When I started reading this book, I had high expectations of Huxley, but was immediately disappointed at what I mistakenly supposed was a hackneyed situation. There was a bad poet hopelessly in love with an unresponsive-not to say cold-female; a sophisticated person, much older in both physical and mental terms, a true to type Woman of the World, and he a clichéd portrait of the kind of person rampant in literature, either as a caricature or as comic relief. Spare me an unrequited-love romance, even as an aside, I inwardly implored.
I was spared.
What I found instead was a delightfully good-natured literary satire on the various "types" found in literature, the kind that every reader recognizes instantly. Here, you find them all, congregated in a short and enchanting novel full of the most subtle and gentle humor-the least obvious and most entertaining joke is, of course, that none of these people can really be taken seriously.
In a parody of characterization in literature, Huxley comes up with: The Philosopher, The "Sensitive" Wannabe Poet, The Serious Pretentious Pseudo Intellectual, The Spiritual Author as the Protégé (Pet) of a Rich lady With Nothing To Do, The Rich Lady With Nothing To Do, The Rich Lady's Husband With Nothing To Do, The Charming Accomplished Amorous Aristocrat With Everything Going For Him, The Mediterranean Artist, The Religious Fanatic, and finally, the Ice Maiden.
Huxley takes this rich cast of familiar and even sometimes lovable characters that we have known from time immemorial in innumerable novels and puts them together, in the close proximity of a house in which they are the house guests of the rich lady and her husband, who in literature, have nothing to do but invite people over for the summer to endure excruciating contact with other people they have nothing in common with. And then, Huxley casually presents us with their performance.
The obvious purpose is to take these tools that many authors dupe their readers by calling "characters" and let them behave as tritely as they can, with this difference: all the trite behavior, all the clichéd dialogue, the whole overused situation, will not save them from where they should really end up, as opposed to where they do end in literature, i.e. the bad poet is rewarded in his literary efforts AND he gets the girl, the charming prince does find true love and settles down to a life of fidelity and healthy offspring, the artist does find solace in his art and gets rid of his neurosis, and so on. Here, the situation is rendered interesting by virtue of the author's freedom in taking these characters-who have populated so many books, they breathe with a life of their own-where they ought to go if we consider how many forces are at work in life, and how simplistically life is represented in many novels, that seem to exist in a egocentric universe where its own cast of characters are the sole remarkable occupants of a universe.
This very theme is touched upon when Denis, the poet, discovers what Jenny, the only original character in the whole book, does when she scribbles silently in her diary. His dishonesty leads him to the disquieting realization that there are people beside himself who possess the faculty of observation and interpretation. He had underestimated Jenny, just as the reader is led to do, as a deaf woman in her thirties, quite unnecessary in any tangible sense: her apparent distance from the action leads us to discount her importance as a character or a human being, the very thing many of us do in real life when we come across quiet, self effacing, retiring individuals.
What appealed to me personally about Crome Yellow was that Huxley, whether consciously or unconsciously, had used two characteristics from two of my favorite authors: he had taken Dickens' style of casting all his characters as types (though Dickens is, of course, more lucrative in his supply of types than Huxley is or should have been), and then using them to make a story; in Dickens case, the characters assist him in his chief aim, that of satire and social criticism, and are not themselves the focus, whereas here the characters are the point. The other characteristic is the distance of the author from his characters, which is best exhibited by Forster. Huxley is wonderfully omniscient and yet absent in this work, with no leaning towards any particular member of his cast. No favoritism, so to speak-there are no heroes and no villains.
Huxley has managed here to be true to form while keeping the whole composition charmingly original and fresh: the accomplished aristocrat comes but for a fleeting period of time and leaves a broken heart behind him. The philosopher is kept incessantly talking. The lady with her spiritual pet is properly in the background. The lady's husband is, not unexpectedly, obsessed with the record of the history of his family. The artist is tormented, handsome and original. The serious pseudo intellectual is critical, highly formulaic in her intellectualism (always afraid of not doing or saying the right thing intellectually) and intelligently interested in everything. The love interest of the poet is self-contained, distantly amused, and sphinx-like. The poet himself is shy and sensitive to a degree. However, all of these characters are made to exhibit some of their insides: the poet, for instance, is shown incapable of being spontaneous or natural, of giving full play to his emotions and what after all, is a poet to feel if he can't feel an emotion? They are all similarly exposed as flimsy pieces of work-the clear implication being, how untrue are the types portrayed in literature: they don't even have the decency to be representational.
I am charmed by this work. The writing is refined, the story original, there are some surprises always waiting for the experienced reader too ready to take things for granted. It's a fresh fresh composition. I'm glad it was short though as a protraction would have spoiled its essence.
I have but one complaint to make, which was enough to make me give it a star less than it otherwise would have deserved. There are a few characters that are perfect as types and are given appropriately lengthy introductions, but are subsequently, unceremoniously banished from the story. One such character is the priest. Some other characters were treated in the same manner, as for example, the spiritual author, but they were at least connected to the story in a more concrete way. In the case of the spiritualist, he was necessary to complete the character of the lady of the house. The lady herself was a necessary accessory, and looked okay in the background. But the priest does not have any real connection with the other characters and in the end, it remains unclear why he was introduced in the first place. He does not in any way help to give a clearer picture of the community, as later on, the community is not much of a factor anyway. If he had been further pulled into the story and given a place in the scheme of things, he would have been an interesting guy: not to mention, leaving him hanging in there with no beginning and no end is a bit of a disappointment as it doesn't leave things complete in an otherwise perfectly composed novel.