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The Gioconda Smile and other stories [Triad/Panther] (1984)

by Aldous Huxley

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Aldous Huxley

The Gioconda Smile and other stories

Triad/Granada, Paperback, 1984.

12mo. 365 pp.

Stories first published, 1920–1926.
Collected Short Stories first published, 1957.
This edition first published, 1984.

Contents

Happily Ever After
Eupompus Gave Splendour to Art by Numbers
Cynthia
The Bookshop
The Death of Lully
[From the collection Limbo, 1920.]

Sir Hercules
[From the novel Crome Yellow, 1921.]

The Gioconda Smile
The Tillotson Banquet
Green Tunnels
Nuns at Luncheon
[From the collection Mortal Coils, 1922.]

Little Mexican
Hubert and Minnie
Fard
The Portrait
Young Archimedes
[From the collection Little Mexican, 1924.]

Half-holiday
The Monocle
Fairy Godmother
[From the collection Two or Three Graces, 1926.]

=========================================

Why is Aldous Huxley never mentioned as one of the great short story masters? This is a mystery I have never been able to solve.

True, Huxley’s short story output is rather smaller than his imposing body of novels and essays that spans his whole career[1]. He published only five rather short collections between 1920 and 1930, between the ages of 26 and 36 that is, but they cover a wide range of styles, forms and moods. As the chronological order in this volume shows, by the age of 26 Huxley was already a fine wordsmith and an expert story-teller. Such precocity!

Take the beginning as an example. “Happily Ever After” is the longest story in the book – 43 pages. The plot is slight but sufficient and vividly set against the background of World War I. The language is ravishing, with phrases like “languid resentment against circumstance” and “It was the hour of confidence – that rather perilous moment when fatigue has relaxed the fibres of the mind, making it ready and ripe for sentiment”, and character descriptions like this:

It was a good many years now since Jacobsen had come in the course of his grand educational tour to Oxford. He spent a couple of years there, for he liked the place, and its inhabitants were a source of unfailing amusement to him.

A Norwegian, born in the Argentine, educated in the United States, in France, and in Germany; a man with no nationality and no prejudices, enormously old in experience, he found something very new and fresh and entertaining about his fellow-students with their comic public-school traditions and fabulous ignorance of the world. He had quietly watched them doing their little antics, feeling all the time that a row of bars separated them from himself, and that he ought, after each particularly amusing trick, to offer them a bun or a handful of pea-nuts.


The characters, as always, are what make a story memorable, in this case unforgettable. Jacobsen is not even among the major ones, yet Huxley doesn’t spare the effort to make this colossal prig as real as it is possible on paper. He is visiting his old teacher, Alfred Petherton, a dusty academic blissfully unaware of his crashing mediocrity, a hypochondriac who has enslaved his daughter as a nurse, and a most tiresome old fart. Marjorie, his long-suffering offspring, has led a pathologically sheltered life and is currently involved in a rather absurd engagement with one Guy Lambourne, an aimless young fellow much less unaware of his worthlessness than his future father-in-law. To make a truly operatic sextet, there is Roger Petherton, Alfred’s brother and a sadistic clergyman of the old school, and George White, another young fellow but emotionally far better balanced than Guy.

One must not, of course, expect these characters to be drawn with great depth or to show many traces of development. The sextet provides ample material for a novel, but this is still a short story, if a longish one. That said, Huxley has done an outstanding job in bringing forth the salient traits that make characters of fiction alive and compelling.

As you can guess from this very first story, Huxley didn’t think much of the human animal. But I think it is wrong to harp too much on his rigorous exclusion of “likeable” characters. He always retains traces of compassion for his prigs, prudes and posers, however petty, snobbish, cruel, wilful and hypocritical they may be. Huxley’s vast erudition, which he loves to show off, was also there from the very beginning. Gibbon, Tolstoy and Nelson are mentioned, among other less illustrious names; there are probably subtle allusions that flew high above my head. None of them is essential for enjoying the story to the full, but they do add a pleasant flavour.

“The Gioconda Smile” I had read several times before. I have read it again with undiminished admiration. There aren’t many perfect stories out there, but this is one of them. The fact that Huxley wrote it when he was 28 makes it all the more impressive. The advance over the merely two years older “Happily Ever After” is considerable. The plot is a great deal more complicated but masterfully executed. The cast of characters, an operatic quartet this time, has indeed the supernatural dimension that only great music can secure. Especially Mr Hutton, our dear and detestable protagonist, is a creature you will never be able to forget once you read this story.

Considering the limited number and time span of the stories, Huxley’s versatility and development are remarkable. The other pieces from his maiden collection are shorter and less accomplished than “Happily Ever After”. But Aldous Huxley is that rare type of writer who can make everything readable and even interesting. The weirdly titled “Eupompus Gave Splendour to Art by Numbers” is a reference to Ben Jonson’s Discoveries and borders on absurdism, telling as it does the fictional story of Eupompus, a painter in ancient Alexandria, who became obsessed with numbers. “Cynthia”, a romance between god and goddess (brush up your Greek mythology for this one!), and “The Bookshop”, a tribute to Meyerbeer and Robert le diable, are the slightest stories in the whole volume, but not without comic and poignant nuances, respectively. “The Death of Lully” describes the last hours of Ramon Llull (aka Raymond Lully), a thirteenth-century Spanish philosopher, theologian, poet, mystic and anything else. On the verge of his career as a brilliant social satirist, Huxley probably agreed with more than a little of his character’s earnest chemical theory, never mind the rhetorical language and the religious overtones:

‘And yet God made all perfect; it is but accident and the evil of will that causes defaults. All metals should be gold, were it not that their elements willed evilly in their desire to combine. And so with men: the burning sulphur of passion, the salt of wisdom, the nimble mercurial soul should come together to make a golden being, incorruptible and rustless. But the elements mingle jarringly, not in a pure harmony of love, and gold is rare, while lead and iron and poisonous brass that leaves a taste of a remorse behind it are everywhere common.’

[...]

‘A man has need to keep pure and unalloyed his core of gold, that little centre of perfection with which all, even in his declination of time, are born. All other metal, though be as tough as steel, as shining-hard as brass, will melt before the devouring bitterness of life. Hatred, lust, anger – the vile passions will corrode your will of iron, the warlike pomp of your front of brass. It needs the golden perfection of pure love and pure knowledge to withstand them.’

Mortal Coils – published just two years later, let me remind you – already captures Huxley in his prime as a short story writer. “The Gioconda Smile” is justly anthologised to death, not to mention published separately countless times, but the other three stories are just as fine.[2] They boast the same rich language, smooth story-telling, variety of locales and, above all, real, alive and all too human characters.

“The Tillotson Banquet” and “Nuns at Luncheon” are ingenious blends of the comic and the tragic moments in our existence. The former are treated satirically with Huxley’s consummate skill for exposing snobbery and hypocrisy, the latter are depicted with great poignancy. “Green Tunnels” contains one the least boring descriptions of profound boredom in all fiction. It is evocatively set in Italy, a country Huxley knew very well. Boredom is relevant enough to our experience to need no excuse for a work of fiction, but it’s even better to have it combined with a young lady’s overactive imagination. The most famous quote from the story, however, belongs another character, a rather conceited fellow, but certainly not a fool:

‘Most of one’s life,’ Mr. Topes went on, ‘is one prolonged effort to prevent oneself thinking. Your father and I, we collect pictures and read about the dead. Other people achieve the same result by drinking, or breeding rabbits, or doing amateur carpentry. Anything rather than think calmly about the important things.’

The opposite danger of thinking too much is explored in “Hubert and Minnie”, another of those doomed Huxleyan romances between utterly incompatible personalities. Hubert is the pathological intellectual, while Minnie is hopelessly romantic. The story ends too abruptly for my taste, but the conflicting emotions of both parties are vividly conveyed. “Little Mexican” has nothing to do with Mexico or Mexicans. The “title character” is a Mexican hat that brought our narrator into contact with a weird Italian family, notably a naughty and hedonistic father and his soldierly son who dreams of becoming a big businessman. “Fard” I had read before, but only this time did I grasp the lurid implications of the title (an archaic word for face paint, especially white). I still think the story is too short to realise its full potential, but on second reading I found it sadder and at the same time more amusing.

“The Portrait” is my favourite among the shorter stories in Little Mexican (1924). This is a gem. It has everything; a story within the story, a twist in the end, farcical fun, unexpected poignancy. The frame narrative concerns Mr Bigger, an art dealer, who tries to sell a Venetian portrait from the eighteenth century to some lord who has just acquired a “Manor House” in need of decoration. His lordship is happy that his daughter “does a bit of sketching”. It saves buying pictures, you know, at least for the bedroom. “But, of course, we must have something old downstairs.”

‘In a house of this style,’ he was saying, ‘and with a position like mine to keep up, one must have a few pictures. Old Masters, you know; Rembrandts and What’s-his-names.’
‘Of course,’ said Mr Bigger, ‘an Old Master is a symbol of social superiority.’
‘That’s just it,’ cried the other, beaming; ‘you’ve said just what I wanted to say.’
Mr Bigger bowed and smiled. It was delightful to find some one who took one’s little ironies as sober seriousness.


This is Aldous Huxley at his satirical best. The story within the story also shows him at his best, but this time as a tongue-in-cheek humorist. Mr Bigger transports us to Venice of the eighteenth century to tell the story behind “The Portrait”. Since this is decidedly anti-climactic, as freely admitted by the narrator, we come back to the present for a charmingly sardonic sting in the tail, not to mention one sudden and suggestive insight into Mr Bigger. I won’t spoil either for you. I’ll only say that the former is rather too often used to be unexpected, but only a truly great writer can think of the latter.

“Young Archimedes” deserves special attention for a number of reasons. It’s one of the longest pieces (40 pages) and, in some ways, it is the most self-indulgent. It begins with several pages of florid descriptions of the Tuscan countryside, it makes countless references to music (from Bach to Debussy), mathematics (you can learn how to prove the Pythagoras’ theorem, “not in Euclid’s way, but by the simpler and more satisfying method which was, in all probability, employed by Pythagoras himself”) and cutting-edge technology (e.g. the gramophone), and it proceeds at a rather glacial pace. And Huxley being Huxley, he also indulges in some sophisticated satire:

Her vitality, if you could have harnessed it and made it do some useful work, would have supplied a whole town with electric light. The physicists talk of deriving energy from the atom; they would be more profitably employed nearer home – in discovering some way of tapping those enormous stores of vital energy that accumulate in unemployed women of sanguine temperament and which, in the present imperfect state of social and scientific organisation, vent themselves in ways that are generally deplorable: in interfering with other people’s affairs, in working up emotional scenes, in thinking about love and making it, and in bothering men till they cannot get on with their work.

Yet “Young Archimedes” is a story, not a travelogue or an essay. It tells about a child prodigy with an extraordinary gift for mathematics, but it’s nothing like Good Will Hunting (1997). It works its way from a very leisurely beginning to a swift and tragic conclusion. The ending is almost unbearably affecting. The story, on the whole, emerges as one of Huxley’s masterpieces.

Huxley being Huxley, he doesn’t miss the opportunity to introduce some thought-provoking reflections on genius, history and the human race. In a nutshell, his argument – for all I know, close to the truth – is that we owe nearly all valuable ideas to the men of genius, perhaps a few thousand in the whole history of our species, who are to us as we are to dogs. Most of us are merely “teachable animals” who can only develop ideas, but not generate them in the first place. This also raises the ever-controversial question about genius and environment. Imagine a Beethoven in ancient Greece? His genius will be wasted. Was it just the Zeitgeist that produced the staggering amount of genius in Italy at the turn of the 16th century? Perhaps. There have been long genius-less epochs in our history. Archimedes, for instance, had to wait more than a thousand years for a worthy successor. And so on, and so forth, the topic’s inexhaustible.

The last three stories are set in London. They concentrate heavily on suggestive glimpses at the expense storytelling. There is nothing wrong with this type of short fiction if you can pull it off as well as Huxley. “Half-holiday” begins with the most beautiful description of a Sunday afternoon in London I have ever read, but it deals with one pathetic dreamer who seems unable to prevent his life from being a succession of fantasies. There is profound truth here that applies, in different ways, to a large portion, larger than is generally supposed, of mankind. “The Monocle” is a glittering satire of posh parties full of pretentious snobs. One of them, Gregory, is our smarmy and monocled protagonist. What a character he is! Sober and fit, he is bored to death at the party and vastly troubled by his unstable monocle. Drunk and queasy, he hits on strangers and laments the London poor. We should hate him, I agree; but that’s difficult when we enter his head with such spectacular vividness. “Fairy Godmother” is a brief portrait of Mrs Escobar, yet another one of those characters you never quite forget once you’ve met them. I wish it were longer. There is more in her.

“Sir Hercules” is the maverick because it was extracted from Huxley first novel. It is a completely self-sufficient fairy tale that in the end proves to be more deeply moving than one could have expected in the beginning. It is certainly not for children. The story deals uncompromisingly with generation clashes and silly prejudices that no child can possibly grasp. For that matter, many obtuse adults may also fail to see below the facetious surface.

The worst that can be said about Huxley’s stories in general – few exceptions notwithstanding! – is that they are short on plot. This will surprise nobody even remotely familiar with his novels. Indeed, the author is on record confessing his problems about inventing incidents. Another just criticism I read somewhere (I wish I could remember where!) is that he stops rather than finishes his stories. This is most evident in “Fard”, but to a lesser extent also in “Hubert and Minnie” and “Little Mexican”.

These defects would have mattered with a lesser writer. But with Aldous Huxley they don’t. Even the slightest of his stories (e.g. “Fard”, “Cynthia”) are exquisitely written and contain fascinating characters that constitute a comment on the human condition. The finest of his stories (e.g. “The Gioconda Smile”, “Young Archimedes”) are probably among the finest in the English language.

Note on the Edition

The contents of this edition are nearly the same as Huxley’s Collected Short Stories (1957). The latter contains the same 18 pieces in the same order, but three others (“Chawdron”, “The Rest Cure” and “The Claxtons”), all from Huxley’s last collection Brief Candles (1930), were added in the end. Huxley knows why they were omitted from this edition.

The text contains several typos, some of them rather amusing. Puccini in Venice of the eighteenth century is an anachronism, not to mention an anatopism, which Huxley never could have been guilty of. Piccini is more likely the correct name. In at least one case the typo is on word level and a bit of dialogue is attached to the wrong character.

These are regrettable details, but the volume is compact, light and easy to read. If a copy of the Collected Stories is not available, this Triad/Granada paperback is an excellent substitute.

__________________________________________________​
[1] Huxley published 11 novels in the course of 41 years (1921-62) and at least 11 volumes with essays in the course of 35 years (1923-58). Many of his novels, including his first two, Crome Yellow (1921) and Antic Hay (1923), are still in print. So is the definitive edition of his Complete Essays, eds. Robert S. Baker and James Sexton, which amounts to six closely printed (and pricey, alas) volumes.
[2] Somerset Maugham included two of them in his anthologies. “Nuns at Luncheon” can be found in Tellers of Tales (1939), “The Tillotson Banquet” in Traveller’s Library (1933). ( )
  Waldstein | May 8, 2017 |
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["Green Tunnels":]
'Most of one's life,' Mr. Topes went on, 'is one prolonged effort to prevent oneself thinking. Your father and I, we collect pictures and read about the dead. Other people achieve the same result by drinking, or breeding rabbits, or doing amateur carpentry. Anything rather than think calmly about the important things.'

["The Gioconda Smile":]
Whatever she said was always said with intensity. She leaned forward, aimed, so to speak, like a gun, and fired her words. Bang! the charge in her soul was ignited, the words whizzed forth at the narrow barrel of her mouth. She was a machine gun riddling her hostess with sympathy.
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This work refers to the collection The Gioconda Smile and other stories as first published by Triad/Panther in 1984. It contains 18 stories. It was reprinted in the Flamingo Modern Classics in 1994.

Huxley's Collected Short Stories, first published in 1957, contain the same 18 stories and in the same order, but there are three pieces more added in the end: "Chawdron", "The Rest Cure" and "The Claxtons". There is a separate work for it.

Please don't combine with separate editions of "The Gioconda Smile" or with the play adapted from it, nor with other collections which contain different stories. For instance, Le sourire de la Joconde: Et autres très courts romans (Gallimard, 1981) and Il sorriso della Gioconda e altri racconti (Mondadori, 1933) are completely different selections and should not be combined here.
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