Archive for Aldous Huxley

Page Seventeen II: The Second Story

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 13, 2021 by dcairns

As usual, seven passages from seven page seventeens. I’ve recently enjoyed the rather mysterious short stories of Walter De La Mare. It was particularly fun to read Missing, a story narrated in a tea shop in a heatwave, while being in a cafe in a heat wave. So when I picked up WDLM’s novel of possession/reincarnation The Return from the St Columba’s Bookstore, I turned eagerly to page seventeen to see if it would offer me a suitable extract.

To my surprise I found a previous reader had bookmarked the spot with a scrap of paper. One the paper were the haunting words S.W. BRITISH CHAIN FREQUENCY GROUP 1B. Printed in green ink that closely matched the green hue of the Pan Books paperback itself. On the inside front cover the book was stamped WARDROOM LIBRARY H.M.S. SEAHAWK, and since S.W. can stand for shortwave, it seemed possible that this little piece of paper dated from the book’s use as light reading at sea.

On page seventeen I encountered a character called Sheila, which is my mother’s name. Here’s the passage I’ve selected, along with six more from six different volumes.

Lawford shut his mouth. “I suppose so–a fit,” he said presently. “My heart went a little queer, and I sat down and fell into a kind of doze–a stupor, I suppose. I don’t remember anything more. And then I woke; like this.”

I recall the scent of some kind of toilet powder–I believe she stole it from her mother’s Spanish maid–a sweetish, lowly, musky perfume. It mingles with her own biscuity odour, and my senses were suddenly filled to the brim; a sudden commotion in a nearby bush prevented them from overflowing–and as we drew away from each other, and with aching veins attended to what was probably a howling cat, there came from the house her mother’s voice calling her, with a rising frantic note–and Dr. Cooper ponderously limped out into the garden. But that mimosa grove–the tingle, the flame, the honeydew, and the ache remained with me, and that little girl with her seaside limbs and ardent tongue haunted me ever since–until at last, twenty-four years later, I broke her spell by incarnating her in another.

Mr. Hutton was aware that he had not behaved with proper patience; but he could not help it. Very early in his manhood he had discovered that not only did he not feel sympathy for the poor, the weak, the diseased, and deformed; he actually hated them. Once, as an undergraduate, he had spent three days at a mission in the East End. He had returned, filled with a profound and ineradicable disgust. Instead of pitying, he loathed the unfortunate. It was not, he knew, a very comely emotion, and he had been ashamed of it at first. In the end he had decided that it was temperamental, inevitable, and had felt no further qualms. Emily had been healthy and beautiful when he married her. He had loved her then. But now – was it his fault that she was like this?

To kill or not to kill an insect is a decision which faces several characters. It is morally all the more indicative as the act involves no retaliatory consequence, because it is a matter of impulse rather than reflection, wile from conventional viewpoints it has no moral significance. Thus the insect motif sometimes suggests a reverence for life. But this reverence is amused and sardonic, and has its markedly un-Schweitzerian aspects. The sudden death of an insect can also imply that a man can died a abruptly, and as unimportantly.

In the folklore of the doppelganger (German for double-goer; defined by the OED as “wraith of a living person”) to meet your duplicate is a premonition of death. Sellers, who had visited Roger Moore on the set of The Man Who Haunted Himself, must have felt as if he’d toppled headlong into a similarly horrific plot. As The Fiendish Plot of Dr Fu Manchu, on Sellers’ orders, was being re-re-re-written throughout the night, by teams of hacks, belletrists, ex-playwrights, and just about anybody who could stay awake and hold a pen, this was exactly an element which was worked in at the last moment (though it was lost again when the film was edited after Sellers’ passing). As Sellers intended it (and he through the leaves of the script other people had concocted to the ground, in order to improvise it), the rejuvenated Fu, and Taylor as Nayland, were to walk off into the sunset together, the opposites reconciled, the doubles united. ‘You are the only worthy adversary I ever had, Nayland. They were the good old days. We can recapture them and start all over again.’

‘I admit I can’t make him out,’ resumed Barker, abstractedly; ‘he never opens his mouth without saying something so indescribably half-witted that to call him a fool seems the very feeblest attempt at characterisation. But there’s another thing about him that’s quite funny. Do you know that he has the one collection of Japanese lacquer in Europe? Have you ever seen his books? All Greek poets and medieval French and that sort of thing. Have you ever been in his rooms? It’s like being inside an amethyst. And he moves about in all that and talks like – like a turnip.’

Suddenly I found myself lying awake, peering from my sandy mattress through the door of the tent. I looked at my watch pinned to the canvas, and saw by the bright moonlight that it was past twelve o’clock–the threshold of a new day–and I had therefore slept a few hours. The Swede was asleep still beside me; the wind howled as before; something plucked at my heart and made me feel afraid. There was a sense of disturbance in my immediate neighbourhood.

Postscript: Fiona is now reading The Return, and in conversation with friend and Shadowplayer David Melville Wingrove she has learned that it was HE who originally donated it to the charity shop where I found it…

The Return by Walter De La Mare; Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov; The Gioconda Smile, from Mortal Coils by Aldous Huxley; Luis Bunuel by Raymond Durgnat; The Life and Death of Peter Sellers by Roger Lewis; The Napoleon of Notting Hill by G.K. Chesterton; The Willows, from Best Ghost Stories of Algernon Blackwood.

Citizen Eyre

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , on October 8, 2014 by dcairns

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Not quite fair to follow the exquisite Cary Fukanaga JANE EYRE with Robert Stevenson’s 1943 Gothic potboiler, though normally I’d be likely to prefer the older film (produced by Orson Welles!)

In this Hollywood England, everyone is plummy, with occasional hints of Scots accent for the harsher characters (Henry Danielle in particular) — the only Yorkshire accent is possessed by Ethel Griffies (the ornithologist from THE BIRDS) as Grace Poole, the madwoman in the attic’s nurse. She appears so late in the story that her authentic speech comes as an illusion-shattering shock.

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In the leads, of course, we have Joan Fontaine and Orson Welles, each in their own way slightly disastrous, together a cataclysmic calamity which nearly tears the film from its sprockets. But it’s not a total disaster — with atmospheric studio artifice — Thornfield as Castle Frankenstein — and Bernard Herrmann at his most chromatically characteristic, the movie is beautiful to see and hear, and there are fragments of good scenes and good ideas throughout. Stevenson, assisted and harassed by Welles, and with a mainly intelligent script her co-authored with Aldous Huxley and John Houseman, manoeuvres his way through the long, convoluted narrative quite deftly, distorting quite a bit and being too obvious much of the time, but hitting the key points…

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You’ll grow to love Joan’s “concerned simpleton” expression or, if you don’t, it won’t be from lack of opportunity because it NEVER LEAVES HER FACE.

But we never believe the love story, do we? Orson is able to look offscreen with affecting tenderness — helped, I suspect, by his custom of playing his closeups against thin air. But when he’s intercut with Fontaine’s simpering features, we wonder what is inspiring such compassion, since Fontaine is cycling through her limited repertoire much faster than usual and too more wearying effect. (It’s a bit like DEAD MEN DON’T WEAR PLAID, this intercutting of closeups that seem to technically correspond but betray the manipulation usually concealed — we KNOW, Kuleshov be damned, that these shots don’t belong together.)

Listen — I like Fontaine, who is great in REBECCA and LETTER FROM AN UNKNOWN WOMAN and numerous other things. But look — in the screen tests for REBECCA, happily preserved, we can see a small army of Hollywood lovelies trying and failing to grab the role of the meek and mild “I”. The character actually has a line about being shy, but Loretta Young plays it lush and saintly, while Vivian Leigh looks like she wants to tear Maxim DeWinter’s trousers off. Fontaine’s looks like the most intelligent reading by far, but maybe it’s just that her mannerisms suited it better? She can play shy. As Jane Eyre, she’s supposed to be spirited — and she gives us the most submissive, eyes-downcast, passive performance we ever saw. A case of an actor needing to be broken from her habitual performance and shoved out into terra incognito, not an easy thing when the actor is a star. Also a case of playing the lines, which are technically submissive as it’s 19th century employee-to-employer dialogue, rather than playing the subtext. (I just watched The Secret Life of Books on the BBC, in which awful journalist Bidisha struggles with the politics of the book — she loved it at sixteen when she read it for pleasure, but now she’s thinking deeply about it, it all seems so incorrect — partly because her attempts to shoehorn it into a modern PC paradigm interfere with her ability to actually read and understand.)

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Welles plays his happy scenes as Charles Rochester Kane, wears his pants absurdly high and affects a piratical puffy shirt and a false nose, but is very good in places. I like listening to his voice and we can believe him as temperamental, domineering, haunted — during those moments when we can believe him as a human being at all.

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As you can see — great visuals, particularly in long shot.

The script hews closely to the cornier aspects of the book’s ending, though Jane never becomes rich — but we do get Rochester’s miracle recovery from blindness and the birth of a son to the house of Rochester, though this is all in the form of Fontaine’s tremulous narration, so Sonny Bupp is deprived of a plum role. As far as I recall, other adaptations are content to end with Jane and Edward reunited and “Reader, I married him,” as the inevitable future outcome, skipping any suggestion of a cure and letting the audience imagine the oncoming domestic bliss, such as it may be.

Quote of the Day: Attack of the Giant Faces

Posted in FILM, MUSIC, Politics with tags , , , , , , on June 29, 2008 by dcairns

Aldous Huxley, in 1929, goes to the talkies ~

“[…] Nothing but disembodied entertainers, gesticulating flatly on the screen and making gramophone-like noises as they did so. Some sort of comedian was performing as we entered. But he soon vanished to give place to somebody’s celebrated jazz-band — not merely audible in all its loud vulgarity of brassy guffaw and caterwauling sentiment, but also visible in a series of apocalyptic close-ups of the individual performers. A benificent providence has dimmed my powers of sight, so that at a distance of more than four or five yards I am blissfully unaware of the full horror of the average human countenance. At the cinema, however, there is no escape. Magnified up to Brobdignagian proportions, the human countenance smiles its six-foot smiles, opens and shuts its thirty-two-inch eyes, registers soulfulness or grief, libido or whimsicality, with every square centimetre of its several roods of pallid mooniness. Nothing short of total blindness can preserve one from the spectacle. The jazz-players were forced upon me; I regarded them with a fascinated horror. It was the first time, I suddenly realised, that I had ever clearly seen a jazz-band. The spectacle was positively terrifying.”

Not his thing, I guess. Beautiful writing, though. Unfortunately, an unpleasant dose of anti-semitism then emerges ~

“The performers belonged to two contrasted races. There were the dark and polished young Hebrews, whose souls were in those mournfully sagging, sea-sickishly undulating melodies of mother-love and nostalgia and yammering amorousness and clotted sensuality which have been the characteristically Jewish contributions to modern popular music. And there were the chubby young Nordics, with Aryan faces transformed by the strange plastic forces of the North American environment into the likenesses of very large uncooked muffins of the unveiled posteriors of babes.”

The writing is still kind of sumptious and evocative, and even touches on things we can recognise even if we don’t agree with Huxley’s distaste: I can almost hear the “sea-sickishly undulating melodies”, and the muffin-faced Nordics remind me irresistably of Martin Milner as the young jazz guitarist in THE SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS. But Huxley’s dislike of jazz (in itself, an allowable blind spot) is informed by a nasty racial prejudice that robs the piece of its intended humour. Huxley’s anti-semitism is not the most virulent: it comes with a belief that Jewish culture is vulgar and inferior (later, Huxley will state that Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci is second-rate but at least stands in some relation to the glories of Italy, presumably in contrast to Irving Berlin), but as notorious bigot Kingsley Amis put it, “One wouldn’t want anybody to DO anything about it. One would be horrified by THAT.”

Such “mild” prejudices are weak things. Their owners should stamp them out.

I suppose one of the benefits of living in a post-Holocaust world is that such attitudes are rarer, and tolerated less. Huxley’s essay was written apparently without any thought of controversy. Today such an outpouring would rightly inspire outrage. We all have our likes and dislikes. It’s quite a good idea to test our boundaries and grow in the field of appreciating different kinds of art. It’s absolutely essential to do so in the field of appreciating different kinds of human being.

Quotes from Do What You Will by Aldous Huxley.