Where did the decadent novel go?
from guardian, uk
If ever an age called for the kind of self-conscious maximalism pioneered by Wilde, Baudelaire and Huysmans, it is ours. Instead, we are beset with dreary naturalism.
“What happened to the great tradition of the decadent novel”? Lee Brackstone asks in a recent blog for Faber, bemoaning the dominance of realism and naturalism in contemporary fiction. Although he finds the decadent spirit alive and well in DBC Pierre’s Lights Out in Wonderland, his question still holds: Pierre aside, can it really be that the grand heritage of the fin de siecle writers has been so short-lived, especially when their arch, satirical mode is needed now more than ever?
Decadence has its roots in texts such as Petronius’s Satyricon, which date from as far back as the fall of the Roman empire. But the movement was picked up centuries later by the outlandish perversity of De Sade, Thomas De Quincey’s opium-induced chimeras, the Romantics’ cult of the individual and the Gothic morbidity of Poe, before finding its apogee in late 19th-century France and England, particularly in the writing of Baudelaire, Huysmans and Wilde. The defining work of this period is Huysmans’s Against Nature, famously thought to be the “poisonous French novel” referred to in The Picture of Dorian Gray. Toby Litt notes that its protagonist, Des Esseintes, a man whose life is given over entirely to the pursuit of sensual pleasures, is “more likely to attract one when one is an adolescent”; certainly as a teenager I found it hard not to love decadent literature, with its emphasis on artifice, deliberate perverseness, art-for-art’s sake, sensuality and degeneration. All of this, couched in frequently beautiful and sometimes frankly purple language, was heady indeed: a shot of absinthe courtesy of literature’s Green Fairy.
A century on, though, and where does its legacy lie? I know I’m not alone in my enthusiasm for those bejewelled, subversive, gloriously unhealthy texts. The wider culture is awash with artists inspired by them: Marc Almond, Pete Doherty, Baz Luhrman, Pedro AlmodÃ³var and the Chapman brothers to name just a few. Casting around for an equivalent literary line of succession, however, proves more problematic.
One might usefully consider the influence of the fin de siecle writers separately in terms of style and content. There is of course a very visible tradition of the portrayal of “decadent” lifestyles in books, taking in Christopher Isherwood’s Berlin denizens, William Burroughs’s junkies and Irvine Welsh’s, well, junkies, as well as the addicts portrayed more recently by Tony O’Neill and Richard Milward. But, Burroughs aside, the tendency here has been towards a rather unadorned prose style; a kitchen sink, tell-it-how-it-is evocation of lives shattered by deviant practices. What of the baroque, mannered, self-consciously literary style of Baudelaire and Wilde? The official line is that this was distilled into symbolism, via poets such as LautrÃ©amont, whose oblique, beautifully cadenced verses inspired TS Eliot, among others. Symbolism was also important in the work of Jean Genet, whose poetic evocation of sexual outlaws in Our Lady of the Flowers fairly reeks with the heady perfume of decadence.
Until DBC Pierre, this sort of writing has been eschewed by many for a more workmanlike prose: the bricks and mortar of realism. Wonderland, though, gives us sentences as declamatory and bathetic as “our Empire of Shopping is in its last twitching throes. Bye-bye free markets, farewell terms and conditions, ciao bogus laughter, he he, whoop, wa-hey. The last revellers are the dregs we see at any free event, now vomiting wine.” This is not measured, careful prose, it is bold, messy bravura; tightrope-writing.
And it is entirely appropriate. Throughout the book, Pierre explicitly aligns the decadence he describes with capitalism gone bad. It was ever thus: the artificiality espoused by the fin de siecle writers was in part a two-fingered salute to the urban artificiality engendered by the rise of industrialisation. Today, in an era of what Cyril Connolly would call “over civilisation” â€“ celebrity culture, televised war, the rise and fall of credit, imploding banks â€“ the language of decadence, self-conscious and maximalist, seems a more apposite discourse with which to portray reality than flat naturalism. Here and there, we sense it â€“ it is alive in Will Self’s Liver and in the work of younger writers, such as Joe Stretch’s Friction. Hopefully, after Lights out in Wonderland, it will become common literary currency once more.