Friday, 4 May 2012

Danse Macabre

              Here's a quiz question for you - how many novels did Oscar Wilde write?

The answer, surprisingly, is one. You might imagine that such a famous writer had written any number of books, but Wilde wrote chiefly plays and poems, yet only one novel. It is The Picture of Dorian Gray (not, as many think, The Portrait of Dorian Gray), first published in Lippincott's Monthly Magazine in 1890, later revised and amended as a book in 1891.

In the novel, Lord Henry Wotton sends a 'yellow book' to Dorian Gray.

"It was the strangest book that he had ever read. It seemed to him that in exquisite raiment, and to the delicate sound of flutes, the sins of the world were passing in dumb show before him. Things that he had dimly dreamed of were suddenly made real to him. Things of which he had never dreamed were gradually revealed ... It was a poisonous book. The heavy odour of incense seemed to cling about its pages and to trouble the brain."

Wilde never named the 'poisonous book' but at his trial he all but admitted that it was Joris-Karl Huysmans' A Rebours.

A Rebours (translated as Against Nature or Against the Grain, and subtitled A Novel without a Plot), is one of my favourite novels. I read it first when I was about fourteen, and have re-read it dozens of times since. It was always in my mind as I decorated The Study, which is, in part, un hommage to the book.

Jean Des Esseintes, the (anti)hero, is the last of a long and noble line. Disgusted by modern life, he withdraws from society and in seclusion he decorates a house according to his own idiosyncratic tastes, (well, at least I have done one room). If anyone knows A Rebours at all these days, they will most likely mention the black feast and the tortoise. 

In Chapter 2, before his exile, Des Esseintes plans a 'black feast'. "Out of black-edged plates they had drunk turtle soup and eaten Russian rye bread, ripe Turkish olives, caviar, smoked Frankfort black pudding, game with sauces that were the color of licorice and blacking, truffle gravy, chocolate cream, puddings, nectarines, grape preserves, mulberries and black-heart cherries; they had sipped, out of dark glasses, wines from Limagne, Roussillon, Tenedos, Val de Penas and Porto, and after the coffee and walnut brandy had partaken of kvas and porter and stout."

In Chapter 5, Des Esseintes has a jeweller cover a tortoise in gold and precious stones. He rejects diamonds, rubies, emeralds and sapphires as "...too civilsed and familiar," choosing instead chrysoberyls and chrysolites, almandines and cymophanes, olivines and chalcedony. Delighted with his work, Des Esseintes plays on his 'mouth organ', an instrument which delivers rare spirits and liquers through a spigot, " ... procuring sensations in his throat analogous to those which music gives to the ear." After various memories and reveries, he returns to his tortoise. It is dead - " ... doubtless accustomed to a sedentary existence, to a humble life spent underneath its poor shell, it had been unable to support the dazzling luxury imposed on it."

However, in the next Chapter, Huysmans describes two paintings owned by Des Esseintes. They are both by Gustav Moreau, both are representations of Salomé before Herod.

In the first, she is preparing to dance. "In the perverse odour of the perfumes, in the overheated atmosphere of the temple, Salomé, her left arm outstretched in a gesture of command, her right arm drawn back and holding a large lotus on a level with her face, slowly advances on her toes, to the rhythm of a stringed instrument played by a woman seated on the ground.
Her face is meditative, solemn, almost august, as she commences the lascivious dance that will awaken the slumbering senses of old Herod. Diamonds scintillate against her glistening skin. Her bracelets, her girdles, her rings flash. On her triumphal robe, seamed with pearls, flowered with silver and laminated with gold, the breastplate of jewels, each link of which is a precious stone, flashes serpents of fire against the pallid flesh, delicate as a tea-rose: its jewels like splendid insects with dazzling elytra, veined with carmine, dotted with yellow gold, diapered with blue steel, speckled with peacock green."

In the second, she confronts an apparition of the head of John the Baptist. "With a gesture of terror, Salomé thrusts from her the horrible vision which transfixes her, motionless, to the ground. Her eyes dilate, her hands clasp her neck in a convulsive clutch ... The horrible head blazes, bleeding constantly, clots of sombre purple on the ends of the beard and hair. Visible for Salomé alone, it does not, with its fixed gaze, attract Herodias, musing on her finally consummated revenge, nor the Tetrarch who, bent slightly forward, his hands on his knees, still pants, maddened by the nudity of the woman saturated with animal odors, steeped in balms, exuding incense and myrrh."
Obviously, if The Study is un hommage to A Rebours, I had to have prints of these two pictures. And here they are.

The black feast gets a mention in John Lanchester's The Debt to Pleasure - "The idea, cribbed from Huysmans, was to serve a menu consisting entirely of black things." [p. 100] This is a splendid book - read it if you can. Tarquin Winot, the (anti)hero is a magnificent creation and the book delights on every page.

Oscar Wilde and Aubrey Beardsley made a pilgrimage to Paris to see Huysmans. He had returned to Catholicism and was cloistered in a Trappist monastery. He refused to meet them.

My third grandson is called Oscar.

1 comment:

  1. I saw the Picture of DG with Siobhan at the Leicester Square theatre a couple of years ago.....takes ages to find the place then the audience are sat in a sort of bar with the actors around them....excellent tho....