Friday, May 11, 2012

Loving (by Henry Green)

This book is the shortest one on my list but it took me a while to read. Green has a modernist style--part of it is that he omits commas often, and switches point of view abruptly--which means that this short book, though it's filled with dialogue, feels dense somehow.

This is the story of an English family living in an Irish castle during World War II, and most of the story is concerned with the servants of that family, although there are some sections focusing on the spoiled Mrs. Tennant and her daughter-in-law Violet. None of the characters are exactly sympathetic (though I did feel for Kate, who seems to be in love with Edith, towards the end of the book). The main character is probably Charley Raunce, the butler, who isn't wholly evil or anything, but isn't exactly sympathetic either. I wasn't really invested in any of the characters, except maybe Albert, who is also in love with Edith.

I've read some reviews of the book, and though a lot of people mention the naturalistic, rich dialogue and the offbeat modernist sensibility, I haven't seen anyone mention the running joke about the house itself. Every time the house is described it gets more and more ridiculous. Here are just a few offhand examples (the "trumpet" refers to part of the daffodil, by the way, not an actual musical instrument):

"She moved over to another table. She pushed the ashtray with one long lacquered oyster nail across the black slab of polished marble supported by a dolphin layered in gold."

"In one of the malachite vases, filled with daffodils, which stood on tall pedestals of naked male children without wings, he had seen a withered trumpet."

"As she rubbed the shoulder of her husband's mother she was surrounded by milking stools, pails, clogs, the cow byre furniture all in gilded wood... the white marble mantelpiece was a triumph of scuptured reliefs depicting on small plaques various unlikely animals, even in one instance a snake, sucking milk out of full udders."

There is a flock of peacocks on the grounds for Mrs. Tennant to "look at," and a "complete copy of a Greek temple." Every detail adds to the ridiculousness! The absolute best part is this one:

"Now coal was so short it was only a small peat fire she could lay each morning in the butler's room... this no doubt could be her excuse to get him to take his cup along with her to one of the living rooms where huge fires were kept stoked all day to condition the old masters."

It took me a second, but then the contrast cracked me up. The butler gets only a small fire due to the coal shortage and then we immediately find out that Mrs. Tennant is burning huge fires--in multiple living rooms--ALL DAY LONG--just for the paintings that are hung there.

I think this book is fairly subtle in general, actually. It might be one to re-read eventually.



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