A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
I have a slightly contrary instinct, it seems, to read non-famous books by famous authors. So this is now the second book I’ve read by Aldous Huxley (the first was during Shelf of Shame week), and I still haven’t read the one that is more or less synonymous with his name: Brave New World. And, what’s more, I don’t really have any intention of reading it. But I liked Crome Yellow enough to pick up a copy of The Genius and the Goddess (1955) in Norfolk last year, and its brevity flung it to the top of my tbr pile a couple of weeks ago.
The main events of the story are told by John Rivers to his friend some decades after they happened. This sort of framed narrative is usually a big no-no for me (it seems to distance the immediacy of the actions and emotions without adding much of benefit, except possibly nuances in memory etc. – but with nothing to compare the memory to, these nuances are limited). I didn’t hate it here, but I also can’t say it improved the novel.
The Genius and the Goddess of the title are the Maartens family, with whom Rivers stays as a young man. Rivers is lab assistant to the scientific genius (as he perceives him) Henry Maartens; he begins to fall in love with the ‘Goddess’ Katy, Henry’s much younger wife. The interweavings of the family get more complicated when the Maartens’ teenage daughter Ruth convinces herself she is in love with Rivers, writing him romantic poetry and pouting at him a lot.
And that, really, is the plot – except for some dramatic events towards the end that I shan’t spoil. Everything that makes this novella good is in the telling. It reminded me a bit of Graham Greene’s The End of the Affair, in that the story is as old as time, but the lyricism and thoughtfulness of the writing elevates it beyond that. Much of that lyricism is unconnected with the love triangle/square, of course; I particularly liked this section on the difference between feeling strong emotions and being able to express them in poetry (as Ruth’s love poetry is execrable):
What a gulf between impression and expression! That’s our ironic fate – to have Shakespearean feelings and (unless by some billion-to-one chance we happen to be Shakespeare) to talk about them like automobile salesmen, or teen-agers, or college professors. We practise alchemy in reverse – touch gold and it turns into lead; touch the pure lyrics of experience, and they turn into the verbal equivalents of tripe and hogwash.
There’s no doubt about it; Huxley could write.
Normally I love novellas. With The Genius and the Goddess, I did get the feeling (rare for me) that it should have been longer – or else a short story. If a short story, it could have kept a singularity of focus, on Rivers’ feelings. The added events and dimensions to the narrative, including the framed narrative, make it more than a short story without quite making the leap to a fully-fledged novella (let alone a novel).
But, taking it for what it is, I enjoyed The Genius and the Goddess. It felt a bit like an authorial self-indulgence – an idea that never quite got padded out enough – but that is a forgiveable indulgence for a man in his sixties writing his tenth novel. And sooner or later I should perhaps get around to his most famous book… but I just can’t bring myself to do it yet…