Jesting Aldous: Huxley’s Comic Novellas




Aldous Huxley’s After the Fireworks: Three Novellas (HarperCollins), which features the following introduction by Gary Giddins, is on sale today.

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I.

IN THE MARKETPLACE of literary standing, Aldous Huxley’s stock has veered so often in the hundred years since he published his first volume of poetry (The Burning Wheel, 1916) that the volatility itself fascinates. Each era defends its own reasons to rekindle or extinguish his light as novelist, essayist, and sage, and, for that matter, as poet, dramatist, biographer, and epistler. A promising poet of the teens, who rhymed erudition and made the didactic lyrical, he burst loose on the 1920s as the defiant, surgically mocking novelist who deemed nothing sacred and nothing — least of all sex, bodily functions, and God — off limits. Before Hemingway and Faulkner, it was Huxley who gave voice to the lost, postwar generation: a fearless, suspicious, unabashedly bookish voice, easier than Joyce, sunnier than Lawrence, and so contagiously liberated that even Faulkner vainly attempted to borrow (in Mosquitoes) the mordantly funny Huxley touch.

By the 1930s, his illustrious name was synonymous with smart. When the Marx Brothers went to school in Horse Feathers, they enrolled at Huxley College; when Liza Elliott articulated her delusions in the Broadway smash Lady in the Dark, she warbled, “Huxley wants to dedicate his book to me.” Huxley was born in 1894 in Godalming, a part of Surrey (the climactic setting of Brave New World), 40 miles southwest of London. His lifelong interest in genetics was rooted in his own remarkable gene pool: the family tree boasted his paternal grandfather T. H. Huxley, the evolutionist, and his maternal great-uncle Matthew Arnold, the critic and poet. His adolescence was financially secure, but traumatic. At 14, he lost his mother. Three years later, he lost his sight to keratitis; he mastered braille and regained partial vision, but remained near-blind all his adult life. Three years after that, his beloved brother Trevenen succumbed to depression and hanged himself. Aldous went to Eton and Balliol, where he began to focus on writing. He published his first book at 22.

In 1915, he encountered D. H. Lawrence, who 10 years later would exert a great if passing influence on him; his future wife Maria Nys, a refugee from Belgium (a background reflected in “Uncle Spencer”); and Garsington Manor, the artistic enclave created by Lady Ottoline Morrell, where he lived, worked, and associated with Bertrand Russell, Nancy Cunard, Dora Carrington, Mark Gertler, Augustus John, Lytton Strachey, and others who inadvertently posed for character studies in his fiction. In his dazzling peacockian debut as a novelist, he remade Garsington as Crome Yellow. If his second novel, Antic Hay, exemplified a hilarious nihilism, his subsequent work, especially the short novels collected here, documented his way to a more meticulous, intellectual, compassionate, yet no less amusing approach to the genre. We owe to Edith Sitwell this indelible portrait of young Aldous:

Aldous Huxley was extremely tall, had full lips and a rather ripe, full but not at all loud voice. His hair was of the brown, living colour of the earth on garden beds. As a young man, though he was always friendly, his silences seemed to stretch for miles, extinguishing life, when they occurred, as a snuffer extinguishes a candle. On the other hand, he was (when uninterrupted) one of the most accomplished talkers I have ever known, and his monologues on every conceivable subject were astonishingly floriated variations of an amazing brilliance, and, occasionally, of a most deliberate absurdity. [1]

Appearing in 1932, Brave New World, his 29th book, clinched his cultural centrality. Five years later Huxley, the quintessential Englishman, moved to the land of John the Savage, establishing himself on the rim of the Mojave Desert, savoring the quiet while apparently going Hollywood with a vengeance. His 1939 fillet of movieworld, the alternately sidesplitting and pedantic After Many a Summer Dies the Swan, showed that the vengeance ran deep.

He overcame his initial disdain of talkies to adapt Austen and Charlotte Brontë to film. He and the openly bisexual Maria, who facilitated a busy sexual life for him, entertained concentric circles of friends, encompassing Gerald Heard, Charlie Chaplin, Paulette Goddard, Igor Stravinsky, Orson Welles, Christopher Isherwood, Anita Loos, and other boldface names. He championed, to the dismay of his original fan base, mystics, searchers, and very likely a quack or two. Huxley embraced the Bates method of eye training, Vedanta and various Eastern approaches to the perennial philosophy, and an uncompromising pacifism of the sort that Orwell dismissed as “objectively pro-fascist.” As Hitler made Germany great again and Roosevelt attempted to arm Great Britain, Huxley told a friend it was no more useful for him to attack Nazism than for him to attack sin. Abhorring the threat of another war more horrific than the one that his failing eyesight and poor health saved him from fighting (though he did try to volunteer), he ardently, profusely, philosophically appeased.

Prolific as ever, he slipped from the spotlight. Yet before the war ended, he published an ingenious novel, Time Must Have a Stop, followed by the dystopian screenplay-as-novel Ape and Essence; the terror-filled biography The Devils of Loudun; and a short account of his experiences with mescaline, The Doors of Perception, which eventually brought him legions of followers that his younger self — the self of Antic Hay and Point Counter Point — might have roasted on a spit.

We can sample the curve in Huxley’s standing in the collected letters of Thomas Mann. 1934: “I admire Aldous Huxley, who represents one of the finest flowerings of West European intellectualism, especially in his essays. I prefer him to D. H. Lawrence, who is no doubt a significant phenomenon and characteristic of our times, but whose fevered sensuality has little appeal for me.” 1944: “[Time Must Have a Stop] is exciting because it is a work of talent, and in literary terms an engagingly avant-garde performance. Yet it is reprehensible […] But my own conscience is not so clear when the question of morbidity and decadence is raised.” 1949: “[A] good many things by Aldous Huxley […] are greater and, as documents of the age, more illuminating than anything produced so far by the young.” 1954: “[The Doors of Perception] represents the last and, I am tempted to say, the rashest development of Huxley’s escapism, which I never liked in him. Mysticism as a means to that end was still reasonably honorable. But it strikes me as scandalous that he has now arrived at drugs.” [2]

Despite or because of Huxley’s anointment as a savant of druggy diversions and insights, his readership narrowed beyond the perdurable Brave New World. Critics who thought he went off the rails (Mann, again: “being rapt over the miracle of a chair and absorbed in all sorts of color illusions has more to do with idiocy than he thinks”) underappreciated his last novel, Island, a series of dialogue-essays, explaining the ways of a paradise built on logic, science, spiritualism, hallucinogens, and (here’s the rub) a genetic sameness that makes its inhabitants congenial — all threatened by the West’s unslakable thirst for its oil reserves. Most critics agreed, however, that his next and last book, Literature and Science, proved to be charming and rational in a way that was pure Huxley. He died and was greatly missed.

In the decades subsequent to his death in 1963 (which was overshadowed by the simultaneous assassination of JFK), Huxley never failed to maintain prestige. Yet much of his best work is neglected. His presence in the academy is limited to Brave New World, a perennial middle school pursuit. Point Counter Point is neither an obligatory text nor a rite of passage, though it remains a unique achievement, which (the rambling Laurentian soliloquies notwithstanding) captures its time — and, consequently, ours — in all its confusion, class warfare, fascinating fascism, lost labors of love, and boundless vanities. Huxley’s early novels came to represent a demoded fashion, fussy and over-emphatic in style and learned to the point of condescension. The polyglot allusions and polymathic presumptions with which we wrestle as the price of reading Ulysses suggest elitism in Huxley. He was not, as he readily conceded, a congenital novelist, and yesterday’s irreverence is today’s ho-hum. Harold Bloom imperiously declared that he treasured Huxley’s social comedies in his youth but saw no reason to revisit them; two New York Times reviewers recently dismissed Brave New World because the embryology is dated and the middle class mischaracterized — the kinds of observations a character in Point Counter Point might have made before tumbling down a marble staircase.

And still his stock rises. Huxleyans quietly proliferate, like disaffected Alphas. Several studies of his work have appeared, along with anthologies of his previously uncollected writings and lectures. In the past 20 years, an American publisher produced the six-volume Complete Essays and a German publisher launched the overpriced but illuminating Aldous Huxley Annual, which has uncovered dozens of unremembered and uncompleted works, not least Huxley’s (may it be produced!) musical-comedy version of Brave New World. His novels remain in print, as do several key works. Recent biographies have supplemented the 1973 tour de force by Sybille Bedford; a second collection of letters, edited by the dogged Huxleyan James Sexton, augments the indispensable 1969 doorstop edited by Grover Smith.

II.

Much of the posthumous attention accorded Huxley has centered on his role as guru to stoners, with or without mystical overtones, or seeks to reconcile his voluminous work with an overarching philosophical song. I speak for a more plebeian readership: we who read him not to have our minds improved or blown (though these are surely collateral effects), but for the pleasure of his company, which can be stimulating, grotesque, and uproarious all at once. I speak for those who look not for consistency, preferring to revel in the multitudes of a man incapable of not thinking and of worrying each thought into prose; who regard him not as a saint, though his humbly stooped 6’ 4” frame, rocky cheekbones cradling glassy eyes, and polite, patiently sonorous voice typecast him for the part, but as a master chronicler of pettiness: overarching pride, paralyzing insecurity, counterfeit love, spurious ambition, every kind of cant and duplicity.

My lifelong affection for Huxley transcends without overlooking (I wince and move on) his love of exclamations and pointless adverbs (irrevocably, bottomlessly, insufferably); his assumption that I have read, seen, heard, and retained all the things he has and can recognize a line from Meister Eckhart in German when I see it; his disdain for jazz (the true moksha); his not-so-youthful indulgences in racial and Semitic stereotyping (he blames, quite rightly, blacks for jazz and Jews for monotheism), not to mention his fling with genetic engineering. Mine is a devotion captured by Anthony Burgess in 99 Novels, his survey of English-language literature from 1939 to 1983. Huxley alone is represented by as many as three novels. Burgess writes of After Many a Summer,

It is Huxleyan in that it is a novel with a brain, and if it nags at human stupidity when it should be getting on with the story — well, we accept the didacticism as an outflowing of the author’s concern with the state of the modern world. Huxley’s novels are always concerned, and therein lies their strength and continuing relevance. [3]

Still, I do insist that strength and relevance reside no less in his wit, discursive learning, and an understanding of people that urges readers to smile at his vainglorious creatures while recognizing themselves in the gallery.

Huxley wrote 11 novels, accounting for one-fifth of the volumes he published, and he evidently regarded them as his most important work in that they represented “finished” presentations of his ideas. He wrote poetry for a quarter-century, but gave it up during World War II. He wrote stories throughout the 1920s, among them “The Gioconda Smile,” “The Tillotson Banquet,” “The Farcical History of Richard Greenow,” “Nuns at Luncheon,” “Young Archimedes,” “The Bookshop,” and “The Claxtons,” but gave that up in 1930, writing only a few more — most notably his last, “Voices” (1955), one of the nastiest supernatural caprices this side of Saki and Patricia Highsmith — that he inexplicably declined to collect in his books. He professed little enthusiasm for modern theater, but like Henry James tried time and again to mount plays, enjoying one success with his 1948 adaptation of “The Gioconda Smile.” But the novels came steadily between 1921 and 1962, like benchmarks. In context with his dozens of other volumes, they invariably dramatize ideas and interests explored and developed in intervening essays, stories, poems, reviews, histories, and prefaces.

Of that work, much of it long out of print, the short novels collected in After the Fireworks are most treasurable, and what pleasure it is to welcome them back. Each of them might have secured a more enduring place in his bibliography had they been initially issued as stand-alone novels. All were written in the defining decade when he was most keenly focused on fiction, and Huxley favored them enough to include them in retrospective collections. So why and when did they vanish?

Between 1920 and 1930, Huxley published — in addition to three volumes of poetry, two travel books, four collections of essays, and a play — nine works of fiction: the novels Crome Yellow, Antic Hay, Those Barren Leaves, and Point Counter Point, and the story collections Limbo, Mortal Coils, Little Mexican, Two or Three Graces, and Brief Candles. The last three were mostly given over to these short novels — novels, it must be said, no shorter than Ape and Essence or The Genius and the Goddess. Perhaps editors and readers in the 1920s took page counts more seriously as a mercantile consideration; in any case, Huxley accompanied them with thematically complementary stories, like swans and cygnets. In 1957, he brought out Collected Stories, raiding the five volumes of their shorter stories (plus “Sir Hercules” from Crome Yellow), and rendering the novellas basically homeless. That same year a paperback reprint appeared of After the Fireworks with a cover suitable for a Harlequin Romance. “Uncle Spencer” and “Two or Three Graces” didn’t even get that; nor were they salvaged when After the Fireworks was offered as a novel in 2010: out of print, out of mind.

III.

“Uncle Spencer” (1924) begins as innocently as its title indicates, with a memory piece about a beloved oddball character from the narrator’s boyhood. But the tone, tempo, and attitude change abruptly midway with the onset of World War I. The war hovers over much of his early work, but this is Huxley’s only extended venture into describing its impact. In a severe narrative turn, switching from direct memory to an objective recounting, he quarters Uncle Spencer and a memorable cohort in a German prison, creating a claustrophobic story within the story that anticipates the novel within a novel of Point Counter Point while echoing Kafka and presaging Sartre’s No Exit: “My Uncle Spencer soon grew accustomed to the strange little hell into which he had been dropped.” Until that point, we follow rather blissfully the annual pilgrimage of Uncle Spencer and his nephew, whose neglectful parents are stationed in India, from Eastbourne to Dover to Ostend to Brussels to Limburg, where Spencer owns a sugar factory. “Every page” of this section, an anonymous reviewer wrote in the TLS is 1924, “is delightful,” and it remains so.

Huxley, the grandson of one of the most influential biologists of the 19th century and the sibling of two of the most prominent biologists of his own day (Julian Huxley and the Nobel laureate Andrew Huxley), all but patented the use of biological, zoological, botanical, and physiological metaphors, and here he has a field day with prawns and pigs (the latter auguring the German occupation), as well as handmade foods, from “ferial apple fritters” to chocolate bedpans. The last offends Spencer, despite “his professional belief in the virtues of sugar,” and inspires the narrator to a lexicon of euphemisms from coprophily and scatological to a thunderous excrementitious. Huxley, who mocked Swift’s “insensate hatred of bowels,” was not easily alienated from the messier precincts of the human condition. As the story deepens with an integrated marriage, we encounter tropes that will recur throughout his work: teenage priggishness, sudden death, an ugly woman who exerts sexual magnetism, the vain thought that future writers might concentrate on “man’s relation to God” instead of romance, the naïve refusal to believe war is coming (this is the 20th century, after all), and the equally naïve assent, because “War is always popular, at the beginning.”

Confined to the German Ministry of the Interior, Spencer finds that the prisoners are crueler to each other than are the jailors; nightmares are habitual. Yet he also finds, for the first time in his life, love in the person of a “golden-haired male impersonator,” a Cockney music hall entertainer named Emmy Wendle, one of Huxley’s most haunting creations: young, independent, morally adventitious, utterly fickle, and androgynous in the way of a Hemingway femme, touching down like a bee on the divided groups of prisoners who, “equal in their misery, […] still retained their social distinctions.” No good can come if it, yet Huxley ramps up the farce as Emmy retails her nine greatest loves and her devout superstition involving a pig.

In the realm of flighty women, however, Emmy is a patch on the redoubtable Grace Peddley of “Two or Three Graces” (1926). Although I think “After the Fireworks” is Huxley’s most masterly performance in the more-than-a-story, not-quite-a-novel idiom, I suspect that “Two or Three Graces” would have benefited most had it been offered as a novel. Huxley may also have thought so: unlike “Uncle Spencer,” which debuted in Little Mexican (Young Archimedes in the United States), and “After the Fireworks,” which debuted in Brief Candles, “Two or Three Graces” was the title story in a volume where it counted for 195 of 272 pages. Structurally, it stands among Huxley’s most ingenious inventions.

It opens with a bank shot. Huxley’s droll riff on the etymology and variety of bores introduces Herbert Comfrey, an old acquaintance of the narrator, a music critic named, we eventually learn, Dick Wilkes. The story is not about Comfrey, who is rather the cue ball that temporarily separates Wilkes from his far-from-boring friend Kingham, and sends him to the pocket of Comfrey’s brother-in-law, John Peddley. John is a different species of bore (“an active bore,” yet kind and intelligent), who traps unwary travelers in relentless one-sided conversations. He introduces Wilkes to his adored wife Grace — tall, lean, ugly, but “positively and actively charming.” Stimulated by their platonic friendship (like Denis in Crome Yellow, Dick hesitates), Grace undergoes a kind of psychic mitosis. In the end there aren’t two or three Graces, but four, each reflective of a man she attaches herself to — each gracefully inept in her own way. She incarnates one of Huxley’s favorite lines, from Fulke Greville: “O wearisome condition of humanity! / Born under one law, to another bound,” except that she is bound to another and another and another.

With her husband John, Grace is a devoted but strangely deficient bourgeois wife who fails to connect with her children (“You’re a little girl, mummy” her four-year-old attests). With Wilkes, she is a dedicated concertgoer who doesn’t understand a thing about music. After he alienates her with a cruel joke and introduces her to the bohemian painter and faker Rodney Clegg, she takes him as her lover and out-bohemians him and his followers until he drops her, at which point, Kingham returns. A writer who lives for passion and strife, creating the latter when it does not unfold naturally, Kingham demands that Grace fall madly in love with him. She does, growing so appositely overwrought that she ponders suicide when he breaks it off. Wilkes, now married to a sane and cautious woman, returns in the nick of time.

Older writers — Arnold Bennett, Thomas Hardy — complained that Huxley did not truly end his stories, but merely stopped them. “Two or Three Graces” has so many riches, page after page (note that his physical description of Clegg practically begets Sitwell’s of Huxley), that the ending may seem abrupt, a testament to the eternal feminine in which Grace is doomed to repeat her circuit of affections. But then, as Wilkes realizes, and underscores for the reader, the story has the structure of music: from suburban andante to Clegg’s scherzando to Kingham’s molto agitato to the adagio of Beethoven’s arietta to … Da Capo, from the head, begin again.

“Two or Three Graces” is often seen as a test run for Point Counter Point, which is unfair to its thoroughly distinct qualities. One connection is the presumed twice-told conjuring of D. H. Lawrence. But while Lawrence is admittedly the template for the later work’s Rampion, he only looks like Kingham, with his short red beard and refusal to divulge his Christian names beyond the initials. Huxley had met Lawrence just once when he wrote “Two or Three Graces.” That encounter probably contributed to the portrait, but the sexually ravenous and distraught Kingham is not Lawrence. By 1928, they were great friends; Huxley esteemed and even loved Lawrence, which may explain why Rampion succumbs to a sage’s monotony while Kingham roars off the page. In “After the Fireworks,” published in the year of Lawrence’s death (1930), he is accessed only as a literary jape: the self-styled “fatal woman,” Clare Tarn, seeks the “dumb, dark forces of physical passion” in the arms of — a “gamekeeper? or a young farmer? I forget. But there was something about rabbit shooting in it, I know.”

“After the Fireworks” is a major work and a turning point for Huxley, leading directly to Brave New World in its burlesque of sexual awkwardness and the embarrassments of aging (he does here for European health spas what he would later do for Hollywood cemeteries in After Many a Summer), Ford and his assembly line, ruminations on a world without goodness, and theisms of one versus many gods. This is a comedy, the last uncompromisingly funny novel or story Huxley wrote, unimpeded by didactic lectures and sagacious swamis. Fireworks figure in the prose as well as the plot, which is basic. A middle-age writer at rest in Rome, Miles Fanning, whose popular novels excite the dreams of adolescent girls, is stalked by a 20-year-old fan whom he tries vainly to resist. He has used his finest witticisms so often that he can no longer recite them without impatient interruptions. Pamela Tarn has not heard them. Nor can she figure out why a writer would spend hours writing when he could be with her. Death in Venice meets The Humbling, heterosexually.

Huxley is always facile with animal metaphors, and he breaks the bank here, beginning with the first lines, regarding a woodpecker. A few lines down he complains of letters getting through every barrier, like “filter-passing bacteria,” a simile more suited to the blight of email. Bears turn up on the next page, with camels on their heels, and then ostriches and whitings, jelly fish and clams, the inevitable baboon, and, with the arrival of Pamela Tarn, a combination animal metaphor and adverb: hippo-ishly. Huxley lavished attention on names, and one may wish there were more of Wilbur F. Schmalz and his unctuous correspondence if only to relish his moniker. Fanning notes, in Latin, that he never liked art that conceals. Neither does Huxley. He italicizes and underscores zoological traits and innermost thoughts, flitting into Pamela’s mind as well as her riotous diary as easily as he does Fanning’s mind and his unfinished letter. He drops linguistic banana peels every few pages. Fanning is one of those personages who strive to speak in epigraphs, which are wasted on fellows like the clerk at Cook’s who tells him “Gratters on your last book,” to which Miles responds, “All gratitude for gratters.” Miles loves the word impertinence, which earns a new meaning regarding Pamela: even her breasts are impertinent, “pointed, firm, almost comically insistent.” [4]

The lyrical passages remind us that Huxley was a formidable travel writer, but even they serve to remind Miles that a comedy is a series of unavoidable pratfalls. The sibilant panorama of Rome at the heart of the tale — “golden with ripening corn and powdered goldenly with a haze of dust, the Campagna stretched away from the feet of the subsiding hills, away and up towards a fading horizon, on which the blue ghosts of mountains floated on a level with her eyes” — works its magic, but as Miles breaks the “sad, sad but somehow consoling” silence, his knees crackle to let him know that he is tarnished with age and Tarn is “dangerously and perversely fresh.” If he were a younger man, he might rant, as John the Savage will in two years, “I don’t want comfort. I want God, I want poetry, I want real danger, I want freedom, I want goodness. I want sin.”

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Gary Giddins is an award-winning American jazz and film critic.

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[1] Edith Sitwell in Stephen Klaidman, Sydney and Violet, Doubleday, 2013, p. 187.

[2] Richard and Clara Winston (ed.), Letters of Thomas Mann, 1889-1955, Knopf, 1970, pp. 213, 455, 581, 664.

[3] Anthony Burgess, 99 Novels, Summit, 1984, p. 24. The other Huxley works he includes are Ape and Essence and Island.

[4] Pamela has run away from her censorious Aunt Edith, a relationship Huxley returns to in his final story, “Voices,” in the deadly conflict between another 20-year-old Pamela and her Aunt Eleanor.

 

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