We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books.
Monday, March 28, 2016
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We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books.
We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books.
“AND SO IT IS” by Vincent O’Sullivan (Victoria University Press, $NZ25); “BESIDE HERSELF” by Chris Price (Auckland University Press, $NZ24:99); “COLD WATER CURE” by Claire Orchard (Victoria University Press, $NZ25)
I have been studying how I might compare these three new collections of poetry to musical instruments, for I must have an image on which to hang them. How else can I connect a new volume by a major New Zealand literary figure with another by an established poet in full career and with a third by a newcomer making her debut?
Musical instruments it is.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Vincent O’Sullivan’s And so it is is a ‘cello.
It is a mellow and civilised and well-tuned instrument to be played in the evening, always thoughtful, often looking back at the past, but neither elegiacally nor nostalgically. Perhaps indulgently and forgivingly.
I gallop through the first 38 pages before going back and re-reading them, and I find poems about older people who have learnt that the small things are the really important things, as when a woman frees a trapped bee (“Knowing what it’s about”); memory proves to be slippery (“The recall factor”); life’s cycles move in slow motion (“Season”); the dead really are dead (“Anzac morning”); some rubbish needs to be burned (“Despatches from the Dead”); and there are so many half-remembered things that one cannot quite place (“Enough, surely?”). And from the perspective of older age, some youthful habits and enthusiasms are no longer to be countenanced (“Each packet comes with a warning”).
My inadequate “synopses” might make it appear that we are in grumpy old man territory, but that is far from the effect of these poems. They celebrate life as it moves from illusions to wisdom. The quality O’Sullivan appears to admire most is the clear-sightedness that comes from experience. Things no longer have to be tarted up. They can be looked at and enjoyed and appreciated for what they are, in all their mortality and limitation.
It is fitting that the title poem “And so it is” is sheer description of an Otago morning and ends thus: “Everything is clear as if pared on light’s sharpest knife edge, / I don’t want to make too much of this morning, but there it is.” Reality is not to be rhapsodised and betrayed by the poet. We shouldn’t “make too much” of it. But seen as it is, it is still beautiful and “there it is”. Physical reality can be enjoyed and relished, but without illusions.
The past is not an obsession with this poet. In a lovely poem about Milton’s daughter taking her blind father’s dictation, O’Sullivan gently mocks the way past ages regarded women (“Think of the girl, for once”) and he enjoys snatches of pure topicality. His quirky poem “Neighbour”, about a guy whose hobby is flags, takes a swipe at the fact that New Zealand’s flag “may not be our flag for much longer / if the Parnell huckster finds a new logo / for his golf shirt.”
Yet the past is not to be ignored. Displaying his habit of letting a title comment ironically on the poem that follows, the poet gives us “Talk about old hat”, which is about recognising the truth that is buried in old art. On the other hand, “Life writing, 4 to 5, in the Leisure Lounge” considers the awkwardness of writing love poems in old age.
Thus for the first 38 pages only of this 96 page collection.
I have been warned against reading too much into the breaks which divide this collection into three sections. They have no thematic significance. But while the second section continues with ruminations on the past and some childhood memories (“Mr Newman’s Tooth”, “Special Delivery”, “Westmere on my mind”), I think I detect more poems which question the way reality is perceived and interpreted – our encounters with phenomena rather than noumena – as in the poems “The Reality Problem” and “I so like the man who wrote”. There are certainly more poems about how art transforms reality such as “Formal”, “By way of later chapters” and “One version of the telling which is all we’re allowed”. Photography being one of the arts, it too transforms reality, as in the poem on a photographic portrait of Wallace Stevens (“Cigars, pinpricks, beasts of all description”) and the charming and sad one about a photograph of Mayakovsky and his pet, “Mayakovsky’s Dog”. I am not a dog-lover, though I can live with the beasts (cats are more my thing), but I’d almost want to cuddle the dog as Mayakovsky cuddles him, or at least as described by O’Sullivan:
“He cradles the dog
in the white billow of his sleeve
which may be a schnauzer, which
I didn’t know – how could we? –
was ever a breed favoured in Russia.
How distant the man seems, how
the black dog lying against the famous
chest. Whole towns were named
after the poet. A tyrant wanted
to cry as he read him. The poet
must have loved the dog, you can tell
by the kindness of his wrist, his
spread hand across his friend’s back.”
I am in danger of swamping comment and criticism with a list of titles. It is not my intention to name-check every poem in this volume, but I enjoyed the way, in the third section, that Auden is mildly rebuked, Graham Greene criticised by proxy and Anna Akhmatova properly lamented.
If I were to choose one poem that sums up the mood of this collection, it would be “Most mornings, sort of”, where the hopes of adults are shown to be not as naïve as the hopes of children, but they are still valid hopes. Essentially, this is what And so it is is about. Not a “chimes at midnight” lament for the lost past, but an enjoyment of the present as marinated in long experience. A cello plays.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Probably a drum.
Unlike the volume reviewed above, Beside Herself’s four sections are quite clearly arranged thematically.
At least in the first section of this collection, Chris Price prefers the shorter, staccato and more insistent line, sometimes with wild rhyme that might be kin to rap (see “Trick or Treat” and “Entangled Epigram”). There is a degree of confessionalism about the erotic appeal to girls of books about horses (“My Friend Flicka”) or the unrecoverability of a life not lived (“Tango with Mute Button”). There is an awareness of the crudity of the fabled past, in poems about Hamlet and the decayed corpse of Richard III, recovered recently under a car-park. There is also a sharp awareness of cliché and how it should be avoided, such as the overkill of music in film or liturgy (“Coda”) or the poetic cliché about silent graceful dancers being more fulfilled than the poet who contemplates them. “Well fuck it”, says Price with crude but effective abruptness, “some of us / are destined to sit on our arses and / rotate and if the lives we didn’t lead / remain more beautiful than those / we did then we have fulfilled that / destiny impeccably.” (“Tango with Mute Button” again).
Quite different in tone and style is the second section, “The Book of Churl” a 23-part sequence figuring an unlettered and possibly outlaw peasant in a medieval setting. It is almost like a fairy-tale and yet harder and more brutal, for Churl is brutalised, scrabbling for life, beastly. Yet Churl survives and Churl looks at the stars and Churl does sometimes wonder what is beyond his immediate material circumstances and (in his finale at least) Churl does have a sort of meaningful encounter with another human being. So Churl is more than a brute-beast if not quite the polished poet of a troubadour.
Is “The Book of Churl’ more than a literary exercise – than the impulse that so many poets have to create a creature of legend? I think so. It is in this section that Chris Price is most “beside herself”, not with rage but with the capacity to step inside another character’s skin.
Rage does, however, open the third section, with two poems whose imagery is extreme. “Wrecker’s Song” has visions of car crashes, and posits poetry as accident and chance. “Paternity Test”, apparently echoing some imagined domestic incident, speaks of violence and murder at the same time as it discusses parenthood. Even the third poem in the section, “Three Readers in the Jardin du Palais Luxembourg”, is a very dyspeptic reflection on the relationship of writers and readers – not so much raging as being sullen and grumpy. Rage abates somewhat in the nine poems called “Museum Pieces” – reflexions on art found in European galleries and museums, with the distant enquiring tone that such sequences often have, and a view of religion balanced between resignation and nihilism. Rage rises again in the poem “Whip / Lash” - is it about a horse being lashed or a sadistic jockey doing the lashing? Either way, it is not about a soul at rest, no more than the sardonic reflexion on canonical poets (“A Pinch of Salt”) that follows.
And where do this rage, dyspepsia and awareness of mortality lead in the drumbeat of this collection? They lead to the finest thing in Beside Herself, the 12-page self-defining poem “Beside Yourself”, which talks of the otherness of any persona a writer produces on the page (“Je est un autre” etc.), but in the context of decay and remembrance. Where is this “me” when my body dies? Can this “me” be corralled by the grammatical first, second or third person? Do I exist more clearly in the minds of others than in my own mind? As always, reducing a complex poem to such questions ignores the nature of the poem itself, in its verbal dexterity, its images of seasons, its tone of a problem not quite solved. It is a work of fruitful uncertainty.
And what follows in the fourth section? A tone of despair or disillusionment or maybe just heavy irony? Consider a poem called “To the Future” which begins “O future, platform for untethered ego, / favoured holiday destination of dictators….” and goes on to suggest inevitable disappointment at the envisaged futures that have passed into imperfect history. Or consider “The New Cuisine”, which spits at the over-hyped nonsense of haute cuisine and longs for a simple apple. There’s a sourness, a blasé tone to these poems, though it would be unfair of me to ignore the purely playful poems that also make the cut.
Time, I suppose, to make an inept call on this collection (and I haven’t even mentioned the four delightful drawings by Leo Bensemann, dating from the 1930s, which separate the four sections of the text). Chris Price is a skilful and varied poet, who is at her peak in “Beside Yourself” but whose cracking of the whip at humanity can alienate. I read. I admired. Sometimes I did not enjoy.
Yet in trying to sum up this challenging volume, I find I have omitted mention of the poem I kept coming back to for its comparatively quiet tone. “When I Am Laid in Earth” is traditionalist in its structure and concept, but distinctly the poet’s own. Let me quote the first two stanzas to give a taste of its reflective nature:
“When I am laid in earth
this half-life in your mind
is my continuance –
not long, or loud, but
intermittent, like the fault
in the machine that can’t
be diagnosed or fixed
by anything but patience
time, or blind chance; a
break in the static, blip
in the daily traffic that allows
a brief transmission through
from our shared history,
whichever part appealed….”
The drum beats solemnly here.
Buy the book and enjoy the rest of this poem.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Claire Orchard’s debut collection Cold water cure is a flute. It is clear to the ear, like Orchard’s simple and direct vocabulary. It can trill and be shrill. But it can also be tentative and hesitant in the quieter moments.
Again, this is a volume whose sections are clearly thematic.
The first section has three “found” poems (what a rugby player said; what a computer-game tells its players; what a train-spotter wrote) but mainly consists of short poems on the domestic scene, encounters with small children and encounters with pupils in the classroom. The poem “Settling for Action Man” (about two little girls playing with Cindy and Barbie dolls) is, like Chris Price’s “My Friend Flicka”, an adult’s retrospective awareness of the erotic implications – for the children – of child’s play. “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” is a poem about hesitation – about wanting to say that somebody much younger than the narrator is sexually attractive, but realising this could be misconstrued as desire. The poet is establishing an identity as a mature and observant adult woman who is nevertheless fully aware that some impulses from childhood and teenage days still persist.
Thus for the prologue.
The main course of Cold water cure is the central section, taking up over half the book and including the title poem. In 27 poems, this section is a reflexion on, and in a way an annotation of, writings by and about Charles Darwin and evolution and the relationship of Darwin’s theory to human happiness.
Among the 27 poems one, “Voyages”, is itself a mini-epic, having 18 short parts, each beginning with a stanza made out of “found” material from Darwin’s account of the voyage of the Beagle. Darwin’s observations in strange lands are counterpointed by the poet’s (i.e. the persona-adopted-by-the-poet’s) observations of things nearer at hand. Darwin observes a man on horseback dragging a bull with his lasso; the poet kills a blackbird with her speeding car. A gaucho knifes an armadillo to death; the poet knifes a spider that has got into her salad. Darwin notes the violence of South American tribes; the poet sees violence on television at dinnertime. Darwin says Captain FitzRoy speculates on the natives’ beliefs about the afterlife; the poet reads Tennyson’s In Memoriam. Collectively, the comparisons between Darwin’s voyage and the poet’s [persona’s] happenstances add up to a vindication of domestic and everyday life as a site of discovery and enlightening experience. They are not a belittling of Darwin’s great adventure, but an identification with it.
Of all the other poems in this central section of the book, I am puzzled why it is the poem “Dr Gully’s Cold Water Cure” (a description of a quack “cure” which Darwin undertook) which gives this volume its title. Surely the volume itself isn’t throwing cold water on Charles Darwin? Collectively, the poems give a very nuanced impression of the man.
As conveyed by Claire Orchard, Darwin’s encounters with butterflies and birds are straightforward, but his relationships with his fellow human beings are fraught with problems. One poem (“Viewing such men”) demonstrates that he shared the racial prejudices of his age. The poem “The unravelling” reflects on the cruel side of investigative science – in this case, Darwin’s killing of a bird to examine its skeleton. But it is in his relationship with his wife and children that this woman poet sees much for (implicitly) negative comment. “Upon this matter of the heart”, drawing on notes Darwin made to himself about whether he should marry or not, presents a plethora of Victorian attitudes towards the sexes which (I assume) the poet would find either quaintly funny or horrifying (“A wife is a better companion than a dog…. A wife will be a vast help in organising notes” etc.). “Darwin’s first reader” dramatizes the anguish of Darwin’s wife as she considers that her husband’s theory could rob her of the hope of heaven, and the possibility of meeting their dead children there. The Victorian battle of science and religion has its domestic consequences. “Battle of the vegetables” shows Darwin finding his children and their noise a nuisance when he wants to get on with his work in silence. The contrast of mother and father here – the woman has to work at parenthood while the man can get on with his intellectual pursuits – is a familiar feminine complaint. [In a perverse way, “Battle of the vegetables” reminds me of Hugh MacDiarmid’s poem “The Two Parents”, which is in part a male apologia for male grumpiness when children have to be looked after.] Knowingly, “Battle of the vegetables” is followed by an elaborate poem about Darwin’s billiard table. And ironically, the cover of this book is a drawing by one of Darwin’s children. Who said that those noisy children weren’t productive?
And yet if all this is taken to be deconstructive of Darwin, it is only half the picture presented by the poet. “My dearest Emma” consists of “found” material from Darwin’s letters about the illness and death of their young daughter Annie, showing his anguish. Is it insensitive of Darwin to note that nature is prodigal and the death of the young (and much-loved) common? Probably not. He is seeking to place his child’s death in a wider context, just as religious people do. There are other poems about the child’s death. “Early morning on the Sand-walk”, by making a chaplet out of phrases from On the Origin of Species, conveys Darwin’s delight in the natural world, and the grandeur of his vision. And so do the poems “Observations on their habits” and “Bee”, even if one of them shows Darwin’s methods of investigation to have occasionally been dotty. If the negatives of Darwin are suggested in this collection, the image of a great scientist is still maintained and enhanced. The single poem in Cold water cure in which I took most delight, “Condor”, draws heavily on Darwin’s own words to suggest his wonder and awe at nature. I quote it in full:
“A cleric’s collar of feathers at his neck,
black wings fully extended,
surely they span eight feet from tip to tip,
held in perfect stillness,
thermal currents powering his sweep,
he descends, glides down, until
he’s so close I imagine I feel his pulse
throbbing in the displacement of the air.
Holding on to my hat, I tip my head back
and see how his head, neck and tail move much more
than I expected, how his wings seem to act
as a fulcrum. For nearly half an hour
I watch him hunt over mountain and river,
the outlines of his terminal feathers dark
against the sky, until with a single flap,
he ascends too his for my eyes to follow.”
The last section of Cold water cure returns to the modern domestic scene, but the tone is often harsher and more confrontational than it is in the volume’s opening section. There are poems about the Holocaust (“This way for the gas”), about human beings seen as machines (“First time on the disassembly line”), about the possibility of terrorism (“Bombing the National Gallery of Australia”), about the pains of childbirth (“Delivery Suite”) and two sceptical poems about religion (“Vatican shockwaves”, “Easter 2014”). Is this pure chance or is the poet, like Darwin’s wife, now fearing the nihilism of a world without a rational plan?
My last comment on Cold water cure: What a fine flute this book is, and how well it is played. The flute’s note is always clear, and Claire Orchard’s voice is clarity itself. A very impressive debut.
Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, we recommend "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 four or more years ago.
“POINT COUNTER POINT” by Aldous Huxley (first published 1928).
As I’ve noted a couple of times before on this blog [look up the posts on Mortal Coils and Eyeless in Gaza] I went through a mad period when I read all of the short stories and novels of Aldous Huxley (1894-1963), one after the other, beginning with his first faltering efforts from just before the 1920s, and ending with his last despairing piece of California flakiness, Island, from 1962.
I have already expressed the view that, for all its many faults, Eyeless in Gaza (1936) is Huxley’s most humane novel – the one in which he lets up on the glib witticisms a little and allows some real human frailty to show through. I still think it is his best novel. But for entertaining bitchery and gossip, I would go for his longest single novel, Point Counter Point. For me, this is a bit like pointing out that Balzac’s LeCousin Pons and Le Pere Goriot are the master’s best-structured novels, but that La Cousine Bette and (perhaps) Illusions Perdues are more gossipy and rambling fun.
Point Counter Point was the fourth novel that Huxley wrote in the 1920s. When I read the three that preceded it, I summarised them thus in my reading diary; “Crome Yellow – young man fails to lose his virginity in a country house amid intellectual chatter. Antic Hay – young man loses his virginity, amid intellectual chatter, in the whirl of London, but finds that sex is boring. Those Barren Leaves – in early Fascist Italy, English people play at being chattering intellectuals, but fail.”
So I came to Point Counter Point more-or-less primed for what an Aldous Huxley novel of the 1920s would offer me, and if I were to summarise it as glibly as I have summarised the earlier three, it would go thus: “Point Counter Point – people intellectualise and have sex in London, but both pursuits prove unsatisfactory.”
Notoriously, this long novel does not have a single thread of plot, but a whole raft of characters whose lives and ideas interweave, giving Huxley, in his title, the right to compare it with a piece of music interweaving many different themes. It is only in the last 100 of its 600-odd pages that Huxley rouses himself to produce something like a “plot” in order to provide a neat denouement and exit scenes for some of his characters. Indeed what we are served for most of the novel’s length are Theophrastian character sketches. Therefore the novel can best be summarised in terms of who its leading characters are.
Walter Bidlake, son of the oversexed old painter John Bidlake, works at a low wage for the highbrow publication “Literary World”. He lives with his mistress Marjorie Carling, who has deserted her husband for him. But now that she is pregnant, Walter has lost interest in her, and is pursuing the flashy vamp Lucy Tantamount, whom he briefly makes his mistress before she butterflies off with somebody else.
Lucy Tantamount’s parents are Lord Edward and Lady Hilda Tantamount. Much of the earlier part of the novel takes place at a gathering at their mansion, which of course makes it a bit like the intellectual chit-chat in a country house in Crome Yellow. Lord Edward prefers to pursue pure science in a laboratory where he is assisted by the resentful left-winger Frank Illidge, who comes from a working-class background. Lady Hilda has had an affair with the painter John Bidlake, about whose randy past we hear in detail.
John Bidlake’s daughter Elinor is married to the self-consciously intellectual novelist Philip Quarles. The married couple have been travelling in India and have left their infant son Phil in care while they were away. Both seem bored with their marriage, the most common lot with married couples in novels by Aldous Huxley. Philip makes a half-hearted pass at a minor character, Molly D’Exergillod, but nothing comes of it. Elinor falls in love with the virile, muscular, athletic Everard Webley, the white-horse-riding leader of a quasi-Fascist group called the “British Freemen”. Elinor prepares to have an affair with him.
These are the major characters in the novel, as far as the central “action” of the piece is concerned, but there are three other important characters.
Denis Burlap is the greasy and complacent editor of the “Literary World”. He is self-consciously Christian but lives very comfortably while actually exploiting his employees. Women can be enticed into his bed by his supposed spirituality. He claims to be faithful to his deceased wife Susan Paley, but is actually having an affair with a woman called Beatrice Gilray, who adores his apparent sensitivity.
The married couple Mary and Mark Rampion are the only couple in the book who seem happy with each other and who are not seeking affairs elsewhere. Mark Rampion comes from a humble working-class background and is the prophet of anti-Modernism and of instinct and sensuality. He rails equally against modern civilization and Christianity and intellectuals for having divorced the mind from the body. Huxley lets him rage, apparently agreeing with his views.
The loner Maurice Spandrell is the stepson of General Knoyle, and lives off remittances from his mother. He is partly a tired, exhausted sensualist who has exploited trusting women for his own pornographic pleasure and is now sick of women and sick of himself. He is looking for proof that there are absolute values of Good and Evil.
So, for the greater part of its length, Point Counter Point is a series of conversations and a series of attempted or achieved seductions. It is a clash of intellectual “types”, like one of those witty conversation pieces (disguised as short novels) which Thomas Love Peacock produced a century before Huxley. (In an acute essay written in 2003, Clive James suggested that Huxley in effect created “orations” from each of his leading characters rather than conversations, padding out the novel’s length when he had a four-novel contract to fulfil.) Mark Rampion’s honest and healthy sensuality is set against Philip Quarles’ intellectualism, which is set against Everard Webley’s muscular brutalism, which is set against Maurice Spandrell’s dualism, which is set against Denis Burlap’s self-interested version of Christianity etc. etc.
I would be an ungrateful swine if I did not admit that much of this is very entertaining and all of it is written in that clear and readable prose that was one of Huxley’s greatest skills. One must acknowledge, however, that with all the chitter-chatter, the sum effect is like intellectual soap-opera or highbrow gossip.
Because you may not have read Point Counter Point, I will not reveal how it is all wrapped up in the last 100 pages, where “plot” intervenes. There are a couple of major domestic problems for Philip Quarles, one of which forces him and his wife Elinor to reassess their values. The way the plots involving the Fascistic Everard Webley and the dualistic Maurice Spandrell resolve themselves involve great violence. On the other hand, our last glimpse of the complacent faux-Christian Denis Burlap is purely farcical. And cynical. Having just signed a very lucrative contract, and having got rid of one mistress who was becoming a nuisance, Burlap is glimpsed on the last page frolicking naked in the bath with his new mistress. Huxley’s punch-line is “Of such is the Kingdom of Heaven”, which is the same sort of snappy zinger as the “Hot dog!” that concludes Norman Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead.
Before we can say anything else about Point Counter Point, there is one obvious thing that has to be said. It is, beyond all dispute, a roman a clef. Most of the leading characters are very clearly based on people Huxley knew or had read about.
Lucy Tantamount appears to have been based on the twittery and faddish Nancy Cunard. The ageing painter – and dirty old man – John Bidlake, who is losing whatever skill he had, is a fairly accurate caricature of Augustus John. Other minor characters also have factual originals.
Denis Burlap is self-evidently John Middleton Murry, the literary editor, essayist, pacifistic Christian and (at the time Point Counter Point appeared) for five years the widower of Katherine Mansfield. He was eventually married four times and may have been as libidinous as Huxley’s fictitious Burlap is. It interests me how Middleton Murry was beaten up verbally by so many writers. I believe it was the snobbish Osbert Sitwell who invented for him, in one of his short stories, the snarky name “Muddleton Moral”, and of course Middleton Murry was presented in the 1985 New Zealand film Leave All Fair (in which he was played by a miscast John Gielgud) as a devious and pompous person who lived off his late wife’s genius while distorting her reputation. I am sure the man had his shortcomings, but it is curious that he has so often been a whipping boy like this when his ideas were no more off the beam or flaky than those of many of his still-praised contemporaries. Was there something patently insincere about him that provoked others? Or was it his Christianity they disliked? I do not know enough about him to make a call on this.
Many modern readers have assumed that Everard Webley, the proto-Fascist, is a portrait of Sir Oswald Mosley, but this appears not to have been the case. At the time the novel was published, Mosley was still a (charismatic and much-admired) member of the Labour Party, and it was only three years later (in 1931) that he formed his “New Party” which quickly became the British Union of Fascists. Possibly Huxley spotted Mosley as somebody who could potentially become a Fascist, but this is hardly likely. Besides, there were other (now forgotten) figures on the British scene at the time, who beat the drum for Fascism. I note that Percy Wyndham Lewis’s contemporaneous novel about the London literary scene, TheApes of God, also contains the prominent figure of a Blackshirt. I note further that the case of Everard Webley has been discussed many times. A reprint of Point Counter Point had an introduction by Mosley’s novelist son, Nicholas Mosley, which discussed Everard Webley’s possible relationship with his father, among other things.
The case of Maurice Spandrell is particularly interesting. This was not based on a living person, but on Charles Baudelaire, with Huxley giving his fictitious character some of the outward characteristics of the French poet (stepson of a general; living off remittances from his mother). Now why does this chap appear in the novel? Because, I think, Huxley was exorcising something in himself. Like so many others of his generation, Aldous Huxley had begun by dabbling in the Decadence and trying to write sub-Wildean, sub-Baudelairean poetry; but he had moved from this sort of aestheticism, even if he still hankered after absolute definitions of Good and Evil.
In effect, Maurice Spandrell is in part a self-portrait. And so are two other characters in the novel. The put-upon Walter Bidlake, trying to make a living by writing for literary reviews, is one part of Huxley. But the more obvious self-portrait is the intellectual novelist Philip Quarles. Through Quarles, Huxley shows that he is aware of, and wants us to know that he is aware of, the inadequacies of his own world view. Hence there are in the novel two short sequences where we are shown diary entries by Philip Quarles, in which he comments on his own writing techniques, his tendency to make people walking ideas, and his over-intellectualism. But this raises a very old problem for readers. Just because the author shows he is aware of his own worst faults doesn’t make him any less guilty of them. Reading Huxley’s presentation of these passages in Point Counter Point, I recall listening to people once talking about how they enjoyed watching trashy soap operas because they were “camp” and it was “ironical” to watch them. My own view was that campy irony didn’t make them any less trashy. Just so, Huxley’s awareness of his over-intellectualism doesn’t make him any less over-intellectual.
Ah, but then there is in the novel the character who is meant to be leading the way out of over-intellectualising and into a healthy sensual life.
This is Mark Rampion, and he is very clearly a fictional portrait of D.H.Lawrence, with whom Huxley had an on-again off-again friendship for some years. After reading Point Counter Point, I read Keith Kushman’s essay “I refuse to be Rampioned!” (its title coming from Lawrence’s first, annoyed, reaction to Huxley’s novel). Kushman details Huxley’s intention to have Rampion as the most sympathetic character in the novel, expressing views that are a solid and acceptable critique of all the other characters’ views. Alas, this is not how I judged Rampion’s views as I read them in the novel. The reason is that they are a fairly accurate representation of Lawrence’s views, complete with his appeals to the “whole man”, his rants against most of society, and the whole egotistical, sensual bullying thing that renders so much of Lawrence’s writing both inadequate and obnoxious. Of course there is something satisfying in having a character who bellows loudly against effete, self-regarding, almost-Bloomsbury, intellectuals, but it is the same satisfaction as hearing crockery smashing when the bull enters the china shop. The bull’s most famous product comes out its rear end.
How do I personally sum up this novel? I repeat, it is a very good and engaging “read”, buoyed by Huxley’s exemplary prose. I have read critiques of Huxley’s career which say that this was his farewell to the Peacockian “discussion” novel, and that from this point he moved on to novels which either presented utopia or dystopia (Brave New World, Ape and Essence, Island) or which showed some sort of personal “conversion” towards a better life in his main character (Eyeless in Gaza, After Many a Summer etc.). This may be a fair summary of his career as novelist – but I cannot see Point Counter Point in itself as a farewell to anything. Huxley may have believed at the time that Rampion / Lawrence had the answers to all that ailed the chattering classes, but from this distance (and as Huxley himself later judged), Rampion / Lawrence was simply part of the chatter. So we end with the cynicism of the novel’s closing scene – and with a main character, the author’s surrogate Philip Quarles, clinging to his privileges as an intellectual and not once considering that there are healthier alternatives than any suggested in the novel.
It is always unfair to expect satire to do more than satirise – it is essentially a destructive enterprise, and satirists cannot be called upon to suggest alternatives to the things they ridicule. Even so, Huxley’s novel leads us only to the sense of disdain for most people that comes from most highbrow satire, and a protected sense of superiority on the author’s part.
But I will make one final thing very clear. As a jeremiad against the 1920s British literary scene, Point Counter Point is a much better novel than Wyndham Lewis’s limp and repetitive The Apes of God, which was written at about the same time.
And it is much more (malicious) fun.