From

À rebours

By Joris-Karl Huysmans


A few paragraphs with
translation and notes


The novel À rebours (1884, translated into English as Against Nature or Against the Grain) by Joris-Karl Huysmans (photo by André Taponier) depicts the inner life and hyper-refined tastes of Jean Des Esseintes, a wealthy, eccentric, reclusive aesthete who loathes 19th-century bourgeois society and tries to retreat into an ideal artistic world of his own creation.

À rebours contains themes that became associated with the Symbolist aesthetic. In doing so, it broke from Naturalism and came to be considered the ultimate example of “decadent” literature.

The portrait heading this page is from the 1897 painting by Giovanni Boldini of Marie Joseph Robert Anatole, Comte de Montesquiou-Fézensac (1855 — 1921). It appears on the cover of many editions of À rebours.

The comte was a French aesthete, Symbolist poet, art collector and dandy. He is reputed to have been the inspiration both for Jean des Esseintes in À rebours and for the Baron de Charlus in Marcel Proust's À la recherche du temps perdu.


Mais ses volumes le préoccupèrent principalement. Il les examina, les rangea à nouveau sur les rayons, vérifiant si, depuis son arrivée à Fontenay, les chaleurs et les pluies n’avaient point endommagé leurs reliures et piqué leurs papiers rares.

But his books principally preoccupied him. He examined them, re-arranged them on the shelves, verifying if, ever since his arrival at Fontenay, the hot weather and the rains had not at all damaged the bindings and injured the rare paper.


Fontenay-aux-Roses is located in the southwestern suburbs of Paris, 8.6 km (5.3 miles) from the center of the city. Pictured, the train station at Fontenay-aux-Roses, from a postcard

piqué, from piquer, to prick, bite or sting


Il commença par remuer toute sa bibliothèque latine, puis il disposa dans un nouvel ordre les ouvrages spéciaux d’Archélaüs, d’Albert le Grand, de Lulle, d’Arnaud de Villanova traitant de kabbale et de sciences occultes ; enfin il compulsa, un à un, ses livres modernes, et joyeusement il constata que tous étaient demeurés, au sec, intacts.

He began by moving all his Latin library, then he arranged in a new order the special works of Archelaus, Albert le Grand, Lully and Arnaud de Villanova treating of cabbala and the occult sciences; finally he examined, one by one, his modern books and he happily ascertained that all had remained dry, intact.


Archelaus, 5th century BC, a philosopher of the Ionian School who asserted that air and infinity are the principle of all things, and that the principle of motion was the separation of hot from cold. From this he endeavored to explain the formation of the Earth and the creation of animals and humans.

Albert le Grand, (ca. 1193/1206 — 1280) Albertus Magnus, Saint Albert the Great, German Dominican, philosopher, theologian, naturalist, and alchemist, renowned throughout Europe in the 13th century and teacher of Thomas Aquinas. Image from a fresco by Tommaso da Modena (1352), Church of San Nicolò, Treviso, Italy.

de Lulle, (ca. 1232 — ca. 1315) Ramon Llull, anglicised Raymond Lully, Majorcan writer and philosopher, logician and a Franciscan tertiary, sometimes considered a pioneer of computation theory

Arnaldus de Villa Nova, (ca. 1235 — ca. 1313) Spanish alchemist, astrologer and physician. He is credited with translating a number of medical texts from Arabic, including works by Ibn Sina (Avicenna), Qusta ibn Luqa (Costa ben Luca), and Galen. Collected editions of his many alchemical writings (some of questionable authenticity) were published at Lyon in 1504 and 1532, at Basel in 1585, at Frankfurt in 1603, and at Lyon in 1686.

compulsa, from compulser, to consult

constata, from constater, to note, to certify, to state (que) that


Cette collection lui avait coûté de considérables sommes ; il n’admettait pas, en effet, que les auteurs qu’il choyait fussent, dans sa bibliothèque, de même que dans celles des autres, gravés sur du papier de coton, avec les souliers à clous d’un Auvergnat.

This collection had cost him considerable sums; he would not actually admit that the authors he cherished might have been, in his library, the same as in those of others, printed on cotton paper with the watermarks of an Auvergnat.


choyait, from choyer to treat someone with tenderness, affection, solicitude

souliers à clous, literally “shoe with nails.” Although the translation here is “watermark,” it cannnot be confirmed. Watermark is ordinarily translated filigrane

Auvergnat, native of the Auvergne region of central France, a site of large scale paper production since the early Industrial Revolution. Photo, an original Auvergne paper mill.


À Paris, jadis, il avait fait composer, pour lui seul, certains volumes que des ouvriers spécialement embauchés, tiraient aux presses à bras ; tantôt il recourait à Perrin de Lyon dont les sveltes et purs caractères convenaient aux réimpressions archaïques des vieux bouquins ; tantôt il faisait venir d’Angleterre ou d’Amérique, pour la confection des ouvrages du présent siècle, des lettres neuves ; tantôt encore il s’adressait à une maison de Lille qui possédait, depuis des siècles, tout un jeu de corps gothiques ; tantôt enfin il réquisitionnait l’ancienne imprimerie Enschedé, de Haarlem, dont la fonderie conserve les poinçons et les frappes des caractères dits de civilité.

At Paris, formerly, he had ordered made, for himself alone, certain volumes which specially engaged workers printed on manual presses. Sometimes he turned to Perrin of Lyons, whose graceful and clear types were suitable for archaic reprints of antique books; sometimes he ordered from England or from America the execution of works of the present century, of new literature; sometimes again, he applied to a house in Lille, which had possessed, for centuries, a complete set of Gothic characters; finally, sometimes he would send requisitions to the old Enschedé printing house, of Haarlem, whose foundry maintains the punches and dies of the types called civilité.


embauchés, from embaucher, to hire

tiraient aux presses à bras, literally “pulled from arm presses”

Perrin, Louis Perrin, publisher and type-founder whose work contributed to a revival in French typography in the 19th century. “While we are waiting for the 19th century to develop a taste of its own,” he wrote “I think that we should return to the tastes of the 16th century, whose masterpieces seem to me to be unsurpassed. ” In 1845, after extensive research, and taking inspiration from the types of the French and Dutch Renaissance, Perrin commissioned an alphabet of capital letters in several sizes, entitled Augustaux. Around 1854 he added a lowercase, shown below. Perrin photo, Musée de l'Imprimerie et de la Banque de la Ville de Lyon.

svelte, attractively thin, gracefully, slender; also refined, delicate

Lille, a city near France’s border with Belgium

gothique, Gothic, also known as Blackletter, Gothic minuscule, or Textura, is a script used throughout Western Europe from approximately 1150 until well into the 17th century, continuing in use for German until the 20th century. The entire group of faces is sometimes known as Fraktur (“broken”), one widely used script of this type. The term Gothic was first used to describe this script in 15th century Italy, as Renaissance Humanists believed it was barbaric.

Enschedé, the printing company Royal Joh. Enschedé, Haarlem, Netherlands. It was founded by Izaak Enschedé in 1703 and still bears the family name. Enschedé began manufacturing type in 1743, and the foundry soon became the most important part of Enschedé’s business. Its type business flourished throughout the 18th and 19th centuries. Isaak Enschedé aged 74, engraving by Cornelis van Noorde.

poinçon, punch, a small steel bar with a letterform cut into one end. The punch is driven into a copper form to create a matrix from which lead-alloy types are cast for printing.

Caractères de civilité, a typeface designed in 1557 by the French engraver Robert Granjon. Its characters imitate contemporaneous Gothic-style French cursive handwriting. Granjon called the typeface “lettres françaises” and suggested that, like other nations, France should have a type based on the national hand.


Et il avait agi de même pour ses papiers. Las, un beau jour, des chines argentés, des japons nacrés et dorés, des blancs whatmans, des hollandes bis, des turkeys et des seychal-mills teints en chamois, et dégoûté aussi par les papiers fabriqués à la mécanique, il avait commandé des vergés à la forme, spéciaux, dans les vieilles manufactures de Vire où l’on se sert encore des pilons naguère usités pour broyer le chanvre. Afin d’introduire un peu de variété dans ses collections il s’était, à diverses reprises, fait expédier de Londres, des étoffes apprêtées, des papiers à poils, des papiers reps et, pour aider à son dédain des bibliophiles, un négociant de Lubeck lui préparait un papier à chandelle perfectionné, bleuté, sonore, un peu cassant, dans la pâte duquel les fétus étaient remplacés par des paillettes d’or semblables à celles qui pointillent l’eau-de-vie de Dantzick.

And he had acted similarly for his papers. Weary, one beautiful day, of the silvered Chinese, the nacreous and gilded Japanese, the white Whatmans, the beige Hollands, the chamois-tinted Turkeys and Seychal Mills, and disgusted also with mechanically fabricated papers, he had ordered special laid paper in the old factories of Vire where they still employ the pestles used not so long ago to break up hemp. Finally, to introduce a little variety into his collections he had, at many times, sent from London prepared fabrics, paper embedded with hairs, papers of woven silk and, to emphasize his disdain for bibliophiles, a Lubeck dealer prepared for him an improved candle paper, bluish, clear, a bit brittle, in the pulp of which the flecks of straw were replaced by golden spangles resembling those which dot Danzig brandy.


nacrés, nacreous, from nacre, a pearly substance which lines the interior of many shells; mother-of-pearl

whatmans, James Whatman (1702—1759), owner of the largest paper mill in England, developed a paper mold with brass wires that were woven together. The new design produced paper with a surface smoother than laid paper. The first book published with wove paper was John Baskerville’s 1757 Virgil.

hollandes bis, beige or unbleached papers from Holland

vergés à la forme, ribbed or veined in appearance, in this case laid, as in laid paper. Laid paper is made with cotton rag pulp placed in a wire screen mold. The fibers settle onto the screen and the excess water is drained off to create a damp sheet which is then dried between blankets of felt. The screen was originally made with brass wires strung across the length of the mold — laid lines — which leave an impression in the papert.

Vire, a town in Normandy

reps plural of rep, English “repp,” a fabric made of silk or wool, having a transversely corded or ribbed surface

papier à chandelle, candle paper, a coarse grey paper originally intended for wrapping candles, used to print cheap religious tracts.

fétus, wisps (of straw)

eau-de-vie de Dantzick, Danzig brandy, or Danziger Goldwasser, is a strong (35% ABV) root and herbal liqueur which has been produced since at least 1598 in Danzig (Gdansk), Poland. Its most prominent characteristic is the small flakes of 22 or 23 karat gold suspended in it. Alcoholic solutions were used by artists for gilding, which is believed to be the inspiration for the drink.


Il s’était procuré, dans ces conditions, des livres uniques, adoptant des formats inusités qu’il faisait revêtir par Lortic, par Trautz-Bauzonnet, par Chambolle, par les successeurs de Capé, d’irréprochables reliures en soie antique, en peau de bœuf estampée, en peau de bouc du Cap, des reliures pleines, à compartiments et à mosaïques, doublées de tabis ou de moire, ecclésiastiquement ornées de fermoirs et de coins, parfois même émaillées par Gruel-Engelmann d’argent oxydé et d’émaux lucides.

He had procured, in these conditions, unique books, adopting outmoded formats, which he had covered by Lortic, by Trautz-Bauzonnet, by Chambolle, or by the successors of Capé, in irreproachable bindings of old silk, stamped cow hide, Cape goat skin, in full bindings with compartments and in mosaic designs, doubled by tabby or moire watered silk, ornamented ecclesiastically with clasps and corners, sometimes even enamelled by Gruel-Engelmann with silver oxide and clear enamels.


Lortic, Pierre Marcellin Lortic (1822—1892), an acclaimed Parisian book binder, skilled as a gilder. He won medals in Paris, London, Vienna and Philadelphia and was awarded the Legion of Honor in 1878. Some examples of his work at right.

Trautz-Bauzonnet, one of the leading bookbinders of 19th century France, Georges Trautz (1808—1879), a German emigré, and Antoine Bauzonnet (1795—1882), a skilled gilder as well as a binder. M. Laugel wrote in 1879, “I do not think that Trautz ever made the same binding twice; there is on every book coming out of his hands something personal, something original . . . This man, who could make any amount of money by merely putting his name on books, is so conscientious that he only turns out every year about two hundred volumes; he has only three workmen or workwomen; he does the drawing of ornaments and gilding himself . . . it is almost impossible to imagine how much pain must be taken for one volume.” (Quotation from Notes of a Book-Lover, 1896, by Brander Matthews)

Chambolle, the famous bookbinding firm of Chambolle-Duru, dates from 1861 and lasted until the death of Chambolle’s son in 1915. The firm was chosen by Henri d’Orléans, duc d’Aumale, to contribute to the library at his chateau at Chantilly.

tabis, tabby, a kind of waved silk, usually called watered silk, manufactured like taffeta, but thicker and stronger. The watering is given to it by calendering.

moire, from the English mohair, originally, a fine textile fabric made of the hair of an Asiatic goat; any textile fabric to which a watered appearance is given.

Gruel-Engelmann, a Paris bookbinding studio made famous by the craftsmanship of Leon Gruel (1841—1923). Englemann was Gruel’s father-in-law, Godefroy Engelmann, inventor of chromolithography.


Il s’était fait ainsi imprimer avec les admirables lettres épiscopales de l’ancienne maison Le Clerc, les œuvres de Baudelaire dans un large format rappelant celui des missels, sur un feutre très léger du Japon, spongieux, doux comme une moelle de sureau et imperceptiblement teinté, dans sa blancheur laiteuse, d’un peu de rose. Cette édition tirée à un exemplaire d’un noir velouté d’encre de Chine, avait été vêtue en dehors et recouverte en dedans d’une mirifique et authentique peau de truie choisie entre mille, couleur chair, toute piquetée à la place de ses poils et ornée de dentelles noires au fer froid, miraculeusement assorties par un grand artiste.

Thus, with the marvelous episcopal lettering used in the old house of Le Clerc, he had Baudelaire’s works printed in a large format recalling that of missals, on a very light felt, spongy Japan paper, soft as elder pith and imperceptibly tinted, in its milky whiteness, with a little pink. This edition, printed as a single copy in velvety black India ink, had been covered outside and then recovered within with a wonderful genuine sow skin, chosen among a thousand, the color of flesh, all spotted where the hairs had been and adorned with black silk stamped in cold iron, miraculously matched by a great artist.


Baudelaire, Charles Pierre Baudelaire (1821—1867) French poet, essayist, art critic, and translator of Edgar Allan Poe. His most famous work, Les Fleurs du mal (1857, The Flowers of Evil), expresses a rejection of the belief in the supremacy of nature and of the fundamental goodness of man. The perverse and seemingly irreligious imagery of some of the poems caught the attention of the censors, and Baudelaire was put on trial. Although he was found innocent of offending religion, he was fined for outrage à la morale publique for the sexual imagery, and six of the poems in the first edition were banned. (Photo by Étienne Carjat, 1893.)

missels, plural of missel, missal, a liturgical book containing all instructions and texts necessary for the celebration of Mass throughout the year

tirée, pulled, as in “pull a proof”

encre de Chine, India ink, composed of a variety of fine soot known as lampblack, combined with water to form a liquid. A binding agent such as gelatin or, more commonly shellac, may be added to make the ink more durable once dried. India ink was first invented in China, although the source of materials to make the carbon pigment in India ink was later often traded from India, thus the term India ink.