in letters to and from him, his four wives, publishers, editors and friends; not to mention his countless critics, “the maligning bastards” he likens to the hyenas of his Africa novels.

To understand this complex man who took his own life, the expatriate behind the legendary heroic war correspondent, newspaper man, big-game hunter, hard drinking, womanizing, openly bigoted, deeply romantic, envious of peers, foul-mouthed winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Print Journalism, and the Nobel Prize for Literature, you have to read this book. The extraordinary legacy he left of where he came from, what life did to him and why he did what he did with his life, pulsates in the real characters, places and events of this epic that reads better than a novel.

Born into an upper middle class late 19th century Victorian family in Chicago’s fashionable Oak Park suburb, the Hemingway that Mellow reveals may or may not have been greatly influenced by his musically talented mother Grace and his physician father Clarence. But most of his work appears autobiographical; his family, boyhood and adult friends and enemies are the basis for the characters in his stories. Sadly, his father, brother and granddaughter Margo all committed suicide.

The woodsy hunting and fishing scenes of his childhood, his first encounters with girls and sex, reveal wonderful glimpses into a simpler time. His tragic wartime experiences appear in the Nick Adams stories and in later novels. Everything he did as Ernest Hemingway is in his fiction. And of course so are Paris, Spain, Cuba, Key West and life and death. Old photos show Hemingway the boy dressed as a girl, which was common then. In maturity, Hemingway overcompensates for manliness by demonizing homosexuality. He exaggerates his masculinity by womanizing (my take) and in engaging in love affairs while “happily” married. Mellow includes photos of Hemingway’s family and the people he knew before, during and after two world wars, including his celebrated wives.

Hemingway belongs to the less is more class of literary noir that found its way to Hollywood’s money machine. Joining writers like Dashiell Hammett (The Maltese Falcon) and Raymond Chandler (The Big Sleep), Hemingway’s “The Killers” and “To Have And Have Not” are the classic hard-boiled noir genre of a man who allowed no interruptions, no intrusions into his writing life. He worked from dawn to noon, and drank the rest of the day. His characteristic brevity, with plenty of space between hard-hitting dialog, finds its way into his novels. By asking the reader to question, to contemplate what the characters might be thinking but not saying, Hemingway is engaging the imagination. With some exceptions, I think this is why most motion picture screenplays are not as successful as his original books.

The famous post-Stalinist Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko (now in his eighties) admired Hemingway. As a young man Yevtushenko wrote a poem about his chance encounter with “the old man” in a Copenhagen airport café/bar.

“The old man (Hemingway) moves with grim victorious determination … the earth seemed to bend beneath him, so heavily did he tread upon it. Rejecting a Vermouth and Pernod with a resounding ‘No’ he is served Russian Vodka, clearly more to his liking.”

Everything about Ernest Hemingway is bigger than life until he can no longer tolerate the myth he has cultivated and the expectations he has of himself. His body physically ailing from war wounds and plane accidents, his mental abilities fading, what else is left for Papa than to blow his brains out?