The tricks memory plays on us are not always cruel. For decades, I thought I remembered a lush Italian garden from a book of Aldous Huxley stories that a high school girlfriend liked to read aloud to me. It wasn’t an image, let alone an idea. It was a sense, an impression, of something overpoweringly sensual. In those days, I would have struggled to name more than a handful of flowers (I’m hardly more expert today), but long after that girlfriend and I had parted ways, I loved that lingering sense of exotic flowers and their indecipherable but lovely perfume.
Many years later, I read Huxley’s Collected Stories on my own but couldn’t figure out which one had had such an impact. I decided it must have been one he published in 1922 titled “Green Tunnels.” There, we are told green tunnels are “Arched alleys covered with vines or other creeping plants,” first created in Italy in the thirteenth century. But this is the only explanation the story gives of those antique gardens, and it hardly encompasses the floral luxuriance that took over my imagination. Not one mention of flowers.
The story isn’t about gardens, but about the ways we human beings construct isolated, tunnel-like worlds despite our outward participation in society. The Buzzacott family lives in Italy because of England’s onerous tax laws, the cost of that parsimony being complete boredom. Their “distinguished antiquarian” guest, Mr. Topes, resists the Buzzacotts’ and his own wife’s contempt for the “natives” and their admiration for the Fascists, but his preoccupation with Italy’s artistic past constrains him. The story’s main character is a young woman named Barbara, the Buzzacotts’ daughter. Like Mr. Topes, she’s a romantic, but she has no patience for dead artists.
One morning Barbara goes to the beach for her customary swim. The marquis who lives nearby, and whom she’d met just the day before, waves at her on his way back from his own dip in the sea. When she swims back ashore, she discovers a mysterious name, Clara d’Ellébeuse, etched in the sand. She spends the day fantasizing about what the marquis had meant by it and how wonderful her life with him will be.
In the last scene, Barbara is walking reluctantly along the beach with Mr. Topes, the antiquarian, when he tries to express the impact the setting has on him:
‘All this,’ he went on desperately, and waved his hand to indicate the sky, the sea, the mountains, ‘this scene is like something remembered, clear and utterly calm; remembered across great gulfs of intervening time. … Art instead of life, as usual; but then I’m made that way. I can’t help thinking of Jammes. Those delicate, exquisite things he wrote about Clara d’Ellébeuse.’
At this, Barbara bursts out crying for, as Huxley tells us in the story’s very last phrase, “no reason whatsoever.” Of course, it isn’t that there is no reason. The obvious one is that her entire day of fantasy has been smashed by the discovery that it was Mr. Topes, not the marquis, who had written the name in the sand. Beyond that, it’s that her daydreams, her escape mechanism from the emptiness of her life, have been shown up for the fraud that they are.
Huxley was a satirist, which implies an attitude of superiority toward his characters. But coming back to this story long after I first read it, I detect his sympathy for the art-loving Mr. Topes and the daydreaming Barbara. That doesn’t mean he spared them from his critical eye. Indeed, Mr. Topes is critical of himself. He knows his interior life sets him apart from the everyday world. Considering that the everyday world means the antiquarian’s snobbish wife and Barbara’s repressed parents, escapism is an understandable response. But escapism, Huxley suggests, comes at a cost. To live through art is to risk loneliness. Likewise, to drift through one’s days in one’s own world is to be vulnerable when reality intrudes, as Barbara is when she discovers that it wasn’t the marquis who wrote “Clara d’Ellébeuse” in the sand.
I’d planned to include a passage about my false memory of “Green Tunnels” in the section of my memoir about my high school experiences, but my imagined Italian garden was a seed that wasn’t to bloom for years.
For the most part, we need our memories to be accurate. How frustrating it is when we can’t remember an appointment or where we misplace an object. But when memory is disconnected from facts, it still performs a function. Precisely because it is mistaken, it guides us toward some truth, or at least an insight.
When greenery appears in a dream, it’s a signal of creativity. Perhaps that nugget of dream theory acts like a placebo on me, but I do find that after waking from dreams occurring in lush, green settings, I’m eager to write. For me, to recall Huxley’s story, or rather the Italian garden it really shouldn’t have evoked, is to get the urge to try to capture whatever that garden represents. The fictional Swedish detective Kurt Wallander’s father paints the same sunset again and again, but he never tires of doing so. The Italian garden I accidentally took from Huxley’s story is akin to that sunset.
I said there wasn’t one mention in Huxley’s story of flowers. Actually, there is. It’s in a scene where Barbara fantasizes about gaining her freedom: “She saw herself running, bronzed all over, along the sand; or through a field of flowers, narcissus and wild tulips; or in soft grass under grey olive trees.” Maybe that one sentence, placed midway through the story in a fantasy about escape, was the source of my distorted memory. During high school, like teenagers the world over, I was eager for my freedom. So it’s tempting to include Huxley’s story in my memoir after all. But that would be to generate a factual connection out of what would be, at best, speculation. If I understood “Green Tunnels” at all during high school, it was at a subliminal level.
I assume I’m the only reader who remembers the story the way I do. Even after others have read this essay, that memory will still have aspects that are unique to me. There are hundreds, thousands, even millions of strands of mistaken impressions that I’ve retrievably planted in my mental world, alongside all the reliable facts, remembered joys and regrets. Every one of us has a world like this in our heads, each unique unto itself. Those countless strands can jangle away in a nightmarish discord, but they can also harmonize. “Green Tunnels” always strikes a harmonic chord. I wasn’t to know that in high school, but I do now.