, by Joris Karl Huysmans written in the late 19th century
, regarded as a cornerstone of the Symbolist
In some ways, the novel itself is less interesting than how it came to be written. In the wake of Madame Bovary, nearly all French fiction came to be dominated by tales of adultery, with the only real distinction being the three parties involved. As the result of a long discussion with his cronies, Huysmans, a Belgian living in Paris, decided to break with this by writing a comedy after the manner of Candide, about a lovable retired judge who loved good food, pretty girls, and travel, and who always treated people with courtesy and respect...but was hated by everyone.
Out of spite, then, he tried another novel, with the most spoiled, neurotically disagreeable, hero he could imagine, a young aristocrat named Des Essentes suffering from half-a-dozen diseases, who spent his life as a recluse meditating on torture, death, and other nasty subjects...
...and had a hit on his hands.
Immediately, reviewers took him to task for his "immoral" character, who reveled in such acts as paying a young man's first few trips to an expensive brothel, in the hopes of making him a thief and murderer to keep up the accrued habit. Others noted his sacrilegious use of church furniture as household decor and his taste for late Latin literature, and declared him a "decadent", which had heretofore only meant a Roman citizen living in the period after Constantine, caught between atheism and a reconciliation with God. Still others latched onto the factual content of the book, which had one chapter for every pleasure the author allowed to his hero (including, but not confined to perfume, book bindings, liquor, painting, interior decoration, etc.) and used it as a reference book. And the book sold and sold.
All of this would have been a tempest in a teapot if it hadn't been for Oscar Wilde, who, mistaking this pop novel for High Lit, read it, and immediately tried to write something in the same vein. Giving up, he folded the remaining notes into a horror/thriller, and engendered "The Picture of Dorian Gray".
It's still fun to read now, even though I need a French dictionary and a copy of Larousse to figure out what some of it means...