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crome yellow

27 august 2022

Aldous Huxley wrote and published his first novel, Crome Yellow, when he was in his late 20s. The book pokes merciless fun at thinkers, artists, mystics, and bores – but reserves its harshest blasts for highly-strung young literary men in their late 20s.

Crome Yellow has no great plot to speak of. It is something of a grab-bag, an anthology of inane things the supposedly cultured people say when they are gathered in an English country house of a hundred years ago and have way too much time on their hands. Interspersed with the imagined inanities are various excerpts from bad poems, some of them attributed to Denis Stone, Huxley's reflector/protagonist and personal avatar in the book. And of course all of the bad poems are actually by Aldous Huxley, making the novel all the more ruefully funny.

Assembled at Crome are a daft superannuated pundit, a dull antiquarian, a mystic gambling addict, a reactionary pastor, a petulant artist, a vain seducer of a poet, Denis himself, and various women with mainly romantic agendas. For all its liberated discussion of sex, Crome Yellow is not particularly feminist. It can be racist too, with a couple of gratuitous n-words blazing off the page; but here and there a progressive, anti-colonial note sounds from a monologue.

Scogan, the daft pundit, manages to sketch out much of the scheme that would later become Brave New World (1932) – an example of T.S. Eliot's famous principle that later works of literature can change ones written in the past: what must have seemed just weird ravings in 1921 now is an important precursor to a dystopian classic. Henry Wimbush, Denis' host at Crome and the antiquarian of the bunch, is a gentler sort. His fantastic central story of a little person who once owned the estate can be read as a sympathetic early entry in the history of disability studies: the "normal" characters in the tale Wimbush tells are grotesquely ableist.

Denis himself is love-starved, with a crush on the wrong woman, and endlessly self-pitying. Anybody who's been an adolescent can identify with him, even through the filters of time, nationality, and privilege that separate him from readers in the 2020s.

Occasional flashes of humor still repay the reading of Crome Yellow, though. The pastor's analysis of the first world war, in a jeremiad he is very fond of, contains a goofy riff on Belgium that must have been slightly edgy in 1921. And one of Wimbush's ruminations takes an unsettling meta-literary turn. Wimbush, the antiquarian, prefers books about the past to people in the present (and given the company at Crome, who can blame him). "Give me the past," Wimbush says. "It doesn't change; it's all there in black and white."

Human contacts have been so highly valued in the past only because reading was not a common accomplishment and because books were scarce and difficult to reproduce. The world, you must remember, is only just becoming literate. As reading becomes more and more habitual and widespread, an ever-increasing number of people will discover that books will give them all the pleasures of social life and none of its intolerable tedium. (Chapter 28)
A droll paradox, but one that points tellingly out of the Kindle at a 21st-century reader.

Huxley, Aldous. Crome Yellow. 1921. Kindle Edition.