Set amongst the working class or the very poor, Huysmans's early novels were in the realist mode of Émile Zola. Marthe (1876) typically recounts the life of a young prostitute working in a licensed brothel. A better introduction is Against Nature (A Rebours; 1884), in which the aesthete Des Esseintes, probably the first openly bisexual hero in modern literature, retires from the world upon a quest into the sensual realm. Covering everything from sado-masochism to classical literature, taking in perfumery and circus acrobats on the way, the book is a meticulous catalogue of rarefied tastes and perverse appetites. In it, says Oscar Wilde in The Picture of Dorian Gray, ’the life of the senses was described in terms of mystical philosophy’. Huysmans later joined a monastery, cloistering himself away like Des Esseintes. En Route (1895), one of four autobiographical novels, recalls that period and recounts the progress of his spiritual development.
Oscar Wilde, Émile Zola, Gustave Flaubert CB