À Rebours by Joris-Karl Huysmans starts with a preface from the translator (Margaret Mauldon) saying that only the most wicked person would choose this book to recommend to someone as their introduction to the 19th Century novel! Now I’ve finished it I can agree, but I also thoroughly enjoyed the book. The writing (translation) is superb, with rich descriptions that are engrossing. Here’s a description of the painting of Salome Dancing Before Herod, by Gustave Moreau:
A pensive, solemn, almost august expression on her face, she begins the lubricious dance which is to awaken the slumbering senses of the ageing Herod; her breasts rise and fall, their nipples hardening under the friction of her whirling necklaces; the diamonds adhering to her moist skin glitter; her bracelets, her belts, her rings, flash and sparkle; on her triumphal gown—pearl-seamed, silver-flowered, gold-spangled—the breastplate of jewellery, each of its links a precious stone, bursts into flame, sending out sinuous, intersecting jets of fire, moving over the lustreless flesh, the tea-rose skin, like a swarm of splendid insects whose dazzling wing-sheaths are marbled with carmine, spotted with saffron yellow, dappled with steely blue, striped with peacock green.
Totally absorbed, with the staring eyes of a sleep-walker, she sees neither the trembling Tetrarch nor her mother, the implacable Herodias, who watches Over her, nor the hermaphrodite or eunuch who stands, a terrifying figure, sabre in hand, at the foot of the throne, the lower part of his face veiled, with his eunuch’s breasts dangling like gourds beneath his orange-striped tunic.
The image of Salome, which so haunted the imagination of poets and artists, had obsessed Des Esseintes for many years now.
and my favourite section, mentioned in the Wikipedia entry, describing the grotesque garden that Des Esseintes collects:
The gardeners were bringing in yet more new varieties; this time they simulated the appearance of fake skin scored by artificial veins; and the majority, as though eaten away by syphilis and leprosy, exhibited livid flesh marbled with roseola and damasked with dartres; others were the bright pink of scars that are healing, or the brownish tint of scabs in the process of forming; others were blistering from cautery or puffing up from burns; still others revealed hairy skins pitted by ulcers and embossed with chancres; and then, finally, there were some which looked as though they were covered with dressings, plastered with black mercury ointment, with green unguents made from atropine, or sprinkled with the glittery-yellow dust of iodoform powder.
Grouped together, these flowers dazzled Des Esseintes, more extraordinary than when he had unexpectedly come upon them, mingled in with others as if in some hospital, within the glassed-in wards of the hothouses.
‘My God!’ he exclaimed fervently.
On the less positive side the book is full of long, long lists of things: Novels the main character likes and dislikes, same with painters, music etc. Overall, very memorable though!
“Against Nature (Oxford World’s Classics)” (J-.K. Huysmans)