Antonia Nashe

Slicing a Fruitcake

Huxley in Hollywood

By David King Dunaway

Bloomsbury 448pp £14.95 order from our bookshop

 

‘One feels terribly sorry for Charlie,’ Aldous Huxley wrote of Chaplin: ‘such talents, such a mess, in art no less than in life’. In David King Dunaway’s Huxley in Hollywood one feels terribly sorry for Aldous. ‘There was no telling what he might try next: flying saucers or hashish,’ Dunaway writes of the increasingly cranky cults embraced by the Witch Doctor of California. For months he lived entirely on lentils, then switched to food cooked on a mirror in the heat of the sun. By the time he got round to mescaline trips in The World’s Biggest Drug Store, Dunaway disarmingly says, ‘for most of Huxley’s British readers the author had grown dotty’.

Writing a serious study of an author with the reputation of a fruitcake poses serious problems. Dunaway, however, manages the business admirably, capturing Huxley’s charisma with a sympathy which does not exclude scepticism of his more esoteric ideas. ‘It’s good to be cynical,’ says Propter in After Many a Summer: ‘that is, if you know when to stop’. Dunaway gleefully adds the reminder that, for one critic, Propter was ‘the dullest character in the whole history of the English novel’.

‘It’s always a good deal easier to write about negative than about positive things,’ Huxley reflected, trying to supplant the dystopia of Brave New World with the utopian vision of Island: ‘easier to criticise negative things than to set up positives’. Evelyn Waugh regretted the loss of Huxley’s early satiric talents in favour of what Christopher Isherwood called ‘Yogi-Bogey mumbo-jumbo’; but Waugh had found in Catholicism the structure of consolation which Huxley was unable to accept

‘Religio-philosophical?’ the judge coaxed when Huxley and his wife Maria applied for American citizenship, well aware that the status was more likely to be granted if the grand-son of T H Huxley tempered his pacifism with religious faith. No, Huxley countered, philosophico-metaphysical. To C Day Lewis, Huxley’s stance was ‘a big, beautiful, idealist bubble [which was] inadequate protection against a four-engine bomber’; the philosopher who retreated into Buddhism and mysticism did so as a reaction to Nagasaki and Hiroshima, though his idealist protests were no solution to the Nazi threat.

In the Spectator and the New Left Review a heated debate turned on the morality of promoting a writer who was living it up at barbecues with Greta Garbo while in Europe men were being massacred. Anita Laos, observing Huxley on a picnic with Bertrand Russell, Charlie Chaplin and Issyvoo, laughed that they ‘all looked like naughty pixies out on a spree’, and this was the predominant feeling in the English establishment. As an American academic, Dunaway offers a wry and entertaining perspective on the English literati, seeing beyond contemporary prejudices but not losing a sense of humour.

‘If only Aldous would take a secretary,’ Maria quite reasonably complained, ‘or perhaps a taxi every once in a while’. Dunaway treats Huxley’s reliance on his first wife with a sharp sense of the claustrophobia induced by living with an impossible partner. Maria, an ex-racing driver for Bugatti, ferried Huxley and his cronies between script conferences but could rarely indulge her taste for silk frocks, given the duff scripts her husband was turning in. His treatment for the Curie film ran to the length of a hefty novel; that for Alice in Wonderland, commissioned by Walt Disney, jettisoned the fantasia in favour of theological disputes in Victorian Oxford. ‘All this wasted energy,’ Huxley reflected miserably, faced with forty earlier versions of the script for Pride and Prejudice, or ‘pee-and-pee’ as Maria called it: ‘this huge pile of pulp that no one looked at’. His director, passing a script unread to a secretary, allowed her to deliver the authoritative verdict, ‘it stinks’.

Dunaway’s portrait is highly readable, though wavers on the edge of being purple and prolix, and if you can bear with allusions to Bob Dylan and Arlo Guthrie I recommend it – though I’m still defeated by his tendency to refer to T S Eliot as ‘Tom’. Scott Fitzgerald believed that the studios would hire ‘anyone who’ll accept the system and stay decently sober’, but like many writers Huxley failed in both categories. ‘I have had to be content to be an essayist, disguised from time to time as a novelist,’ he summed up his career late in life; an author who had brilliant insights after three glasses of whisky but was unable to remember them in the morning. This fetching picture of human weakness is well worth the cash, and Huxley in Hollywood is on my list of books I’d rather have read than missed.

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