Hi and welcome back…
I was fairly quiet through the month of April because I had a lot going on, including Poetry Month related activities: I completed this year’s Poetry Marathon! (For those unfamiliar with this, it involves writing and sharing a poem every day for the whole month of April, usually among a group of fellow poetry-lovers, for example by email.)
I might have to write another blog post about generating ideas for poems, since that’s something I usually struggle with during the marathon, and this year my methods worked quite well I think.
I got a hold of a bunch of old Penguin books thanks to a neighbor who moved, and I picked out some Aldous Huxley from that bunch. Mortal Coils — Five Stories was first published in 1922, and the Penguin edition I have here is from 1955. The book contains, actually, four stories and one (silly? funny?) short play. There are recurring themes in these stories that sort of tie them together, such as that of manipulative, narcissistic men who use women for pleasure or financial gain.
The story that most impressed me was “Nuns at Luncheon,” the final piece in the collection. It’s really a story about the narrator (a fiction writer) being told to write a (supposedly true) story that the other person, Miss Penny (more of a journalist), does not have the patience to write herself. This way, we are told the story, but with all the ‘boring’ and ‘tedious’ bits left out — we get the important plot points (partially in reverse order) and are, along the way, again and again reminded of the story as a construct full of conventions.
The plot of the planned story involves Melpomene Fugger, who becomes a nun after being sexually abused as a girl by a friend of her father’s. In her thirties, as a nun, she is still a beauty. She falls for a prisoner who is being treated at the hospital where she serves — a man who pretends to be converted by her and then manipulates her into helping him escape. Once they’ve left the hospital (and the threat of his return to jail) behind, he shows his true face, rapes her, and flees, taking her prosthetic teeth (which were made from gold) with him. Having broken her vow as a nun, Melpomene is ‘dead’ to the order, is forced to attend her own symbolic funeral, and is to be treated as nonexistent / dead for the rest of her life.
There is one other character, in another story in this book, who, like Melpomene, is dead while still being alive. Painter Walter Tillotson has vanished into obscurity, has lost his health and is about to lose his sight when he is tracked down by a young man named Spode in order to impress the Baron Badgery. Spode and Badgery organize a banquet in Tillotson’s honor (which is where the story gets its title: “The Tillotson Banquet“), to raise funds for him to live on and create more art. Where the manipulative prisoner brings death into Melpomene’s life, Spode brings Tillotson a degree of hope. In the end, however, Tillotson is left to fend for himself — after the banquet (where the humble old man speaks more about his teacher than about himself) we meet him alone and very sick, back in the same dark basement flat where Splode found him. When his landlady sees him (and assumes he is just drunk) he offers her money if she’ll call a doctor for him.
In “The Giaconda Smile” (the opening story of the book), we meet Mr. Hutton, a married man who has his finger in multiple pies. Psychologically, he is heartless, with no compassion or even pity for his sick wife. He has an affair with Doris, a young woman who is simple but loves him with all her heart. She’s not his first and, Hutton knows, won’t very likely be his last affair. At the same time, he sweet-talks other women for his own benefit. He is also quite full of himself — in fact, it’s quite plausible that the only human being he cares about is himself — and so as readers we might feel a certain satisfaction when one of the women he has manipulated takes action. When Hutton marries his secret lover Doris shortly after his wife’s death, and one of the other women he has manipulated and slighted finds out, Hutton is accused of poisoning his wife in order to marry Doris. In the end, he is found guilty (and executed), when really, for once, he didn’t do it.
I enjoyed Huxley’s short stories. He’s a smart, at times very (darkly) funny writer. I’ll also say that I enjoyed the stories in Mortal Coils better than his (funny and odd) novel The Man Who Was Thursday (1908), which I read just before Mortal Coils. That, however, is mostly due to the strange ending of The Man Who Was Thursday. The writing, especially in the first half of the novel, really drew me in more than the short stories did. At times the writing nearly felt like a male variant version of Virginia Woolf, and I don’t say such things lightly.
If you’re going to give Huxley a try, be aware that he has a broad bandwidth of styles and if you don’t like one of his books, you might still enjoy one of the others. I think the short stories would be a good starting point for anyone, and they’re short enough to make good commuter or beach reading.