NOTHING and DOTING
two novels by Henry Green
New York Review Books, 183 and 190 pages
reviewed by Melanie Erspamer
In Nothing, Henry Green is as self-aware as it gets, poking fun not only at his characters but at the premise of the book (knowing full well, I imagine, the delightful difficulty readers would encounter in explaining to their friends that they are reading “nothing”). “What did you do?” one character, Liz, demands of her older boyfriend, John Pomfret, as he discusses afternoons from his youth. “‘Why nothing of course,’ Mr. Pomfret crie[s]. ‘That is the whole beauty of us, we never can seem to do anything.’”
Precisely. In Henry Green’s two last novels, Nothing and Doting, the “doing” is severely limited in favor of a writing style built almost entirely on dialogue. The exposition seems to function largely as stage directions, basic information for the reader, though occasionally Green does display a bit of the modernist style he is most famous for:
It was wet then, did she remember he was saying, so unlike this he said, and turned his face to the dazzle of window, it had been dark with sad tears on the panes and streets of blue canals as he sat by her fire for Jane liked dusk, would not turn on the lights until she couldn’t see to move, while outside a single street lamp was yellow, reflected over a thousand raindrops on the glass, the fire was rose, and Penelope came in.
This sentence appears on the first page of Nothing, and there is hardly again, in either book, such an extended deviation from dialogue into narration. Green was an experimental modernist writer, and these “dialogue-novels” were his latest experiments: an attempt to remove the author from the work, to let the characters speak and the action develop with as little narrative interference as possible. Green was not unfamiliar with narrative techniques attempting at minimalizing what a novel can offer. In earlier works, such as, Living, one of his best-known novels, he utilizes very few prepositions. “Water dripped from tap on wall into basin and into water there. Sun. Water drops made rings in clear coloured water.” The effect is coarse, immediate. It seems to show how much rougher and real words become when not encased in their polite grammar.
Green was an experimental modernist writer, and these “dialogue-novels” were his latest experiments: an attempt to remove the author from the work, to let the characters speak and the action develop with as little narrative interference as possible.
Similarly, his dialogue-novels show how much a story can flow without much aid from the author—though, perhaps, this is not true of all stories. In fact, the most famous modernist works (think Virginia Woolf or James Joyce) seem resolutely opposed to Green’s form with their relentless focus on interiority. Green, instead, trials the opposite: a literary exteriority where almost all the words are ones that have actually been “expressed,” directly put out into the (fictional) world.
Henry Green is the pen name of English writer Henry Vincent Yorke, a well-educated man from a wealthy business family who wrote novels from 1926 to 1952, when Doting, his last work, was published. His works are considered important contributions to modernist literature, and he was well-respected by several authors at his time, including W. H. Auden and Anthony Burgess. When Terry Southern wrote in an interview with Green in The Paris Review that “Green has been referred to as a ‘writer’s writer’s writer,’” he intended it as a compliment to Green’s highly developed modernist style.
It could also be taken, however, as a fair reflection of Green’s higher popularity among writers than among the general public, where none of his books sold more than 10,000 copies. After his death, all his books went out of print. I wonder if there isn’t something conceptual and formal to his style of literary experimentation that does not manage to find an equivalent sophistication in the representation of characters and relationships. However, there has been recently a rediscovery of Green, of sorts, with many of his books going back into print. This includes not only his most famous and well-respected books, namely Living, Party Going, and Loving, but the others as well, including Nothing and Doting.
These last two novels are very much alike, focusing on the lives and loves of the London bourgeoisie post-WWII. In both books the cast of characters is largely comprised of two generations of middle-class Londoners—those about 45, and their children, late teenagers. Part of what Green does is contrast the two generations, which, humorously, act in the opposite way from what you’d expect: the savvy older generation, having grown up in a time of greater prosperity, is accustomed to parties, drinking, decadence—including a tendency towards extra-marital affairs. The younger generation, instead, is naïve, but serious, coming to age in a time of greater financial difficulty, concerned with marriage and settling down.
The novels take place in a series of splintered scenes in which a small cast of characters converses with each other in a handful of settings. The books at times seem to raise the question of why they weren’t written as plays. Yet it becomes clear to the reader that these novels simply wouldn’t work as plays, that part of the absence that Green was trying to create by limiting his narrative presence would be spoiled by giving these characters life and blood. The host of other details, in a theater, that would determine the content of these scenes—the stage setting, the movements of the actors, their tones—would remove the focus on pure discourse, although discourse seems too high and mighty a term for what in effect is banter. For never do the characters completely reveal themselves through their words. They are sly, witty, manipulative, and sometimes naïve, but the question of what exactly they mean with all these scenes of chatter has two opposite and yet coinciding answers: the words they say seem both to mean many things at once, and yet nothing at all. This would be difficult to convey with theater. Widow Jane Weatherby, Nothing’s female protagonist, characterizes this simultaneously empty and duplicitous character of their dialogue (as well as the polite, educated, and conniving style with which almost all of the dialogue is written): “‘But you know very well what I didn’t mean darling […] Good heavens I simply never mean anything yet all my life I’ve got into such frightful trouble with my tongue.’”
The plots of these novels would seem familiar to viewers of romantic comedies—they concern the overlapping love triangles and squares and all sorts of polygons that develop in small social circles, heedless of generation, marital status, or even (possibly) blood. In Nothing, the “action” revolves around the relationship between Jane Weatherby and another widow, John Pomfret, who once had a passionate affair, and the relationships that develop among Jane and John’s children. The novel’s gentle and uniform style makes it difficult to make many judgments on the characters, moral or otherwise. Ultimately, we are led to root for whoever can most deftly negotiate the upper hand. If on reflection it is clear that Jane and John are far from ideal parents, both using their children for personal gain, it hardly prevents us from appreciating their linguistic finesse in manipulating these children while maintaining their admiration: “Oh you’ve been wonderful,” Philip, Jane’s son, tells her with “conviction,” after unwittingly falling into her trap—”You always are.”
Doting deals with a very similar selection of characters in similar straits—here instead the focus is on middle-aged couple Arthur and Diana Middleton, who, not being widows, must create their drama and intricate triangles in more furtive ways. This drama includes two girls slightly older than the couple’s son, and a good friend of the couple, Charles. If the name Nothing was rather perfect for this type of superficial-but-not-completely middle-class dialogue comedy, Doting as a title seems to embrace an emotional stance toward someone who is strong and desiring but somehow still superficial, a perfect parallel to the book itself. Though we see the characters in a variety of settings—familial, friendly, public—we can hardly depart from a superficial understanding of them. For another fascinating aspect about the externalist dialogue-driven style of these novels is the way the dialogue is consistent, whether one is first-time acquaintances or a married couple of eighteen years. At no matter what stage, it seems people will use their words more to conceal than to reveal: either a fact about someone is available to everyone, spread by gossip in a manner of days, or to no one, the greater knowledge that would come with intimacy reduced to a heightened awareness of the other’s manipulative tactics. Arthur reveals to Annabel, the teenager he is fond of taking out to lunch, that “doting, to me, is not loving […] Loving goes deeper.” No more elucidation is made on that subject and thus we can only assume that if it indeed goes deeper, we can never be sure that someone is loving, and not merely doting; just as no amount of talk will really assure us of anything very “deep” in someone’s character. Postmodernists would take this idea further, denying the presence of any truth in language beneath, or outside of, language itself. Language is the superficial and yet only reality; and though Green was not a postmodernist, the way he shrouds (and defines) his characters in flawed and deceptive language approximates this idea.
Nothing and Doting are fun and light-hearted, easy-to-read works that are relatable on some levels. After all, we all must deal with other people and the way their desires cast webs around us as we cast our own. Yet I ultimately found the limited scope of these novels tiresome. There is only so much, it seems, I can enjoy of the manipulative, ambiguous, but fundamentally frivolous relationships of the 1950s bourgeoisie. Nothing was a fun read, pleasant, and with something of the structure of traditional comedies. But read right after Nothing, Doting seemed like a recycled composition, made up out of bits of the static characters from the previous novel, who, as in Nothing, all speak with the same generalized polite and detached voice of the English middle-class.
The last sentence of Doting is “the next day they all went on very much the same.” It may be an interesting stylistic comment, but hardly a tribute to enjoyment, to mention that this sentence could have occurred at almost any point in the book.
Melanie Erspamer studies English Literature and Philosophy at the University of Edinburgh. She is half-Italian and half-American and has lived most of her life near Boston. Her work has been published in The Purple Breakfast Review, Nomad Magazine and Unknown Magazine, and her one-act play was performed at the University of Edinburgh. With her sister, she also has been running an anonymous literary magazine based in bathroom stalls, called Bathruminations.