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.

Aussie Author Challenge 2012 – Bolaño Group Read – Henry Green Week

I discovered the  Aussie Author Challenge 2012 hosted by  Booklover Book Reviews on Tony’s Reading List. I’m not sure how many Australian authors I’ve read in my life so far, but I’m pretty sure not all that many. While browsing my piles I discovered five novels. One of them also qualifies for the War Through the Generations Challenge. Lisa from ANZ Litlovers has kindly given input and my choices seem worthy. Should you want to join the challenge, her blog offers lists where you will find a lot of reading suggestions. I have signed up for the  “beginner” level or, as the challenge terms it, “tourist”.

These are the books I’d like to read

David Malouf’s Fly Away Peter

Tim Winton’s Dirt Music


Murray Bail’s Eucalyptus

Charlotte Wood’s Submerged Cathedral (OOP?)

Helen Garner’s Monkey Grip

January is a busy month but some of the events were too good. I had to join.

I signed up for the Bolaño The Savage Detectives group read hosted by Richard and Rise last year and now is the time to start reading as the novel is on the chunky side. If you’d like to read along you better get a copy soon or you will not make it through the 770 pages in time. I have a feeling I won’t but if I mange to read 2/3 I’m already pleased with myself.

The week of January 23 sees another event coming that  I absolutely had to join. Stu from Winstonsdad’s Blog is hosting a Henry Green week. Henry Green was once thought to be one of the greatest stylists of British literature but is now almost forgotten. I have never read Henry Green and think Stu’s idea is really wonderful. Penguin has issued a tome containing three of his famous novels Loving, Living and Party Going. I’m going to read Loving.

Do you have any Aussie author suggestions?

Will you join the Bolaño group  read or Henry Green Week?