‘Nothing’ by Henry Green – A Novel Composed Almost Entirely of Dialogue

 

‘Nothing’ by Henry Green (1950) – 183 pages

Henry Green is an English novelist from an earlier time to whom I keep coming back in my reading. There is an immediacy, an intensity at the sentence level that makes Green’s writing fun to read even when he writes about supposedly mundane things like office life or just walking in a park. Reading Green, one gets a sense of the wondrous strangeness of ordinary life for all of us.

I was somewhat surprised to find that the New York Review Books Classics series published eight of the nine novels Henry Green wrote, all except ‘Concluding’. (Is there any author other than Henry Green for whom NYBR Classics has published 8 novels?) What surprised me is that the last two of his novels, ‘Nothing’ and ‘Doting’, have not been highly praised by critics. ‘Nothing’ and ‘Doting’ are almost entirely all dialogue and have been variously described by critics as “talky”, “brittle”, “lacking the old magic”, and not at all approaching his earlier masterpieces like ‘Party Going’ or ‘Loving’. I have read and much enjoyed five of his earlier esteemed-by-critics novels and consider Henry Green one of the high points in English literature in the 20th century, so it was time for me to go off the deep-end with Henry Green and read one of these two so-called “talky” novels.

The main characters in ‘Nothing’ are John Pomfret and his 20 year old daughter Mary and his friend Jane Weatherby and her 21 year old son Philip. John Pomfret and Jane Weatherby had a torrid affair many years ago despite being married to others, and now they are still platonic friends. Now her son Philip and his daughter Mary have gotten together, and these two serious young people worry that they might be more closely related than they thought. Philip discusses it with his mother:

It wasn’t anything I could mention over the phone. Look here you won’t be annoyed will you but am I Father’s son?”

Mrs. Weatherby went deep red under the make-up.

Henry Green, as a writer, did not believe in omniscient all-knowing narrators. Nobody knows for sure how another person feels about anything. All we know for sure are the words they say and their physical reactions such as smiles, frowns, turning red, etc., and these physical reactions might not reflect their true feelings. Thus in ‘Nothing’, besides the dialogue, we get frequent mentions of what a character “seemed” to be feeling. Any description of a character’s feelings must be tentative, because we really don’t know what they are feeling.

He seemed very comfortable in the chair with his sherry.”

Mr. Pomfret appeared to ignore the dryness of her tone.”

she said with apparent sincerity”

I believe that this absence of an omniscient narrator is one of the reasons that Henry Green’s novels still charm while other writers’ works have fallen by the wayside.

However, ultimately ‘Nothing’ did not measure up for me to the other Henry Green novels which I have read. As good as Green is with dialogue, I missed the connective tissue of description to back up the story. If you have not read Henry Green before, don’t start with ‘Nothing’. Read ‘Party Going’ or ‘Loving’ or ‘Living’ or ‘Back’ instead.

 

Grade:   B-

 

 

8 responses to this post.

  1. It’s many years since I read a trilogy of his novels collected in one volume, including ones you recommend here (Loving, Living, Party Going). I remember that strangely disconnected narrative voice, but also an oddness in the syntax – not to mention the strange non-realistic plots. I must go back to him. NYRB are so enterprising in publishing more out of the way authors as well as those who are more mainstream.

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    • Hi Tredynas Days,
      NYBR seems to specialize in those authors which have been neglected to some extent, but should not have been neglected. Henry Green sure fits that category as well as Elaine Dundy, Patrick Hamilton, and Barbara Comyns. So now they provide a useful service. Now I want to branch out and try other reprint companies like Penguin, etc.
      I like your line about “the disconnected narrative voice” of Henry Green. That does capture something of his appeal.

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  2. Having finished “Party Going” yesterday, I’ve now read all of Green’s novels except “Caught”. For me, “Nothing” and Doting” are two of his best; I adore the sense of uncertainty you discuss in your fourth paragraph, the way the emphasis on dialogue puts all the characters on the same footing. It’s very democratic fiction and such a unique voice.

    Among the others, “Concluding” is my favorite – its plot is quite unlike his other works and there’s a sense of otherworldliness about it. In fact looking at his bibliography, I’d rank them more or less in chronological order, i.e. he got better throughout his writing career!

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    • *reverse* chronological order…

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      • Hi zungg,
        From what I can see, ‘Concluding’ is the one Henry Green novel NYBR did not reprint for whatever reason. I suppose there is also an availability question when choosing what to reprint.
        So you like them in reverse chronological order. Henry Green quit writing around 1953 for the next 20+ years. That would mean we have missed some real masterpieces by his stopping writing when he did. 🙂

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  3. I discovered Green through Stu’s Henry Green Week, and started with Loving, which I really liked. My edition of Nothing is, like Simon’s, a trio but mine comprises Nothing, Doting and Blindness. Perhaps the publishers have packaged this less popular novel with others as a way of offering to completists without running the risk of unsold copies. But I liked it: https://anzlitlovers.com/2015/06/18/nothing-by-henry-green/

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    • Hi Lisa,
      I just read your review, and you refer to the Arthur Morris running “joke”. First he gets his toe amputated, and they can’t stop laughing; Later he gets some of his leg amputated and they are still giggling. Later at the end of the novel he dies. None of this is funny, but that is one of the oddities of Henry Green novels.
      Up until the 1990s, Henry Green had nearly been completely forgotten. Then they published three of his novels in one book, then three more, and now NYBR has reprinted 8 of his 9 novels as well as his memoir. Henry Green has had a full-scale revival.

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