‘Party Going’ is, if we are to believe what we are told by many senior literary figures, a masterpiece, and Henry Green is a genius. Sebastian Faulks, in his introduction to this Vintage Clasics edition, cites Green as a personal inspiration; W.H. Auden called him “the finest living English novelist”; Emma Tennant in the Independent called Green “a writer of undoubted genius”; Tim Parks in the New York review of Books called ‘Party Going’ a “great masterpiece”; A.L. Kennedy thought it “beautifully written” and claimed “we should know Green’s name as we do Chekhov’s, or Spark’s, or Stevenson’s”; I could go on. The problem is, ‘Party Going’ is vapid, dull, peopled by two-dimensional characters, and almost nothing happens.
This presents me with an obvious challenge – are these authors wrong, or am I? To be fair, it’s not just me – ‘Party Going’ is out of print more often than it is in, (the edition I found it in combined the novel with two others, ‘Loving’ and ‘Living’ presumably for commercial reasons – there is little thematic unity between the three novels, despite the similarities in title). Almost all of Green’s advocates, including those above, are at pains to point out that he is mysteriously neglected and “the most deserving of rediscovery by a new generation”. Claiming popular support for my position is a slippery slope – if popularity was a measure of worth, ’50 Shades of Grey’ and ‘The Da Vinci Code’ would be top of any great novels list – so my starting point is that there’s something I have missed in this novel. The question is, what?
‘Party Going’ is set in the early 1930s, a time of great financial hardship for many. It focusses on a party of rich friends, invited by their ultra-rich acquaintance, Max Adey, to take the boat train for the continent for a holiday at his expense. The title is ambiguous – going to parties is the lifestyle of this group, it is what they mainly do, but it also ironically points out that this particular group or party is going nowhere, both literally and metaphorically. A pre-Clean Air Act fog has descended, and no trains can leave the station. The group gathers at what we can deduce is Victoria Station, and faced with the prospect of a long wait they occupy a suite of rooms in the station’s hotel and wait for the fog to lift. The station fills with a crowd of “ordinary people” trying to get home. As the crowd swells, some of the party-goers find it increasingly menacing, even though it is actually well-behaved and cheerful.
Having set his scene, the rest of the novel consists predominantly of the group’s trivial conversations and occupations as they wait for their train. They are an unprepossessing bunch. Julia, the latest target of the sexually predatory Max, is childishly obsessed with her ‘charms’, her euphemism for childhood toys she has to have with her when travelling. Amabel, a vacuous society beauty, and Max’s current lover, is not invited on the holiday, but overcomes this rejection by simply turning up at the station anyway. The other characters are lightly sketched with little or no attempt to fill in their background.
The tension between the wealthy elite with their trivial concerns, and the cheerfulness of the working classes massed beneath the hotel windows, has suggested to some that this is a political novel, a commentary on the bored upper classes. Certainly the novel can be read that way, but it is a quite reductive, simplistic reading. In other hands the scenario of the group being trapped in the station could have been constructed as a metaphor for their pointlessness, going nowhere despite their wealth. What could have been a tense, claustrophobic and Kafkaesque portrait of the Party that never quite gets going, is instead aimless, irritating, and tedious.
The characters are very lightly drawn. Most are interchangeable (remarkably Faulks in his introduction claims this as a virtue of the novel) and only Max, the unpleasant sexual predator, (not that he would in any way think of himself that way) and the manipulative but dim Amabel standing out from the crowd: Max is a sinister misogynist, using his money to sleep his way round London, with a brutal contempt for his conquests:
“It was these desperate inexperienced bitches, he thought, who never banded together but fought everyone and themselves and were like camels, they could go on for days without one sup of encouragement” (494)
Amabel (in a short story by Saki, about Amabel, the vicar’s daughter, it is said “Her name was the vicar’s one extravagance.“) uses her sexuality to get what she wants, but is really in love with no-one but herself:
“As she went over herself with her towel it was plain that she loved her own shape and skin. When she dried her breasts she wiped them with as much care as show would puppies after she had given them their bath, smiling all the time…When she came to dry her legs she hissed like grooms do”. (480). (I’ll give Green the benefit of the doubt and accept that this is deliberately comic).
Much has been made of Green’s modernist style of writing in ‘Party Going’. There is a fine line between impressionistic and incoherent, as in this example from towards the end of the novel – the “he referred to is Max:
“he was why she changed so she would forget what she had been six minutes back, he it was who nagged at her feelings when he was not there, and when he came in again worked her up so she had soon to go out though not for long, it was his fault, but then she knew it to be hers for being like she was about him, oh, who would be this kind of a girl, she thought” (520)
This rambling represents the character’s fractured train of thought, a form of stream of consciousness. When I first read this I struggled to follow the train of thought, but that is apparently the point. The novel’s opening line, introducing the theme of death, but also introducing a storyline that like the rest, goes nowhere, is:
“Fog was so dense, bird that had been disturbed went flat into a balustrade and slowly fell, dead, at her feet.” The missing first word (“the”), and the other stylistic quirks in this sentence worried me – was this fractured language going to be sustained throughout the novel. Fortunately Green bored of writing this way, and mostly adopts a quite naturalistic style.
I originally read about the undiscovered genius of Henry Green several decades ago. Even then he was being promoted as a neglected great- it has taken me till now to finally get round to reading him. I can admire the artistry he uses here in constructing a novel where little happens, and where what does happen is trivial and uninteresting. But I found it dull and hard to complete. His appeal remains a mystery. I might however be tempted to try one of the companion novels in this three part edition once my 100 greatest novels challenge is complete, whenever that might be!