I’ve just read Party Going (1939), Henry Green’s comic and melancholic masterpiece, for the third or fourth time, and I’m still not sure how to convey its complex flavour. It’s a fantastically busy and exuberant novel, in which nothing really happens. (The major events include: an old lady picking up a dead pigeon and subsequently feeling ill; a beautiful young woman having a bath; a servant getting a kiss from a stranger.) It’s at once so beautifully written that I want to quote the whole thing, and so eccentrically stylized that it isn’t easy to find a quotable line. (Green was intolerant of standard English grammar and syntax; witness for example his take-’em-or-leave-’em approach to articles, as in the novel’s bizarre opening sentence: ‘Fog was so dense, bird that had been disturbed went flat into a balustrade and slowly fell, dead, at her feet.’) It’s an effervescent comedy of manners, set almost exclusively among members of the English upper class – and yet its most remarkable quality is an anguished sense of human suffering.
The set-up is straightforward enough. A group of empty-headed young socialites – the sort of people you might encounter in a novel by Nancy Mitford or Evelyn Waugh – are stranded in a London railway station when thick fog delays the train taking them on holiday to France. Made uncomfortable by the growing crowd, they seek refuge in the station hotel, where they pass the time by flirting, gossiping, drinking too much, keeping secrets from one another, and trying to make each other jealous. Max Adey, the party’s excessively rich and handsome host, reckons his time would be most rewardingly spent in seducing one of his guests, the highly strung Miss Julia Wray. Perhaps that’s why he hasn’t invited his on-off girlfriend Amabel, a famous beauty, but his plans are complicated when she turns up anyway. The trysts and tiffs between these three form the most substantial of the novel’s many t
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