This is a book I’ve been aware of, but have put off reading, because of a fear of getting embroiled in the current state of the Middle-East . Please learn from my example and look at the date of publication before making assumptions about its concepts and themes. This is not about contemporary politics but about the ultra-Modern 1930s search for identity in a fragmented and subjective world. The title is a quotation from Milton’s ‘Samson’s Agonistes’, taken from the tragic hero’s ranting against his impotence and blindness. Huxley takes these themes and then plays with them, moving from an epic biblical landscape to the petty world of interwar England.
Huxley’s protagonist is no Samson. Anthony Beavis is a pacifist intellectual, and the novel narrates his life as an unappealing schoolboy through his fairly undistinguished university days and his few, inconclusive, love affairs. Neither a powerful anti-hero, nor a relatable everyman, I found Beavis fairly obnoxious, often compellingly so, for of course the real star of the novel has to be Huxley who plays adeptly with the characters and structure of the novel.
The novel jumps between time periods and in a way which I loved. There is something very comforting about a writer who lets you know from the start that there is no need to worry about making sense of his fictional world. There is no way you’re going to get all the answers in an easy way so just sit back and enjoy the story as it unrolls in its own good time. Of course, this only works because Huxley is clearly such an accomplished story-teller. Each episode is beautifully constructed and is a joy in itself. He has earned the right to play games and it’s a pleasure to witness his virtuosity.
As for the conclusions the book draws, they are undercut by the interplay between Huxley’s stylistic experimentation and his characters’ conventional middle-class lives. The book is most impressive because of its writing and not its precise philosophical standpoint. The fractured narrative mirrors the fractured characters as they shy away from stability, ideals and ultimate meaning, a method of coping personified by the superbly cowardly Beavis. Beavis is an academic Babbit, a successful Hertzog, a complacent Strether. He seems almost more suited to the American tradition of questioning and all-too-human protagonists. The world he is trying to cope with often seems far removed from our own, but his evasions, self-justifications and underlying pride are uncomfortably recognizable.
This is a book I ignored for far too long and hopefully by extolling its virtues I’ll expiate my own guilt for misjudging its title and parading my own English ignorance.