After Many a Summer

By Aldous Huxley

Book Review by Mark Schofield

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After Many a Summer is a engaging mix of the philosophical and the comic, a book that made me both think and laugh. Without giving away too much of the plot I will attempt to describe the book and reveal why I like it so much.

The central character in the story is Mr William Propter, an educated writer living in a small house in the San Fernando valley of California. He is a schoolboy aquaintance of Mr Jo Stoyte, a multi millionaire living nearby in a large Gothic castle filled with treasures of art. The other characters in the story are all linked directly or indirectly to Mr Stoyte; Dr Sigmund Obispo is Mr Stoyte's personal doctor charged with the task of finding a cure for his mortality, Miss Virginia Maunciple is Mr Stoyte's young mistress, Jeremy Pordage is an English scholar and gentleman invited to reseach a collection of old papers bought by Mr Stoyte and Peter Boone is a research assistant working for Dr Obispo.

In the story we follow Mr Pordage's work in translating the papers and Dr Obispo and Pete's research into mortality based on studies of longevity in animals. It is a chance discovery by Mr Pordage that provides the key for Dr Obispo to further his research. This leads Dr Obispo, Mr Stoyte, Mr Pordage and Miss Maunciple to England and the story to its unexpected and comic conclusion.

A large part of the book is devoted to a long philosophical discussion between Mr Propter, Mr Pordage and Peter. Mr Propter expounds a moral philosophy that is close to that of Buddhism. His essential message is that man is capable of living on three levels; animal, human and spiritual, but that goodness can be found only on the non-human levels. All activity on the human level, directly or indirectly leads to evil. This includes human feelings such as love that we would normally consider virtuous, since they are ultimately personal and serve only to gratify the ego. Only on the spiritual level of "pure disinterested conciousness" can man find "a non personal experience of timeless peace". To get there, man must liberate himself from personality and seek "other conciousness behind thought and feelings". On the human level, Mr Propter makes an exception for two qualities; understanding and compassion, which he demonstrates in his interactions with the other characters in the story. Mr Pordage is too firmly anchored in the intellect to adopt this philosophy, but Peter is clearly influenced and it is the question and answer sessions between Peter and Mr Propter that serve to develop the philosophy during the course of the book.

If Mr Propter serves as a guiding angel, it is Dr Obispo that provides his antithesis. Dr Obispo is a Machievalian character working only to further his own interests. His research into mortality is a way for him to escape the boredom of general practice and enjoy the wealth of his host. He invents illnesses for his host which he then seeks to cure, he seduces Miss Maunciple after drugging his host and all the while he researches the origins of mortality as a way to achieve notoriety. His pusuit of purely personal aims is in direct contrast to the pursuit of the spiritual by Mr Propter.

Mr Stoyte is revealed to be un unfortunate character. Having being bullied for being overweight at school, he has in turn become a bully to those in his employ. His preoccupations which include furthering his worth, acquiring additional works of art and sponsoring both a university and a hospital are all manifestations of an excessive ego which he is unable to control. As a result, Mr Stoyte is a frustrated and unhappy man. His encounters with Mr Propter turn into confrontations, since the two men have opposing philosophies that put them at odds. This includes an argument over the exploitation of the farm workers on Mr Stoyte's estate and the need for democratic self sufficiency advocated by Mr Propter as compared to the dictatorial capitalism that is the business of Mr Stoyte. Oddly, we learn that Mr Stoyte rather enjoys his contact with Mr Propter and that he purposely chose to build his castle close to Mr Propter's house. Could this be because Mr Propter is the only person he knows who shows him any real compassion ?

Miss Maunciple is something of a victim. Having found a way to easy living in the company of Mr Stoyte she is seduced by Dr Obispo. As a result of her strongly held Catholic beliefs, her seduction brings guilt which serves to make her unhappy. As a way to hide her association with Dr Obispo from Mr Stoyte, she fakes a romantic interest in Peter.

Peter is a scientist and veteran of the Spanish civil war who has fallen in love with Miss Maunciple. His feelings however are not reciprocated so we understand early in the story that his love is futile. Mr Propter is able to win over Peter to his philosophy and Peter begins to realize that the love he feels for Miss Maunciple is personal, not spiritual. Unfortunately, the interest Miss Maunciple shows Peter leads Mr Stoyte to believe they are having an affair with fatal consequences. Thus we learn that even the most noble human feelings such as love can create evil.

Mr Pordage is an intellectual who through the course of his studies has created a personal world of private thoughts and references. He hides himself away to translate the papers, revelling in his discoveries of the personal lives of others and the additions he is able to make to his store of learning. Although he is already familiar with the philosophy of Mr Propter, he is unable to sacrifice his intellectual world to the pursuit of the spiritual one on offer. This earns him a rebuke from Mr Propter that "you've read descriptions ... but you've never bought your ticket for Athens".

The principle reason I liked the book so much was the philosophy, much of which I happen to agree with. The writing is concise and inciscive and the characters are well developed. I also enjoyed the humour, which has a Pythonesque absurdity to it. The story provides an antidote to a lot of the ills of modern society including consumerism, obession with youth and the cult of the personality that the author discovered when he travelled to California in the 1930s and which have since become global phenomena. A highly recommended book.

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Mark Schofield
Last updated : 14 June 2015