Dan Sandman

16: Those Barren Leaves by Aldous Huxley

In Books, Comedy, Fiction on 18/04/2014 at 12:00 pm

Those Barren Leaves by Aldous HuxleyWritten in 1925, in the same year as The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald and between two world wars, Those Barren Leaves is a brilliantly cynical and satirically comic novel. Aldous Huxley was on top intellectual form; quoting French and Latin, referencing everything from Tolstoy to Michelangelo, and playing with language to the highest degree. Wielding his pen as a sword, Huxley sends up the artistic elite – of which he was a member – with incredible verve and technical skill. At its core are the compassionate ideas that would later lead to his most famous work Brave New World; humanistic and pacifist values coupled with a prophetic concern for the future of humankind.

In sunny Italy, several characters gather for an evening at Mrs. Aldwinkle’s held within her palace. The guests are an insecure novelist, a preaching politician, an accomplished womaniser, two naive and charming lovers, and later a skeptical poet. As the plots of several love affairs intertwine, the result is an excellent social comedy and a poignant critique of privileged society. Each character is satirically treated in the novel, often simply when they are giving a speech, and for today’s reader, the result is a humorous look back to the jazz age.

So called the Roaring Twenties, this was a boom time before the bust of the great depression in the 1930’s. Wealthy members of society – and in Britain this often meant those of an aristocratic elite – performed rigid roles within a relatively immobile social hierarchy. Exorbitant mansions, such as that owned by Mrs Aldwinkle or indeed by Jay Gatsby, have often been portrayed in literature as hives of decadence and hypocrisy. What is particularly prophetic about both Huxley’s and Fitzgerald’s works, is the unsettling feeling that the jazz band are about to end with a terrifying crash.

That final discordant clash before war.


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