Thursday, March 2, 2017

Loving by Henry Green

'Oho so that's the old game,' he laughed.  'Keeping me on a string is it, to leave me to picture this and that and the other to do with you and him?'

'If you can bring your imagination to such a level you're to be pitied,' she answered tart.

'All I did was to ask,' he objected.

'You're free to picture what you please,' she replied.  I've got no hold on your old imagination, not yet I haven't.'

'What d'you mean not yet?'

'I mean after we're married,' she whispered, her voice gone husky.  'After we're married I'll see to it that you don't have no imagination.  I'll make everything you want of me now so much more than you ever dreamed that you'll be quit imaginin' for the rest of your life.'

The natural comparison point for Loving is obviously Downton Abbey: like the show, Green's novel is about the contrast in the lives of the residents of an old castle and the lives of their servants.  But whereas Downton Abbey is all melodrama, made for people with the attention spans of lizards, Green's novel demands the utmost patience, and its drama is wrought from the finer details of human life.  It's set during the war, but the war is distant, threatening--the servants at the Irish castle fretfully wonder whether they should return to their homes in England, to their loved ones, before the "Jerries" use the island as a stepping stone.  (Not like on Downton Abbey, where they have to show the pressures of war by turning the castle into a flipping soldiers' hospital.)

The novel begins with the death of the longtime head butler, Eldon.  His replacement, Charley Raunce, is by turns irascible and jovial, but the other servants (and his employer, Mrs Tennant) can see how green he is.  He's anxious to assert his new authority, but also to skim a little off the top of what he charges the household for supplies, something his predecessor did expertly for decades but which he hasn't yet learned to handle with tact or grace.  Meanwhile, he falls in love with a younger maid named Edith.  The romance between Charley and Edith proceeds sweetly but prosaically, with the happy fatalism of two people who realize, seemingly simultaneously, that they are meant to be together.  It's convincing, and somehow more affecting than it would have been with what you might call more fireworks.

Fireworks aren't Green's style.  The drama in Loving involves a missing ring, a pet peacock strangled by a bitter child, a glove full of eggs, a mouse caught in the wheels of a mechanical weathervane, a finely captured game of Blind Man's Bluff.  The house is full of characters who Green refuses to introduce with any fullness; if most people are unknowable, especially when we meet them, why should he bother?  As if to underscore this point, he names two separate young men Albert.

The result is a masterpiece of minimalism.  It seems like hardly a word is spared in Loving, nothing is extraneous.  And yet Green's sentences, often shorn of punctuation, take you on surprising, miniature journeys:

Albert laid himself under a hedge all over which red fuchsia bells swung without a noise in the wind the sure travelling sea brought with its low heavy swell.  He could watch the light blue heave between their donkey Peter's legs and his ears were crowded with the thunder of the ocean.

How can something made of such simple parts demand such attention to be understood?  That first sentence is so simple, but I swear I had to read it three times to follow it.  Not because it's a sloppy sentence, but because of its impeccable design.  Green doesn't break into these prose moments often, but often enough to seem like showing off, as if saying, I can do this, if I choose to.  Mostly the book is in dialogue, which is Green's most renowned skill.  James Wood, in How Fiction Works, praises Green for refusing to stuff his dialogue with adverbs to tell us how the characters are feeling; as with real people, our words are not as clear as we would want them to be.  In Loving, characters speak to each other like people, which is rare.

This is one of those books that I feel I haven't done justice.  Not just in this review, but in reading it; I feel like I wasn't up to its demands.  (I read this book on vacation in North Carolina; last year on the same trip I zipped through all 700 pages of Argall in the same time it took me to plod through the 200 pages of Loving.)  It's not complex, but it is exacting, and often surprising--blink and you'll miss something valuable, or extraordinary.  It's a book that ends just when you feel like you're learning how to read it.

1 comment:

Chloe Pinkerton said...

As a person with the attention span of a lizard I've forgotten what my witty retort was going to be to these baseless accusations. Also I would like to read this book.