Friday, September 16, 2011
Douglas Meserli | So and So (on Henry Green's Party Going)
SO AND SO
Henry Green Party Going (London: The Hogarth Press, 1939)
The elderly Miss Fellowes begins this wonderful comic novel, as she walks through a thick London fog toward the train station where she intends to see her niece, Claire, off on a trip the younger woman is making to the continent with several other friends. Suddenly, a dead pigeon falls from the murky sky to her feet below. For some inexplicable reason, Miss Fellowes, picks up the dead bird, washing in the lavatory sink, and wrapping it up in brown parcel paper. Soon after,
Miss Fellowes did not feel well, so, when she got to the top of
those steps she rested there leaning on a handrail.
Slightly recovering, the woman decides to order tea at the busy station food shop, but when no one will come to wait on her, she decides to go over to the counter and orders a whisky instead.
Meanwhile, the party-going group gradually arrives, each member finding it difficult to make their way to the others, but eventually gathering, with their luggage, at a central point. Their host, Max, is the latest to arrive, after having considered not even going. The others, Claire, Evelyna, Angela, Julia, Alex, and Robert gradually do link up, but by the time they encounter each other, the trains have been long delayed because of the fog, and Miss Fellowes has fallen into a faint at the restaurant. Max arranges for their party to inhabit rooms at the nearby station hotel, into which they also sneak Claire's ill aunt before the management pulls down gates over the entrances to protect the premises from the potentially marauding crowds beginning to gather at the station.
So begins Green's satirical work. The rest of it is spent in close rooms, where the women each gossip and try to out-wit one other, manipulating the men in their group, while trying each to vie for the eligible, wealthy, and handsome Max. Alex, who is gay, spends most of his time whining and complaining, Robert retreats to the hotel barroom, and Angela's equally incompetent boyfriend, mopes nearby, sorry that he had not wished her a better farewell.
Green's work, accordingly, is centered primarily on the women and their subtle and, more often, obvious put-downs of one another, just as they pretend long friendships and admiration for each another. Into this group, the beautiful and legendary Amabel miraculously finds entry, claiming her right to join them, even though she has been rather specifically uninvited by Max. Her visit, moreover, ratchets up the heightened tensions between these competitive harridans, and ultimately threatens to break-up the party. Nothing much else happens in this fiction, but the war of words and these women's mindless and often meaningless actions and disparagements of one another, along with Alex's aspersions, and Angela's discomfort (she is a first-timer in their party), creates enough comic energy to match any boulevard farce.
All the ninnies gathered at the hotel, wealthy and/or spoiled, are, at heart, mean and bored, having no ideas with which to entertain their empty heads. And Green's satire soon turns somewhat vicious as we observe their selfish manipulations. Only the gravely ill Miss Fellowes, cared for by two of the women's nannies who have also come to see the group off, perceives anything of significance. In her fight against alcohol and possible death, she undergoes a kind of spiritual journey that transforms the empty connections made by the others into something meaningful and possibly salving.
Claire, as well as the others, is described as being incapable of caring for her aunt, and gradually, we discover she is only too ready to leave her behind in the strange hotel room for her own escape, Green revealing that Miss Fellowes' herself cannot stand her niece, nor Claire's mother, the older woman's sister—feelings we share.
The vast void of these individual's lives is less revealed in their catty statements and petty behavior, than it is in Green's own impeccable style—through the very language Green uses to convey their feelings. Among the author's several rhetorical devices, the most obvious is his use of the word "so" to convey the weak link of their logic. The conjunction and, at times, adjective, seems to convey an underlying relationship of events where there are actually no real connections. Three examples from many dozens of examples throughout the work will have suffice:
She called him darling, which was of no significance except that
she had never done so before, and he did not at once tumble to it
that her smiles and friendliness for him, which like any other girl
she could turn on at will so that it poured pleasantly out in the way
water will do out of taps (p. 117) [italics mine]
So she came over to where he was sitting, and, his hands taken up
with pouring out his drink, she kissed his cheek and then sat down
opposite (p. 113) [italics mine]
They made noises which could be taken to mean yes and Julia ex-
plained to Miss Henderson how Max had already ordered tea so that
it would be easy to carry two cups along to them without Angela knowing.
(p. 71) [italics mine]
One need only compare that false connection of "so," with the adjectival and adverbial connections that actually suggest a subsequent relationship, used to describe Miss Fellow's nightmare adventures:
And Miss Fellowes wearily faced another tide of illness. Aching all
over she watched helpless while that could rushed across to where
was wedged and again the sea below rose with it, most menacing
and capped with foam and as it came nearer she heard again the
shrieking wind in throbbing through her ears. In terror she watched
the seas rise to get at her, so menacing her blood throbbed unbearably,
and again it was all forced into her head but this had happened so
often she felt she had experienced the worst of it. But now with a roll
of drums and then a most frightful crash lightning came out of that
cloud and played upon the sea, and this repeated, and then again, each
time nearer till she knew she was worse than she had ever been. One
last crash which she knew to be unbearable and she burst and exploded
into complete insensibility. She vomited.
Here there is a specific relationship between events. The mental vision Miss Fellowes encounters,a kind of apocalyptic tempest, results in an actual physical action. The mental vision she encounters directly relates to her own actions and behavior.
For the others, there is "no significance," as they speak of pointless actions such assmiling, kissing a cheek, or carrying two cups of coffee. For the party-goers, action is pointless, and ideation, accordingly, has no real connection with the petty things they accomplish.
Whereas, Max's gathering of nit-wits can only wait, twittering away their time before an equally meaningless adventure in the South of France, Miss Fellowes has responded to nature in her attempt to give the dead bird—itself a kind of symbol for the others' spiritual deaths—a properly ritualized burial. It is she, accordingly, who must suffer the storms and waves of angst that the others will not and cannot face.
When the news finally reaches the group that the trains are running again, Julia—who throughout the early part of the fiction has worried over what she calls her charms, meaningless tokens from her childhood that she carries with her wherever she goes—rushes into Miss Fellowes' room bursting out with the news, oblivious of Miss Fellowes' presence:
"children we are to go, they've telephoned to say it's all over,
isn't it just wonderful and we're to get reading, darlings, just think."
But, obviously, she and her friends cannot "think," for they have no "fellow" feelings, no empathy for anything or anyone in the world around them. Julia's tokens are all inanimate objects, things, as opposed to Miss Fellowes' formerly living being. In the world of the party-goers there are no true connections between anything they might do as opposed to something else, and, therefore, no difference between present or past. As Embassy Richard says, after he is asked to join their party:
"But weren't you going anywhere?" Amabel said to Richard, only she
looked at Max.
"I can go where I was going afterwards," he said to all of them and smiled.
The relationship between human beings that characterizes Julia and her friends is summarized, again with the recurrent word "so," a few sentences earlier:
So like when you were small and they brought children over to play with
you and you wanted to play on your own then someone, as they hardly
ever did, came along and took them off so you could do what you wanted.
Los Angeles, September 12, 2011