Mortal Coils by Aldous Huxley
It’s confession time. Although I have a sizeable chunk of books by Aldous Huxley on my shelves, most of which have been there for over 30 years (gulp), I’ve never actually read any of them…. Which is pretty poor, really, as I love 20th century literature and I love the Bloomsberries, so Huxley ticks both boxes. Simon has been reading and reviewing Huxley recently, which brought him back to the forefront of my mind – so when I was hesitating between books recently, I grabbed this collection of his short stories and just started reading!
Huxley, of course, is well-known for a number of things apart from being associated with early Bloomsbury – his Wikipedia entry says: Aldous Leonard Huxley (26 July 1894 – 22 November 1963) was an English writer, philosopher and a prominent member of the Huxley family. He was best known for his novels including Brave New World, set in a dystopian London, and for non-fiction books, such as The Doors of Perception, which recalls experiences when taking a psychedelic drug, and a wide-ranging output of essays. Early in his career Huxley edited the magazine Oxford Poetry, and published short stories and poetry. Mid career and later, he published travel writing, film stories and scripts. He spent the later part of his life in the US, living in Los Angeles from 1937 until his death. In 1962, a year before his death, he was elected Companion of Literature by the Royal Society of Literature. Huxley was a humanist, pacifist, and satirist. By the end of his life, Huxley was widely acknowledged as one of the pre-eminent intellectuals of his time. He was nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature in seven different years.
“Mortal Coils” is a collection of 5 short stories, published shortly after Huxley’s success with “Crome Yellow”. The first, “The Gioconda Smile” is famous, and I had the feeling I may have read it somewhere before… Nevertheless, it’s an excellent tale, the story of Janet Spence, who has the smile of the title, Mr. Hutton and his invalid wife (plus his variety of lovers!), with a murder and plenty of twists built in. It’s an excellent piece, and deservedly lauded!
Then there is “Permutations Among the Nightingales” a very funny little playlet (you could almost consider it a comedy sketch, I suppose); it follows the romantic shenanigans of a (various) group of people staying in a hotel, and you could almost see it as prefiguring the bedroom farces of later years. I laughed a lot, anyway!
“The Tillotson Banquet” is about the word of art and art collectors; Spode, an aptly named young man writing about the arts, discovers that Tillotson, a famous painter from the 1800s, is still alive, albeit decrepit and destitute. He and his patron decide to throw a benefit lunch for the painter, which again somewhat descends into farce – though not without making a few pithy points about trends in art on the way.
The penultimate story, “Green Tunnels” is set in Italy, where young Barbara is staying with her father and some dull neighbours. Bored out of her mind, she sees a glimpse of romance with a local dashing Italian, but all is not as she perceives it…
And finally, “Nuns at Luncheon”, a really clever and brilliantly told story. The narrator is lunching with Miss Penny, a famous journalist (and something of a character). She relates a story over lunch about a nun who nursed her when she had appendicitis and who ended up disgraced while trying to convert a criminal; but the story itself becomes irrelevant as the narrator and Miss Penny discuss how the story would be told by a novelist and in effect deconstruct the whole writing process. It’s witty and very smart, and actually rather ahead of its time, and features some wonderful imagery:
Miss Penny threw back her head and laughed. Her long earrings swung and rattled – corpses hanging in chains; an agreeably literary simile. And her laughter was like brass, but that had been said before.
You might have guessed that I found my first experience of reading Huxley a wonderful one, and I’m asking myself why it took me so long to read him! His prose is lovely; witty and yet evocative, he nails a character brilliantly in a few words, and catches the essence of a place just as easily. His portrayal of Barbara’s bored teenage mind in “Green Tunnels” was particularly impressive. Huxley’s one of those writers who tells his story in a deceptively humourous manner, because underneath he’s always got a point to make or something to tell you about human nature. “Mortal Coils” was one of the best short story collections I’ve read recently, and I have to say that “Crome Yellow” is calling rather loudly from the shelves…
It’s worth mentioning that while reading this book I was reminded of their fragility. My copy is an old orange Penguin that I’ve obviously had for ages (it has one of the book plates I used in the 1980s in it!) and the pages are getting very brown and crumbly – so much so that bits came off in my hand two or three times and I was a little afraid to keep reading it. If there was only a way to preserve fragile paperbacks for a bit longer…. 😦