Freely and sportively bombinating

A month ago I finished Charlotte Brontë’s vastly underrated first novel The Professor, which she completed at 31 but could never get published; her husband Arthur Bell Nichols finally got it out two years after her death, in 1857.

This week I happened to pick up Aldous Huxley’s first, Crome Yellow (1921), which he published at 27. It is just as forgotten and just as brilliant, and the critics have been just as wrong about both.

Each is dense with learning, psychological insight, and piercing characterization. (Each taught me several new words—indurated comes to mind in Brontë, pullulation in Huxley. At least 5% of The Professor is in French.) Both fell out of favor in part due to the facile charge of plotlessness—as if all the talking and thinking and feeling at work in them were not forms of action. Both feature intelligent men in their twenties who take a special interest in language and, of course, fall in love. And both partake of the satirical, but not relentlessly so; the authors clearly see something of themselves in their protagonists, though even they are not spared. I winced in self-recognition at several moments in each.

Brontë’s prose is purpler, more earnest and romantic: it frequently climbs to high and impassioned registers, but never loses contact with its undertone of intelligence. Writing on the other side of the Great War, Huxley, of course, would blush at such rapturous profusion, though I’d like to think he would admire its freshness. He is instead tersely witty, more straightforwardly and charmingly comic, at times virtually slapstick. (Chapter 1 ends, “He would take them by surprise.” Chapter 2 begins, “He took nobody by surprise; there was nobody to take.” [I’m not sure there’s a six-word sentence anywhere in Brontë.] In probably the funniest scene in the novel, our hero waxes romantic and at length about the beauty of the word carminative, only to have his ego—quite aptly—deflated, when he finally learns what it means. It is the most alembicated fart joke that has ever been told.) His monikers evoke Saki and Wodehouse: there is a Priscilla Whimbush, a Mr. Barbecue-Smith. But most of his humor operates quietly, by the irony of rhythm and understatement—as tight-lipped and corseted as the aristocrats he spoofs. The joke is all the richer because we are proud to have noticed it.


An unsigned review in the Times Literary Supplement, November 10, 1921, reprinted in Aldous Huxley: The Critical Heritage, edited by Donald Watt:

“I am tired of seeing the human mind bogged in a social plenum; I prefer to paint it in a vacuum, freely and sportively bombinating.” The plan was ascribed to a fabulous author in Crome Yellow, by Mr. Aldous Huxley. A vacuum is suggested by the rarefied seclusion of his fantastic coutnry house, where a small group of human beings reveal their amusingly simplified traits. But the void is, judiciously, not quite complete. The tone of Mr. Huxley’s story matches the title and the covers; it is a rich, full yellow, which suggests the exhilarating glow of summer and the answering temperature of mind. In this atmosphere the characters bombinate, so far as the heat allows. On the high towers of Crome by starlight (Mr. Huxley will explain in whimsical fashion why they were so absurdly tall), in the cool shadows of the granary, along the deep yew alleys by the swimming pool, the transitory action passes; while the things that are not done (so often more important than those that are) bubble in the mind, betray themselves in spontaneous gestures, or float down the stream of talk.

Mr. Huxley’s personages are drawn with an extreme verve of crispness; in fact the merit of his comedy is that it becomes always more amusing as it grows. Little Mary Bracegirdle, with the earnest blue eyes and bell of short hold hair, would be very tiresome if she talked much of her “repressions”; so she is confined, for the most part, to simple and fatal acts. Mr. Scogan, on the other hand, whose forte is a dry, racy monologue which drones at intervals beneath the bombination, is enlivening for just so long as he would naturally be; only near the end is he revealed in the full colours of a bore. The way in which Mr. Huxley manoeuvres his party, displaying them by adroitly contrasted little scenes, has a good deal of Anatole France’s touch; and it is quite in the manner of that master to stay the narrative which a choice extract from the family records or a fuliginous sermon on the Second Advent by the vicar. Mr. Huxley suggests the same tone, too, by his rich converse with books, and by the “direct action” of the younger members of the party, which puts ideas to rout. But then the master himself, though he is steeped in knowledge and plays with contemporary follies, never leaves us with a notion that he limited by fashions or by culture. Of Mr. Huxley we do not feel quite so sure; like his Henry Wimbush, who remarks at a village dance that “if all these people were dead this festivity would be extremely agreeable”—for then one could simply romantically read about them—he almost invites us to believe that the proper study of mankind is books. Almost; but not quite; for in Denis, the hero of this little story, through whose eyes we see most of it, the tragi-comedy of adolescence becomes really poignant at the end. The stroke which ruined Denis’s hopes and chances was something that went deeper than his love-affair; it was the discovery, in a humiliating form, that there was a real world of remorseless and self-centered persons which impinged on his own crystal world of illusions and ideas. This shock gives the point to Mr. Huxley’s fantasy, which is so engaging that we hardly wish it other than it is; all we miss is a certain feeling of assurance that he is using his imagination freely for himself.

From Watt’s introduction to The Critical Heritage:

For Aldous Huxley (1894–1963) life and music shared a common quality: they could each be described as a simultaneity of co-existing incompatibles. The same description may be applied to the critical reception of Huxley’s work. He was hailed as an emancipator of the modern mind and condemned as an irresponsible free-thinker; celebrated as a leading intelligence of his age and denounced as an erudite show-off; admired as the wittiest man of his generation and dismissed as a clever misanthrope. A few pages of his writing or half a career served equally to evoke the incompatible opinions. Opening the cover of Point Counter Point, Wyndham Lewis objected to a “tone of vulgar complicity with the dreariest of suburban library-readers,” while André Maurois discovered in the same opening pages scenes “worth of the great Russians.” In 1933 C. P. Snow claimed that Huxley “ought to seem the most significant English novelist of his day”, while G. K. Chesterton quipped: “[He] is ideally witty; but he is at his wit’s end.”

Huxley’s writing, both the fiction and the nonfiction, provoked controversy at almost every stage. Those very features of his work which drew most praise—the scientific contexts, the detached irony, the panoply of startling ideas—provided as often as not evidence which his critics felt could be used against him. The Huxley critical heritage is a history of vigorous contention spurred by not always equal shares of insight and misunderstanding.

At the center of that history was Huxley’s own peculiar approach to fiction, what George Catlin called “that strange mutt of literature,” the “novel of ideas.” The term provided at most a sketchy description of Huxley’s books, but his critics were at a loss to suggest anything better. His attitude toward fiction seemed to casual and iconoclastic. “There aren’t any divinely laid down canons of the novel,” he asserted. “All you need is to be interesting.” Huxley’s novels flaunted those conventions of logical realism followed faithfully by older writers, such as John Galsworthy and Arnold Bennett. Accordingly, his younger audience in the 1920s found him refreshing: “By comparison, most other contemporary writers seemed stuffy, unenlightened, old-fashioned.” But at the same time his writing appeared to defy the new authoritative view of fiction as an organic art form which had evolved through the influence of Flaubert and Henry James. Developing standards of criticism in the earlier twentieth century were deeply affected by Jamesian aesthetics, by Bloomsbury’s belief in the autonomy of art, and by a severely formalist approach to literature. Huxley’s practice of the novel ran counter to these trends: “From a Jamesian perspective that insisted on rigidly delimiting a fictional world through a filtering consciousness with which the reader was asked to identify but could never wholly rely on, Huxley the novelist was inevitably unsatisfactory” (Firchow). To many observers the failure of Huxley’s fiction either to adopt a traditional posture or to adhere to a formalist criterion meant that he was stuck in an untenable sort of writing which hovered indecisively between the novel and the essay.

Huxley’s critics were slow to realize that he held a different concept of fiction. Like Quarles in Point Counter Point, he readily admitted the problems he had in creating conventional plots: “I don’t think of myself as a congenital novelist—no. For example, I have great difficulty in inventing plots. Some people are born with an amazing gift for storytelling; it’s a gift which I’ve never had at all” (Paris Review interview). But the telling of stories, for Huxley, was only a small part of what fiction could accomplish. He wrote to Eugene Saxton on 24 May 1933: “I probably have an entirely erroneous view about fiction. For I feel about fiction as Nurse Cavell felt about patriotism: that it is not enough.” The popular style of fiction written by Dumas, Scott, or Stevenson could not satisfy Huxley. Also, as much as he appreciated Arnold Bennett’s friendship and advice, he recoiled from the elaborate realism of books like Riceyman Steps. Throughout his life Huxley sought to write another kind of fiction. “My own aim,” he told an early interviewer, “is to arrive, technically, at a perfect fusion of the novel and the essay, a novel in which one can put all one’s ideas, a novel like a hold-all” (Maraini). The drive to synthesize multifarious attitudes towards life moved Huxley to develop an integrative approach to fiction which in its breadth, he hoped, would transcend the limits of purist art. In this radically charged sense Huxley believed that fiction, along with biography and history, “are the forms”:

My goodness, Dostoevski is six times as profound as Kierkegaard, because he writes fiction. In Kierkegaard you have this Abstract Man going on and on—like Coleridge—why, it’s nothing compared with the really profound Fictional Man, who has always to keep these tremendous ideas alive in a concrete form. In fiction you have the reconciliation of the absolute and the relative, so to speak, the expression of the general in the particular. And this, it seems to me, is the exciting thing—both in life and in art.

More pith, more substance, more reality

Charlotte Brontë on her first novel, The Professor—brought into print by her husband only after her death, in 1857—in a letter to William Smith Williams (joint owner of her publisher, Smith, Elder, & Co.), December 14, 1847:

Dear sir,—

I have just received your kind and welcome letter of the 11th. I shall proceed at once to discuss the principal subject of it.

Of course a second work has occupied my thoughts much. I think it would be premature in me to undertake a serial now—I am not yet qualified for the task: I have neither gained a sufficiently firm footing with the public, nor do I possess sufficient confidence in myself, nor can I boast those unflagging animal spirits, that even command of the faculty of composition, which as you say, and, I am persuaded, most justly, is an indispensable requisite to success in serial literature. I decidedly feel that ere I change my ground I had better make another venture in the three-volume novel form.

Respecting the plan of such a work, I have pondered it, but as yet with very unsatisfactory results. Three commencements I have essayed, but all three displease me. A few days since I looked over The Professor. I found the beginning very feeble, the whole narrative deficient in incident and in general attractiveness. Yet the middle and latter portion of the work, all that relates to Brussels, the Belgian school, etc., is as good as I can write: it contains more pith, more substance, more reality, in my judgment, than much of Jane Eyre. It gives, I think, a new view of a grade, an occupation, and a class of characters—all very commonplace, very insignificant in themselves, but not more so than the materials composing that portion of Jane Eyre which seems to please most generally.

Later, in a letter to the other joint owner of the publishing house, George Smith, February 5, 1851:

The Professor has now had the honour of being rejected nine times by the “Tr–de” (three rejections go to your own share); you may affirm that you accepted it this last time, but that cannot be admitted; if it were only for the sake of symmetry and effect I must regard this martyrised MS. as repulsed, or at any rate withdrawn for the ninth time! Few, I flatter myself, have earned an equal distinction, and of course my feelings towards it can only be paralleled by those of doting parent towards an idiot child. Its merits, I plainly perceive, will never be owned by anybody but Mr. Williams and me; very particular and unique must be our penetration, and I think highly of us both accordingly. You may allege that that merit is not visible to the naked eye. Granted; but the smaller the commodity the more inestimable its value.

How to resist adult stupidity

Christopher Hitchens on Saki, “Where the Wild Things Are,” The Atlantic (2008):

At the age of 15, Noël Coward was staying in an English country house and found a copy of Beasts and Super-Beasts on a table: “I took it up to my bedroom, opened it casually and was unable to go to sleep until I had finished it.” I had a similar experience at about the same age, and I agree with Coward that H. H. Munro—or “Saki,” the author of the book in question—is among those few writers, inspirational when read at an early age, who definitely retain their magic when revisited decades later. I have the impression that Saki is not very much appreciated in the United States. Good. That means I can put into my debt many of you who are reading these words. Go and get an edition of this Edwardian master of the short story. Begin with, say, “Sredni Vashtar” or “The Lumber-Room” or “The Open Window.” Then see whether you can put the book down.

The spellbinding quality of the stories is almost too easy to analyze and looks mawkish when set down in plain words, because Saki’s great gift was being able to write about children and animals. But consider: How many authors have ever been able to pull off these most difficult of tricks? Kipling, for sure, but then, Kipling would not have been able to render the languid young princes of the drawing room, such as the exquisite Clovis Sangrail, with whom Saki peopled so many a scene. The character of these lethal Narcissi is well netted in a phrase coined by Sandie Byrne, who refers to them as “feral ephebes.”

If you want to incubate an author who will show lifelong sympathy for children and animals, it seems best to sequester him at an early age and then subject him to a long regime of domestic torture. This was the formula that worked so well for Kipling, as evidenced in his frightening autobiographical story, “Baa Baa, Black Sheep,” and it is almost uncanny to see how closely Saki’s early life followed the same course. Abandoned to the care of cold and neurotic aunts in England while his father performed colonial duties in India, he and his siblings had to learn how to do without affection, and how to resist and outpoint adult callousness and stupidity. But without those terrible women—and the villains in Saki’s gem-like tales are almost always female—we might not have had the most-fearsome aunts in fiction, outdoing even Wodehouse’s Aunt Agatha or Wilde’s Lady Bracknell.

Wodehouse happily admitted to being influenced by Saki, and it would be interesting to know to what extent Saki was himself influenced by Wilde. There is a good deal of evidence to suggest that he was, because some of his epigrams (“Beauty is only sin deep”) betray an obvious indebtedness, and one (“To lose an hotel and a cake of soap in one afternoon suggests willful carelessness”) is an almost direct appropriation from The Importance of Being Earnest. But in that epoch, Wilde’s name lay under a ban, and Saki would have been well advised to not challenge the unstated rules that underlay that prohibition. (I find the speculation about his own homosexuality pointless because there is nothing about which to speculate: he was self-evidently homosexual and, just as obviously, deeply repressed.)

[…]

As is by no means uncommon in such cases, Saki was of the extreme right, and even an admirer must concede that some of his witticisms were rather labored and contrived as a consequence. Several of his less amusing stories are devoted to ridicule of the women’s suffrage movement, which was cresting during his heyday, while a persistent subtext of his work is a satirical teasing of his contemporary and bête noire, the ponderously socialistic Bernard Shaw (“Sherard Blaw, the dramatist who had discovered himself, and who had given so ungrudgingly of his discovery to the world”).