The winter issue of The Happy Reader investigates Joris-Karl Huysmans’ ‘Against Nature’, alongside an interview with Grace Wales Bonner, cover star, fashion designer and serious reader.
The Happy Reader is a book club in paper form. Half of it is a conversation between Wales Bonner and writer Ben Okri, and the other a collection of essays that take inspiration from the chosen book. In this issue, Joris-Karl Huysmans’ ‘Against Nature’ is diced up and divvied between writers who each bring something unexpected: nightmares, musings and secrets.
The interview is contemplative and absorbing, the conversation a two-way street full of literary and cultural references. It’s personal too: the pair have already collaborated professionally – Okri wrote a poem for Wales Bonner’s recent exhibition A Time for New Dreams. The designer takes a highly academic approach to her art form, providing an extensive bibliography alongside each collection (her latest menswear show took place in London this week). Unlike previous issues of the magazine, the interviewee is shown reading in Alisdair McLellan’s series of portraits.
The other half of the mag begins at the center, a separate cover indicating the split. I haven’t read ‘Against Nature’, but its inherent oddness that ‘inspires some readers’ and ‘baffles others’ makes it an intriguing subject. Oscar Wilde described it in ‘The Picture of Dorian Grey’ as ‘the strangest book he had ever read’. Unlike a straightforward novel, it appears impossible to spoil. It’s the perfect text then for The Happy Reader, which shines when it spins off into the wider context of the book in question.
So, rather than launching into an outright investigation of Huysmans’ narrative, Jeremy Allen’s essay uses Serge Gainsbourg’s apartment in Paris (left untouched since his death in 1991, above) as a framework. Gainsbourg’s favourite book was Against Nature, and he owned a first edition copy. Without giving too much away, Allen’s essay is studded with gems – figuratively and literally. Each essay is threaded together with illustrations that in some way draw connections between the texts, and ‘Chez Gainsbourg’ is speckled with jewels.
Regular readers of the magazine will be familiar with the way the subject book is dissected; in recent issues this process has become increasingly inventive. Here, the illustrations are like a trail of gifts, or at least a scattering of Quality Street across the whole back half of the mag. Each is presented in dolls-house size: a mulberry, a lump of peridot, a piano, a bottle of anisette ‘at once sweet and tart’. Labelled, described and categorised, they are aesthetic eclairs – all the more tasty for the effort required to eat them. Without reading the accompanying essay, the inclusion of these objects makes little sense. It’s a design choice that utilises illustration perfectly.
While the next book of the season (‘Japanese Ghost Stories’) is listed at the end of the magazine, reading it is not a requirement. The Happy Reader will ruthlessly examine it while encouraging the enjoyment of reading.
Editor-in-chief: Seb Emina
Art director: Tom Etherington
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