Tuesday, 22 December 2015

Crome Yellow

Aldous Huxley Crome Yellow (1921)
Huxley's first novel was mentioned in passing by Simon Bucher-Jones during one of those sprawling email conversations shared between a number of subscribers, and then a week later I find a copy in a used book store in Boerne, which might not quite qualify as synchronicity but is probably the next best thing. Naturally I bought it, and have found that it slots pleasantly into a number of my current favourite openings, if you'll excuse the biological image.

Crome Yellow was written partially in response to Huxley's stay at Garsington Manor in Oxfordshire, then an informal community of artists, writers, and the like. Roughly speaking, it examines the cultural macrocosm of its day through the minutiae of the daily lives and preoccupations of a small group of vaguely creative types, which is to say either that it's a satire, or that Huxley was taking the piss, if you prefer. As such, it manages to be very, very funny without cracking any actual jokes, and through demonstrating sympathy for its subjects as opposed to just pointing at them and laughing, which probably isn't too surprising given that the Denis Stone character is most likely an autobiographical mapping of Huxley's own fears about his career as a writer. He'd suffered with keratitis as a teenager, a condition which eventually cleared up but rendered him near sightless for a couple of years, so, combined with the occurrence of the first world war, it's probably understandable that his writing should carry a certain pensive undertone - doubts expressed at the worth of his own work, and even the value of artistic endeavour as an end in itself.

'Of course,' Mr. Scogan groaned. 'I'll describe the plot for you. Little Percy, the hero, was never good at games, but he was always clever. He passes through the usual public school and the usual university and comes to London, where he lives amongst artists. He is bowed down with melancholy thought; he carries the whole weight of the universe upon his shoulders. He writes a novel of dazzling brilliance; he dabbles delicately in Amour and disappears, at the end of the book, into the luminous Future.'

Denis blushed scarlet. Mr. Scogan had described the plan of his novel with an accuracy that was appalling. He made an effort to laugh. 'You're entirely wrong,' he said. 'My novel is not in the least like that.' It was a heroic lie. Luckily, he reflected, only two chapters were written. He would tear them up that very evening when he unpacked.

Having veered uncomfortably close to commenting upon itself in the above passage, Crome Yellow settles into a series of Platonic dialogues examining society, its future, and how ideas of the same are reflected in the arts. In this examination it becomes quite clear how this novel relates to Huxley's later Brave New World in theme if not tone, and of course there are the obvious precursors to that particular line of thought:

Where the great Erasmus Darwin and Miss Anna Seward, swan of Lichfield, experimented—and, for all their scientific ardour, failed—our descendants will experiment and succeed. An impersonal generation will take the place of Nature's hideous system. In vast state incubators, rows upon rows of gravid bottles will supply the world with the population it requires. The family system will disappear; society, sapped at its very base, will have to find new foundations.

All philosophies and all religions—what are they but spiritual Tubes bored through the universe! Through these narrow tunnels, where all is recognisably human, one travels comfortable and secure, contriving to forget that all round and below and above them stretches the blind mass of earth, endless and unexplored. Yes, give me the Tube and [Cubism] every time; give me ideas, so snug and neat and simple and well made. And preserve me from nature, preserve me from all that's inhumanly large and complicated and obscure.

It should probably be noted in the event of my having given misleading emphasis, that this is foremost a comic novel - comic as in examination through mockery, yet without quite letting the whole slip over into farce. One of the funniest protracted digressions here is the account of family history given by Henry Wimbush, the story of the dwarf Sir Hercules who marries a woman of similarly diminutive stature and runs the family estate along lines of consistent scale, replacing horses with Shetland ponies and hunting dogs with pugs; and even during this descent into a sort of foreshadowed Peter Cook or Hancock's Half Hour, Huxley plays it absolutely straight.

Crome Yellow still sparkles with wit nearly a hundred years later, and is one of those books which really everyone should read, especially Morrissey.

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