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.’