SI­MON HEF­FER HIN­TER­LAND

Al­dous Hux­ley did write a great novel – but it was not ‘Brave New World’

The Daily Telegraph - Review - - COVER STORY -

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.

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