SIMON HEFFER HINTERLAND
Aldous Huxley did write a great novel – but it was not ‘Brave New World’
Icame across a handsome edition of Aldous Huxley’s Eyeless in Gaza in a secondhand bookshop shortly after I collected my English degree. Two things resonated as I saw it on its shelf. All I had read by Huxley – not then considered vital by Cambridge – was Brave New World, which I thought rather overdone. And the title reminded me of someone I had studied, and hugely admired: John Milton. It comes from his closet drama Samson Agonistes, “Eyeless in Gaza at the Mill with slaves”. I discerned a sympathetic cast of mind. Having read just the first page, I bought the book.
It was published in 1936, his next novel after Brave New World, but radically different. It harks back to Huxley’s first three novels – Crome Yellow, Antic Hay and Those Barren Leaves – in expressing the author’s distaste at “society” between the wars; all those people who, relieved at having survived the Great War, or more usually at having missed the chance to fight in it, determined to spend the Twenties partying.
Such people are, to an extent, his target again in Eyeless in Gaza; but there is also a tonal link to his fourth novel, Point Counter Point, in terms of the seriousness of the book. Huxley came from a family of distinguished intellectuals, and was a serious one himself: and it is that regard for ideas that infuses Eyeless in Gaza.
It is the story of a man, Anthony Beavis, born in that elevated class with which Huxley is so impatient; and describes his acquisition of a serious understanding of life. In the process, it explores ideas – notably, war and pacifism – and dissects the maintenance of human relationships. It does this by unusual means: the story is not chronological, but operates in separate chronological sequences interlaced with each other, designed to show the development of Beavis’s mind and the events that have caused it to be shaped in the way it is.
The novel opens in 1933, with the second chapter moving to 1934 – and the next four chapters describe action in 1933 (again), 1902 (when Beavis was a boy, at his mother’s funeral), 1926 and then back to 1902, with the years before the Great War also appearing.
It is Huxley’s take on the modernist, stream of consciousness approach used by Proust, Joyce, Woolf and, to an extent, Lawrence, whom Huxley greatly admired and whose own ideas he references. Instead of allowing memories and thoughts to intervene in contemporary action, he takes us back to the time when those thoughts and memories originated. It successfully builds up our idea of how Beavis developed using, as it were, hard evidence rather than perhaps misremembered “fact”.
It is particularly helpful in exploring the tension in the narrative between war and pacifism: Huxley had sought to fight in the Great War (he was two days shy of 20 when it broke out) but was half-blind in one eye and was rejected for service. He spent part of the war as a farm labourer at Garsington, on the estate of Philip and Lady Ottoline Morrell, with a mob of Bloomsbury hangers-on such as Lytton Strachey, who had never had any intention of fighting in the war, and who seem to have influenced Huxley’s commitment to pacifism.
For all its cerebration the novel is not above coups de theatre: I shan’t spoil it if you haven’t read it, but once you have, you will always be alert to the dangers of lying on a flat roof after performing a carnal act.
However, it is a gripping work, deeply absorbing, highly original, beautifully written; and rather than just entertaining the reader, it makes him or her think.
During part of the Great War
Huxley returned to Eton, and taught English. One of his pupils was Eric Blair, alias George Orwell, who remembered the beauty of Huxley’s English, and clearly learned from it.
Huxley is a sophisticated, original man of English letters who deserves more credit for his place in them; and Eyeless in Gaza is an ideal place to start the revaluation.