After Many A Summer by Aldous Huxley
|After Many A Summer by Aldous Huxley|
|Category: Dystopian Fiction|
|Reviewer: Lesley Mason|
|Summary: Highly relevant insights to superficiality and the obsession with youth as relevant today as it was 80 years ago. Discourses on the nature of goodness and effectiveness of politics also form strong themes. The story is almost just a pretext. Worth the read but quite heavy going.|
|Buy? Maybe||Borrow? Yes|
|Pages: 336||Date: September 2015|
|Publisher: Vintage Classics|
|External links: Author's website|
Like many of us, I suspect, I knew nothing of Huxley other than the "required reading" of Brave New World. Naturally, on that basis alone, he was pigeon-holed in my head under the heading Sci-fi - must check out further.
Finally, the reissue of some of his work under the Penguin Vintage Classic imprint has given me the provocation to do so. I selected three titles and decided to read them in the order they were written, the first of them is After Many A Summer, was written in the run-up to World War II, written at a time when the author was at the height of his fame, a period when he had decanted from Britain (via Italy and France) to the U.S. and was living in California.
Brave New World had already established his dystopian view of where science was leading, and Eyeless in Gaza had set his pacifist credentials down, so now we find him living in the sun, in the home of hedonism and superficiality. By the late thirties Europe was already either at war or clearly heading that way, the golden days were clearly numbered. In Hollywood however, they'd barely started.
Wall Street might have crashed, and the dust bowl had driven many a farmer off the land and onto the road, but there were still fortunes to be made.
And millionaires still making them.
Once such millionaire is Jo Stoyte. Jo has made a lot of money, most of it, it would seem by having people who can give him the inside track on where there is money to be made. And he has spent a lot of money constructing a monstrosity of a mediaeval castle, filled with every mod con from the laboratory in the basement (complete with its lab rats and research scientists) to the swimming pool on the roof (complete with pretty girl in skimpy white costume).
Both the girl and the scientists are at the crux of this tale. Stoyte might be rich, but he's not especially fit and he's getting old. The girl and the scientist are there to deal with that… the one to make believe he's not really as old and increasingly unattractive as they both know he is, and the other to stop the progression.
Dr Obispo and his research assistant Pete are trying to find the answer to immortality. Obsipo has a theory, and he is pursuing it, meanwhile he just needs to keep the old man happy and the money flowing. And if he can seduce the girl, the sweetly mis-named Virginia into the bargain, so much the better.
Pete on the other hand is utterly besotted with her, but wouldn't do a thing to sully her honour: clearly unaware that she has the kind of past we might expect a beautiful young thing who's chosen to shack up with an ageing rich man to have.
The other key character living just outside this barely restrained ménage à quatre is William Propter, a one-time scholar and old school-friend (if friend be the right word) of Stoyte. He now spends his time ensuring he has just enough, and doing what he can to ease the path of the migrant workers exploited by Stoyte and his land agents.
It is into this idyll that Jeremy Pordage has inveigled his way. Pordage is an English scholar who arrives at the castle to catalogue Stoyte's latest acquisition: The Hauberk Papers – a random collection of family manuscripts finally sold by two old women in England who're up against death duties and the failing of the family estate.
This isn't an easy book to read. It is the kind of classic that one can imagine being chosen as a 'set text' for A-level students. It is a book to be studied… not read and enjoyed.
For one thing the plot would barely pad out a short story. It is a tale, as the blurb has it, of seduction, murder and debasement – but on that level it is a tale that, say, the likes of Chandler would tell in 50 pages.
Then there are the characters. With the possible exception of Proctor, there's not a likeable soul amongst them. Every single one of them driven by greed and the longing for a life of idleness, worshipping wealth for its own sake, doing a bit of philanthropy or religious observance on the side not so much by way of penance but just because it makes them feel good. Even Pete and Pordage, striving to be harmless in themselves, are cut through with self-righteousness.
Another reason why many might struggle with it is that it is weighed down with reference: to classical literature and mythology (I'm sure I should know who Childe Rolande, the King of Thule and Marmion are but don't); to plant-life (why is it funny that a house in Woking should be called Araucarias?). The only way to get through the book at any sensible pace is either to be extremely literate and otherwise cultured to begin with, or to simply accept that you're not going to look up The Prelude, Norma Shearer, Boecklin, or Bernini; that you're not going to do comparative study of Goethe and Marvell. If we need to know all of this, and need to be able to visualise the difference between Boucher and Vermeer, or between Ingres and Grinling Gibbons… then to be fair, we're not going to make it beyond page 30.
I started making mental notes of things to check out. I soon stopped.
On the other hand, Huxley's lead into America as he drives Pordage from the airport to the estate, listing the sites and they flash by the window, the sheer incongruity of food and liquor adverts interspersed with religious exhortations in much similar vein, has become our archetypal shorthand for a certain kind of American-ness. Stylistically, brilliant – especially as it's brash reality jars against the already evident pomposity of the Englishman struggling to comprehend it.
Is that enough to drive the book's 'classic' status? A simple mockery of consumerist extreme in a time of global hardship? No. I think the point is that you have to take the book on its own terms. I'm sure others may disagree, but to me those terms are that on the one hand, it is a novel: it has to be, because it is written by a novelist, playing on his fame. There is indeed a wicked narrative that could have stood alone, and might have had more popular impact had it done so.
On the other hand, and it seems to me that this was Huxley's primary objective, it is a discourse. The whole set-up is really an excuse for Huxley to explore world-views through the long and involved conversations between the protagonists.
Propter has a quasi-Buddhist view of the world. Time and craving he tells Pete, are two aspects of the same thing, and they form the raw materials for evil. His view is that 'humanity' is the real root of evil. If we could live at a pure animal level, we would avoid evil. If we could attain the pure spiritual level, we would be incapable of it. As humans we should therefore strive to live in a combination of these two levels, avoiding the base and greed of 'human-ness' which rests between them.
Now, personally, I would dispute his absolution of the rest of the animal kingdom in this regard, but I can see what he's driving at.
In a strange way the supercilious Pordage finds himself almost on the same side, with his view that life would at least be simpler if we just accepted that things are, and got on with what we had to do within the given context.
The difference between them is that Pordage thinks that is a realistic proposition, if not the only real proposition, whereas Propter takes the wider view of the world and acknowledges that it is probably impossible. Which is no reason not to try.
There is a great deal of debate about good and evil. Pete's return from the war in Spain is the pretext for arguing the nature of war, the worsening global position would have been clear to Huxley as he wrote and by the time of publication the conflict was under way.
Where God comes into all of this, naturally, cannot be ignored.
Propter rehearses one of my own views that people can have a lot of virtues without there necessarily being anything "good" about their actions: the reverse can also be true. I divert from him though as he signals intent as the defining factor, whereas I'm prepared to see "good" in an action that may have been self-serving in intent. If the philanthropist is merely minimising his tax burden, I don't necessarily care if it feeds the hungry or heals the sick in the process.
And we cannot accept his final hypothesis that If you know that the strictly human level is the level of evil, you won't waste your time trying to do good on that level…the best you can do on the human level is preventive…politicians don't know the nature of reality. If they did they wouldn't be politicians. Reactionary or revolutionary, they're all humanists, all romantics Going on to call them lunatics whose every intervention can only lead to disaster, he calls on history to prove his point.
But I still say it's no reason not to try.
From politics the topic moves on to the nature of love, and lust (in all its forms) generated by some of the findings in the Hauberk papers (just in case you're wondering what any of this has to do with the plot). We should also however remember the time-slot for this. People of my generation might tout the view that emancipation (of women, of spirit) didn’t happen until the sixties, but in essence much more progress was made in the interwar years. Women weren't giving up the economic freedoms granted them of necessity during the Great War, and on the back of that they were exercising choices in other areas too. Free-thinking, and maybe even free-love, were already on the agenda. The Catholic Virginia struggles with this, but in Huxley's exploration of her feelings and responses, the shrine curtain tends to stay resolutely closed.
And from love onto what makes great literature… and on…
And then, from nowhere, he suddenly remembers he's supposed to be telling a story about half a dozen semi-demented individuals in self-imposed isolation in a castle, which needs to reach a dramatic conclusion.
So he provides one. It's all a bit too pat. A bit too neat.
Oh yes, and then again: he is a dysopian, so he has to tie in the scientific ideas which he's laid as a breadcrumb trail to try and hold the thing together, which takes across the water to the origins of the Hauberk papers, and something nasty lurking…
As a novel I'm not sure I'd rate After Many a Summer that highly. It doesn’t have the emotion of a Steinbeck as a response to 1930s America.
But as a semi-political tract – it's worth spending some time with, poring over the ideas and wondering how they applied then and how they still apply now.
And as for all the earnest-learning littering the pages, simply smile at it in passing, but only stop to really look if it genuinely catches your eye. It's not more than the pictures on the wall of the faux castle in California, treat it accordingly. If you read it seriously, you'll end up with numerous pages post-it marked as it is, without worrying about the window-dressing.
Another Vintage Classic we can recommend is The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood.
You can read more book reviews or buy After Many A Summer by Aldous Huxley at Amazon.co.uk
You can read more book reviews or buy After Many A Summer by Aldous Huxley at Amazon.com.
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