Monday, September 26, 2011

Something Old

Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, Nicholas Reid recommends "something old" that is still well worth reading. "Something old" can mean anything from a venerable and antique classic to a good book first published five or more years ago.

“MORTAL COILS” Aldous Huxley (first published 1922)

For the sake of perversity as much as anything, I choose as this week’s “Something Old” a volume of short stories which face aesthetically about 180 degrees away from Breton Dukes’ Bird North.

If the young New Zealand writer in 2011 has the Postmodern allusiveness, grot and refusal to provide neat endings, Aldous Huxley in 1922 had the brittleness and dazzle of intellectual Modernism. Dukes’ Kiwi characters are slackers and losers who are taciturn and can’t quite put what they mean into words. Huxley’s English characters are frightfully articulate upper-middle-class types who chatter and chatter. And so does the author.

Mortal Coils came early in Huxley’s literary career. He’d written only one novel (Crome Yellow) and one earlier, unsatisfactory collection of stories (Limbo) and he was weaning himself off trying to be a Decadent poet. This was years before the heavy-duty novels, including Brave New World, and even more years before Huxley’s descent into being an addle-headed, doped-up California sage.

Even in 1922, Huxley was a man who thought with his brain, not with his heart. His prose it always commendably lucid; but at his worst he can sound like a clever chap scoring points at an Oxford Union debate. In some ways, his work resembles the plays of George Bernard Shaw. Overt intellectualism turns many of his characters into mouthpieces for his ideas, or the walking embodiments of other people’s ideas which he wishes to knock down. Moral and social lessons are drawn explicitly.

Mortal Coils consists of four longish short stories and one playscript.

The playscript, Permutations Among the Nightingales, is a tiresome affair from its self-conscious title on. Various national stereotypes (Italian, French, Jewish, American etc.) converse in attempted aphorisms about the nature of Love. The cynical conclusion is that Love is merely sensual pleasure, delusion or wooing for material gain.

Two of the short stories are only so-so. Green Tunnels has a daydreaming girl caught between a hard-headed strike-breaking Fascist, and an aesthete who keeps chattering about Art rather than life. She learns neat lessons from her situation. Nuns at Luncheon is a bit of a cliché about a nun being seduced by the man she was attempting to convert to religion. Huxley has his cake and eats it by making his narrator a cynical woman who remarks on which elements of the story are clichés. Presumably this is meant to ward off the obvious criticism.

So why am I drawing to your attention this apprentice work of a well-known writer?

Because the other two stories of Mortal Coils are very accomplished and very readable. And because I am puzzled that it is what I see as the lesser of these two that has become the more famous.

The Giaconda Smile is the best-known piece in Mortal Coils. Huxley later turned it into a play, and he wrote the screenplay (its ending adjusted to meet censorship requirements)  of the now-forgotten 1948 film adaptation A Woman’s Vengeance, which had Charles Boyer in the lead. The story is often anthologised. As a representative of Huxley’s work it is almost as well-known as Brave New World.

If you don’t know The Giaconda Smile, I won’t spoil the plot, but it involves a thwarted love affair among the country gentry, a murder, and a male writer’s idea of the inscrutability of women. One moral is that a man cannot tell what a woman is thinking by the smile on her face – the Mona Lisa smile of the title. As Shakespeare put it, “there’s no art to find the mind’s construction in the face.” Throughout, the tone is sardonic, verging on the cynical, with a view of human nature that assumes self-interest as the most powerful motive.

After ninety years it still reads well (Huxley’s lucid prose!), though I think the edge may have been taken off it by the fact that its tone has so often been imitated, in films and TV shows as much as short stories. Perhaps cynicism of the possessing classes and nastiness in the horsey set no longer surprise us.

The story that really appeals to me in this collection is The Tillotson Banquet, a bright work of wit and real social satire. A young art critic finds out for a wealthy aristocratic patron that an ancient and forgotten pre-Raphaelite painter, long since thought dead, is still alive in wretched circumstances. A benefit banquet is arranged for him. But time has reduced the old man, a genuine artist, to caricature. He repeats over and over again the same few phrases that were the epitome of High Culture in his heyday fifty years previously. The rambling speech he gives at his benefit banquet causes his young admirers to slip away, one by one. They are embarrassed as much by the realization that all taste is transitory, even their own, as by the old man’s near senility.

As you can see, this is an “ideas” piece. In this case I don’t mind giving the plot away, as the force of the story depends on its observation of the art scene, of cultural snobberies, of the self-consciousness (and over-intellectualisation) of art critics and especially of the fact that fashion is a slippery beast and is no grounding for a real aesthetic. It’s also one of those rare cases where Huxley gets in some self-criticism. The story’s enthusiastic young art critic is clearly an unflattering self-portrait.

I repeat, The Tillotson Banquet still appeals to me more than the more-feted Giaconda Smile. Despite its time-and-place-specific setting, it has worn well and still has relevance. But the only way you will find whether you agree with me is by getting  copy of Mortal Coils and comparing the two stories for yourself.

Unless you are a Huxley completist, you can forget the other stuff in the volume.

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