Vanity of vanities!

Against Nature (Dover Thrift Editions) by [Huysmans, Joris K.]Title: Against Nature (A Rebours)
Author: Joris K. Huysmans
Translator: unknown (“This Dover Edition first published in 2018 is an unabridged republication of the English translation published by Three Sirens Press, in 1931…”)
Genre: Classic (French Decadent)
Pages: 204
Rating: 2.5 of 5
(Thank you to the publisher for a free eARC via NetGalley. This in no way affects the content of the review)

In my last post I mentioned the book that fascinated (and helped corrupt) Dorian Gray. By some accounts, Against Nature might be the book that Oscar Wilde had in mind. In it, Duc Jean des Esseintes retreats from Parisian society to a secluded villa and spends his time contemplating all that is artificial, artistic, and intellectual. It’s basically a more depressing, more decadent version of Ecclesiastes featuring a debauched aesthete instead of the Preacher (Vanity of vanities, says the Aesthete, vanity of vanities! All is vanity.)

Des Esseintes ponders colors, perfumes, prostitutes, affairs, drinks, art, literature, religion, etc. ad nauseum (and there actually quite a bit of literal nausea as his health is in a delicate state). This eventually peters out to a miserable conclusion that led one early critic to opine that, “After such a book, it only remains for the author to choose between the muzzle of a pistol or the foot of the cross.”

Interestingly, this edition of the book starts with a preface by the author written about twenty years after original publication. While standing by some of his aesthetic and religious judgments, he indicates that he has returned to the church he so despised. Apparently, like the Preacher he discovered:

The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. For God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil. – Ecclesiastes 12:13-14 (the last two verses of the book)

Overall, I found the book tedious and pretentious (and morally pretty gross), but its connection to The Picture of Dorian Gray and similarity to Ecclesiastes provided a degree of interest. The author inadvertently playing out the last two verses of Ecclesiastes with his own life further shows the wisdom of the Preacher:

What has been is what will be,
    and what has been done is what will be done,
    and there is nothing new under the sun. – Ecclesiastes 1:9

A Dish Best Served Cold

Title: The Count of Monte Cristo
Author: Alexandre Dumas
Translator: Robin Buss
Genre: Classic
Pages: 1,276
Rating: 3.5 of 5

This classic tale of revenge served cold was entertaining enough, but was ultimately a bit disappointing. In my limited experience with Dumas (The Three Musketeers & The Count of Monte Cristo), I’ve come to the conclusion that if you’re going to really enjoy his stories you need to just cheer for his heroes without thinking too much about the morality of the actions that you’re supposed to be applauding. There’s some token introspection from Dantes about whether he is truly right in seeing himself as God’s instrument of justice, but it tends more toward self-justification than interesting moral consideration.

Personally, I found Dantes/Monte Cristo to be so coldly calculating and unsympathetic toward anyone he did not personally know and love that he was almost completely unappealing. I don’t necessarily mind antiheroes, but something about the way Dumas tries to get us to adore and cheer for his deeply flawed heroes as if they were remarkably admirable human beings grates on me. Your mileage may vary (Obviously, I’m in the minority on this since Dumas has enduring popularity).

I’m not sure how this translation compares to others, but I can say that it flowed nicely without feeling stilted. According to the forward, the translator restored parts that were removed or toned down in older Victorian translations. I appreciate this, because even though the plot was overlong and meandering, I want to read an author’s work as close as possible to how they intended it. The footnotes provided helpful historical information for those (like me) not well acquainted with French history. Overall: I’d say that this was an excellent edition of a classic that is more about enjoying the plot than wrestling with the morality of vengeance.

One last thing: I’m using this for my Classic in Translation category at the 2018 Back to the Classics Challenge.