Original Research

Crampton and Engerth: The ‘mechanical brides’ of J-K. Huysmans

Laurence Wright
Literator | Vol 41, No 1 | a1711 | DOI: https://doi.org/10.4102/lit.v41i1.1711 | © 2020 Laurence Wright | This work is licensed under CC Attribution 4.0
Submitted: 28 May 2020 | Published: 10 September 2020

About the author(s)

Laurence Wright, Research Unit for Languages and Literature in the South African Context, Faculty of Humanities, North-West University, Potchefstroom, South Africa


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Abstract

This article explores the startling comparison Huysmans introduces early in Á Rebours (1884) between two French steam locomotives, Crampton and Engerth, and representations of the female form. It suggests that the trope should be read as a modernist cameo proleptically anticipating the story’s later interrogation of homoerotic sexual and gender identity. By detailing some of the railway technology involved, the article explains why the comparison between the female form and the steam engine is flighted between two locomotives rather than one, demonstrating that the bizarre literary figure presents more than a generalised personification of machinery. Baron Jean des Esseintes’ judgement that the two locomotives are more beautiful than Woman plays itself out in significant variations through the texture of the novel, leading eventually to a painful recognition that his rarefied, decadent/aesthetic approach to existence is indeed Á Rebours, ‘against nature’, or ‘the wrong way’.

Keywords

J-K. Huysmans; Á Rebours; Fanny Kemble; Émile Zola; Marcel Duchamp; ‘Crampton’; ‘Engerth’.

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