Monday, March 28, 2016
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.