Sebastian, a seventeen year old boy who looks much younger, has two desires: to write poetry and to lose his virginity. As any adolescent, he suffers agonies of embarrassment; his typical response is to lie. Thus he has invented an affair with a married woman, the details of which he recites to his cousin, blissfully unaware that she is desperately in love with him. And he hates his father, successful lawyer turned martinet socialist, who refuses to buy him evening clothes; both his rage and his humiliation bring childish tears to his eyes.
For the summer holiday he goes to Mussolini's Florence to stay with his black sheep Uncle Eustace, a delightful hedonist who buys Degas drawings, eats well, dresses well and enjoys a part-time mistress. Eustace holds out the promise of evening clothes and an education is art and sex, but on the evening that they meet, Eustace suffers a heart attack and dies. Sebastian is left to the miseries of his vicious, blind, step-grandmother and her incredibly beautiful companion, a sexual predator who has determined to make an assault on Sebastian's virginity.
So Sebastian takes the Degas drawing that Uncle Eustace promised him and sells it for a song and purchases the evening clothes. But then the Degas is missed when the estate is valued and Sebastian must somehow get it back. His blunderings have dreadful consequences.
This is rather a good story. But Uncle Eustace (who is easily my favourite character) dies half way through and from there on he appears as a consciousness who is able to swoop forward and backwards in time to laugh, puck-like, at the troubles and torments of the still-living humans. Whilst this is a useful device enabling the author to show the rippling consequences of Sebastian's actions, he goes into heavy descriptions of what it is like to float about in a sort of cross between heaven and nirvana; this is difficult to read. Then , towards the end, as we meet Sebastian fifteen years later and he reflects on it all, we read through Sebastian's philosophical notes. For pages.
In short, Huxley manages to spoil a good little story (a bit like an Ian McEwan book in which one action has cascading consequences) with heavy doses of religious speculation about life after death, philosophical speculation (which I mostly skim read so I don't really know what that was about) and doses of Sebastian's rather pretentious poetry (Uncle Eustace, on the other hand, writes limericks which are presumably very rude but for which we normally and frustratingly only get the first line). These characters deserve much better.
October 2015; 305 pages
- I live in Bedford, England. Having retired from teaching; I am now a research student at the University of Bedfordshire researching into Threshold Concepts in the context of A-level Physics. I love reading! I enjoy in particular fiction (mostly great and classic fiction although I also enjoy whodunnits), biography, history and smart thinking. I have also recently become a keen playgoer to London Fringe Theatre. I enjoy mostly classics and I read the playscripts and add those to the blog. I am a member of Bedford Writers' Circle. See their website here: http://bedford-writers.co.uk/ Follow me on twitter: @daja57