“Nothing amuses me and nothing interests me and my stomach is going to pot,” declares M. Folantin, the dyspeptic hero of this 1882 novella. Best known for
A Rebours (Against the Grain), the touchstone of fin de siécle Decadence that inspired Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, Huysmans here tells a bleakly farcical tale of “suffering and boredom.” Downstream follows the middle-aged bachelor Folantin on his quest for a decent, affordable hot dinner, an apparently futile goal given his low wages and the dearth of Olive Gardens in 1870s Paris. As he samples a succession of cheap eating-houses (rubbery meat, greasy Roquefort), he sinks further into depression, finally concluding “there [is] nothing to do but just drift downstream” until death.
While such a drab existence seems an unlikely subject for Huysmans,
Downstream turns out to be a poor man’s A Rebours. Like Des Esseintes, the protagonist of the latter novel, Folantin is misanthropic, solitary, and consumed by ennui. Both men seek to fill the emptiness of their lives with food and art. But where the aristocrat Des Esseintes
can indulge his every aesthetic whim—with, say, a meal consisting entirely of black-hued luxuries like caviar—the impoverished Folantin is condemned to gustatory hell. Published two years before A Rebours, Downstream will appeal to Huysmaniacs as a precursor of the author’s classic text; others may find it less delectable.