Huxley, Isherwood and you make a posthumous movie On Books

July 19, 1998|By MICHAEL PAKENHAM

Aldous Huxley (1884-1963) and Christopher Isherwood (1904-1986) were high-bred English-born writers of immense courage and clarity of mind. Both contributed much to the awarenesses of millions of people in the middle half of the 20th century. Though primarily important for their own work, they collaborated on three little-known verse dramas.

Their marks were made by hard work and the demands of honesty of heart. Remembered now, above all, is Huxley's majestic "Brave New World" - which nobly savaged then-conventional wisdoms about the benevolence of socialism. Isherwood's superb and near-prescient writings about Germany in the nascent days of Nazism stripped naked the decay in contemporary Germany. In later life, Indian mysticism exerted magnetic influences on both of them, though on Isherwood more than Huxley.

Both were drawn to Hollywood, where they did the very least of their labors.

Now, suddenly, and very posthumously, here they come, out of Hollywood, with a little collaborative book: "Jacob's Hands" (St. Martin's, 138 pages, $14.95).

The marketing blurbery insists the manuscript was "discovered" (Listen to the publicity trumpets!) by Sharon Stone, the actress, when in 1997 she came across a reference to such a collaboration in Isherwood's published diaries. Stone, it is related, pressed the agent who had represented both men to search in the remains of Huxley's fire-charred literary estate. The agent found, and marketed, it.

Truth be told (as always it should be), there is good reason the document was not published during either of their lifetimes.

It is being marketed as a novel or a novella, but it is unapologetically a screen "treatment" for a movie, the narrative of what a movie would be, without all the dialogue or technical directions.

As such, it is like a movie: It is designed to make you see, sense movement, go from scene to scene without bridges or interlude. It is visual, in motion - instructive, not inspiring.

Spare, simple

It has the stark simplicity that made great movies great in that age from the early talkies till the end of innocence. No gesture is wasted, no scene is without purpose. No ambiguity or ambivalence intrudes on what is fine and what is rotten, on who is good and who is bad, on what is tragic because of the nature of humankind (the Weakness of Woman, the Villainy of Small Bad Men) and what is evil.

And finally, in the end, peace and justice prevail upon the Earth.

Jacob Ericson, "shell-shocked and wounded" in World War I, is a saintly character, an innocent. (No, he is not Jake Barnes, and this is not "A Farewell to Arms.") Ericson also is a natural healer, beginning and ending as a simple California ranch hand/farmer, at peace with animals and goodness.

He discovers his healing gift with animals, and works up to the lovely, polio-stricken daughter of his widowed boss, a bitter, controlling retired university professor. Made whole, the girl flees to Los Angeles to find and be herself and to become a great singer. Fate and Jacob rescue her from a world of seedy sin.

The story goes on, with energy and sureness. Love is all over the place, but never comes to fruition. Just when it is about to bloom, someone or something stamps it out. In all, the tale is a hymn to courage, simplicity. A sweet heart and saintly decency utterly, unequivocally defeat worldly wisdom and technical sophistication.

It could have been a fine movie, with reworking, and a hearteningly cheering one. There are parts for wonderful Hollywood stars, characters with genuine personalities - young Alan Ladd, perhaps Peter Lorre as a corrupted doctor, Sidney Greenstreet or maybe George Raft, Veronica Lake in her ingenue phase.

The work itself

But enough. The genius - or the lush palimpsest of the genius - of the collaborators and of the era is in the details.

What makes Ericson's healing believable? Faith, naturally. Witness:

"'Do you want to be cured?'

"Earl stares at him. Nobody has ever asked him this question before.

"'There are folks that don't,' Jacob tells him. 'I can always tell when I start to work on them. I can feel it. They think they want to get well, but they don't, inside. You can feel them holding onto their sickness. ... They don't know what they will do without it. That scares them.'"

And there is a deliciously focused reprise of the Fitzgerald-Hemingway turn on wealth:

"'You and I don't belong in that crowd,' she tells Jacob. 'What's the use of being with rich people when you haven't any money? It only gives you ideas.'"

And, of course, just such ideas spring alive and do painful harm.

Then there is a wondrous Declaration of Worldly Wisdom. A man who owes his life to Ericson woos the lady Ericson loves:

"'Sure, I know Jacob's wonderful. Maybe he's a kind of a saint or something. But we're not saints and we never will be. We're young, and we want the same things, and we laugh at the same jokes. Maybe you don't feel the same way about me you do about Jacob - I wouldn't even want you to. You like me the way a girl likes a boy. That's something, isn't it? And you like the things that money can buy - why shouldn't you? I've got money and I want to spend it on you. What do you say, honey? Will you let me?'"

And, of course, she does.

A delicious confection of nostalgia, this lovely little slice of literary ephemera demands that you make a movie in your head. Try it. It will be more entertaining - and a mile or so more moving - than most of the other movies you will see this year.

Pub Date: 7/19/98

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