Were young people in the 1930s were really like young people today? And by young, I mean my kind of young — not yet geriatric but not a teenager. The 1920s and 30s are well-known for its lost generation who famously go out every night, drink heaps and have endless mindless sex with each other to forget the horrors of the war. The hangover from the First World War would last until the next hair of the dog in World War II, but in between there were a lot of discontented people, especially the young.
It is the same discontented generation that you find in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s books, but English. The flavour is the same though — they’re grungy, very much discontent, absolutely lost and have fleeting attachments. I honestly can’t see much difference between the generation represented in Antic Hay and my own. We are still dancing to the same tune, with our grunginess, abundance of discontent, waywardness and fleeting attachments — or is it just the people I hang out with?
Our hero, Theodore Gumbril started off as a teacher in a private school, and unhappy with his position while grading papers, left the job in search of something new. He eventually settled on manufacturing pants with seat cushions for sedentary workers — while it is not the most fashionable, it will be functional. Along the way his mates distracts him with good times and a dose of drama, and this is the antic hay that everyone’s dancing to.
Huxley’s style can be divisive, especially for people who expected more from having read “Brave New World”. But before this milestone he was writing didactic novels, written to ask questions and discuss what is wrong with the world. Crome Yellow felt similar to Antic Hay in that the characters are only vehicles to the concepts raised in the novel, and I don’t mind that. In fact some of the best novels ever written are written in this style — just look at Magic Mountain. In some ways, this is a contradiction: the characters are shallow, but the discussions deep.
Antic Hay, for its brevity covers a lot of ground: the nature of sincerity in artistry, the purpose of critics, the waywardness of the lost generation, the “ideal” city and proportions to its architecture, love, sex and the nature of identity. My favourite part of the book is when Gumbril morphs into the “Complete Man” full with beards and a thick coat to intimidate. Gumbril often gets what he wants “pretending” to be the Complete Man and resorts back to his mild self when it suits him. This transformation is reminiscent of Ellison’s Invisible Man.
Like I said, I feel that this generation is as lost as this. Gumbril became an entrepreneur as a lot of young people do these days, sex is commonplace with strangers and we are becoming more and more detached with each other. This generation is worse than Huxley’s I think. Gumbril threw away a real chance of love he had with Emily for the sake of continuing a chance encounter with Myra. This distracted behaviour is even worse in this day and age. In some ways, it is of some comfort that the young’uns in the 30s are a lot like us.