We should be familiar with the scene. A major railway station in central London. It’s early on a foggy evening. The office workers are returning home; a party of England’s most privileged are about to board the boat train for a continental holiday. The date must be sometime in the late 1920s. Apparently we are at the very heart of declining empire, Waugh territory. Yet no sooner have we read a paragraph of Henry Green’s novel Party Going than we know that this is not the case. On the contrary, we feel completely disoriented, as if we have 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, to what we expect when we open a book, than this bizarre and beautiful comedy that is Henry Green’s great masterpiece.
One cannot get more reassuringly clichéd, you would have thought, than the thick fog of pre-war London. Yet, as if the ghostly material had seeped into the writer’s mind and syntax, obliging him, and us, to advance with hands outstretched in constant fear of some unexpected obstacle, we soon appreciate that Green is using exactly this meteorological commonplace as image and abettor of our disorientation. One kind of gray matter has invaded another and everybody is bewildered. Instructing a chauffeur to deal with her many suitcases, the fabulously wealthy Julia Wray sets out to walk across the park to the station. Immediately she is in the fog:
Where hundreds of thousands she could not see were now going home, their day done, she was only starting out and there was this difference that where she had been nervous of her journey and of starting, so that she had said she would rather go on foot to the station to walk it off, she was frightened now. As a path she was following turned this way and that round bushes and shrubs that hid from her what she would find she felt she would next come upon this fog dropped suddenly down to the ground, when she would be lost.
That hid from her what she would find she felt she would next come upon! Julia is not alone in being lost. What does the sentence mean? How strangely and rapidly its monosyllabic rhythm with barely a word unstressed plunges us into confusion. We expected something like: As she went this way and that round bushes that hid what she would find on the other side, she felt lost. But no! Or it could have been: As she went round bushes that hid what she would find, she expected, on the other side. No again! And only after a double or even triple take and some careful adjustment to those shifty “would’s,” ever ready to switch from imperfect to conditional and so …