It was only as I was coming to the last few chapters of this book that I remembered why I’d put it on my list to read in the first place. It is, of course, because of The Waste Land, since it is in this book that Eliot found “Sesostris, the Sorceress of Ecbatana” being played by the cynical Mr Scogan in a village fete towards the end of the novel, to become the cold-ridden famous clairvoyante, Madame Sesostris in the poem.
This is not a good enough reason to read the book – I wouldn’t recommend it unless you have some interest in Huxley. It doesn’t have a complex plot – we follow the poet Denis Stone in a visit to Crome where a house party is taking place. Various broadly-drawn characters appear (the snobbish artist Gombauld, the pompous owner Mr Wimbush, and his spiritualism-obsessed wife) and the end result is a novel made up of a number of skits, loosely held together by the overarching location. It’s quite clearly satirical, albeit of a novel-form with which I’ve had limited experience (although the form of a book focused on visitors to a grand house would later be commandeered by murder-mystery writers).
I do share a certain empathy with Wimbush when he attempts to prophecy:
“Human contacts have been so highly valued in the past only because reading was not a commonplace accomplishment because books were scarce and difficult to reproduce. The world, you must remember, is only just becoming literate. As reading becomes more and more habitual and widespread, an ever increasing number of people discover that books give them all the pressures of social life and none of its intolerable tedium.”
In some ways, he was right, we spend more time than ever reading, it’s just on Facebook, replacing one form of tedium with another.
Despite being somewhat different from Huxley’s much more famous Brave New World, the same Mr Scogan mentioned above describes “vast state incubators, rows upon rows of gravid bottles will supply the world with the population it requires.” – ideas which Huxley would explore in the later novel – but if you come to the book expecting something of the style and approach of Brave New World, you’ll be disappointed. It’s less ambitious, but more lighthearted and often amusing. More of a book to read to give an insight into a novelist with an important career ahead of him than purely worth it on its own terms, but it’s short so not a massive commitment if the idea takes you.
(Image is: Composizione con rosso, blu, giallo, nero e grigio, 1922 by Piet Mondrian)