Saturday, September 29, 2007

BOOK: J.-K. Huysmans, "A Dish of Spices"

J.-K. Huysmans: A Dish of Spices. Translated by Paul Oldfield. Caryatid Classics, 2005. 0955166705. 126 pp.

This is Huysmans' first work; the first edition was published at his own expense in 1874. It is a collection of short pieces, ranging in length from less than a page to some 10-15 pages. Some of them are perhaps best described as poems in prose, others as sketches or short stories. In many ways they reminded me of his later collection, Parisian Sketches, which I read last year, although there the pieces were perhaps on average slightly longer, and there weren't any poems in prose.

Thematically this collection is somewhat more diverse than Parisian Sketches, in the sense that not absolutely everything in it deals with Paris. For example, #8 “Claudine” is set in a somewhat more rural environment, and is really a charming short story about a girl who cannot make up her mind between two suitors. Several of the pieces are set in the past rather than in contemporary times; thus there's a very brief sketch of the life of Villon (#15), and several stories involving various more or less besotted 17th-century Dutch and Flemish painters (#16 “Adrian Brauwer”, #17 “Cornelius Bega”).

(Incidentally, this interest in Dutch and Flemish art seems to be one of the running themes going throughout Huysmans' works (although in the later ones he seems to be mostly interested in their medieval artists rather than more recent ones). I wonder if this is a result of Huysmans' own family background — his father was a Dutchman, and indeed Huysmans himself used the Dutch version of his name in his capacity as a writer (Joris-Karl, whereas as a government bureaucrat he would have been Charles-Marie-Georges). See his biography in the Wikipedia.)

In addition to that, this book contains, of course, the usual assortment of pieces based on pointless flaneurism through the more sordid and/or obscure parts of Paris (e.g. #14 “The Left Bank”, #19 “Around the Fortifications”); I've ranted about this in my post about Parisian Sketches, and there's no use repeating myself.

The book also has an interesting short introduction, some illustrations (unfortunately most of them seem to be based on low-resoution scans of old photographs, and the pixels can be seen all too well), and helpful notes at the end of the book. It is, if I understand correctly, the first translation of this collection into English. I think it can definitely be recommended to every Huysmans enthusiast; some people will perhaps enjoy these short pieces for their own sake, while others (like me) will chiefly find them interesting as an early example of Huysmans' decadent sensibility, and also as a proof that this sensibility didn't only emerge in his career with À rebours but was already present from the very beginning, even in the years when he was still writing naturalist novels.

P.S. I couldn't help noticing the contrast between the glitter of À rebours, which is the first book by Huysmans that I had read, and the general sordidness that pervades A Dish of Spices, as well as other early books of his that I've read in the last years. What a crafty writer Huysmans is — he lures you in with des Esseintes and his jewel-encrusted turtle, and then before long you end up wading along with him through the gutters of Paris, and crawling on your knees around obscure French ecclesiastical institutions :)

P.P.S. Shame on — they are currently selling the book for £8.49, but the RRP printed on it is just £6.50. Well, they used to charge a special £2-or-thereabouts ‘sourcing fee’ for books from obscure publishers; I guess that people were annoyed by that, and so amazon is now silently including those two pounds directly into the price of the book itself. Anyway, I got it for just £3 on eBay :)

P.P.P.S. One thing that annoyed me about this book is the ridiculously tight binding. It takes a nontrivial amount of force to hold the book open while you are reading it. And forget about keeping it open without the use of your hands (e.g. to read it while eating), at least not without utterly ruining the spine in the process (which I didn't try). I know that paperbacks can sometimes be a little cumbersome in this way, but this one is much worse than any other book I've ever read. And it seems that the paper of the pages is tougher than that of the covers :)

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