The Stories in my Life: In reading Aldous Huxley's After The Fireworks, a curious homecoming
Aldous Huxley's ‘After The Fireworks’ is a searching account of a relationship between a 50-year-old celebrity novelist and a naïve 21-year-old fan of his books
There are stories, read long ago, which live on in the backrooms of the mind, becoming perennial furnishings of our mental lives, refusing to fade even after the passage of decades. In this column, every month, I shall share one such story with you, a story which has nourished my inner life and which deserves to be unpacked and aired in the hope that it will bring you the same pleasure and insight that it brought me.
Revisiting a story after many decades is like taking a journey to one’s younger self, unwittingly measuring the distance travelled, testing the worth of all one has learnt since the story was first discovered. I passed through an intense Aldous Huxley phase in the early 1970s. This month’s story, ‘After The Fireworks’, is one of his that I had, maybe some time in 1976 or thereabouts, marked with a tick as worth re-reading. It felt strange to be complying with that reminder in 2020.
‘After The Fireworks’ is a searching account of a relationship between a 50-year-old celebrity novelist, Miles Fanning, and a naïve 21-year-old fan of his books, Pamela Tarn. Miles is erudite, experienced, cynical, amoral. Pamela is fetching, fresh, ardent, innocent in her assumed rebelliousness against convention. Their affair is quintessentially mid-War. But the 1920s, which Huxley portrays, is a hundred years ago. It already reads like a period romance. Long strolls through museums, art galleries, ruins, mountain paths, drives through the Italian Campagna. Meetings in restaurants and open-air cafes. Deep, analytical conversations about Art and Culture and History. Such prevarication in the pace of love, such circumlocution in the scripting of desire. Yes, and that typically period use of the long, confessional letter and the private diary.
It is through such meandering routes, as long and labyrinthine as a mesh of cobble-stoned Italian alleys — for of course, the location is Italy — Huxley traces the course of a relationship foredoomed to failure. For their love is, by its very nature, a temporary, contingent thing, like the fireworks of the title. Once the sparkle and the anti-gravity zoom is over, once the luminous flowers have bloomed in the sky and the jets of fiery fountains have dimmed and died, there is nothing to charge the relationship and no future.
To Pamela Miles Fanning is awesome, one who personifies insight, culture and empathy, being a novelist. Impressed as she is with his books, she unconsciously begins acting the part of one of the female characters in his latest work. To Miles, Pamela is cute, with all her refreshing perkiness, her unpractised spontaneity, her admiration of him, but most of all her youthful, attractive body. He fends off the attraction manfully, arguing against his own desire, resisting it all the way, pointing out the disparity in their ages and their tastes. But he fails to overcome neither her desperate persistence nor his own deeper urges and succumbs against his better judgement.
The expected happens. Once the passion has expended itself, rot sets in — complicated tensions, senseless quarrels. Miles becomes sick and enfeebled with excessive sexual activity and is driven to Montecantini’s water cures. Pamela, bored and resentful, is driven to re-establish her relationship with a young man her own age.
What makes this story special is the way Huxley drives home a great truth of life: that we are our own fictional compositions created principally for a one-member audience, ourselves.
That our worlds are constructions of our fantastications and hopes. That those we love are characters our fictionalising imaginations create round people who are fundamentally strangers. That we too are strangers to ourselves. But, given these conditions, what real pain we generate for ourselves and for others and what unnecessary turbulence. Huxley captures the first stirrings of love, its quickening, its peaking and its passing away. The precious magic of an unsustainable ecstasy soars awhile, celebrates itself and inevitably crumbles, like spent fireworks extinguishing in mid-air in a popular festival in Rome.
Huxley is an acquired taste. But a friend for life. Reading him again I find myself quarrelling with his world, congratulating myself that my own time, warts and all, appears marginally more just and forthright, that we have moved beyond those High Life indulgences of the mind and those predictably clichéd excesses of the heart that are the defining features of much of the fiction of that time. But it is like quarrelling with a parent whose ideas we absorbed and made our own before bursting into reaction and revolt. That is why reading Huxley for me is a curious homecoming. After the fireworks in our own lives are over we come home to ourselves, learning to live in real time and not in our heads, walking on solid ground and not in our private fictions. It takes a lifetime to learn how. Huxley’s story works at the deepest level, prompting without compelling this onset of peace.
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