Wednesday, August 27, 2008


Loving by Henry Green is about the goings-on between the servants and masters in a castle in Ireland during WWII. It's a pretty simple tale, but there isn't much plot. There's a sort of love triangle between the butler, Charlie, his "man" (aka assistant) Albert, and a chamber maid, Edith, a missing ring, fear of the I.R.A., a drunken cook, an affair between the master's (Mrs. Tennant) daughter-in-law and Capt. Davenport while Mr. Jack (Mrs. Tennant's son) is off doing the army thing... it's more scenes and vignettes of what's happening as opposed to any traditional plot with a climax, denouement, etc.

There were some interesting things in Loving that I don't think I've come across yet in any other novels: firstly, there are two characters named Albert - there is Charlie's man Albert, and then the drunken cook's nephew Albert comes to stay to get away from the London bombings. Secondly, there is a character, Paddy, who nobody can understand except the other chamber maid, Kate. So all the servants will be sitting at dinner, and Paddy will say something. But you only know he said something because Charlie will ask, "What did he say?" and then Kate translates. Also, some of the transition from one "scene" to the next is done almost like in a movie. There isn't any real break in the action (I don't mean literally, action - there isn't any of that); instead, it goes something like this: there is a scene of the servants doing their thing in the castle, and in order to transition to Mrs. Tennant and daughter-in-law walking the grounds, Green will say (paraphrasing here): "While this was going on, Mrs. Tennant..." as if the scene in the castle fades out and we see them walking around. Sometimes this caught me off guard (I wasn't paying attention), and I would think - now where did Mrs. Tennant come from? Why does it now seem like they're out in the yard? So I would have to go back, and then I would realize that Green had subtly transitioned from one conversation to another.

Charlie is an odd character, and you can't really tell what his motives are... in the beginning, the original butler (Eldon) is dying, and Charlie really couldn't care less (well, neither can any of the other servants, but that's beside the point). Charlie is too busy trying to take over for Eldon. He seems kind of sleazy and none of the other servants like or trust him (except Edith). So, when he first starts making passes at her, you can't really tell if he's serious. Even in the end, you can't really tell...he says things that make you think he doesn't really care about Edith, but maybe he's just playing a game to get her to like him back...or maybe he's just a player (or is that spelled playa?). Edith is equally ambiguous. She seems all right most of the time, but then she wants to keep Mrs. Tennant's ring, (which she finds, then it goes missing again). It seemed out of character. I guess most - ok all - of the characters are pretty ambiguous in that way.

An interesting synchronicity is going on with my reading right now...I am currently in the Valley of Bones part of Dance to the Music of Time, in which Nick Jenkins, enrolled in the Army, is sent with his company to Northern Ireland (this is during WWII also). All of the characters in Loving are British nationals (or almost all of the characters - I couldn't figure out if Paddy was Irish) , and there is a big to-do about the IRA, fear of the IRA, fear of the Germans invading, fear for loved ones who may be being bombed, etc. Are they better to stay in Ireland, with all the Irish thugs out to get them and the threat of the Germans invading, or should they go back to England, abandoning the castle? In Dance, as I just mentioned, we're also in Ireland, but from a different perspective...but there's still the fear there. Someone gets attacked while walking to the barracks during a military exercise and has his guns stolen, and it is suggested that it was Irish nationals. It's interesting to see this side of things...I haven't run into stories about the British in Ireland during the war before.

It turns out that Henry Green was a comtemporary, friend, and former classmate of Powell and also Evelyn Waugh. It appears that Green had a colorful life - kind of unexpected, as Loving wasn't every colorful IMO. In conversation, he preferred gossip to serious subjects (not unexpectedly), was known as a ladies man, and eventually became an alcoholic. While at Oxford, he shunned intellectual pursuits in favor of going to the movies twice a day and "scorned his tutor, the bluff, hearty C.S. Lewis." Green also apparently had a cruel streak, and a girlfriend once told him, "Hurting - that should be the title of your next novel."

He was popular among his contemporaries and later authors. W.D. Auden called him "the best English novelist alive" (though he is no longer, since he is no longer alive); Eudora Welty stated that his work had "an intenstiy greater than that of any other writer of imaginative fiction today." And John Updike: "Henry Green was a novelist of such rarity, such marvellous originality, intuition, sensuality, and finish, that every fragment of his work is precious." Really, John, I don't know about that, but to each his own. My grandma always says it's good we don't all like the same things.

Loving is a pretty harmless book - sometimes amusing, short, and easy to get through. Not sure why it made the Modern Library's Top 100, but whatever...oh wait, isn't Updike on the Board? The edition of Loving that I own also contains two other books by Green: Living and Party Going. In the coming years, I will probably read both of them as well. A NY Times reviewer wrote, (of Anthony Powell) "Like Henry Green, an even better novelist, Anthony Powell was too British to catch on [in the U.S.] at first." So, if British comedies are your thing, you'd probably love it. If they annoy the piss out of you, don't bother. I'm somewhere in between. I think the following quote sums up Loving fairly well: "None of [Green's] books illustrates a philosophy, promotes a theme, or delivers a message. With him it is the richness of the felt, heard, and seen moment, often garnished with low comedy, that is the sole point - if, indeed, there is any point at all."

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