Thu 21 November 2019
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You are here: Home > Young Writers' Hub > Blog > Where did the decadent novel go?
Where did the decadent novel go?
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 has 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 Almodóvar and the Chapman brothers to name just a few. Casting around for an equivalent literary line of succession, however, proves more problematic.

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Source: The Guardian


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