Sunday, 2 July 2017

A Spat

We blame Henry. Inviting us to join him in this fog-filled park he walks too quickly; is getting too far ahead, skipping along with his little lantern we surmised was our servant. We stumble behind, on a feeble path of light, hardly seeing our own footsteps; thoughts tripping over sentences, our ideas zigzag amongst the wild beds, and are lost in this park’s overgrown prose. Hallo! I’m so sorry. Pushing aside the branches of a bush I bump into a pretty woman, who looks worried, fragile… I am lost. Can you help me? She wants, she says, to get out of this park, this fog, this man’s entangling paragraphs. I shake my head; shout out: Henry! Henry Green!

As a path she was following turned this way and that round bushes and shrubs that hid from her what she would find she felt she would next come upon this fog dropped suddenly down to the ground, when she would be lost.

Ah, there you are. Henry’s back, and I ask him to explain to this woman - it is Julia, isn’t it? - that there is nothing to worry about, really there isn’t; he’ll show you the way through. Henry always reticent, we think of a cloudy sky slowly clearing itself of clouds, is starting to speak when a stranger rushes up; he offers assistance, asks Henry to repeat himself - I didn’t quite catch… - repeating what Henry says to make sure that we have got it right. He lights a cigarette. A tiny furnace in a storm of smoke. We wait for it to go out. Right then. The stranger agrees it is confusing. He tells what us he thinks Henry means. Henry uncomfortable, touching the woman’s arm, smiles at some joke he isn’t going to share. I am not sure. I feel that…that maybe some of the fog has floated in between this man’s and Henry’s words. I imagine two different sentences separated by dashes; changing these dashes to stones I build a precarious ford where I bring our heroine to safety. But, oh no: crossing the river she slips, falls, disappears… I drop back into this fog-filled scene, and watch Henry bending across to Julia. I catch a few words, but they make little sense to me; and so I play with them; creating a man who is groping for meaning; they are an old man’s hands over a young woman’s body; yes, I am going again, losing myself I imagine a woman lying naked on the ground, her arms flung out behind her head, her fingers seeking…knuckles on the grass her fingers are touching, tickling, grasping…at an invisible object in the air; I hear some words, the sigh of a sad song - I will find it, she sings - as Henry, on his knees, quiet and careful, plays his tune, her flesh palpitating to his touch.

Only after a double or even triple take and some careful attention to this shifty ‘would’s, ever ready to switch from imperfect to conditional and so keep us from separating the wood from the trees in this foggy park, do we come upon a reading that gives a deeper sense to that extraordinary succession of verbs at the core of the sentence: Julia went round bushes that hid from her what she thus discovered (‘would find’) that she had been expecting (‘felt’) to come upon to the other side, but didn’t. To arrive at this reading is to appreciate that nothing so much as disorientation will help you discover what you expected but didn't find. This isn’t a book like any other.

This interpretation is important to Tim Parks, who uses it to produce a brilliant reading that gives a concrete meaning to a novel suffused with allusiveness. He wants Party Going to represent the entrance of chaos into a willed and habitual civility where it releases surprising novelties, creative joy, the acts of art itself. Or as Parks describes it, describing it beautifully.

It’s a state of decomposition that cannot help but remind us of our precariousness. Yet at the same time it is also the warm and fertile sea from which all life once crept. No wonder we felt we were far from home! Everything interrupted, sense perception blocked, the ancient archetypes are free to rise up quite naturally like dreams in a Jungian sleep…

All Green’s work is inspired by his perception of a complicity between composition and decomposition, between the creative and corrosive powers of the mind, or again by the way a disability, a misunderstanding, can unleash powerful and vital forces, or a dying auntie have the most astonishing hallucinations. 

This reading is a marvellous riposte to Frank Kermode’s opinion as to why although Green is a highly praised novelist he is not part of the established canon, no regular to the academic journals…

Party Going [is] a work that perversely frustrated every analytical tool in the hermeneutic workshop. Brilliant as it is, Kermode insists, Party Going cannot be made to make sense as a whole.

Is Parks right? Accosting the old professor in the park, has he laid him out, rifled his pockets, removed and stolen away with that beautiful Harvill edition; erasing Frank’s notes, overlaying his own?

Long had I been following this curious pair: a young man delivering lengthy answers to his own questions, while an older man shambles silently at his side, staring at his own feet. What the… Surprised by a sudden head butt - he has got too close, become too vociferous in his arguments - I rush across to the stricken pensioner. There is an altercation, strong oaths are uttered, the young man tears up a card and throws it at my face (later, when I put the pieces together, I see it is for the Christina Stead Appreciation Society, Shropshire Division), and gestures to the elderly man who is now clambering to his feet, his hands clutching at an iron bench. We cannot make out his words. And now the young man is running away, shouting as he runs: you’ll never get Letty Fox. Letty? I saw her on Tuesday evening; tomorrow she said was free, plenty of time to squeeze me in between five and six. But perhaps he means this old chap… Are you alright sir? Yes, yes, nothing a short pint won’t cure. 

We go to a pub, the Duke of York. Comfortable and content the professor watches a beautiful brunette, who dressed from ankle to neck in peacock blue, is walking up and down the bar, collecting men’s smiles like a connoisseur. He remembers her from Parade’s End; talks about himself, describing himself as an old battered soldier, the end of a line: my kind of criticism is passing you know, and I, perhaps, am responsible. I ask him to explain. He talks about names I do not know. I tell him I rarely visit the front line; that academic critics are strangers to me, foreigners you might say. He smiles. Very wise, and quotes Valéry.

As a path she was following turned this way and that round bushes and shrubs that hid from her what she would find she felt she would next come upon this fog dropped suddenly down to the ground, when she would be lost.

Is this sentence resolved, in the way Parks believes? Drinking our drinks, admiring the imperial swing of Clio’s tall beauty, that gentle sway of the hips, the stern of a blue little boat rolling on little blue waves, we discuss his idea, but come to a different conclusion; glancing again at a walk commanding the atmosphere of this pub, the rhythm of these men’s beer glasses. Julia’s thoughts are not revealed as illusion or mistake but are part of an experience that straddles both the imaginary and the real, the present and the future; Green’s words capturing perfectly that moment when a slight anxiety is turning into panic as Julia steps into and envisages the unknown; an imaginary future invading an uncomfortable present causing the idea and the emotions suddenly to fuse and mash together turning unease into fear. We are not witnessing this scene after the event, so making sense of it, but are placed right in the middle of the mental action, feeling this woman’s chaos and insecurity.

Clio comes over; touching Frank’s knee she gives me a knowing smile: a flicker of irony suggests I’ve talked too long. If only Henry was here; she laughs, asking for a whisky. You know him, then. Of course, we are both regulars. She laughs again, resting her hand on Frank’s head.

There is no “hermeneutic” meaning in this sentence, such a meaning designed stand as a synecdoche for the novel. No! It is a marvellously precise description of a discombobulating experience when, in an uncomfortable situation, the imagination goes on a riot. I recall Frank, as he levered himself off the grass, grabbing hold of that bench, wobbling a little… Two women walked up and asked if we were ok; could we help? Although Frank seemed a bit confused his words were clear and concise, and yet they meant nothing to them - it is the influence of Eliot, of the French; think of Mallarmé. I said it’s fine. He’s perfectly ok. A professor, of English, you know.

Parks will not listen to such defeatism.

As we begin to read, we expect something like: As she went this way and that round bushes that hid from her what she would find on the other side, she felt… lost. But no, for immediately after the word ‘felt’, the sentence speeds up and complicates in an alarming way. The problem then becomes, where are we to put the comma that ends the temporal clause and introduces the main clause?

Commas? Who needs them! Isn’t Park’s own acute insight - “the sentence speeds up and complicates in an alarming way” - enough to tell us what is going on here? A slightly anxious walk through a fog-suffused path suddenly, immediately shifts into an existential fear, caused by the walk, the bushes, the fog, an imagined future. A physical experience produces an idea that melds with that experience heightening it, filling it with horror, overwhelming Julia with chaos. Or to put it another way: the future coexists in the present, the idea with the physical experience, the sentence capturing this juxtaposition of different states, whose fusion is making them more extreme, more terrible. This is too messy for Parks, who wants to separate out such a confused mass into its component parts.

Could it be: As she went round bushes that hid what she would find COMMA she feared (felt) that she would come upon this fog dropped own (rather than staying up in the trees) in which case she would be lost. Certainly that’s possible. But ugly. It also prevents us from reading ‘this fog dropped suddenly down’ as a strong indicative end to the sentence.

Hallo Henry! The girl swoons as Henry speaks, sliding his hand up her long blue thigh. What were you saying… He’s back. Yes, it is Parks, swinging his head inside the lounge door.

Alternatively we might read the main clause as beginning with ‘she would next come upon’ thus: As she went round bushes that hid what she would find COMMA or so she imagined (felt) COMMA she would come upon this fog dropped down, and then she would be lost. But again the thing seems unwieldy and the attractive rhythm set up in ‘what she would find she felt she would next come upon’ disappears.

The commas slow the sentence down and separate out the tenses, the future conceived as different from the present, the mind distinct from the act of walking. This, surely, is not the author’s intention; Green wanting, surely, to jumble all these up so that we feel that quick accelerating shift, that rapid gear change, from a slight anxiousness to uncontrollable panic, caused by Julia’s apprehension about something she cannot see but imagines vividly. It is a magnetically true description from life: in an uncomfortable situation our imagination, delighting in the worst fictions, magnifies our fears. It is a lesson we all learn eventually: that we are forever at the mercy of this wicked fiend, our vagabond mind, when we step outside the order and security of our habitual regimes.

Clio calls Parks over, kisses him on the cheek, invites him to sit down. They too are old friends; both are intimate with Henry, who smiles agreeably at Parks; saying only that he prefers images to ideas; images and words, their curious rhythms, there is where the story lies. I pop up rather foolishly: the meaning isn’t represented but embodied in the text; where we feel it, the details resonating. Clio pouts at me. Frank is enjoying his second pint. I can’t stop myself… In a fog we panic and get things wrong; and we may never even realise this; Julia walking around the bushes experiencing an exhilarating relief that the fog isn’t total will forget her previous fears; those last few moments vanishing forever. Julia’s reaction being emotional not intellectual it is not open to the retrospective reflection - after she has walked past the bushes - that she has made a mistake. Everything fused, all is confusing; and this going on and on and on. And then stops. And goes. As if never existed.

Oh, I think we better go now; Frank looks done in. The professor is slumped in a rickety chair. Clio touches the top of his head, draws a finger down his cheek. Frank wakes up, stares vacantly, and nods slightly forward. She kisses him on the nose. Are we finished? Have you understood? He drinks up the dregs of his pint. Leaning over him, we think of a scholar under an angle-poise lamp, Clio laughingly says yes lighting up his sleepy eyes. She turns back to me, winks, says good night and leaves; Henry’s arm around her waist, Parks and the professor trailing just behind.

I am left alone, an elbow soaked in a pool of bitter. Parks reading of the novel is exhilarating, but would it have occurred without his interpretation of this sentence? Did an obsession to interpret these words, to translate a calculated literary confusion into a critical discourse, unleash a powerful and vital hermeneutic force that has allowed us see this novel afresh? Although it could be the other way round: having discovered a meaning has he alighted onto this sentence to prove it? Questions. They are a reader’s old friends… Clio has come back: tomorrow then? Here or at the Dover Arms

Elsewhere in the collection Parks writes that we have a desire to both to solve the riddle of a work and leave that riddle intact - we want always to feel that shiver of perplexity, of doubt.1 Here he has given way to the temptation to solve a work - it is the critic’s role of course - but, fortunately, he leaves us contemplating the mystery: we remain lost with Julia in the fog. Nothing is clear in Henry Green. With him our analytic mind has to take a rest: we must feel the symbols not explain them. But a critic, and especially a great critic, cannot merely describe, he must elucidate, analyse, speculate; a novel not a place to relax but the ground for a teeming mess of sensations, that are then fixed into literary form. Turning novel into more suitable terrain we can say that a park is not a place simply to enjoy (this is Julia’s discovery: her park no easy shortcut to a holiday) for the critic it is a path, sometimes pretty, often dull, occasionally masked with fog, hidden by overgrown bushes, that is taking him home, to the study, a notebook and the pencil beside it. There are times when he will lose his way. Hurrah! Better to make (to create?) small mistakes and produce criticism of enormous value than be an accurate reader with nothing to say.2 Bravo! Mr Parks. Come on Mr Schloss, we are waiting.


2.  The fate of Eudora Welty when she discusses Green in Eye of the Story.

1 comment:

  1. I enjoyed reading.

    Thank you. Love love, Andrew. Bye.