The poet, trail-blazing feminist and legendary gadfly of the avant-garde, Mina Loy, first collection of poetry was published in 1923 as Lunar Baedecker: the very title, a reference to the immensely popular Baedeker travel guides, was misspelled. Although admired by T.S Eliot, Ezra Pound and Gertrude Stein, among others, Loy disappeared somewhat from view until being posthumously resurrected in the 1990’s as a unjustly neglected pioneer of both Modernism and Feminism, when a number of critical editions and previously unpublished works, including her novel Insel, detailing her relationship with the Surrealist Richard Oelze, saw the light of day.
Below is the title poem of the collection (spelled correctly), which employs a jewelled, archaic and Symbolist vocabulary to successfully skewer the sterile affectations of the aesthetes and dandies of the art and literary worlds that she knew so well.
A silver Lucifer
cocaine in cornucopia
To some somnambulists
of adolescent thighs
in satirical draperies
Peris in livery
for posthumous parvenues
with the chandelier souls
from Pharoah’s tombstones
to mercurial doomsdays
in furrowed phosphorous—
the eye-white sky-light
of lunar lusts
“Wing shows on Starway”
of ecstatic dust
and ashes whirl
from hallucinatory citadels
of shattered glass
into evacuate craters
A flock of dreams
browse on Necropolis
From the shores
of oval oceans
in the oxidized Orient
of Eros obsolete
in the museums of the moon
Pocked with personification
the fossil virgin of the skies
waxes and wanes—-
Madame Sosostris, famous clairvoyante,
Had a bad cold, nevertheless
Is known to be the wisest woman in Europe,
With a wicked pack of cards. Here, said she,
Is your card, the drowned Phoenician Sailor,
(Those are pearls that were his eyes.Look!)
Here is Belladonna, the Lady of the Rocks.
The lady of situations.
Here is the man with three staves, and here the Wheel,
And here is the one-eyed merchant, and this card,
Which is blank, is something he carries on his back,
Which I am forbidden to see. I do not find
The Hanged Man. Fear death by water.
I see crowds of people, walking round in a ring,
Thank you. If you see dear Mrs Equitone,
Tell her I bring the horoscope myself:
One must be so careful these days.
T.S Eliot The Waste Land 1922
It is no surprise really that the Tarot are mentioned at length in the masterpiece of Modernism, T.S Eliot’s The Waste Land from 1922. The notes alone are a treasure trove of esoteric references, making mention of the Cumaean Sibyl, The Golden Bough of James Frazer, the study of Arthurian legend From Ritual to Romance by Jessie L. Weston, Buddha’s Fire Sermon, Gérard de Nerval’s densely hermetic sonnet El Desdichadoand the Upanishads.
Interest in all matters esoteric and occult had become a feature of the avant-garde ever since the later Romantics, especially Charles Baudelaire and the above-mentioned Gérard de Nerval. Later in the 19th Century there would be Arthur Rimbaud with his theory of ‘the alchemy of the word’, the Swedish playwright August Strindberg’s stint in Paris as a practising alchemist, known as the Inferno Period, and various writers and painters connected to the Symbolist and Decadent movements, most notably J.K Huysmans and my personal favourite Comte de Villiers de l’Isle-Adam (see To the Dreamers, To the Deriders).
As the century progressed the Tarot became increasingly esoteric itself. This was quite a recent development, previously the Tarot had been a card game popular in Italy, France and Switzerland, though it also undisputedly used in cartomancy as well. However it was a theologian and Freemason, the Count Gébelin who first advanced the theory in 1781 that the Tarot was a repository of lost ancient knowledge, a theme developed at length by that strange figure known as Etteilla, who added that it was initially conceived by Hermes Tristemegistus himself and was actually ‘The Book of Thoth’. When the man responsible for the French Occult Revival, Eliphas Levi incorporated the Tarot into his magical system and tied the 22 cards of the Major Arcana with the 22 characters of the Hebrew alphabet, the occultation of the Tarot was complete and it became an essential tool for any would-be magician. A quick comparison between any of the older versions of the Tarot with the most famous deck, the Rider-Waite-Smith of 1910 makes this clear, the Rider-Waite-Smith is self-consciously more “mystical”, with an over-abundance of symbolism.
In certain respects the Tarot was tailored-made for Modernism and Post-Modernism, with its emphasis on chance, interpenetration and the shifting, elusive nature of meaning. I have written previously on the Surrealist take on the standard deck of playing cards, Le Jeu Du Marseille-A Surrealist Pack of Cards, and both Salvador Dali and Ithell Colquhuon produced Tarot decks. The Italian post-modernist fabulist Italo Calvino wrote The Castle of Crossed Destinies where the entire plot is told through the Tarot. The Chilean-French film-maker Alejandro Jodorowsky has written eloquently on the Tarot de Marseille and weaves the arcana throughout the acid western El Topo (The Mole) and The Holy Mountain.
In Douglas Cammell’s and Nicholas Roeg’s midnight classic movie Performance, the on-the-run gangster Chas Devlin (James Fox) turns up at the Notting Hill home of the reclusive rock star Turner (Mick Jagger) claiming, somewhat inexplicably, to be a juggler. The first numbered card of the Major Arcana is sometimes called The Juggler, though it nowadays most commonly referred to as The Magician. This hermetic figure points both downward (to the underworld) and upwards (to the stars), a perfect illustration of as above, so below, and prefigures the merging identities towards the end of the movie. Turner seems to realise the import of Devlin’s claim to be a juggler as he immediately comments, ‘You’re a performer of natural magic’.
A quick word on the selection of images; there are thousands of variants on the Tarot available so I have limited myself mainly to the classics. My own preference is for the Tarot De Marseille and the Swiss 1JJ, however the most recognisable is the Rider-Waite-Smith. I have included selections from Dali and Colquhuon as well as the deck designed by Lady Freida Harris for Aleister Crowley. For a contemporary rendition Ulla Von Brandenburg’s excellent deck shows that Tarot continue to fascinate and inspire.
The first truly Modernist painting (though change had been in the air for some time), the radical break constituted by Pablo Picasso 1907’s study of a Barcelona brothel, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, led to Cubism and sharply divided critics.
Never before or after did Picasso spend so long on one painting as Les Demoiselles, drawing hundreds of preparatory sketches over a period of nine months. The innovation doesn’t lie with the content; the courtesan had long been a covert subject of Western Art before being explicitly identified as a prostitute by Edouard Manet’s Olympia, to becoming somewhat of a Bohemian cliche by the time of Toulouse-Lautrec in the 1890’s. Picasso’s claim to blazing, revolutionary originality lie in the form. First of all he throws five hundred years of accepted practise out of the window by abolishing perspective, then instead of the traditional curves we have the harsh angular, geometric poses of the women. Picasso signifies his reaching back in time and across continents with the Iberian mask (the figure on the far left) and the African masks (the two figures on the right) which lend a further disconcerting effect to an already confrontational, provocative painting. The bowl of fruit surrounded by the women seems ripe for Freudian interpretation, just one of many that the painting has been subjected to, including formal, feminist and esoteric.
Although at first Picasso only showed the painting to friends and fellow artists in his (quite extensive) immediate circle, it had a galvanising effect. George Braque further developed Cubism as a response to Les Demoiselles and it intensified the rivalry between Picasso and Matisse, who realised that the Spaniard had wrestled the crown of Modern Art from him with this incendiary work, never again to be relinquished. Andre Breton, who for all his flaws had a very keen eye for art (see my series The Surreal World for further information on his collection, Rapa Nui, Papua New Guinea, Haiti and Mexico) recognised in Les Demoiselles d’Avignon the definitive Modernist masterpiece, a harbinger of the violent, revolutionary menace of the unconscious and he arranged for its first publication in Europe in La Révolution surréaliste.
Although I have concentrated on official Surrealism under the leadership of Andre Breton there was another Surrealism: a darker, underground current comprised of renegade and rebel Surrealists that contributed to the magazine Documents under the aegis of the troubling, sinister Georges Bataille.
A librarian and numismatist (a specialist in the study of coins and medals) Bataille in 1928 had written the nightmarish L’histoire de l’oeil (The Story of the Eye), a gruesome work of Surrealist pornography, under the pseudonym Lord Auch (a pun that translates literally as Lord to the Shithouse). In 1929 Bataille launched Documents, a heterodox journal that featured articles on archaeology, ethnography, art, film and popular culture featuring works by dissident Surrealists including Joan Miro, Andre Masson, Michel Leiris and Jacques-Andre Boiffard.
Andre Breton, fearing an intellectual rival from within, issued with his customarily vim and gusto the Second Surrealist Manifesto which purged and excommunicated any Surrealist who showed signs of heresy from official orthodoxy from the movements ranks. In retaliation Bataille issued the provocative pamphlet Un Cadavre (A Corpse) with a photo-montage of Breton wearing a crown of thorns with essays by Robert Desnos, Raymond Queneau, Jacques Prevert and Alejo Carpentier among others.
Documents ran for 15 issues between 1929 and 1930. With its idiosyncratic look and melding of high and lows registrars it can be viewed as a very early example of a style magazine. The photography by Jacques-Andre Boiffard and Eli Lotar of mouths, masks, slaughterhouses and big toes, combined with the entries written by Bataille under the title Critical Dictionary retain a disturbing, provocative power.
Bataille and Breton would later be reconciled, however their later exploits will be the subject of a further post in this series on the darker aspects of Surrealism.
I have included a short entry on Man from the Critical Dictionary, which gives a taste of Bataille thought-provoking theory of ‘base materialism’. Also included are photographs from the slaughterhouse and big toe articles.
MAN. — 1. “An eminent English chemist, Dr Charles Henry Maye, set out to establish in a precise manner what man is made of and what is its chemical value. This is the result of his learned researches:
“The bodily fat of a normally constituted man would suffice to manufacture seven cakes of toilet-soap. Enough iron is found in the organism to make a medium-sized nail, and sugar to sweeten a cup of coffee. the phosphorus would provide 2,200 matches. The magnesium would furnish the light needed to take a photograph. In addition, a little potassium and sulphur, but in an unusable quantity.
“These different raw materials, costed at current prices, represent an approximate sum of 25 francs.” (Journal des Debats, 13 August 1929).
In 1937 the reigning National Socialist party held an exhibition of Degenerate Art (Die Ausstellung “Entartete Kunst) in the Institute of Archaeology in the Hofgarten Munich, featuring Modernist, Expressionist, Dada and New Objectivity work by Grosz, Nolde, Klee, Ernst, Schwitters and others considered decadent by the regime. It was a huge success attracting over a million visitors in its first six weeks before going on tour nationally. Considerably less successful was the concurrent exhibition of Great German Art (Große Deutsche Kunstausstellung) of approved Nazi art that was meant to serve as a contrast and counterpoint to the Degenerate Art. Even Hitler and Goebbels, failed artist and novelist respectively, thought the works on display at the Great German Art Exhibition were weak, however puerility has never got in the way of good propaganda and it allowed Hitler to rail against cultural disintegration and declare war on the ‘chatterboxes, dilettantes and art swindlers‘ of Modernism.
It was a war that the Nazi’s were bound to lose. The art produced by the various Modernists school in Germany during the period of the Weimar Republic is rightly venerated while the work of the official artists with their banal landscapes and monumental sculptures of a blandly idealised male form never rises above the level of monstrous kitsch (with the exception in the field of architecture; Albrecht Speer definitely possessed talent, but then architecture is in a certain sense fascistic, as a walk around Rome shows).
In a good illustration of Orson Welles quote in The Third Man about the chaotic warring Italian city states that produced Michelango, Da Vinci and the Renaissance, in contrast to Switzerland with its 500 year history of peace and brotherly love that has only given the world the cuckoo clock, the art of the Weimar Republic possesses its strength because of the decadence of the period, not in spite of. The calamitous defeat of Germany in WWI and the heavy reparations demanded by France and Britain, plus the use of right wing Freikorps by the Socialist government to suppress the Spartacist uprising ( see “Everyman His Own Football”) meant that Weimar Republic was unloved by both right and left. Added to the political turmoil was mass unemployment and the staggering hyper-inflation that led to frenzied consumption in the cafes, cabarets, bars and cinemas as the money in your pocket was being reduced in value by the minute. Factor in the war wounded beggars and prostitutes of both sexes lining the streets that must have resulted in the fevered, nightmarish atmosphere of a society in the midst of collapse, yet paradoxically yielding a exhilarating sense of dangerous freedom, especially sexually. Berlin attracted thrill seekers from outside of Germany who could visit one of the city’s 500 erotic venues, some of which catered exclusively to homosexuals, lesbians, transvestites and aficionados of BDSM (including the young Francis Bacon).
The main currents of art in the Weimar Republic were Expressionism, Dada and the New Objectivity. Expressionism would have a major, lasting influence on graphic design and film. Many of the artists and intellectuals who fled Nazi Germany ended up working in Hollywood where they would have an immeasurable impact upon the development of the horror and film noir genres
Below are just a few examples of the art of Weimar Republic, concentrating on the bold, innovative woodcuts of the outstanding Kathe Kollwitz; the chilling New Objectivity portraits of Otto Dix and the unsurpassed satirical savagery of George Grosz’s Ecco Homo series, as well as stills from two highly influential German Expressionist movies, Fritz Lang’s Metropolis and Robert Weine The Cabinet of Dr Caligari.
Berlin was the most decadent city of the 20th Century, as it had two periods of decadence, the Weimar Republic of the 1920’s and 30’s and then the late 70’s in West Berlin, however that is a whole other story.
They are plenty of factors that contributed to Mexico being conducive to the Surrealists. Politically there was the Mexican Revolution of 1910-1920 (Pancho Villa would be honoured as the Magus of Wheels in the Le Jeu De Marseille, the deck of cards designed by the Surrealists) and the Mexican President’s support of the Republican government of Spain during the Spanish Civil War. There was the richness of Pre-Columbian Mesoamerican art, mythology and culture. As a group familiar with the ideas of Hegel and Marx the Surrealists would have be aware of the theory that Cortes entry into and conquest of the Aztec city of Tenochtitlan represented the true starting point of global capitalism that ushered in centuries of exploitative colonialism, slavery and imperialism. Combine the Mexican cult of death, exemplified by the Day of the Dead celebrations and its variegated landscape of mountains, desert and jungle to this already heady mix and you end up with a country more Surrealistic than the Surrealists.
The purpose of Breton’s visit in 1938 was to met with Leon Trotsky who was staying at La Casa Azul (The Blue House), the home of Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo. Breton declared Kahlo a surrealist and promoted her work, however the respect certainly wasn’t mutual, Kahlo detested Breton and held the Surrealists in contempt. As it appears that Kahlo was having an affair with Breton’s wife Jacqueline Lamba (see Dreams of Desire 16 (Jacqueline and Frida), as well as with Leon Trotsky, maybe the byzantine personal relationships within La Casa Azul influenced her judgement of Breton.
With the defeat of the Republicans in Spain by Franco’s Nationalists and the invasion of France by Nazi Germany, Mexico welcomed a number of artists, including the director Luis Bunuel, the writer and artist Leonora Carrington, her friend the Spanish artist Remedios Varo (again Kahlo wasn’t a fan of either Carrington or Varo, she called them those European bitches), the abstract Surrealist Wolfgang Paalen, Alice Rahon, Bridget Bate Tichenor and the poet Benjamin Peret among others.
It was in Xilitla, Mexico that the eccentric English millionaire and patron of many a Surrealist, Edward James built his extravagant folly house Las Pozas amid the riotously lush fauna and flora of the jungle.
Mexico is certainly well represented in modernist literature. Mexico became the home of the mystery man of modern letters, the German (?) anarchist B. Traven, whose true identity still remains to be resolved. Author of The Treasure of Sierra Madre, which was filmed by John Huston and starred Humphrey Bogart, Traven also wrote The Jungle series about the Mexican Revolution. One of the classics of Modernist literature, Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano is set on the Day of the Dead, 1938, in the town of Quaunhnahuac. The Chilean novelist Roberto Bolano’s two major (and monumental) novels The Savage Detectives and 2666 are mainly set in Mexico, particularly Mexico City and the badlands of the Sonora Desert.
Finally a brief note on the image selection; I could post a dozen articles on Mesoamerican art alone. I have confined myself to a few outstanding examples of Pre-Columbian art to allow room for Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera and the Surrealists. As I have posted at length on Leonora Carrington (see The Debutante) already, I limited selection of this artist to include work by Varo and Tichenor. As an added bonus there are the splendidly morbid and macabre woodcuts of Artemio Rodriguez and a statue of Santa Muerte, the Mexican folk religion of Most Holy Death.
Andre Breton’s apartment at Rue Fontane, above the strip clubs and clip joints of the Pigalle red light district was by most accounts almost a work of art in its own right. In 2003 the French auctioneers Calmels Cohen put over 5,300 lots under the hammer from Breton’s vast collection of books, manuscripts, works of art and objects at Drouot-Richelieu; the catalogue alone extends to 8 volumes. The sale included 150 items of Oceanic art, the most important being the magnificent Uli statue from Central New Ireland, Papua New Guinea that graced his desk for many years.
Once again it is instructive to look at the Surrealist Map of the World (reference my previous posts Redraw the Map, Re-Write History and Re-Invent Reality or Rapa Nui) to see the importance official Surrealism attached to the islands of the Pacific. In this idealised rendering of how the world should be according to the Surrealists, Papua New Guinea and the Bismarck Archipelago is centrally located and larger than both Europe and Africa and truly dwarfs Australia.
Central to Papua New Guinea artistic reputation within Surrealist circles were the Uli, ancestor figures used for rites and endowed with immense magical powers. When a chieftain died his skull was buried and a tree planted on top of the burial place. After the tree had matured it was then cut down and the Uli was fashioned from the wood. The Uli are often bearded with protruding jaw and phallus to represent the traditional masculine attributes of strength and protection, while also possessing breasts as the ideal chieftain must maternally nurture and provide. When the Uli wasn’t participating in fertility, initiation and funerary rituals it would be kept in its own special enclosure away from prying eyes.
Breton was very taken with the Uli, naming a beloved Skye terrier Uli and dedicating a poem which I have included below. I have also included photographs for some of the most outstanding examples of this figure that Breton calls Grand Dieu, as well as the Future Sound of London’s seminal dance track Papua New Guinea, the video of which doesn’t include either the Uli or Papua New Guinea much as far as I can see, but does have some magic squares.
Surely you are a great god
I have seen you with my own eyes like no one else has
You are still covered with earth and blood you have just created
You are an old peasant who knows nothing
To recover you have eaten like a pig
You are covered with the stains of man
One sees that you have stuffed yourself to the ears
You listen no more
You leer at us from the bottom of a seashell
Your creation tells you hands up, and you still threaten
You frighten, you astonish.
Henry Green’s novel are remarkable because every one is notably different in style and thematically (with the possible exception of Nothing and Doting) yet they couldn’t have possibly been written by anyone else other than Henry Green. Green’s seventh novel Concluding, published in 1948 is no exception.
Set in the near future, the events are confided to a single day at an institute (a former country house) for the training of young girls, whose names all alliterate, Mary, Merode, Marion, Maisy, Moira, Muriel, Melissa etc, to become functionaries and official in a bureaucratic and mildly totalitarian state. One of the girls, Mary, has gone missing. Has she ran away from the repressive spinster teachers? Or gone to visit her sick sister? Or is she at the bottom of the lake?
Despite this mystery and its potential for tragedy, Concluding is in fact Green at his most whimsical. Most of the book takes place outdoors and is literally flooded with light:
At this instant, like a woman letting down her mass of hair from a white towel in which she had bound it, the sun came through for a moment, and lit the azaleas on either side before fog, re-descending, blanketted these off again…
It was Green’s own favourite, and he toyed with the idea of turning it into a ballet.
The last two of Green’s novels Nothing and Doting, published in 1950 and 1952 respectively, are both sharp comedy of manners dealing with the romantic entanglements of two generations of upper class Londoners. They are among the most technically accomplished of Green’s novels, composed mainly in dialogue with prolonged, stunning set pieces. Critics have often questioned whether there is anything going besides the pointed, barbed wit, however as L.P Hartley commented on Nothing, “is ‘nothing’ a trifle, a bagatelle, or is it the void, le neant?…I for one found it all too easy to slip through the glittering surface of the comedy into icy and terrifying depths.”
As Doting was his last published novel it is particularly tempting to look for clues to the enigma that was Henry Green/Henry Yorke, and how he viewed writing. At the beginning there is a scene that certainly seems to have a symbolic significance outside of the context of the novel:
The man started with three billiard balls. He flung one up and caught it. He flung it up again then sent a second ball to chase the first. In no time he had three, fountaining from out his hands. And he did not stop at that. He introduced, he insinuated one at a time, one more after another and threw the exact inches higher each time to give six, seven balls room until, to no applause he had a dozen chasing themselves up then down into his two lazy-seeming hands, each ball so precisely placed that it could be thought to follow grooves in violet air.
The next quote could apply to everything Green ever wrote:
“D’you sometimes believe that nothing in the whole wide world matters?”
“Oh Ann, but surely simply everything has supreme importance, if it happens.”
After the publication of Doting Green attempted to write, after he was only 47, but it was beyond him. His last great affair with the much younger Kitty Freud, the estranged wife of the artist Lucian Freud, had ended up as they all did, with the woman marrying another man and becoming friends with both Henry and Dig. His drinking had become a major problem and was affecting his job as Managing Director of Pontifex and Sons. He had always been a diligent industrialist, though he lacked financial acumen. However when it was discovered at a board meeting that, instead of water in his glass it was neat gin, Henry Yorke was sent on holiday and removed as managing director. His older, very eccentric brother Gerald Yorke (a fascinating character in his own right, incredibly academically gifted, a keen sportsman who had done the hippy trail 40 years before the 1960’s, army major and occultist who spent part of every year living in a cave in Wales) was put in charge for an interim period, however as he had no interest in the business, control was passed down to Henry’s 25 year old son, Sebastian.
In Jeremy Treglown’s excellent Romancing, the only biography of Henry Green, the last chapter is entitled Degringolade (Rapid Deterioration) and covers in the last 15 years of his life in 10 pages. Henry Green became increasingly reclusive and eccentric. He also drank a lot, every day from waking at 10 or 11 (if he woke up) until he went to bed or passed out. Perhaps the best indication of his state of mind can be found in his last piece to be published, a short letter in The Spectator in 1963.
…Green tells me he doesn’t believe in anything at all. And perhaps that is not a bad thing. Love your wife, love your cat and stay perfectly quiet, if possible not to leave the house. Because on the street if you are sixty danger threatens.
…So the whole thing is really not to go out. If one can afford it, the best thing is to stay in one place, which might be bed. Not sex, for sleep.
Almost immediately after the publication of Party Going at the onset of WWII, Henry Green handed over to his publisher the manuscript to Pack My Bag, his ‘interim’ autobiography (at 35), that he had written at top speed in a matter of weeks. After the slow process and completion of Party Going, the gates must have opened. Other contributing factors was Green’s fear of imminent death in the war, hence the title which were the last words of the philosopher F.H Bradley, and the fact that Green was reportedly completely drunk the entire time of the writing process.
In Pack My Bag we find a passage that is as close as Green ever got to stating an artistic credo:
Prose is not to be read aloud but to oneself alone at night, and it is not quick as poetry but rather a gathering web of insinuations which go further than names however shared can ever go. Prose should be a long intimacy between strangers with no direct appeal to what both may have known. It should slowly appeal to feelings unexpressed, it should in the end draw tears out of the stone …
Green volunteered for the London Fire Service during the Blitz, the experience of which formed the basis of his next novel Caught. His wife Dig had moved away from London to the countryside and as the time was one of general ‘unmarriedness’, Green indulged in numerous extra-martial affairs. Dig would tolerant these liaisons, even befriending the women involved.
His next novel Loving was published in 1943 and is Green’s most well know and popular novel. In The Paris Review interview with Terry Southern he describes the genesis of the novel:
I got the idea of Loving from a manservant in the Fire Service during the war. He was serving with me in the ranks, and he told me he had once asked the elderly butler who was over him what the old boy most liked in the world. The reply was: “Lying in bed on a summer morning, with the window open, listening to the church bells, eating buttered toast with cunty fingers.” I saw the book in a flash.
Curiously enough Loving was published at the same time as his friend Evelyn Waugh’s novel Brideshead Revisited, which is also set in a large country house. But whereas Brideshead Revisited is a nostalgic paean to a rapidly vanishing way of life, wistfully conveying a time where everyone knew their place and was grateful for it, from the loyal servants to the obliging lords of the manor, Green was too clear-eyed to be having any of this self-serving sentimentality. His portrayal of down-stairs life resembles Jonathan Swift’s masterful satire Directions To Servants much more than the obsequious, incidental characters offered by Brideshead Revisited or indeed its present day variation that peddles the same insidious fantasy, DowntonAbbey.
In a master stroke, Green’s country estate is set in neutral Ireland, a country he knew well and had great fondness for, owned by Anglo-Irish gentry and staffed entirely with English staff with the important exception of the symbolically incomprehensible Irish lamp-man Paddy O’Conor . This immediately places the narrative in the realm of absurdity. The owners of Kinalty are, appropriately enough, the Tennants. However the novel is much more concerned with life down-stairs, in particularly the over-promoted and unscrupulous butler Charley Raunce and his much younger girlfriend, the housemaid Edith In his usual oblique, off-hand way Green introduces an ambiguous apocalyptic note regarding the future of Kinalty: The Blue Drawing Room is, we are told, ‘the most celebrated eighteenth-century folly in Eire that had still to be burned down.’ However this fear is only vaguely in the background, all the characters, whether up-stairs or down-stairs are too busy pursuing their respective love-interests or lining their pockets and stomachs to spare much thought to all that imperils their precarious paradise, whether it be the war raging back home, the IRA or indeed the intrinsic absurdity of Kinalty, where even the dovecotes are modelled on the Leaning Tower of Pisa.
In 1946 Green published Back, which concerns a wounded war veteran returning to civilian life. It is certainly his most sombre novel, however it contains one of his most sustained passages of lyricism:
…climbing around and up these trees of mourning, was rose after rose after rose, while, here and there, the spray overburdened by the mass of flowers, a live wreath lay fallen on a wreath of stone, or on a box in marble colder than this day, or onto frosted blooms which, under glass, marked each bed of earth wherein the dear departed encouraged life above in the green grass, the cypresses and in those roses gay and bright which, as still as this dark afternoon, stared at whosoever looked, or hung their heads to droop, to grow strained, to die when their turn came.
I will be concluding this series on Henry Green in part three with brief reviews of his last three novels and his later life.
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.”