I went to a reading the other night; the opening readers (and performers, it was that sort of event) were terrible, so I left at an intermission to have dinner with the people I’d come to the reading to see. After dinner, I got on the uptown train to go home; I was reading this book, an omnibus edition of Nothing, Doting, and Blindness. The woman across from me was looking at me strangely, and I may have been looking at her strangely because she looked like one of the people who had been reading that I’d been introduced to in passing; she reached in her bag and pulled out the Dalkey Archive edition of Nothing, and we had a conversation about how fantastic Henry Green is and what a shame it is that nobody seems to read him. She got off at the next stop after we re-introduced ourselves; this saved me the embarrassment of having to explain that I hadn’t actually seen her read, though she was the only one in the line-up that I’d been half interested in hearing. I have been reading books in the trains of New York for a long time, but this is the first time this sort of thing has happened to me, as far as I can remember. Maybe I’m reading the wrong books.
Henry Green is fantastic, of course, even if one isn’t making conversation on trains. I tore through Living, Loving, and Party Going last November while in Mexico, read Blindness, in this volume, on the flight home from Christmas, and Pack My Bag somewhere in between; all the rest save Caught, which is out of print and expensive, are on the shelves waiting to be read. Nothing has taken a little while to get back to: I was reading too fast, I thought, and I needed to slow down. Henry Green seems a bit imposing, I think: like Ronald Firbank, this novel is almost entirely dialogue, and if you’re not reading carefully, a great deal can get lost. Once you’re in, though, it’s hard not to be swept along.
The title is from Shakespeare, of course; Much Ado about Nothing with its pairs of starcrossed lovers is an obvious model for the book. Philip and Mary want to get married; their widowed parents, Jane and John, respectively, were once lovers and are still friends. Dick and Liz are Jane and John’s current lovers, though they’re of little consequence, as are, for what that’s worth Philip and Mary. When it’s followed in this volume by Doting, the title suggests the word’s Elizabethan pronunciation, “noting”; as in the play, there’s a great deal of crossed communication. Here Philip discusses wanting to call off his marriage with his mother:
‘All right my dear,’ she said, ‘But you seem very touchy about this. She’s a nice girl I agree yet I also know she’s not nearly good enough for you. What are we to do about it, that is the question?’
‘To be or not to be Mamma.’
‘Philip don’t dramatize yourself for heaven’s sake. This is no time for Richard II. You just can’t go into marriage in such a frame of mind. Let me simply think!’
(p. 108.) Philip’s response, though he probably doesn’t realize it, is loaded; though the question isn’t “to be or not to be Mamma” but whether his actual father isn’t John, the father of his fiancée, as has been hinted by others. The threat of incest hovers over the book: two-thirds of the way through the book Mary asks her father point-blank if Philip and she are really half-brother and sister, which he strenuously denies. The perceptive reader, however, will have noted that if John is Philip’s father, it’s still entirely possible that John might not be the half-sister of Mary if she is as illegitimate as he is.
As in Much Ado about Nothing, this is a comedy, though there’s a darkness behind it. The subject matter is nothing if not slight; the joy of the book is how perfectly it’s accomplished. The book is almost entirely structured in scenes of dialogue between two characters: they are substituted in and out. The primary exception is the novel’s central scene, a party that Jane has thrown ostensibly for Philip’s twenty-first birthday but actually for herself. Philip and Mary attempt to upstage the action by declaring their engagement, but are deeply disappointed when nobody seems to care as much as they had hoped. This interchange between the two of them is at the center of the novel:
‘I say,’ he said, ‘you do feel better now, you must?’
‘I think so, yes,’
‘Can’t find out yes or no.’
‘But no one can. First something inside says everything is fine,’ she wailed, ‘and the next moment it tells you that something which overshadows everything else is very bad just like an avalanche!’
‘I’m so sorry,’ he said. ‘I truly am.’
They danced again and again until, as the long night went on they had got into a state of unthinking happiness perhaps.
(p. 88.) The way the punctuation is deployed for emotional balance here bears note: in particular, that dangling “perhaps” which doesn’t get a comma and pulls down everything that’s come before it. Mary and Philip aren’t the center of the novel, of course; this is a book about their parents, and Philip comes off as a mooncalf. This is a book about middle age: Mary and Philip are too young to realize what’s going on around them. The reader’s affections lie with John and Jane. In the end, the adults have re-paired, but it’s unclear what will happen to Mary and Philip; they’ll be fine, one suspects.
Edmund White says in his recent memoir that Nothing is the book he’s read the most times. It’s a book that would lend itself to re-reading; the cyclical motion of characters from one scene to the next suggests it. And one wants to inhabit the world of the book, even though if you don’t particularly care about the social manners of the upper class in post-WWII Britain; it’s like Proust, in that regard. But this is also a book that’s tremendously funny: for me it trumps Waugh.