Those Barren Leaves
by George H. Doran Company. 1925. xii+400 pp. $2.50.New York:
MR. HUXLEY’S publisher tells us on the jacket that his author is ‘humbug’s sworn enemy’ and his quarrel with her ‘none the less fierce because his weapon is polished and his manners beyond reproach.’ Perhaps the sounds of this passionate quarrel ring out too blatantly above Mr. Huxley’s customary and more soothing irrationality. Its fierceness leads him, at any rate, into conversations that lengthen into twentyand thirtypage symposia. There is meat in these conversations, but also some heavy bread-pudding. It were better that the wit were airier and briefer, or that the fundamental satire of the book were expressed more often in theme and situation.
But when the whole count is made against him Mr. Huxley still remains the best writer of light satire in the language. No one can read a page of him without knowing he has learned the craft of writing. Words as they slip easily out of his fountain pen are rich, and go forth in flexible, running sentences.
The scene is Italy, at Mrs. Aldwinkle’s villa, whose endless charms of baroque architecture and baroque anecdote are retailed to the end of the book. Mrs. Aldwinkle entertains all the characters, and each as he enters seems more intimately modern than the last, their complexes, upon which the story is based, being tailored in the latest philosophic models. And their malaises are piquant because they are our own — very realistically post-bellum.
The book is really a philosophic symposium, in which a half-dozen admirably drawn types of British intellectuals and pseudointellectuals discuss how they can escape their proper destinies. The reader delights in Mr. Huxley’s skillful modelings of the human character. Chelifer, for example, who has, I think, a good deal of the protective coloration of Huxley’s own mentality. He is poet and writer, but, the modern world being what it is, — grimy, efficient, industrial, and philistine, — the only way to stick it is to plunge. Chelifer plunges by editing the Rabbit Fancier’s Gazette in a smoky office in the heart of London. The ‘nub of reality,’ he calls it. Calamy criticizes him for his silliness. Calamy is a philanderer, who hates philandering, but fortunately hates the idea of hating it more. He calls Chelifer an ‘inverted sentimentalist.’
Miss Thriplow, who happens to be Calamy’s current love, is very well modeled. She is the sophisticated and somewhat anæmic novelist of thirty who longs to be ingenuous and have violent primitive emotions — ‘ like the Russians.’ Thinks, in fact, she has ‘em. Mr. Cardan is always in the interminable conversations. Fifty-odd, and ever defending, with dignity, a life given over to cards and women and drink. Mr. Cardan ends by marrying an imbecile for the sake of 23,000 pounds.
The final chapters deal in a conversation upon death which is both moving and witty. Chelifer returns, it is to be supposed, to his ‘nub of reality’; Cardan continues to haunt the ménage of Mrs. Aldwinkle because she pays for his dinners; while Calamy actually retires from the world and from woman, to go up into a mountain and think. Abruptly at the end the book leaps from satire to mysticism.
CHARLES R. WALKER