Slow Reading Challenge: Aldous Huxley, part 1


Part III, Chapter Six, The Loves of the Parallels

(italics = Huxley; non-italics = Inez)

The sun had set. Against a pale green sky the blue and purple mountains lifted a jagged silhouette. Mr. Cardan found himself alone in the middle of the flat plain at their feet [folks, this could have used some editing; Mr. Cardan is by himself, so it should be his feet; yes, call me anal]. He was standing on the bank of a broad ditch, brimming with gleaming water that stretched away in a straight line apparently for miles across the land, to be lost in the vague twilight distance. Here and there a line of tall thin poplars marked the position of the other dykes, intersecting the plain in all directions. There was not a house in sight, not a human being, not even a cow or a grazing donkey. Far away on the slopes of the mountains, whose blue and purple were rapidly darkening to a uniform deep indigo, little yellow lights began to appear, singly or in clusters, attesting the presence of a village or solitary farm.

Mr. Cardan is lost. And not just lost in the Italian countryside at nightfall, but he’s seems to have been deserted by civilization whose lights taunt him in the distance. To cross this distance and make his way to those shimmering lights (and I think we have all seen this landscape at night one time or another, or rather, it reminded me of the few times that Jon and I would drive to LA at night on I-5, a boring stretch of dark flatlands, marked off by clusters of light in the distance), Mr. Cardan has to walk through a watery labyrinth of ditches and what almost seems like polder, or reclaimed land. Have you ever been lost like this, in a country that’s not your own and in a landscape that isn’t exactly inviting in the dark? For Mr. Cardan this leads to a form of existentialist angst, or, as is common in situations like these, irritation and self-reproach:

Mr. Cardan looked at them [i.e. the lights] with irritation; very pretty, no doubt, but he had seen it done better on many musical comedy stages.

What?! Curiously, when I read the description of above scene, I immediately visualized it, and I thought it was successful and well done– I could see it right in front of me, but Mr. Cardan clearly cannot appreciate the beauty of this scene, and with a misplaced amount of snobbery he says that musical comedy stages do a better job of painting such a scene. Granted, this  upper class and cultured set that Mr. Cardan belongs to has traveled to Italy to see art, not nature, and nature here is reduced to a cheap stage set, showing that Mr. Cardan can no longer appreciate nature because he’s too far removed from it, and can only interpret it in terms of culture (a stage set), while essentially this environment is alienating and scary (even though he tries to familiarize it by comparing it to something he’s familiar to as a theater goer, i.e. a stage set). Finally, since the English are masters of self-deprecation, one could also wonder whether this is Huxley breaking through the fourth wall, deprecating his own description through the shallow irony of Mr. Cardan. Who knows.

And in any case, what was the good of light six or seven miles away, on the hills, when he was standing in the middle of the plain, with nobody in sight, night coming on, and these horrible ditches to prevent one from taking the obvious bee-line towards civilization? He had been a fool, he reflected, three or four times over: a fool to refuse Lilian’s offer of the car and go on foot (this fetish of exercise! Still, he would certainly have to cut down his drinking if he didn’t take it); a fool to have started so late in the afternoon; a fool to have accepted Italian estimates of distance; and a fool to have followed directions for finding the way given by people who mixed up left and right and, when you insisted on knowing which they meant, told you that either would bring you where you wanted to go. 

The beeline to civilization confirms my earlier point. Mr. Cardan may be English but he is no Bear Grylls and his disgust with “horrible ditches” (horrible nature) is comical at best. I love, simply love his denunciation of exercise after trying it for one afternoon, refusing a lift, as well as his awareness of drinking (calories) which would have to be reduced, if he didn’t take exercise. And while Italian art is extolled by the characters in this novel, everything else (nature, the Italians themselves) can’t be trusted: Italians have no sense of distance or direction, although, and this is tongue in cheek, of course, they are philosophical in the end, because whichever way you go, they tell him, you will eventually end up where you wanted to go. This kind of Mediterranean sense of mañana (or maybe I should say Latin laissez-faire) is something the uptight and Nordic Mr. Cardan cannot appreciate, although it is of course, the healthy way to live and grow old by, even if you have lost the way and are treading water.

The path which Mr. Cardan had been following seemed to have come to a sudden end in the waters of the ditch; perhaps it was a suicides’ path.

Things become more dire if not a hidden death wish, because now Mr. Cardan’s unsure footing seems to lead straight into the water, if not suicide.

The lake of Massaciucolli should be somewhere on the further side of the ditch; but where?

Not that it matters, but I started wondering whether Lake of Massaciucolli actually exists and sure enough, it does. Here’s a pic:


Seems pretty accurate, huh?! Fairly wet and wild with a dark mountain range in the back.

and how to get across? The twilight rapidly deepened. In a few minutes the sun would have gone down its full eighteen degrees below the horizon and it would be wholly dark. Mr. Cardan swore; but that got him no further. In the end he decided that the best thing to do would be to walk slowly and cautiously along this ditch in the hope that in time one might arrive, at any rate somewhere. Meanwhile, it would be well to fortify oneself with a bite and a sup. He sat down on the grass, and opening his jacket, dipped into the capacious poacher’s pockets excavated in its lining, producing first a loaf, then a few inches of a long polony, then a bottle of red wine; Mr. Cardan was always prepared against emergencies.

The sun going down a full eighteen degrees below the horizon is Huxley’s voice coming through. His whole family was a bunch of scientists or biologists mostly and his grandfather, Thomas Huxley, another biologist, was nicknamed “Darwin’s bulldog” because he advocated evolution so much. But I digress.

Mr. Cardan exhibits the typical English stiff upper lip here: swearing doesn’t help, but proceeding cautiously is the sensible way to go and while he’s at it, why not take a little break? For all he knows, for that’s the impression we get, he may be walking into a swamp, but rather than trying to find his bearings before the sun really goes down, he decides to interrupt his trailblazing with a little food and drink (or “bite and sup”).

And this is the part I love, for Mr. Cardan’s coat is a magician’s coat, a bottomless food and drink pantry. Or the equivalent of the basket of the epicurean Tante Pollewop, a buxom fictional female from my childhood who always carried an enormous basket everywhere that was forever filled with  a plethora of food and drink.

Polony by the way may sound like baloney but it’s an actual Bologna sausage.

I am already past 1000 words, so maybe I should stop here (to open up my own coat and pull out an espresso and some pie– what do you think?).

Want to continue with me and hear more about where Mr. Cardan is headed? Is this fun? Intrigued by Huxley?

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3 Responses to Slow Reading Challenge: Aldous Huxley, part 1

  1. Dagmar says:

    oh yes, am very intrigued – – keep writing, waiting for the next installment

  2. Melanie says:

    I’m loving this, though must confess that I raced through your piece as I was going through my morning mail…. must remember to save a time and place for your next installment.

  3. Priscilla Kluge McMullen says:

    I enjoyed reading Huxley’s Island and have not read him since but now you’ve made me want to read some more of his writings…and, of course, some more of yours as well.

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