Novelists Who Explore
Aldous Huxley’s novels have always presented an interesting and sometimes baffling problem. His wide range of learning, his artistic experimentation, his awareness of many points of view, his ironic humor, and his intellectual honesty — all these things make him one of the most important and comprehensive of presentday writers. And yet his limitations are equally obvious The same rather restricted types of characters appear in each successive book: Myra Viveash, Lucy Tantamount. Mary Amberlev, are variations of the same woman; Denis, Gumbril, Walter Bidlake, Bernard Marx, Anthony Beavis, are slightly different versions of the same man. We find again and again the same conflict between irony and a search for faith, the same horrified preoccupation with physical evil and a desire for mystical salvation. And each book leaves us with the same picture of frustration and disillusion.
Huxley’s new novel, Eyeless in Gaza (Harpers, $2.50), once more illustrates the truth of such remarks. It is a study of-contemporary intellectual society: an intelligent but weak young man passes through various experiences, physical, emotional, and moral, comes in touch with a number of ideas, and ends, after wrecking his best friend’s life, by seeking salvation in a militant pacifist organization. Every biography, Huxley suggests, may be summed up in the words of Ovid: Video meliora probnque; deteriora sequor, — ‘ I see and know the better; I follow the worse,’ — and that is true of Anthony Beavis, his present hero, as it is true of many of his previous heroes. Where this novel differs from previous novels of Huxley’s is in its technique, and in its expression of a need which is the most striking characteristic of this decade — the need for group action.
The technique of Eyeless in Gaza is a further development of the technique Huxley borrowed from André Gide and used in Point Counter Point. In Eyeless in Gaza we not only move from one episode to another in place, we also move in time: from 1933 to 1902, from 1914 to 1934 and back again; and only when we have finished the book is the pattern seen to be complete. Huxley manages this part of his job with great skill; the breakup of regular chronological order not only fails to confuse us, it definitely adds to our sense of contrast between the characters and incidents, and it is a deft and useful device for showing us the reasons for individual behavior. We read, for example, an account of Anthony’s state of mind in 1933; the next section takes us back to 1902, and we learn of an incident — the death of his mother or the action of a friend — which was an element in producing that later state of mind. It is a new use of that continual and almost exaggerated sense of the importance of time which has haunted many recent novelists, and which Huxley, always contemporary, here exploits with considerable technical brilliance.
Apart from technique, the episode in this book which shows a growth in Huxley’s ability as a novelist is the central episode — the relation between Anthony and Brian. Brian, who is a kind of Puritan, is engaged to a girl who is bewildered and frustrated by his attitude toward her. Anthony, to whom she means nothing, kisses her as the result of a bet; she takes him seriously, and Anthony, who immediately afterward goes on a holiday with Brian, has n’t the courage to say anything about it to him. Consequently, when Brian hears about it from the girl, his overwrought state of health and his sense that he has been betrayed by the two people he most cared for make him commit suicide. The incident so summarized sounds melodramatic, and to some extent it is, but Huxley describes it with more than his usual warmth, and with his gift of irony working at full strength. We have only to compare it with the similar episode in Antic Hay, the relation between Gumbril and Emily, to see how, in this instance at any rate, Huxley’s talent has matured.
But of the novel as a whole one cannot he so sure. Huxley’s novels are never ‘pure’ novels, in the sense that Joyce’s Ulysses is a ‘pure’ novel — an attempt to describe life objectively, with no intrusion of ethics or personal interpretation. Huxley, who is, like Philip Quarles in Point Counter Point, ‘not a congenital novelist,’ looks at his subject matter from a more or less ethical point of view. He has a strong vein of humanitarianism, — it is the complement to his absorbed horror at physical cruelty, — and, being also of a philosophizing type of mind, he is likely to seek in his novels for an answer to the disillusion his irony has laid bare. The result tends to artistic confusion and to emotional insincerity. In this novel the ‘conversion’ of Anthony Beavis to the particular kind of group movement which he expounds throughout the book is out of character. At one moment we see him in action — bewildered, unhappy,and weak;at the next he is expounding a point of view which we are sure his will would not have been strong enough, nor his intelligence quite blind enough, to embrace. It is here that the technique which Huxley has adopted betrays him. For by skipping from one period of time to another, by showing us at the beginning of the book what Anthony’s final state of mind is to be, Huxley is able to shirk his crucial psychological problem: the change in Anthony’s character after the suicide of Brian and his experience in Mexico with Dr. Miller and Mark. For this reason, as we think over the novel, it seems in retrospect to fall apart, to contain several useless and irrelevant incidents, — such as the shocking one of the dog dropped from the aeroplane, — to fail to achieve, in short, the unity it strives for. It is not, on the whole, one of the heights of Huxley’s artistic career.
The Big Money (Harcourt, Brace, $2.50) is the third and last of John Dos Passos’s novels describing the American scene in the years after the war. As in its predecessors, we are shown a wide panorama of American life, through snatches of typical news headlines, through more or less lyrical interpolations, through brief and admirable biographies of significant public figures, and most of all through the interweaving stories of several representative people: a war ace who gets into big business and is ruined, a girl who becomes a movie star, an earnest social worker, a public relations man — all of them people whose lives have been directly conditioned by the circumstances of their time.
No one concerned with the health of the novel as a living form can fail to sympathize with the ambitious task Mr. Dos Bassos has set himself; no one can fail to regard his achievement with respect. He writes from a wise and comprehending point of view; his construction is firm; his narrative is swift, realistic, and interesting. There are few novelists in this country to-day whose craftsmanship is as secure, and whose sense of American life as understanding and awake.
Yet both the subject matter and the technique of this novel raise some important doubts and problems. Fundamentally its method is the method of journalism; the book, to use a familiar distinction, is a record of what did happen, —rationalized, sorted, and typified, to he sure, — but not, in spite of its sometimes vivid characterization, an imaginative reconstruction of what might happen. It is description rather than interpretation. Consequently, and this is its fundamental weakness as a work of art, there is nothing inevitable in what happens to the main figures. The case of Charley Anderson, his chief hero, is typical. Charley is a man without character, almost without personality. Nothing that he does is the result of his own determination; he makes money by accident, he gets married by accident, he gets killed by accident. He is an unconscious victim of the society which produced him.
Now this is all very well if Mr. Dos Passos’s aim is to be a sociological journalist; it is less satisfactory if his aim is to write a novel. Everyone will grant that the society which produced Charley Anderson is blind and ignorant, unconscious of its goal and destructive of personality; Mr. Dos Passos gives us a most convincing picture of its meaningless stupidity. But in the hero of a novel we want more than an illustration of a society. The trouble with Charley Anderson as a character is that there is nothing about him which is dramatic; his awareness of himself is so rudimentary that a conflict, such as there was in George F. Babbitt, is impossible. The crude and cruel circumstances, of which he is only childishly conscious, are his destruction.
There is both contrast and similarity in the work of Huxley and Dos Passos. In a sense their weaknesses are the opposites of each other: Huxley tries to interpret — to explain and possibly to solve — too much; Dos Passes does not try to interpret enough. But their virtues are the same; they are both honest and sincere craftsmen, and they both vividly describe two different aspects of a civilization which, however decadent or blind it seems, may perhaps be better because they have so faithfully shown us what it is like.