Well, I did say that I would eventually get around to reading this.
Like Grigg in The Jane Austen Book Club, who read the lovely Ann Radcliffe because she was mentioned by Jane Austen, I picked up a copy of Aldous Huxley's first novel because it was mentioned in Out of Africa.
I became quite interested in Karen Blixen after a trip to Kenya a couple of years back. As well as mentioning this in the novel, she said in an interview:
I read the English poets and English novelists. I prefer the older writers, but I remember when I first read Huxley’s Crome Yellow, it was like biting into an unknown and refreshing fruit.
Which is quite entertaining to think that, in Blixen's world, this was contemporary literature, published in 1921 (Out of Africa was published in 1937).
As well as Out of Africa, I also read Babette's Feast.
I wished to read Huxley because I wanted to know Blixen better. I think we often know people best through the literature they enjoy. We are fortunate when someone tells us about the authors who have influenced them, because the door to their personality does not close with the last chapter of their own book. We are all interconnected through the books we read.
This was the first time I'd read Huxley. I'd never studied his most famous novel, A Brave New World, in school. However, his name was familiar. He was hugely interested in psychedelics, and for a time, so was I. His name still circulates in those circles.
Anyway, on to Crome...
This is the type of novel you will hate if you are averse to the Jeeves and Wooster era. According to Wiki:
Crome Yellow is in the tradition of the English country house novel, as practised by Thomas Love Peacock, in which a diverse group of characters descend upon an estate to leech off the host. They spend most of their time eating, drinking, and holding forth on their personal intellectual conceits. There is little plot development.
They're right, that's exactly what it is, and I absolutely loved it.
The first reason I loved it was for the language. You just don't realise how little of the English vocabulary we use today until you open a book by Huxley or Radcliffe. It's simply glorious. It even gave me the word lychgate, which is exactly the word I needed to describe the entrance to a church in my own novel. I wasn't aware it had a name until that point. A selection of some of the other words I picked up were:
Accidie - Spiritual or mental sloth
Apophthegm - A concise saying or maxim; an aphorism
Aphorism - A pithy observation which contains a general truth
Axiomatic - Self-evident or unquestionable
Carminative - Relieving flatulence
Chattel - A personal possession
Chiaroscuro - An effect of contrasting light and shadow
Cockade - A rosette or knot of ribbons worn in a hat as a badge of office, or as part of a livery
Coenobite - A member of a monastic community
Divegate - Stray or digress
Elide - Omit a sound or syllable when speaking
Fabulist - A person who composes or relates fables. Also, a liar, especially one who invents elaborate dishonest stories
Ferrule - A ring or cap, typically a metal one, which strengthens the end of a handle, stick or tube and prevents it from splitting or wearing
Gibbous - (of the moon) Having the illuminated part greater than a semicircle and less than a circle
Gnomic - Expressed in or of the nature of short, pithy maxims or aphorisms
Libidinous - Showing excessive sexual drive; lustful
Louche - Disreputable or sordid in a rakish or appealing way
Peripatetic - Travelling from place to place, in particular working or based in various places for relatively short periods
Postprandial - During or relating to the period after dinner or lunch
Presage: A sign or warning of an imminent event, typically an unwelcome one
Pudic - (from pudendum) A person's external genitals, especially a woman's
Pullulate - Breed or spread rapidly
Quatrain - A stanza of four lines, especially one having alternating rhymes
Quotidian - Of or occurring every day; daily
Ratiocination/Ratiocinate: Form judgements by process of logic; reason
Saurian - Of or like a lizard
Sententious - Given to moralising in a pompous or affected manner
Sepulchrally/Sepulchral - Relating to a tomb or interment
Sibilant - Make or characterised by a hissing sound
Stentorian - Loud and powerful
Varlet - A man or boy acting as an attendant or servant
Venery - Sexual indulgence
Vitiate - Spoil or impair the quality or efficiency of
Let's keep these words alive! If you are a writer, I dare you to use one in your next story.
The second reason I loved this story was because it was more a compilation of several short stories, rather than one continuum.
For the rest of my days I will not forget the story of Sir Hercules and the dwarfs of Crome. Truly, it was beautifully conceived and memorably told.
Finally, it is easy to see why Huxley reached such levels of acclaim. Apparently Crome Yellow was his first novel, so I assume he only got better, but this was pretty darn good. I actively enjoyed climbing into bed of an evening and setting off for Crome. The characters were recognisable, the women just as well defined as the men, the setting vivid, and some of the observations quite perfect. I highlighted huge swathes of this book, it's hard to pick just a few examples, but I shall try.
"That's the test for the literary mind," said Denis; "the feeling of magic, the sense that words have power. The technical, verbal part of literature is simply a development of magic. Words are man's first most grandiose invention. With language he created a whole new universe; what wonder if he loved words and attributed power to them! With fitted, harmonious words the magicians summoned rabbits out of empty hats and spirits from the elements. Their descendants, the literary men, still go on with the process, morticing their verbal formulas together, and, before the power of the finished spell, trembling with delight and awe. Rabbits out of empty hats? No, their spells are more subtly powerful, for they evoke emotions out of empty minds."
"Wherever the choice has had to be made between the man of reason and the madman, the world has unhesitatingly followed the madman. For the madman appeals to what is fundamental, to passion and the instincts; the philosopher to what is superficial and supererogatory - reason."
"If you want to get men to act reasonably, you must set about persuading them in a maniacal manner. The very sane precepts of the founders of religions are only made infectious by means of enthusiasm which to a sane man must appear deplorable. It is humiliating to find how impotent unadulterated sanity is."
Adventures and romance only take on their adventurous and romantic qualities at second-hand [through literature]. Live them, and they are just a slice of life like the rest.
I was thoroughly charmed by Huxley's obituary tone, dissolving wreaths and spirals, brownish smell and eloquently cumbrous locutions.
Pleasurable reading. I can certainly see why Karen Blixen was so enamoured. I can picture an open copy resting on the table whilst she took a cigarette on the porch of an evening.