Speaking of Joris-Karl Huysmans’ “Against Nature”: it was used as an exhibit of deviancy in the sodomy trial of Oscar Wilde. “Against Nature” makes a thinly veiled cameo in the pages of Wilde’s only full-length novel, “The Picture of Dorian Gray.” (“More like ‘Dorian GAY,’ amirite,” the prosecutor reportedly remarked during the 1895 trial.)*
*That didn’t happen.
The plot of “The Picture of Dorian Gray” is fueled by a famous Faustian exchange: the titular character will continue to be youthful while all signs of decay (moral and physical) will be projected upon an increasingly monstrous portrait. While the themes of corruption and duality ally this novel with R. L. Stevenson’s “The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” (which Wilde clearly admired), this is really a fantastical variation on “Against Nature,” with a whole middle section that gets dangerously close to copying and pasting.
In that section, the decadently witty Lord Henry Wotton sends Dorian Gray a book whose nihilistic exhortations have a powerful effect over the young man. Wilde’s novel then detours into an analog recounting of “Against Nature”:
“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 novel without a plot and with only one character, being indeed, simply a psychological study of a certain young Parisian who spent his life trying to realize in the nineteenth century all the passions and modes of thought that belonged to every century except his own, and to sum up, as it were, in himself the various moods through which the world-spirit had ever passed, loving for their mere artificiality those renunciations that men have unwisely called virtue, as much as those natural rebellions that wise men still call sin.”
It is one of the weakness of Wilde’s plotting that sometimes it’s hard to tell if this is a book about the influence of a magic portrait or a magic book; the novel is too short to have needed TWO unexplained mysterious objects, but there they are.
The extended Huysmans homage is also thematically dissonant. “The Picture of Dorian Gray” is prefaced and laced throughout with epigrams about how “there are no immoral books, only badly written ones,” and how novels can’t change a thing, and how “all art is quite useless”… and then Wilde goes and gives us a very immoral book capable of dooming souls? “You poisoned me with a book once,” Gray cries out to Lord Wotton toward the end of the novel. “I should not forgive that. Promise me that you will never lend that book to anyone. It does harm.”
If the many, many sayings that compose the bulk of “The Picture of Dorian Gray” sometimes counter the novel’s theme, when they’re related to the novel’s theme at all, it’s because Wilde would never let anything interfere with the delivery of his epigrams, (a characteristic he shares with his Lord Wotton alter ego.)
The premise with the painting is inspired and frightening, but it’s nothing that an Edgar Allan Poe short story couldn’t have encompassed. It is only the starting point, a discomforting canvas that has been splattered with endless quotable bits, in a rare perfect balance between horror and humor.
Ultimately, it is the Huysmans allusion that subtracts from “The Picture of Dorian Gray.” It is too openly derivative, and a book shouldn’t work too hard at reminding us we could be reading some OTHER book. But as a tribute to the transforming power of literature, it is sincere. Wilde was wrong, by the way: books CAN be moral or immoral. It’s just better to be excited by an indecent book than to be bored by a respectable one.
RATING: MASTERPIECE!!! Read for the never-ending paint-bucket of one-liners.
POST-SCRIPT: While in prison, Wilde requested several key books. Alongside the Bible, Shakespeare’s plays, and Dante’s “Divine Comedy,” was J. K. Huysmans’ “En Route.” That’s high compliment.