Party Going with Henry: Part One

Henry Green-Cecil Beaton

Henry Green remains the most elusive and neglected of modernist writers, even though he was among the top rank of prose stylists in English in the 20th century. However when you are not just a writer’s writer, but a writer’s-writer’s writer, as his friend the Beat novelist and screen-writer Terry Southern noted in his interview of Green for The Paris Review, then maybe a degree of obscurity and anonymity is to be expected.

Henry Green was the pseudonym of Henry Yorke, an aristocrat and industrialist, for most of his life he was managing director of the family firm of Pontifex. After a childhood spent in large and imposing country houses he attended Eton (at the same time as fellow novelists and friends Evelyn Waugh and Anthony Powell) and Oxford, though he dropped out of Oxford to work in the company’s Birmingham factory. By the time of his departure from Oxford he was already a published novelist, his astoundingly assured debut Blindness coming out when he was only 19. His time on the factory floor was the inspiration for his second novel Living, which is thoroughly modernist with its cinematic dissolves and dropped articles and displays a Chekhovian sympathy and understanding of his mainly working class characters. His friend Christopher Isherwood called it, “the best Proletarian novel ever written,” however as Green drily noted, Isherwood had never worked in a factory.

The thirties saw a hiatus in his literary career, after a glittering society wedding he was too busy being a Bright Young Thing and socializing with the Aga Khan in the South of France, (though he complained about travel being an inconvenience, as it interfered with his masturbation), and the Guinnesses (which included Diana nee Mitford and soon to be Mosley) at fancy dress balls, and there was a ten-year gap before his third novel Party Going, which is perhaps my favourite of all is works (though it is a hard choice), was published in September 1939, just before the onset of WWII.

In 1937 a somewhat depressed Green had written, “what pleasure or interest I ever took in anything, or what potential there was to take pleasure or interest, malicious or otherwise, is leaving me so that I have started writing again to try to make a world of my own.”  The world he constructed in Party Going is one only Green could have created. On the surface Party Going is concerned with the anxieties and amorous manoeuvres of a group of privileged and incredibly vapid young people waiting for a train  to take them to the Continent. The station is fog-bound and no trains are either arriving or leaving, so to while away the time they sequester themselves in the station’s hotel. Alliances form and dissolve, the characters get entangled in a muddle and confusion of their own-making. And that is basically it, yet it is hard not to conclude that there is a lot more going on underneath this deceptive surface. It has been remarked that the fog represents “a paradigm of life, life surrounded by a fog of death and threatened Departures,”.  Maybe because of the long gestation of Party Going, the tone and style itself shifts, at the beginning the dropped articles recall his previous novel Living, however the novel becomes more expansive around a third of the way in, this change further disorients the reader, adding an extra dimension of uncertainty and unease. The novel, which had seemed to be merely a comedy of manners takes on a Kafkaesque turn while also anticipating Beckett.

The war was to prove to be a fruitful period for Henry Green, which will be the subject of Part Two. To end this post here is a short example from Party Going of Green’s effortlessly stylish prose:

“So now at last all of this party is in one place, and, even if they have not yet all of them come across each other, their baggage is collected in the Registration Hall. Where, earlier, hundreds had made their way to this station thousands were coming in now, it was the end of a day for them, the beginning of a time for our party.”

45 thoughts on “Party Going with Henry: Part One

  1. Mr. Cake, wonderful post on Mr. Green. I find, as a person he is absolutely fascinating, and I think his truest self (sadly) is revealed in his later years. Completely love this part of the quote, “I have started writing again to try to make a world of my own.” Looking forward to Part Two. ~ Miss Cranes

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    1. Thank you Miss Cranes. I was just going to do one post but I wanted to discuss his brilliant novels in detail so it will be a three parter, part two dealing with the war years or work that dealt with the war and the final part the post war novels and life. I would agree about the latter part of his life, I will have more to say regarding that in Part Three. As for the quote, has there ever been a more naked or truthful remark about the art of writing?

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      1. You’re welcome Mr. Cake, thrilled to read that you will be doing a “three parter”. The quote is heartbreaking, the truth often is. To answer your question, no. Those that are familiar with fragile subtleties of life will indeed understand the depth of his words.

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      2. I’m pleased that you understood my words and intent. Circling back, perhaps like Green’s quote and naked truth, that some are unable to see, is by far more beautiful than a painted facade. Getting to the naked truth can be the most challenging thing a person can do, oh, and to remain sane in the process is the second most challenging…

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  2. First of all, I couldn’t help but notice the similarity between this photo and your avatar photo. Nicely done. (if it was on purpose, which I know it must be) Now I understand why you want to give a Cake/Green treatment to Small Cuts. Its the perfect extension. I have to think about which Green to read first. I already possess Loving…

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    1. Loving is an excellent place to start, part two will be called Loving with Henry and will feature that book heavily. It is his most popular book (the term is very relative). It would be a close second for me to Party Going, though he didn’t write a bad one and I hold 7 of them in high esteem. As for the photo and avatar, I couldn’t possibly comment.

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      1. Yes. I’m going to read it next, instead of Storm of Steel. I do so need more time in a day for reading. My pile grows ever taller. By the bye I share a strong resemblance with Patty Hearst, especially when we were young women. And radicals…

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  3. Love the “world of my own” quote. Totally relatable. For some reason, now that you said you resemble Henry Green, I really want to know what you look like. For some reason, I believe that the back of your head really does look like his. (Yes. I’ve gotten into the wine already.)

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  4. The quote about the fog rings true. As it did with the world on the brink of a war so again with it on the brink of another one or perhaps a different sort of disaster. I have to get reading Greene again. It has been a while.

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      1. So many books, so little time. I enjoyed Loving very much. Except for the abrupt ending! When I finish the current book I’m reading, I’ll start Party Going. Then we must discuss.

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