Against the Grain
- Against the Grain (1884) is a novel by the French writer Joris-Karl Huysmans. Its narrative concentrates almost entirely on its principal character, and is mostly a catalogue of the tastes and inner life of Jean Des Esseintes, an eccentric, reclusive aesthete and antihero, who loathes 19th century bourgeois society and tries to retreat into an ideal artistic world of his own creation. Against the Grain contains many themes which became associated with the Symbolist aesthetic. In doing so, it broke from naturalism and became the ultimate example of "decadent" literature. Jean Des Esseintes is the last member of a powerful and once proud noble family. He has lived an extremely decadent life in Paris which has left him disgusted with human society. Without telling anyone, he absconds to a house in the countryside. He fills the house with his eclectic art collection (which notably consists of reprints of paintings of Gustave Moreau). Drawing from the theme of Gustave Flaubert's Bouvard and Pecuchet, Des Esseintes decides to spend the rest of his life in intellectual and aesthetic contemplation. Throughout his intellectual experiments, he recalls various debauched events and love affairs of his past in Paris. He studies Moreau's paintings, he tries his hand at inventing perfumes, he creates a garden of poisonous flowers. In one of the book's most surrealistic episodes, he has gemstones set in the shell of a tortoise. The extra weight on the creature's back causes its death. In another episode, he decides to visit London after reading the novels of Dickens. He dines at an English restaurant in Paris while waiting for his train, and is delighted by the resemblance of the people to his notions derived from literature. He then cancels his trip and returns home, convinced that only disillusion would await him if he were to follow though with his plans. Eventually, his late nights and idiosyncratic diet take their toll on his health, requiring him to return to Paris or to forfeit his life. In the last lines of the book, he compares his return to human society to that of a nonbeliever trying to embrace religion.