Saturday, 3 April 2010

Book of the Month: Crome Yellow (Aldous Huxley)

Crome Yellow, published in 1921, was Aldous Huxley’s first full-length novel (Limbo, a collection of short stories, had appeared a year earlier). It tells the story of a house party at Crome, an old manor house set in its ‘dinted, dimpled, wimpled’ (and somewhat sexual) landscape. Denise Stone, the hero of the novel, is 23. He is an aspiring poet who wants to know more about the mysteries of human soul. He is also in love with Anne, the sultry, yet ever-so-slightly ruthless, niece of Henry Wimbush, the owner of Crome. Others, comprising the chattering crème de la crème, are the cynical and sententious Mr. Scogan (with a penchant for making portentous prophesies for the mankind); Mary, the naively earnest virgin, whose mind—it is implied—is muddled with Freudian claptrap, and who has concluded that the only way to preserve her sanity is not to ‘repress her natural instinct of sex’; Gombauld, the painter, who, having flirted with Cubism, has come out the other side of it, but remains dissatisfied with the results; deaf Jenny who gives the impression of being isolated in her ‘tower of silence’ but who in fact, Denise is surprised to find out, is deftly observant and caricatures her fellow residents by drawing their cartoons in her diary, Denise being the most frequent subject; and Priscilla, the eccentric, larger than life hostess of Crome (with her strikingly orange coiffure), an inveterate gambler, who, having lost thousands on the racecourse in the past (forcing her husband to sell some of his paintings to pay off the debts) now gambles ‘scientifically’ by spending her days casting horoscopes of horses. Henry Wimbush, who, by his own admission, prefers books, statistics and past to the ‘intolerable tedium’ of the present, is the self appointed historian of the imposing Crome, and genealogist of the Lapith and Wimbush families through the centuries. Briefly visiting this gaggle of upper class eccentrics are the scribbler Barbecue-Smith—the self-styled spiritual Guru who prides himself that he can hack out three thousand words in two and half hours by getting in touch with his subconscious, having taught himself self-hypnotisation, his secret formula for inspiration—and Ivor, the fop, who spends his summers visiting aristocratic establishments strewn across the British isles and flirting with young, unattached women.

Crome Yellow is a comedy of manners. While nothing much happens in the thirty short chapters, what propels the novel forward and engages the reader until the end are its luxurious prose, coruscating wit, and the superb satirisation of the manners, affectations and pretensions of the upper classes. The somewhat vapid protagonist of the novel—who takes himself way too seriously and has grand plans of writing a definitive novel about ‘Love and Art’—is subjected to a wide, and often bewildering, range of opinions. In the process the reader is served a sumptuous feast of an endless play of intellect. The humour, so Aristophanic, with, at times, over-elaboration of ideas—Huxley’s chief and enduring interest—is similar to that of Thomas Love Peacock (better known as a friend of Shelly) the great satirist of the nineteenth century. While reading this sophisticated work you may be excused for wondering if Huxley has any human interest. The reader is offered a tantalizing glimpse into the dispositions and fundamental characteristics of the outlandish and oddball characters, which, nonetheless, remain evanescent. That is because Huxley is uninterested in the delineation of his characters, which are mere marionettes for him to propound his ideas. At no time is the reader not conscious of Huxley, the ventriloquist, masterminding his puppets. Some chapters in the novel—there are at least half-a-dozen of them—can be enjoyed as erudite essays in their own rights.

Huxley was twenty-seven when ‘Crome Yellow’ was published. It heralded, together with the works of Huxley’s worthy contemporaries—Wyndham Lewis, Ronald Firbank, Evelyn Waugh, Jean Rhys, F Scott Fitzgerald, and William Falukner, to name but a few—the age of modern fiction in the twentieth century. It is—unlike many of Huxley’s later novels—a blithesome and buoyant novel (a career trajectory not unlike that of V.S. Naipaul, who, of course, belongs to the next generation of authors); but it is also a harbinger of some of the themes that Huxley went on to explore. The cynic Scogan talks at length about his vision of an ideal society, ‘a rational state’, in which human beings are separated into distinct species according to the ‘quality of their minds and temperaments’, and in which ‘the men of intelligence’ will combine and conspire to ‘seize powers from the imbeciles and maniacs’. The long discourse on what in fact is a dystopian—or, at the very least, anti-utopian—state, is tongue-in-cheek; and eerie. Eerie because it is exactly the world Huxley would portray in his masterpiece Brave new World.

Like many debut novels, Crome Yellow is partly autobiographical. ‘Crome’ existed in real life: it was the Garsington Manor near Oxford, where its owner and flamboyant hostess, Lady Ottoline Morrell, held grand literary soirees that boasted luminaries such as Bertrand Russell, W.B. Yeats, T.S. Eliot, and D.H. Lawrence. Lady Morrell was an enthusiastic sponsor of young literary talent that included Huxley during the years of the First World War—Lady Morrell was a profound pacifist—which he missed due to an eye defect. Huxley spent happy times in Garsington Manor and frequently, like the protagonist of the novel, slept outdoors. Despite the rather mischievous description of the chatelaine (and some other attendees of Lady Morrell’s soirees), Huxley, in real life, was close to Lady Morrell and married one her many protégées.

Crome Yellow brilliantly captures—like that other great novel, The great Gatsby—the mood and the flavour of the twenties, but—unlike The Great Gatsby—throws into sharp relief the angst, the malice and the unhappiness of the decade. He continued with this theme in his next novel, Antic Hay. Huxley wrote that Antic Hay was intended to reflect ‘the life and opinion of an age which has seen the violent disruption of almost all the standards, conventions and values current in the previous epoch.’ Underneath its linguistic virtuosity, comic brilliance and élan, Crome Yellow pursues the same dark themes more apparent in Antic Hay, and the two novels, taken together, offer a rather sombre reflection on the sense of disenchantment and ennui that pervaded the twenties. One cannot think of a better description of Crome Yellow than that supplied by F. Scott Fitzgerald: Crome Yellow, Fizgerald said, was ‘too ironic to be called satire and too scornful to be called irony.’

Two Lonely Ladies

I recently finished reading two novels. A Lost Lady, by the American novelist, Willa Cather; and The Sweet Dove Died, by the British novelist, Barbara Pym.

On the face of it, the two novels, separated in time and geography, have little in common.

A Lost Lady, published in 1923, is set in American West. It tells the story of Marian Forester, through the eyes of Niel Herbert, although it is not a first person narrative; rather Herbert is a ‘reflector-narrator’. The Sweet Dove Died, Barbara Pym’s last novel, was published in 1978, and is set in London. Its main protagonist is Leonora (we never know her surname), a fifty something spinster.

A Lost Lady, as A.S. Byatt has noted, is mainly concerned with the ‘passing of the old order’ and the ‘degeneration of values and character’. Marian Forrester, the ‘lost lady’, is the second wife of a rich contractor, Captain Forrester, who is 25 years her senior. Captain Forrester has made his fortune building rail tracks for the Burlington Railway when the American pioneers of the nineteenth century conquered the frontiers of the Old West. The childless couple lives in a house on a ‘low, round hill, nearly a mile east of the town [Sweet Water]’. The old captain Forrester’s adherence to the old values of chivalry, honesty, uprightness, and rectitude is in danger of becoming anachronistic in the changing world and its values, exemplified by the grubby Ivy Peters, a young man lacking in principles, of questionable morals, and possessing no inner compass save his personal ambition to guide him. The Forresters are living in a marital bliss; or are they? The old captain is unable to meet the sexual, and possibly emotional, needs of his much younger and vivacious wife, who is having a long term affair with a family friend. The captain is aware of this, and in a scene, very poignantly described, he lets Niel Herbert, the naive and idealistic, but in many ways limited, observer of the family, know that he knows everything there is to know about his wife; but still greatly values her brio and exuberance. He may be a cuckold, but he is a cuckold who will not let go of his gravitas. Then the old captain suffers first financial reverses resulting in his losing most of his fortunes and then a series of strokes which leave him debilitated and infirm. Under the strain and exhaustion of looking after him and managing the household, Marian Forrester goes to pieces; and, when he dies, finds succour in the arms of Ivy Peters, the long term paramour having discarded her in favour of a younger woman, who, to add insult to injury, is the daughter of a family friend, who, in the glory days of her late husband, has frequently wined and dined at their place. Under the influence of Ivy Peters, Marian drops her old friends, convinced as she is that the wheeling-dealing Peters is the answer to all her financial problems. This is how the omnipresent and invisible narrator records the disillusionment of Niel Herbert and all those who were once close to the Forresters: ‘It was Mrs Forrester who had changed. Since the death of her husband she seemed to have become another woman. For years Niel and his uncle and all he friends had thought of the captain as a drag upon his wife; a care that drained her and dimmed her . . . But without him, she was like a ship without ballast, driven hither and thither by every wind. She was flighty and perverse. She seemed to have lost her faculty of discrimination; her powers of easily and graciously keeping everyone in his proper place.’ However, Niel and all others have underestimated the deep reserves of strength in Mrs Forrester, who, contrary to their (and the reader’s) expectations, does not come to a sad end. She survives.

In The Sweet Dove Died, Barbara Pym, in her unostentatious and unornamented prose, describes a nexus of relationships between Leonora, Humphrey, and his nephew, James. The story is set in the 1970s London, and Leonora (like perhaps her creator) is beginning to feel that her generation and the values it held dear are becoming passé. She is a spinster who is nearing fifty. James’s first impression of her is as follows: ‘James admired Leonora very much, particularly the unusual and old-fashioned elegance of her wide-brimmed hat which cast fascinating shadows on a face that was probably beginning to need such flattery.’ Humphrey and James are both attracted to Leonora and her ideas about ‘proper behaviour’ which probably belong more to the era of Marian Forrester—she does not drive and expects men to drop her to and from parties, and is never more pleased when they hold open the door of a room for her—than the times she actually lives in. Humphrey feels he stands a better chance, as he is nearer to Leonora’s age; but it is precisely James’s youth that attracts Leonora to him. Although their ‘friendship’ never becomes intimate, Leonora becomes more and more possessive of James. When she learns that James may have ‘a mistress’—Leonora’s term to describe a young woman, Phoebe, whom James has met at a party and with whom he has slept—she schemes ruthlessly to force James to discard her, her task having been made easier by the maladroitness and gaucheness of Phoebe. Leonora, however, is helpless against the guiles of James’s next lover who is more than a match for her when it comes to cunningness, and who has the advantage of both youth and gender. James swings both ways, and his new lover, Ned, makes James discard Leonora with the same pitilessness Leonora had shown towards Phoebe. Leonora is disconsolate, but accepts her defeat with good grace and retreats with dignity—she is so ‘deliberately good’ and ‘understanding’ all the time that James, who has more pangs of conscience when he drops her than when he had dumped Phoebe, almost wishes that she forget her dignity for a moment and make a scene. And when James finally returns to her—Ned, for whom the dull and not very bright James was never more than a temporary diversion during his year in England, has returned to America—Leonora makes it clear, in her subtle and excruciatingly polite manner, that things will never be the same and James cannot just treat her as fallback after his dalliance is finished.

Marian Forrester and Leonora could not be more different from each other in their characters. Marian is spontaneous, exuberant, full of vitality, energy and joi de verve. Leonora is the opposite: mannered, calculating, relentlessly polite, and always formal—there is nothing spontaneous about her and her butt-cheeks could not be prised apart with a blow torch. Yet the two women have one thing in common; and the thing they have in common is the absence of a fulfilling relationship. Leonora, having never married, is obviously lonely; but so is Marian, who finds herself locked in a marriage that does not sustain her. And both women attempt to find the solution in pursuit of youth. In Marian’s case it initially involves having an affair with a man her own age, but later, after her elderly husband dies and she is truly lonely, she invites a man much younger than she into her life. Leonora, though she belongs to a different, younger, generation—you would imagine that Marian Forrester’s second lover, Ivy Peters, would be slightly older than Leonora—and is living her life in a different epoch (and of course in a different book), is also attempting to find fulfilment by pursuing youth. Both Marian and Leonora suffer setbacks in their pursuits, and, while Marian appears to be dealing with them less effectively, or at least not as dignified a manner as Leonora, it is she who eventually finds the love that would nourish and sustain her. Leonora, on the other hand, is left with her dignity and her sense of propriety, but not much else; however, that is her choice. She is more empowered than Marian; but is she happier?

A Lost Lady and The Sweet Dove Died are interesting character studies of two lonely ladies, and their attempts to find love.