Thursday, 11 March 2010

Aldous Huxley and Proust

Mentioning Proust yesterday made me think of Aldous Huxley's character Anthony Beavis who is so rude about him in Eyeless in Gaza:
"'How I hate old Proust! Really detest him.' And with a richly comic eloquence he proceeded to evoke the vision of that asthmatic seeker of lost time squatting, horribly white and flabby, with breasts almost female but fledged with long black hairs, for ever squatting in the tepid bath of his remembered past. And all the stale soapsuds of countless previous washings floated around him, all the accumulated dirt of years lay crusty on the sides of the tub or hung in dark suspension in the water. And there he sat, a pale repellent invalid, taking up spongefuls of his own thick soup and squeezing it over his face, scooping up cupfuls of it and appreciatively rolling the grey and gritty liquor round his mouth, gargling, rinsing his nostrils with it, like a pious Hindu in the Ganges."
Completely unfair but very memorable.
No-one seems to read Aldous Huxley's novels any more. I've forgotten almost everything about them, except that passage and the fact that I enjoyed them. I suppose one could regard this as one of the pluses of advancing age: due to failing memory I am now able to read books I enjoyed already and enjoy them all over again.
Actually another bit of Huxley I haven't forgotten is the section on the word 'carminative' in Crome Yellow:
"'It's a word I've treasured since my earliest infancy,' said Denis, 'treasured and loved. They used to give me cinnamon when I had a cold - quite useless, but not disagreeable. One poured it drop by drop out of narrow bottles, a golden liquor, fierce and fiery. On the label was a list of its virtues and, among other things, it was described as being in the highest degree carminative. I adored the word. 'Isn't it carminative,' I used to say to myself when I'd taken my dose. It seemed so wonderfully to describe that sensation of internal warmth, that glow, that - what shall I call it? - physical satisfaction which followed the drinking of cinnamon. Later when I discovered alcohol, 'carminative' described that similar, but nobler, more spiritual glow which wine evokes not only in the body but the soul as well. The carminative virtues of burgundy, of rum, of old brandy, of Lacryma Christi, of Marsala, of Aleatico, of stout, of gin, of champagne, of claret, of the raw new wine of this year's Tuscan vintage - I compared them, I classified them. Marsala is rosily, downily carminative; gin pricks and refreshes while it warms. I had a whole table of carmination values. And now,' Denis spread out his hands, palms upwards, despairingly, 'now I know what carminative really means.'
'Well, what does it mean?' asked Mr Scogan, a little impatiently.
'Carminative,' said Denis, lingering lovingly over the syllables, 'carminative. I imagined vaguely that it had something to do with carmen-carminis, still more vaguely with caro-carnis, and its derivatives, like carnival and carnation. Carminative - there was the idea of singing and the idea of flesh, rose-coloured and warm, with a suggestion of the jollities of mi-Careme and the masked holidays of Venice. Carminative - the warmth,the glow, the interior ripeness were all in the word.'"
Poor Denis.


  1. But according to my dictionary it means "expelling gas from the stomach or intestines so as to relieve flatulence or abdominal pain or distension"!

  2. Which is what Denis discovers after he writes a poem about the effects of love and wine. He says:
    'Love, for example, is essentially carminative. It gives one the sense of warmth, the glow.
    "And passion carminative as wine..."
    was what I wrote. Not only was the line elegantly sonorous; it was also, I flattered myself, very aptly and compendiously expressive. Everything was in the word carminative - a detailed exact foreground, an immense, indefinite hinterland of suggestion.
    "And passion carminative as wine ..."
    I was not ill-pleased. And then suddenly it occurred to me that I had never actually looked up the word in a dictionary. Carminative had grown up with me from the days of the cinnamon bottle. It had always been taken for granted. Carminative: for me the word was as rich in content as some tremendous, elaborate work of art; it was a complete landscape with figures.
    "And passion carminative as wine ..."
    It wsa the first time I had ever committed the word to writing and all at once I felt I would like lexicographical authority for it. A small English-German dictionary was all I had at hand. I turned up C, ca, car, carm. There it was: "Carminative: windtreibend." Windtreibend!'

  3. Great description of Proust. And I'm afraid I concur. Can't stand it.

    Re Huxley, The Devils of Loudon deserves to be current. It's good on moral panics and what they can give rise to: a lesson that seems to require re-learning every generation or so.

  4. I've just looked it up - first impression, must read it, then saw it was what The Devils was based on and thought 'Ugh.' But presumably Ken Russell is to blame for what he did to a good book? I shall go down to the library and find it in the catalogue and then discover it's gone walkabout - or possibly get my hands on it. Can't believe I'd never heard of it. Many thanks.

  5. I looked up carminative on Wikipedia. Now, one might object that we can't trust Wikipedia, but this definition is a gem, ending with the charming fancy that a carminative "facilitates the expulsion of said gas, thereby combating flatulence."

  6. I didn't know that Ken Russell had filmed it. But I suppose there are far more similarities between one KR film and another than between them and their source material.

  7. David: I like the words 'charming fancy' in proximity to 'flatulence'.
    Gaw: I quite liked Russell's Women in Love (as far as I can remember) but The Devils was an ordeal. Here's a link to a clip from it and I'm sure thre are probably more: