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On ‘Party Going’

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.1 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 keep us from separating the wood from the trees in this foggy park, do we finally realize what it must mean: that the bushes hid from Julia what she thus discovered (“would find”) that she had been expecting (“felt”) to come upon on the other side, but didn’t. At which the reader too appreciates that nothing so much as disorientation will help you discover what you expected but didn’t find. Party Going isn’t a book like any other.2

But we mustn’t be put off by a little confusion. One would never, surely, break off a promising conversation merely because something the other person said didn’t quite or immediately make sense. Bewilderment can be exciting. For even if what you are going to come upon in Party Going is not what you expected from either this or any other book, it may all the same turn out to be very beautiful and very seductive. Even illuminating. And it might even be the case that the disorientation Green imposes on us is a state that will make us peculiarly receptive to beauty, perhaps a necessary precondition of our discovering it. Would somebody so self-obsessed and silly as Julia Wray ever have noticed the beauty of leaves lit up at night if she had not been lost in fog? Here is the next paragraph:

Then at another turn she was on more open ground. Headlights of cars above turning into a road as they swept round hooting swept their light above where she walked, illuminating lower branches of trees. As she hurried she started at each blaring horn and each time she would look up to make sure that noise heralded a light and then was reassured to see leaves brilliantly green veined like marble with wet dirt and these veins reflecting each light back for a moment then it would be gone out beyond her and then was altogether gone and there was another.

Green must be the most highly praised, certainly the most accomplished, of twentieth-century novelists not to have made it into the canon, not to be regularly taught in universities, not to be considered “required reading.” The celebrated critic Frank Kermode gives us the key to why this is so. Delivering the Norton Lectures at Harvard University in 1977,3 he chose Party Going, published in 1939, as an example of a work that perversely frustrated every analytical tool in the hermeneutic workshop. Brilliant as it is, Kermode insists, Party Going cannot be made to make sense as a whole. Is this fair comment? Would it matter if it was? “Life after all,” Green remarked, “is one discrepancy after another.”

Max Adey, unpardonably rich and notoriously handsome, has invited, all expenses paid, a gaggle of bright young things to a winter house-party in France. But barely an hour before departure Max himself is not quite sure if he will go. For he hasn’t invited Amabel. He is trying to break up with her, beautiful, wealthy, and fabulously pampered as she is. All the same, it was unkind not to invite her. Perhaps he should stay behind, then. Should he? Max has difficulty making up his mind. Actually, he has difficulty thinking at all. He invites Amabel to dinner, then leaves for the station, then phones from the station to cancel dinner, explaining that he is at the airport. Then, discovering that the train has been delayed by the fog, he books one room in the station hotel for his party and another for himself on the floor above to which he immediately takes Julia, with whom he plans to replace Amabel, while a third girl, Angela, is to be kept waiting in the wings. As he and Julia settle down to possible love-making, Green tells us:

If Julia had wondered where Max was taking her as they went upstairs together Max, for his part, had wondered where she was taking him. With this difference however, that, if she had done no more than ask herself what room he was taking her to, he had asked himself whether he was going to fall for her. Again, while she had wondered so faintly she hardly knew she had it in her mind or, in other words, had hardly expressed to herself what she was thinking, he was much further from putting his feelings into words, as it was not until he felt sure of anything that he knew what he was thinking of. When he thought, he was only conscious of uneasy feelings and he only knew that he had been what he did not even call thinking when his feelings hurt him. When he was sure then he felt it must at once be put to music, which was his way of saying words.

Being brutally reductive, one might say that the twentieth century excelled in two manners of representing character. There is the flattery of Joyce and Woolf, who give us a vision of individual minds constantly generating poetry, perpetually seeking to expand the spirit. How encouraging it is when we find we can identify with them! And there is the more traditional approach, perhaps of Graham Greene or Anthony Powell, that sees character primarily through its response to moral struggle in scenarios social, sentimental, and political. This too, like any call to duty, has its reassuring and flattering aspect, even when, as in the early and hilarious Waugh, it means pillorying people for not being what writer and reader know they should be. One could never say of such books that they do not “make sense.”

But Henry Green offers neither of these, nor one of the derivative combinations typical of the average novel today. Though all are perfectly believable, presented with a psychology that is ruthlessly and comically convincing, his characters are not immediately distinguishable and the reader may have a little difficulty at the beginning of Party Going sorting out Claire, Angela, Evelyn, and Julia, not to mention Robert, Robin, Alex, and Max, as if obliged, as I have been on various occasions, to watch a game of football in the fog. It’s hard to see who’s got the ball. But much of the pleasure of reading Green comes from just this struggle to distinguish among his characters—it seems we’re being teased—and the resulting recognition that any clarity in human relationships will be a fiction won from heavy clouds of incomprehension.

The description quoted above of Max and Julia as they head toward their first intimacy gives us a clue to Green’s vision. The words he uses for them, symmetrically repeating “wonder,” “take,” “thought,” “knew,” suggest that they are tangled together, mutually interacting—who takes whom where exactly?—just as their similar manner of speaking when their wonderful dialogue begins makes it very clear that they are the product of the same society, they share the same prejudices, the same memories almost. Yet the substance of the paragraph is their ignorance, not only of what is going on in the other’s head, but of their own intentions likewise. And the conversation when it gets going will be that of two people missing not only each other in the dark, but themselves too.

“All and always alone,” as Green believed we are, he does not allow his characters the consolation of Stephen Dedalus or Mrs. Dalloway that they are special individuals, or even “individuals” at all in the way we give status to that word. They don’t possess themselves. Often both action and speech come as the result of the merest compulsion. And if it is hard to “identify” with them, this is perhaps because Green more than any novelist of his time had appreciated that “identity” and “character” were convenient and somewhat overgenerous fictions. “‘What do we know about anyone?’ said [Julia],” and Green adds, “thinking of herself.”

But do these people have a moral duty at least? Is the book a satirical account of their inadequacy? Our party gathers in the station. The fog is impenetrable now. No trains are leaving and the press of homeward-bound commuters is becoming a suffocating and potentially dangerous throng. Well-connected, pockets well-lined, Max and company take refuge (for the whole of the novel) in the station hotel whence, when gossip and flirtation flag, they can gaze down on the crowd beneath. Then at a certain point, the hotel doors are locked and barred and the building sealed off from the outside world:

The management had shut the steel doors down because when once before another fog had come as thick as this hundreds and hundreds of the crowd, unable to get home by train or bus, had pushed into this hotel and quietly clamoured for rooms, beds, meals, and more and more had pressed quietly, peaceably in until, although they had been most well behaved, by weight of numbers they had smashed everything, furniture, lounges, reception offices, the two bars, doors. Fifty-two had been injured and compensated and one of them was a little Tommy Tucker, now in a school for cripples, only fourteen years of age, and to be supported all his life at the railway company’s expense by order of a High Court Judge.

“It’s terrifying,” Julia said, “I didn’t know there were so many people in the world.”

Class distinction, social privilege, couldn’t be more clearly established. Born into a family of wealthy industrialists (his real name was Henry Yorke), Green was curiously placed to understand both sides of the fence. Having taken a degree at Oxford he had worked a year as an apprentice on the shop floor of his father’s iron foundry and was said to be a Communist sympathizer. Certainly his earlier novel Living captured the rhythms and humor of the Midlands dialect as no other novel in English ever has. Yet despite his evident sympathy for the working man, Green never professed any anger, let alone hatred, of the class he came from and would later take over the direction of the family company, often speaking of business as something he passionately enjoyed. His position is more complicated than a mere partisan engagement.

So in Party Going, while it is clear that Green has no illusions about the injustice of the situation, there is never any suggestion that Max and company should or even could do anything about the situation. Nor do the crowd ever put them to some awful test. The words “peaceably” and “most well behaved” are telling here. The classes are as tangled together in an overall society, mutually engendering, mutually uncomprehending, as are Max and Julia, men and women in general. The conflict and moral dilemma that a hundred years of a certain kind of literature have led you to expect won’t occur. The rich young folks get on well with their servants, who appear to think kindly of them in return. No, if Julia and company try to ignore the crowd locked outside it is not because of any rejection of social duty, but because the sheer anonymous size of the throng in the foggy plaza makes them think of death. “Like a view from the gibbet,” says Alex, looking down on the scene. “Cattle waiting to be butchered,” says another. Here and there in the gloom suitcases lean this way and that like headstones in “an exaggerated grave yard.” Max steps back from lace curtains.

The perversity of Party Going, Kermode claimed in his Norton Lectures, was that while the core of the book is a series of dazzlingly complex dialogues, hilarious social maneuverings, and tawdry sex games among the rich in the hotel, these bear no relation at all to a possible political interpretation of the book, which is nevertheless flung in our faces in the presentation of rich and poor inside and outside the hotel, and even less with a possible “mythical” interpretation, equally shamelessly flaunted when the novel opens with the description of an elderly woman, aunt of one member of the party, finding a dead pigeon, washing it in the public lavatories, and wrapping it in brown paper.

Purification rituals? Funeral rites? The book teems with potentially symbolic figures and events: the mysterious man who despite locked doors seems able to pass in and out of the hotel, his accent changing from Birmingham to Cockney to Oxbridge every time he opens his mouth; the goddess-like Amabel whose bath, after she also inexplicably penetrates the hotel’s defenses, is followed with awe by the other members of the party, as if she were no less than the huntress Diana herself. Then there are Julia’s talismanic toys, an egg with elephants in it, a little wooden pistol, a spinning top, not to mention Robert’s memories of buried treasure in a thicket of bamboo. And yet, Kermode complains, while in Joyce or Eliot such potentially symbolic details would offer the key to an overall interpretation, this does not seem to be the case in Green.

All the same… If we stop fussing over explanations, interpretations, and if, while enjoying the thickly planted maze of Green’s dialogues, we keep our eyes on the references to death, the characters’ anxieties about death, all will become, if not clear, then at least fatally, fantastically familiar.

Where did the dead pigeon fall from? Out of the fog. Disoriented, it flew into a beam. Miss Fellowes, Claire’s aunt, picks it up, then, “everything unexplained,” falls ill herself, buys a whisky, she who never drinks whisky, collapses, is perhaps even dying. Thoughtful and embarrassed, Max arranges for her to have her own and separate room in the hotel. Two nannies “dressed in granite” sit outside it, like Fates ready to cut the mortal thread. At this point, the geometry of the novel is at once more complex and more recognizable. To defend what fragile identity they may have, the group has separated itself from encroaching anonymity, as any society might set up a palisade between itself and the wilderness. But before the gates could be shut the fog had slipped in from beyond the pale, in the form of the dead pigeon, the sick auntie. So the pigeon is hidden in a parcel and then the auntie is hidden in her separate room. But how to stop thinking about them: the dying soul within, the amorphous world without? Everybody is fascinated by the idea that Miss Fellowes may be dying and at the same time all hope against hope that her eventual deterioration won’t prove an even greater obstacle to their escape to the “paradise” of southern France than that “pall of fog” which has paralyzed them in this hotel where the problem is, alas, “there’s nothing to do.”

In this scenario, what is the marvelous fizz of shenanigans that makes up the bulk of the novel if not a heroic attempt to keep death at bay? It’s a situation where the abilities to flirt, to preen, and to start pernicious rumors are not qualities to be lightly dismissed. Other writers, Green seems to be telling us, have not given these achievements their due. The conversation must go on. We must not be obliged to think. For at every mis-understanding, every “strangling silence,” every hiccup in the conversation (and with how much these people can afford to drink the slip-ups will be many), it’s as if the fog had made a further advance into the hotel, creeping into booze-befuddled heads and threatening to have them crashing into a beam to drop down damp and lifeless. Fortunately the members of our party are well trained. The finishing schools have not been in vain. Here is Amabel listening to Alex relaying some hot gossip through a closed door while she has her bath:

When Alex came to an end she had not properly heard what he had been saying so she said something almost under her breath, or so low that he in his turn should not catch what she had said, but so that it would be enough to tell him she was listening.

Never, not even in Beckett’s Endgame, has there been a greater communal complicity in that vital game of keeping the ball rolling.

An atmosphere of mockery hangs over Party Going, seeps into its every nook and cranny. It is the fog. It is the gray matter of the artist’s mind. Both have a peculiarly corrosive quality that dissolves identity, disconnects things, above all, puts everything on the same level—people, objects, images, different parts of speech, political readings, symbolic readings—as if in some primeval soup, something far older (and if Green is dated, as some complain, the date goes back many thousands of years) than any empire or class distinction. The oddly compelling rhythms of the prose, with its elimination of weak stresses and frequent use of demonstratives, reproduce the dismembering effect at the auditory level. Everything is fragmented, displaced. For example, when at the beginning of the book the aging aunt picks up the dead pigeon, the action is described thus:

She bent down and took a wing then entered a tunnel in front of her, and this had DEPARTURES lit up over it, carrying her dead pigeon.

Departures indeed! It’s a state of decomposition that cannot help but remind us of our mortal precariousness. Yet at the same time it is also the warm and fertile sea from which all life once crept. No wonder we felt we were far from home! Everything interrupted, sense perceptions blocked, the ancient archetypes are free to rise up quite naturally like dreams in a Jungian sleep. So Alex, driven through dense fog in a taxi, is transported far away from central London:

Streets he went through were wet as though that fog twenty foot up had deposited water, and reflections which lights slapped over the roadways suggested to him he might be a Zulu, in the Zulu’s hell of ice, seated in his taxi in the part of Umslopogaas with his axe, skin beating over the hole in his temple….

All Green’s work is inspired by his perception of a complicity between composition and decomposition, between the creative and corrosive powers of the mind, or again by the way a disability, a misunderstanding, can unleash powerful and vital forces, or a dying auntie can have the most astonishing hallucinations. He left us but one precious hint of the method this perception led him to. It comes in almost the only interview this very private man ever gave and is disguised in a sly remark that has been more often quoted than understood:

Interviewer: I’ve heard it remarked that your work is “too sophisticated” for American readers, in that it offers no scenes of violence—and “too subtle,” in that its message is somewhat veiled. What do you say?

Green: Unlike the wilds of Texas, there is very little violence over here. A bit of child-killing of course, but no straight shootin’….

Interviewer: And how about “subtle”?

Green: I don’t follow. Suttee, as I understand it, is the suicide—now forbidden—of a Hindu wife on her husband’s flaming bier. I don’t want my wife to do that when my time comes—and with great respect, as I know her, she won’t….

Interviewer: I’m sorry, you misheard me; I said “subtle”—that the message was too subtle.

Green: Oh, subtle. How dull!

Subtle it was! Deaf in one ear though he may have been, Green could not have imagined that his interviewer, Terry Southern, was talking about “suttee.” Indeed, Southern’s notes suggest that parts of the interview were as much written as spoken. In any event, Green uses the exchange to show, with typical playfulness, how from a misunderstanding, a moment of mental limbo, an ancient religion with its terrible ritual may suddenly flare up again, and immediately we are thinking of our own death and simultaneously trying to forget it with the wonderfully wry remark about the wife. After which we can safely return to the duller world of literary discussion.

It will be pointless, then, to ask what this or that image in Party Going means, or how this or that conversation might be interpreted. Quite simply, these are the things that people say to each other, and these are the images the mind has ever produced. You can’t help recognizing them. So it is that Green, unlike Waugh or Wodehouse or Wilde, can allow even the most witless characters moments of extraordinary and completely convincing beauty. Here, to close, are the incorrigibly faithless Max and Amabel nodding off to sleep together after what may or may not have been a reconciliation. As always with Green, beauty has to do with birds, with dissolution, and with death:

Lying in his arms, her long eyelashes down along her cheeks, her hair tumbled and waved, her hands drifted to rest like white doves drowned on peat water, he marvelled again he should ever dream of leaving her who seemed to him then his reason for living as he made himself breathe with her breathing as he always did when she was in his arms to try and be more with her.

It was so luxurious he nodded, perhaps it was also what she had put on her hair, very likely it may have been her sleep reaching out over him, but anyway he felt so right he slipped into it too and dropped off on those outspread wings into her sleep with his, like two soft evenings meeting.

  1. 1

    Party Going by Henry Green, first published in 1939, has been reissued by Vintage UK this autumn, with this essay in different form as the introduction. 

  2. 2

    Since writing this piece, someone has surprised me with another possible reading that I most certainly wasn’t expecting to come upon: if we imagine the temporal clause ending after “she would find,” the sentence can be given the following meaning: As the path she was following turned this way and that…she felt (feared) she would next come upon this fog dropped down (that is, she would run into fog on the ground rather than hanging in the treetops as it has been), when she would be lost. In this case we have Julia fearing a disorientation greater than that she is already suffering. The reader is warned! 

  3. 3

    The Genesis of Secrecy: On the Interpretation of Narrative (Harvard University Press, 1979).