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Against the Grain
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We sent off the completed manuscript of one novel to our agent and a detailed outline for another to our editor. I dispatched the final installment of a legal editing project along with the invoice. Then temporarily, shockingly, I had time on my hands.

How often have I declared that I would never retire? What would I do with myself? We don't even own a functioning television and I abhor the very thought of golf. No, if I were able to give up my legal writing it would be only so I could have time to work harder on fiction.

But awaiting the verdicts of agent and editor and the annual renewal of my contract with the legal publisher, we were uncertain which project to take up next. So I spent much of the day reading Against the Grain by J.K. Huysmans.

This French decadent novel published in 1884 was the anonymous book that served Dorian Gray as a road map to perdition. Oscar Wilde admitted it during his trial where the novel was brought into evidence and characterized by the prosecution as a "sodomitical" book. Ludicrous considering that the liaison is sketched out in a few hundred words.

In fact the novel is a glorification of life devoted to highly personal aesthetics. The protagonist Des Esseintes, having decided to withdraw from a world he has come to despise, decorates a new house in line with his refined and peculiar tastes (a porthole in the dining room looks into an aquarium populated by clockwork fish) muses about his reckless past, suffers from summer heat and survives a bout of dysentery. The minimal plot is nothing more than a framework for essays on painting, music, gems, flowers, perfumes, literature from decadent Latin to current (nineteenth century) religious and secular -- an encyclopedic compendium of unpopular culture. Des Esseintes wants nothing to do with anything the masses enjoy. He remarks that Shakespeare and Beethoven are ruined for him by the fact that they are popularly acclaimed.

Reading this exotic prose during a late August afternoon, the humid silence broken by the drone of the fan feebly stirring the heavy air, took me back to summers when I was in my teens, passing the days reading in a lawn chair on the back lawn, surrounded by the smell of grass and the monotonous sound of summer insects. In particular I recall losing myself in The Lord of the Rings.

At the onset adolescence I decided, like Des Esseintes, to decline to participate in the vulgar world and live a solitary life of the mind. My decision was helped along by the fact that my former playmates had moved away, or were continually absent at tennis lessons, or camp, or whatever kids do when they are suddenly too old just to play. Unlike Des Esseintes I had little knowledge of the world, but it did not seem as enticing as Middle Earth.

Life so often disappoints. In one chapter Des Esseintes heads into Paris, en route to England which he has never visited. During a rainy foggy day he peruses a Baedecker and visits a pub and a restaurant frequented by English visitors. He envisions England so perfectly he decides to return home rather than catch his train, unwilling to risk the reality of England shattering his fond imaginings.

Most of the excitement in my life has been in my imagination. The alien worlds in the science fiction and fantasy I read growing up are more vivid and meaningful to me than the dim office Hades where I labored for too long.

Maybe it wouldn't be so bad to retire after all, to recapture the sensations of those long summers when I woke up every morning free to go where ever my reading would take me.

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