16 MARCH 2002, Page 44

Not quite clever enough?

Philip Hensher

ALDOUS HUXLEY by Nicholas Murray Time Warner Books, £20, pp. 416, ISBN 0316854921 Every English intellectual of the 1920s read Proust, of course, but only one, I think, is actually complimented in the course of A La Recherche du Temps Perdu. At one of his most celebrated moments, as the narrator walks into the Princesse de Guermantes' party in Sodome et Gomorrhe, Proust finds time not just for a brilliantly funny digression about T. H. Huxley, but to remind us that Huxley's 'nephew [sic] 'occupies a leading position among the English writers of today'. The very peculiar thing about this stupendous accolade is that when Proust wrote it Aldous Huxley had published no novels, or anything much apart from some distinctively sub-Sitwell verse. Clever old Proust, one might think; but then, one does wonder whether the fascination and reputation of Huxley have ever been solidly based in his books. It seems strangely free-floating.

Aldous Huxley, it is important to remember, published 50 books, of which perhaps only Brave New World has retained extensive popularity. A few of the others have hung on as mildly specialised enthusiasms — Antic Hay and Point Counter Point are rather delicious period pieces, and there are things to be said for Eyeless in Gaza. Crome Yellow, too, is a perfect 1920s novel — the intellectual country-house novel proves an ingenious and apt way to capture the slightly tiresome atmosphere around Lady Ottoline Morrell at Garsington. Imitations of Thomas Love Peacock's novels are rare — the only other one I can think of is by W. H. Matlock — but Crome Yellow is almost without fault, and contains, in the story of the sisters who stuff themselves in private so that they can elegantly pick over food in society, the one really deathless funny story in Huxley.

The rest, however, is deeply and rather deservedly obscure. Huxley's name is still a celebrated one, but, compared to Waugh, who never wrote a book which ever needed reviving, his work is almost entirely gone. The single exception, of course, is Brave New World, and it is entirely possible to imagine Huxley shrinking to a writer like Stella Gibbons, the author of a single classic. Brave New World is not at all characteristic of Huxley, but, read in isolation from the rest of his work, it is often misread. It's more of a terrific comic novel than a grim dystopia like Nineteen Eighty-Four, but it is surprising how often readers pass over all those dazzling jokes about 'Our Ford' and the sex classes and insist on regarding it as a passionately felt warning about the direction of society. There is an element of that, and it is difficult to read newspaper reports about embryo research without thinking for a moment of Huxley's baby farms, but next to Point Counter Point it looks more like a splendid extended joke in the English manner about social class, sex and vulgarity.

Huxley, however, fascinated his contemporaries, who rushed to find any way to convey the extraordinary, six-foot-four-anda-half impact of his entrance into a room. 'Gigantic grass-hopper', 'a windmill and a scarecrow,' a young bird', 'a tall sad tulip,' 'the Quangle-Wangle', or, more reverently, 'an angel drawn by William Blake'. Katherine Mansfield thought he resembled 'a candle who expected to go out with the next open door'. If his appearance already made him unforgettable, the range and curiosity of his conversation made the denizens of the salons gape and stretch their eyes, as he entertained them with information about the mandibles of obscure insects. (In Srinigar in the mid-1920s — I don't know why this makes one groan so much — he is reported to have been reading the EDWEVA volume of the Encyclopaedia Britannica cover to cover.) The art of brilliant conversationalists is generally lost to posterity, but not in Huxley's case. It is all in the books.

That may be the problem. The intellectual firework displays of his novels are admirable in principle, and one likes a novelist to be interested in something apart from adultery and clothes from Prada, but, like firework displays, they are not exactly informative, just showy. A book like Antic Hay has the effect of making any reader feel a bit thick, which is probably not an obvious route to popular success. Huxley is always described as being 'clever', which was obviously true of him, and by no means necessarily the put-down it usually denotes in English usage. The grindingly superior manner of the worst of his writing, however, makes one think something rather different; it seems to me that, often, he wasn't quite clever enough. And, if he saw a great deal and understood much more than most people, it is fairly undeniable that in many of his social attitudes he shared the silliest prejudices of Bloomsbury towards mass education and mass culture. Like Wyndham Lewis, he made an enormous contribution, all in all; like Lewis, it is entirely his fault that much of his work gives even the most sympathetic reader a bit of a headache.

Nicholas Murray's biography falls fairly firmly into the category of unnecessary books. Huxley was always lucky, and one of his biggest strokes of fortune was being the beneficiary of one of the great classic English biographies, Sybille Bedford's unforgettably profound and unsparing life. If Bedford's life is mostly valuable as a memoir, and she is most interested in the Aldous she knew, it still ought to be a monument as forbidding to competitors as Boswell's life of Johnson. Nicholas Murray's is a perfectly OK biography, but stands no chance against this kind of competition, and feels rather like a brisk sprint through a very crowded life. Often, one thinks he could have spared a moment to sketch in the background of more of Huxley's fascinating friends. Jelly d'Aranyi is just 'a concert violinist', without any real hint of her extraordinary status and celebrity in advanced Parisian circles; later, in Hollywood, Salka Viertel, the author of probably the best account of European artistic refugees in California, is merely a screenwriter and a hostess. Huxley was certainly very interesting in himself, and in many ways admirable; but what one wants from a life of someone who knew absolutely everyone in London and America is not so much a biography as (Kingsley Amis's term), an `allography', a set of portraits of his acquaintances and friends. This one is perfectly all right, and it would do if no one else had ever thought to write a life of Huxley, but as it is, a bit of a waste of everyone's time, One final complaint: the blurb-writers recommend Huxley to our attention by expressing wonder that he was born in the reign of Queen Victoria, and lived long enough to experience psychedelic drugs. In other words, he was born in 1894 and died in 1963. Memo to all publishers everywhere struck by similar 'interesting' facts: Stop it please, just stop it.