Henry Green: Party Going (1939)

Take a handful of idle bored rich people, put them in a confined space and see what happens. A minor writer may turn this tested recipe into a dull and boring exercise, a major writer will produce an amazing piece of writing which isn’t only brilliantly well written but a psychologically accurate comedy of manners.

Heavy fog has trapped the members of a party about to board a train for France in a London railway station. They were to leave for a couple of weeks. Max, their host, organizes these parties regularly and who is invited and who is not is of great importance.  Surely they cannot stay outside on the train platforms in the middle of those brutal and vulgar masses who will end up drinking and singing, now, can they? So they leave their porters and their luggage outside and move into the railway station hotel where Max has reserved some rooms for them.

This stay at the hotel may have been comfortable enough, boring, yes, but sipping tea, taking baths and slagging off others behind their back is amusing for a while. Unfortunately Claire’s aunt has committed the indecency of falling ill and becoming quite the nuisance for all of them. It’s particularly horrible for Claire as everybody knows she will board that train, no matter what, but, before she can do so, she must convince the partygoers that she isn’t heartless, no, on the very contrary, it’s her aunt’s fault entirely. Nobody should dare falling ill and spoil other people’s fun. Here’s Claire talking to Evelyn about her aunt.

(…) absolutely everyone else is dead and mother’s abroad as you know. It’s rather touching that’s why she came to see us off really it’s her only link. No, but it’s not touching actually because she goes and gets ill. Oh, Evelyn, it’s so unfair, isn’t it?

I’m sure you have realized by now that these characters are far from kind or pleasant. They are a bunch of egotistic, selfish and spoilt people who take everything that gets between them and their pleasure as a personal affront. Be it the fog, the sick aunt or anything else.

What made Party Going such an incredible read is the way it is told. Point of views change constantly, people move from one person to the other and always pretend to be different from how they really are. What we see is exactly what we would see if we were present at that very moment with only a little background information on the motives and true feelings but no other background information whatsoever. Still I felt, I got to know these people better than some of those whose whole biography I have been informed of in other novels. While reading Party Going we feel like unseen guests eavesdropping on other guests who are all nasty and mean behind each other’s backs and constantly pretend to think or feel different from what they let perceive. Sometimes the deception is minor but on many occasions the discrepancy between the true feelings and what is shown is considerable.

When Alex came to an end and 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.

There are shocking moments in the novel. Especially when these people talk about the masses, the poor. They, of course, are a nuisance too. Their maids and porters are not perceived as human beings, they are just commodities.

“Would you like me to come down with you to see if we can do anything about your things?”

This seemed to Julia the sweetest thing she had ever heard, to offer to brave those frantic drinking hordes of awful people all because someone was upset about their charms (…)

There really isn’t a likable character in this book, apart from the enigmatic handsome Max whose two girlfriends both appear, although he thought he got rid of one of them. Max is very rich, generous and quite elusive. Kind to everyone but hard to keep in one place. He likes his drink too much and this is part of his charm, as we are told, because all the girls think they will be able to save him.

It’s like watching a movie, the dialogue, and the commentary that accompanies it, is fantastic. I know some people will think this too experimental but I thought this was maybe one of the most accomplished pieces of modernist writing I’ve read in a long time. It works like a clock. All the pieces fit into each other, all the little cogwheels gear into each other and move at a steady pace. More surprisingly, Green not only has an ear for dialogue and is a brilliant observer, he also writes quite beautiful passages.

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.

The novel is available in a collection with two other novels Loving, Living, Party Going. I’m grateful to obooki for pointing out Party Going because I had planned to read Loving instead. Party Going is brilliant.

The review is part of Henry Green week hosted by Stu on Winstonsdad’s Blog. If you are interested, here is his introductory post. I know that quite a few people take part in Henry Green week and I’m curious to see what they read and how they liked it.

47 thoughts on “Henry Green: Party Going (1939)

  1. Good post about a good book whose characters I disliked, you seemed to have found a great deal more sympathy for them than I managed. Aim to post on this on Friday.

  2. Wonderful review, Caroline! It is interesting that most of the characters in the book are not likeable but Green’s prose is brilliant. I first discovered Henry Green through an article I read and it looked like he was one of the forgotten masters. It is so nice that Henry Green week is now on. I love the cover picture of the edition you read with the beautiful peacock. I loved that last passage you have quoted – it is so beautiful!

    • Thanks, Vishy. Yes, they are not likable at all but fascinating. I really see why he was called a master. The wrting is condensed, not easy. I think it says at the end of the book that he wrote from 1931-1938.
      I ordered my book on amazon Germany and they seel this edition. It’s not the same on amazo co uk.
      It was an excellent idea, Henry Green week. I hope yuo will review it as well.

  3. I haven’t heard of this one. It is funny that the book is enjoyable even though the characters are anything but. I’m curious as to how the author pulled this off.

  4. I recall picking up a Green novel many years ago and not finishing it for some reason (almost undoubtedly my own laziness), but I’ll definitely have to revisit him thanks to your review. You certainly seem to be reading a lot of “hotel” novels recently – are you overdue for a vacation?

    • Funny you should say that. I’m absolutely overdue… I think however I really love the setting.
      I wonder which one it was you gave up. I can’t imagine it was because the characters were nasty.
      I’m grateful Stu is hosting this, I might never have read him but he’s so remarkable.

  5. Wow that sounds like a really interesting read and I was never even aware of Henry Green! Thanks for sharing and great review, btw 😀

    • Thanks, moshimoshineko. He is quite a discovery and I’m grateful to Stu for having suggested to read him. Let me know what you think of him, should you read this or another one.

  6. This sounds an interesting book – I’ve read one novel by Henry Green, Loving (set in a country house), which I enjoyed – I remember it had a dream-like feeling to it. Now I’d like to read more and am interested to see if I’d like these characters or not!

    • I found it extremely captivating and want to read another one of his novels soon. After what you just wrote I’m loking forwrad to Loving. I doubt that you would like the characters, they are too selfish and self-centered, but I could imagine you would like the book.

  7. Thank you for this. I’ve long been interested in Henry Green and was looking forward to Stu’s week. Reading this I know I’ll have to read Green. It sounds quite simply superb. A genuine accomplishment.

    • I’m glad you payed attention to that word. It was placed there very deliberately because, while reading him, I thought “Ah so that’s what Josipovici tried and didn’t achieve” and am planning to refer back to this post should I ever review him…
      This isn’t transportation reading that’s for sure. I liked it because the narrative is so broken up but I don’t see why you would like it anyway (despite the modernist approach). The psychological insight is great. I have a feeling many writer try to write like this and many attempts are failed. This one isn’t.
      You could try Loving. It’s seems the most accessible.

  8. Ah yet another author on my ‘really must read’ list. He doesn’t always appeal to me and I’m not sure why. Perhaps it’s the catalogue of ghastly people. You’re right that it can be entertaining and revelatory to be around them for a while, but sometimes that sort of story pales. Still, I really DO want to try him at some point.

    • Maybe the story pales after a while but not the way he writes it, it’s very fascinating from a purely technical point of view and really works. Hard to describe, you’d have to give him a try. I’m not sure the characters are nasty in all of his books, I suppose not. The good thing is that his novels are short, I wouldn’t have wanted to read a 300 or more pages book like this. It’s too condensed.

  9. judging from your description on the characters, I think I am going to pass this. The caracters are too obnoxious (I might misspell this).

    A well thorough review Caroline, I can learn about the characters from your review

    • This isn’t a novel I would recommend to you. I think you would hate the characters. Sometimes that’s what a review is for…To give you a good idea of a book without reading it. I saved you time. 🙂

  10. I think as I said in myreview today flawed character is what green does well ,these aren’t nice people there spoilt and selfish maybe the premiership footballers of there day in some ways ,all the best stu

  11. Good, I’m glad you liked it. I don’t remember all the characters being so horrible, but it was a long time ago I read it. – Nothing, which I read quite recently, has a lot of similar-sounding aristocratic types in it, but thankfully they get their comeuppance when their entire world of privilege and partying at the expense of others is removed by the changing social climate and they are forced to go out and get jobs.

    • Yes, I did , thanks. I seldom read many books by one author in one year and so it was lucky you pointed me towards this one. Who knows how long it would have take until I would have read it. I’m very tempted by “Nothing”. I would like to see what he does with these people in other circumstances.

  12. Pingback: more henry Green Posts « Winstonsdad's Blog

  13. Caroline, you have sold me on this book. Green is a writer I’ve been good at buying over the years but not good at reading. Henry Green Week was a motivator to start clearing the shelves. So thanks to Stu. Next up for me will be Loving, only because I already have it. I liked the dark humor of Back, although the book ended on a depressing note.

    • Party Going isn’t depressing, it’s rather amusing because we see behind the masks of people. What a bunch of hypocrites. And the writing is sublime. I’m going to read Loving next as well. I’m loking forwrad to rea your thoughts.

    • You are welcome and I hope you will like it. His style is amazing. The dialogue is spot on, the psychology works and the descriptions reminded me of old black and white movies. I wonder why he was almost forgotten. Many of his books are out of print.

  14. Great review-I read Loving, Living and Party going about a year ago and just completed and posted on Back-a brilliant story about a repatriated British soldier in WWII-I love the prose style of Green-I wish I could explain why but I cannot

    • Thanks, mel. I know what you mean. His style has something quite mysterious, hard to put the finger on what is so wonderful but I agree, it is. I will have to read the others in the collection and look for some more.

  15. Pingback: Thanks all Henry Green week wrap up post « Winstonsdad's Blog

  16. I have this book with the three novels in it and must read it soon. It’s one of those ‘meaning to read’ books I look at and then pass up for another for some reason. I have heard he’s very good, and your post has sold me that I will like it-I love comedy of manners types of stories! So glad you liked this one.

  17. The discussion of the unlikeability of the characters reminds me rather of Huxley’s work. Huxley is short on likeable characters (I’ve read three of his, Crome Yellow, Antic Hay and of course Brave New World but it’s those first two I’m talking about here). He’s still absolutely worth reading, but not as a comfort read.

    As ever it’s the quality of execution. Who’s sympathetic in Madame Bovary?

    • I don’t really care so much whether a character is likable or not. I want them to be believable. I have seen discussions on blogs where it was pointed out that the negative characters were at least punished. That’s the world of genre writing where the good people are often rewarded while the bad are punished. This makes me think that many readers read novels solely as a sort of antidote to real life.
      I have only read Brave New World and can’t remember the characters. Interesting that he also chose rather unlikable people. I feel the rest of Huxley’s novels are overshadowed by Brave New World, I never even thought of reading anything else. It seems I should.

      • I don’t think likeability of characters has anything to do with a book’s quality at all, which is why I mentioned Madame Bovary.

        Your points on genre novels and punishment are well made. If one reads to escape then sure, the heroes should win and the bad guys should be recognisable as such and punished for it. That’s not really literature though.

        Huxley’s other work is well worth investigating.

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