Posts Tagged ‘Henry Green’

‘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-

 

 

‘Loving’ by Henry Green – Pandemonium in the Hallways of the Mansion

 

‘Loving’ by Henry Green    (1945)   –   185 pages

 

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There are so many novels that I want to read that I rarely go back and re-read one.  In fact the last novel I had re-read before ‘Loving’ was ‘The Heart of the Matter’ by Graham Greene way back in 2010.

I wanted to return to the raucous high-spirited fun of Henry Green, and ‘Loving’ is considered his masterpiece.  I have read four novels by Henry Green (‘Loving’, ‘Living’, ‘Party-Going’, and ‘Back’), any of which would have been a delight to re-read.

‘Loving’ is an upstairs/downstairs novel.  However unlike most such novels, here the servants – the household staff – are Green’s main center of attention.   These servants work hard, talk all the time, and fall in love.  They tease each other and laugh or giggle while they do their work.   ‘Loving’ is a raucous warm comedy.

The head butler Charley Raunce spreads havoc everywhere he goes.  He is not above fixing the books to make a little extra money on the side, but he won’t do anything major like steal the Lady’s jewelry because that would be too obvious and spoil his small-time racket.  Charley is always flirting with the maids – Edith and Kate – trying to get one or the other to kiss him.  He is forty, and the maids are twenty, but Edith falls in love with him anyway.  ‘Loving’ takes place during World War II, and there is a shortage of available men.  The mansion where they all work is located in Ireland and is owned by an expatriate lady from England. They are all worried about their families back in England which is being heavily bombarded.

The main thing you notice while reading ‘Loving’ is the lively and vivacious talk.  Henry Green loved to write dialogue, and that is his true strength.  In fact his last two novels, ‘Nothing’ and ‘Doting’, are considered lesser works because they are both almost completely all dialogue.  Green had lost the ability to write the connective tissue that frames the story between the dialogues.  He probably would have been a great playwright.  As it is, Henry Green gave up novel writing at age forty-seven.

However Green did leave behind six excellent novels which are original and unique.   In ‘Loving’, the warmth and the comic joy shared by this small group of people who keep this mansion running is infectious and unlike anything else in English fiction.

I will end with a couple of lines from Henry Green that capture the fun spirit of his writing for me:

“D’you sometimes believe that nothing in the whole wide world matters.

Oh, Ann, but surely simply everything has supreme importance if it happens.”

 

Grade:    A

 

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