Now this man is a wit. He is the grandson of the famous Huxley1 who, besides being one of the two great scientists of his time, wrote clear and beautiful prose—better prose than Stevenson2 could ever master.
This is young Huxley’s third book—his first one, Limbo, was a collection of sketches; his second, Leda, which I have never read, contained one long poem and, I believe, a few lyrics.3
To begin with, Huxley, though he is more like Max Beerbohm than any other living writer (an ambiguity which I shall let stand, as it works either way), belongs as distinctly to the present day as does Beerbohm to the ‘90’s. He has an utterly ruthless habit of building up an elaborate and sometimes almost romantic structure and then blowing it down with something too ironic to be called satire and too scornful to be called irony. And yet he is quite willing to withhold this withering breath from certain fabulous enormities of his own fancy—and thus we have in Crome Yellow the really exquisite fable of the two little dwarfs which is almost, if not quite, as well done as the milkmaid incident in Beerbohm’s Zuleika Dobson.
In fact I have wanted a book such as Crome Yellow for some time. It is what I thought I was getting when I began Norman Douglas’s South Wind.4 It is something less serious, less humorous, and yet infinitely wittier than either Jurgen or The Revolt of the Angels.5 It is—but by telling you all the books it resembles I will get you no nearer to knowing whether or not you will want to buy it.
Crome Yellow is a loosely knit (but not loosely written) satirical novel concerning the gay doings of an house party at an English country place known as Crome. The book is yellow within and without—and I do not mean yellow in the slangy sense. A sort of yellow haze of mellow laughter plays over it. The people are now like great awkward canaries trying to swim in saffron pools, now like bright yellow leaves blown along a rusty path under a yellow sky. Placid, impoignant, Nordic, the satire scorns to burn deeper than a pale yellow sun, but only glints with a desperate golden mockery upon the fair hair of the strollers on the law; upon those caught by dawn in the towers; upon those climbing into the hearse at the last—beaten by the spirit of yellow mockery.
This is the sort of book that will infuriate those who take anything seriously, even themselves. This is a book that mocks at mockery. This is the highest point so far attained by Anglo-Saxon sophistication. It is written by a man who has responded, I imagine, much more to the lyric loves of lovers long dust than to the contemporary seductions of contemporary British flappers. His protagonist—what a word for Denis, the mocked-at mocker—is lifted from his own book, Limbo. So is Mr. Scoogan, but I don’t care. Neither do I care that it “fails to mirror life;” that it is “not a novel”— these things will be said of it, never fear. I find Huxley, after Beerbohm, the wittiest man now writing in English.
The scene where Denis was unable to carry Anne amused me beyond measure.
And listen to this, when Huxley confesses to a but second-hand knowledge of the human heart:
“In living people one is dealing with unknown and unknowable qualities. One can only hope to find out anything about them by a long series of the most disagreeable and boring human contacts, involving a terrible expense of time. It is the same with current events; how can I find out anything about them except by devoting years of the most exhausting first-hand studies, involving once more an endless number of the most unpleasant contacts? No, give me the past. It does not change; it is all there in black and white, and you can get to know about it comfortably and decorously, and, above all, privately—by reading.”
Huxley is just 30, I believe. He is said to know more about French, German, Latin and medieval Italian literature than any man alive. I refuse to make the fatuous remark that he should know less about books and more about people. I wish to heaven that Christopher Morley6 would read him and find that the kittenish need not transgress upon the whimsical.
I expect the following addenda to appear on the green jacket of “Crome Yellow” at any moment:
“Drop everything and read ‘Crome Yellow.’“
“Places Huxley definitely in the first rank of American (sic!) novelists.”
(The “sic” is mine. It is not harsh as in “sic ‘im!” but silent as in “sick room.”)
“It may be I’m old—it may be I’m mellow, But I cannot fall for Huxley’s “Crome Yellow.”
“Exquisite. Places Huxley among the few snobs of English literature.”
(Crome Yellow, by Aldous Huxley. George H. Doran Co. $2.)
1. Thomas Henry Huxley (1825-1895), English biologist and leading writer on evolution.
2. Scottish novelist and essayist Robert Louis Stevenson (1850-1894).
3. Limbo (1920) and Leda (1920) were the first two books by Huxley (1894-1963) to be published in the United States.
4. 1917 satirical novel; Douglas (1868-1952) was an English novelist and travel writer who spent much of his life in Italy.
5. 1914 satirical novel by Anatole France.
6. (1890-1957), American man of letters who at that time wrote essays about literary subjects.
7. Heywood Broun had written an unfavorable notice of This Side of Paradise.
8. Newspaper columnist Franklin P. Adams (1881-1960).
9. American novelist Gertrude Atherton (1857-1948).
Published in St. Paul Daily News newspaper (26 February 1922, Feature Section).