Intrinsic irrelevance

Nemesis (1502) by Albrecht Dürer

The Genius and the Goddess
by Aldous Huxley.
Vintage Classics 2015 (1955).

“The trouble with fiction,” said John Rivers, “is that it makes too much sense. Reality never makes sense.”

“Never?” I questioned.

“Maybe from God’s point of view,” he conceded. “Never from ours. Fiction has unity, fiction has style. Facts possess neither.”

Though called The Genius and the Goddess this novella could equally have included the 28-year-old Virgin or the Self-pitying Egotist in the title. It recounts – in the form of a mostly one-sided dialogue – how John Rivers, a British scientist working under the gifted American quantum physicist Henry Maartens in the early 1920s, finds himself compromised, and how as the son of a Lutheran minister he continues decades later to suffer the resulting pangs of guilt.

I have to be honest and say I struggled to enjoy this cross between a Socratic dialogue and a drawn-out drone – warning, a spoiler follows, though it’s mentioned on the cover blurb – of how a jejune man loses his virginity on the night of Shakespeare’s birthday in 1922. Much of it is presented as a monologue describing delayed gratification which, though intriguing at times, verges on the unedifying even when it’s couched in dry intellectual language.

Having slated the novella, can I bring myself to give some more detail and perhaps even praise what came across as more successful? I’ll try.

© C A Lovegrove

In revealing his guilty secret to the unnamed author one Christmas Eve in the 1950s, Rivers virtually dares his friend to write up his story, not as biography (a genre which Rivers sees as ‘soap opera’) but as a reminiscence, albeit cloaked by assumed names. Perhaps Huxley is being a tad metafictional here: I wonder if he’s suggesting this narrative was told to him by a friend or whether – Huxley himself being 28 years old in 1922 as was Rivers – he’s implying some details have an autobiographical nature.

After receiving his PhD Rivers is invited to be the assistant of Henry Maartens in California, working in an atomic lab. Lacking a place to stay he’s offered temporary lodgings in the Maartens household, a short-term solution which becomes long-term as it’s soon seen to suit everyone. As well as the aged genius Maartens there’s his young ‘Wagnerian’ wife Katy, the two children – the would-be poetess Ruth and her younger, train-obsessed brother Timmy – plus Beulah, who is the de facto housekeeper. Within this ménage Rivers duly becomes a fixture, almost part of the family.

Yet he’s not family; and pretty soon he finds himself drawn to Katy. Apart from anything else she seems entirely unsuited to Henry because of their disparity in ages; held back from openly showing his veneration by John’s residual Lutheran scruples, she becomes his secretly admired divinity. Tensions will however come to a head, and a potentially poisonous cocktail of growing teenage angst, obsession and suspicion, plus mysterious illness, familial mortality and pent-up frustrations promise a messy dénouement.

But is the anonymous narrator entirely reliable? Is John Rivers the kind of ‘friend’ that those seeking advice often cite as the one on behalf of whom they’re inquiring? Or does his confession – conducted one Christmas Eve years later, when Rivers is the sole survivor – establish him “as a ghost talking about ghosts,” at a time of year when “a ghost story is quite in order”? We are never entirely sure.

On one matter though we can be sure: this fiction, couched as a philosophical discourse, doesn’t entirely make sense despite Rivers’ protestation that fictions really do make sense. With Rivers capitalising Virtue and Predestination there’s a point in the story to which everything is inevitably leading, but in retrospect it feels an anticlimax, with this reader expecting further revelations – which never come.

“In the raw, existence is always one damn thing after another.”

In a fiction purporting (as much fiction does) to be ‘factually’ true, can Huxley’s protagonist be trusted when he says “The criterion of reality is its intrinsic irrelevance”? Are we to regard Rivers’ extended confession as revealing a tragedy – or just another damn thing that life throws at us, and thus irrelevant? For all Huxley’s vaunted writerly skill I found this a clumsily told tale with characters I couldn’t really engage with.

10 Books of Summer

The second title read in my 10 Books of Summer list, published today at the summer solstice, Midsummer’s Day.

12 thoughts on “Intrinsic irrelevance

  1. Hmm, sounds not unlike my reaction to the couple of Huxleys I’ve read. I always feel he’s so busy being clever he loses sight of whatever it was he was aiming for. Haven’t read this one though, and you’ve ensured it doesn’t need a place on my TBR – thank you! 😉

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I note there are several 5* reviews on Goodreads, whete it gets an average 3.78 stars, hardly affected by my own three star rating. This wasn’t bad, but to my cynical self it wasn’t good either – when you describe Huxley as being busy being clever you put your finger on my discomfort reading this novel about an infatuation. Thank goodness I didn’t spend money on this, which can go back to the library to tantalise other readers ..

      Liked by 1 person

  2. jjlothin

    Thank you for reading this, Chris, so that others don’t have to! 🙂

    I was wondering why the name ‘John Rivers’ in fiction seemed so familiar: Google suggests I might have subconsciously been recalling ‘St John Rivers’ in ‘Jane Eyre’ … It certainly wasn’t conscious, as it’s decades since I last read JE and I don’t remember the character at all!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Wow, I never registered that, JJ! Did Huxley consciously reference the odiously pious St John? I didn’t (and still don’t) detect any real similarities, though there are faint echoes. Both Rivers were from religious backgrounds, and both Jane and Katy are either destined for or already married to an older man who is maimed (in Rochester’s case) or suffering from asthma and hypochondria (in Maarten’s case). Anything more than that is clutching at straws, I think.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. jjlothin

        So not a lot to go on there! And I’m still not entirely sure that the ‘St John Rivers’ in JE is the one my subconscious had in mind … But the name is still striking a strong chord somewhere …

        Liked by 1 person

        1. A quick check online reveals two possible contenders, Sir John Rivers, a Lord Mayor of London in the Tudor period, and Johnny Rivers, a US pop musician from the 70s. I’m not convinced you’re thinking of either of them

          Liked by 1 person

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