A singular talent

I don’t know what I was expecting, but it wasn’t what I got.

The blurb on the back of Henry Green’s PARTY GOING described the book thus:

A group of rich, spoiled and idle young people heading off on a winter holiday are stranded at a railway station when their train is delayed by thick, enclosing fog. PARTY GOING describes their four-hour wait in a London railway hotel where they shelter from the grim weather and the throngs of workers on the platform below.

There is nothing, admittedly, at all inaccurate or wrong about that description. It describes exactly what does happen in this concise work of 157 pages (almost a novella). But what the pithy blurb doesn’t capture, or doesn’t hint at, more precisely, is Green’s singular style. I was expecting a Waugh-esque romp, something akin to Anthony Powell.  Not at all.

It is a book unlike any I’ve ever read. Without any chapters or any real breaks – it is one paragraph after another, continuously for the entire book – it borders on stream-of-consciousness, more poetry than prose. At times, it can be difficult to follow. At the beginning, the characters blend into one, so quickly does Green flick between them, barely resting long enough to gain a clear enough picture to be able to distinguish one from the other rich, flighty, self-absorbed young things.

The characters themselves bring to mind Waugh’s Bright Young Things from VILE BODIES. Yet Green delineates them with a more obtuse, scathing eye – not missing a detail – giving them a sordid, psychological run through, bearing these young people’s foibles straight up while maintaining layers of nuance. I went through varying stages of emotion: disgust, disbelief, horrified fascination (there is a bizarre scene with a dead pigeon), and, ultimately a writhing acknowledgement of this privileged, monied class. But more to the point, I gained a shared admittance, a further understanding of human nature. We are, at the end, united in our base emotions, despite social standing or upbringing.

Green’s trenchant, subtle analysis spares nothing yet leaves much to be discovered; it merits a second read, and, for that matter, a third. Finally, towards the end, I ‘got it’ and it is then that each line took on a different meaning. I began to see what he was driving at through the rather insufferable characters.

Tim Parks describes the gorgeous confusion in his very good introduction:

… We feel completely disorientated, as if we had been mysteriously spirited off to some far flung outpost, some improbable possession we could never imagine had been annexed to the Crown. Kipling in India, Lawrence in Mexico, Joyce in Trieste, they are all and immediately more central to what has become English Literature, what we expect when we open a book, than this bizarre and beautiful comedy that is Henry Green’s great masterpiece.

It’s worth a read, though don’t expect to understand it the first time round.

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