Nothing, Cont.

Speaking of nothing, Henry Green wrote a novel titled “Nothing” (1950). “Nothing” shares some of the characteristics of the early radio and television soap operas. It’s nearly all dialog; one can’t see the narrator, but the storyteller sees the reader. “Nothing” is about the nothing that is the something at the center of human activity. One forgets the narrator is watching one’s every move. From dialog only the characters are drawn, succinctly and diversely, such is the clarity of their voices – that they talk mostly of nothing is nothing. It only matters what one says. By nothing is not meant something insignificant; on the contrary – it is only through the direct encounter of nothing, where the characters are stripped of all their lies and workarounds, diversions and investments, that the essence of true life is revealed.

Yet it’s 1948, and these “Nothing” characters don’t seem as affected by the recent war as Barbara Pym’s characters in similar settings. “Nothing’s” John, knowing his daughter Mary “was to be out of London the next forty-eight hours on some trip in connection with her Government job” (133) – but we find out little to nothing about that job or what the connection is. The war of course was an unpleasant affair, its results mostly visible in the everyday details of work-a-day life: the difficulty of finding a suitable flat or flatmate, parsing wardrobes, the reopening of restaurants as places of interest, the local church the center of social, cultural, familial life (think jumble sales, lectures, and clubs of all sorts), and the shortage of marriageable men or men with the proper attitude toward marriage. Thus stripped of diversion and meaningful advertisement these folks on the edge of nothing seem a peculiar precursor to our time when commercialism and popular culture, and the adulation of the famous for being famous and nothing more, seem to reckon yet another coming.

Few Notes on “Loving,” Fiction by Henry Green

loving-henry-greenI’ve been looking to read more Henry Green for some time. New York Review Books is in the process of reissuing a collection, introductions to the minimalist titled works by a few of today’s influential critics –  Daniel Mendelsohn, James Wood, Francine Prose, and others. Originally published in 1945, Loving was Green’s fifth book. Other Green titles in the NYRB series, a few more forthcoming in 2017, include the abrupt titles:
Back
Blindness
Caught
Doting
Living
Nothing,
and Party Going.

Loving is literature in a way that many works of fiction are not literature. That is to say it is about language first before it can be said to be about anything else. It might not make a good read for readers who value information and being told things straight up what’s going on. It’s not a page turner. One is encouraged to stay on the page and look again.

The characters include servants and their masters as well as a few animals, including dogs and peacocks. Not much new or different there. Narration is minimal, the book reading almost like drama, the text mostly dialog, but point of view scatters this way and that depending on who’s viewing what where. A bit of children’s book form is suggested by the symmetrical borders of “Once upon…” and “and lived happily…,” and of course the adults often behave like children while the children behave like adults in their ability to stir the plot to action – thinking here of the murdered peacock and its abused corpse and the purloined (or lost and found) ring and its burial, while the one character not taken in by anyone’s childishness is the “reprethent [of] the Inthuranth Company” (133), come to investigate the claim of the missing ring who gets things right but whose authority is undermined by the slapstick speech impediment imposed by the tooth he’s just had pulled.

The setting is a large country estate, a castle in rural Ireland during World War Two. Bucolic enough, but if that sounds pleasant, it’s not so much. Life is a cold and hard working go with much worry and darkness and shut off rooms full of covered furniture, and worries about the close but distant war and what might happen if the Germans invade Ireland, what the Irish are up to, and how the relatives are making out over in beleaguered England. And there are rations and shortages but still plenty of domestic work but real opportunity found only in factories or submitting oneself to the brutalities. Still, not much there either that we don’t find in much literature of the period.

The plot concerns an old butler who dies and a younger one moves in to take his place, a promotion not enthusiastically welcomed by the entire staff, for Raunce promises to issue in some changes and challenge tradition, including insisting Madam call him by his actual name and not Arthur, the name she prefers to call all butlers, regardless of their actual name. Most exasperating is this new Arthur wanting morning tea brought him still in bed and that tea brought by one of the two lovely maids Edith suspicioned of desiring possibly to return Raunce’s inappropriate advances.

The dialog though is what the book is purposefully really about, and the reason for reading that book. Characterization is revealed through dialog, and helps explain the idiosyncrasies of speech and syntax and varied ways of talking employed. As another example of Green’s distinctive but sometimes even peculiar style, he seems to prefer “this” and “that” to the:

“and he took that cushion, ripped the seam open” (130).

Nothing wrong with that, but it appears throughout, in a variety of syntactical shapes, and might strike the ear as odd:

“who took this man’s business card” (131).

But see if you don’t come across that oddness on your own. There are many more examples: “she strode up to that arrow and gave it a tug” (forgot to hold the page; and while I’m at it I’ll add that I’ve resolved this new year to stop marking up books read with marginalia notes and all. Makes the occasional review a bit more difficult though. Ebooks are easy for looking things like that up, but the memory gets not as much exercise. Remains to be seen if the “notes” a la reviews improve or not).

Loving will make a good choice for a book club group, not that I belong to one, but thinking you might, or you could start one, Loving your first book.

Loving, by Henry Green (1945) and 2016 New York Review Books (Introduction by Roxana Robinson).