Sunday, July 14, 2019

Loving (1945)

I have my objections to the Modern Library list of the best 20th-century English-language novels, but occasionally it points me to something I might not have got to otherwise. That's the case with this odd British novel by Henry Green. It's an Upstairs, Downstairs type of story set in an Irish country house during the London Blitz attacks of World War II. All the servants and the family too are British. Relations with Ireland and the Irish were tenuous at the time. There's lots of talk against Catholics (called "Romans") and the IRA. But it's a comedy, acerbic and knowing, about how the classes live and abide with one another (or don't). It starts and ends like a fairy tale. The first thing that happens is the head butler dies—one of the funniest death scenes I've ever read, running in the background. The footman who succeeds him, Charley Raunce, is our basic hero, a philandering slippery nogoodnik who appears poised to change for the better, maybe. He's chasing Edith, who is some 20 years his junior, and she appears capable of making him an honest man. Maybe. Meanwhile, the lives of the others grind on, with humdrum petty spats and rancor that is somehow hugely entertaining. You have to work a little at Green's style and approach. It's a 19th-century manners kind of story but told with 20th-century zip: all elliptical concrete details and ear-pure dialogue. Sometimes it's like he's going out of his way to confuse—two boys among the servants are named Albert, for example, and it's easy to mix them up. Others in the household do too. There are episodes of adultery, alcoholism, and other troubles—decoration. The scenes with the unfaithful wife (from upstairs) are funny partly because we know things in these scenes the characters don't. Green is remarkably skillful at setting up and executing scenes like little miniatures. The greatest strength of Loving is that it is so nonjudgmental about all the things it sees. It just shows them to us, with perhaps a hint of a smirk. Can you even believe the things people do? it seems to be saying. Oh look at this now. I liked it quite a bit. I can't explain the title. It's true there's a love story here, but it's mostly unbelievable, in an affable and slightly cheeky sort of way. We have to take it as given. It seems more likely the title was meant to fit with other similar gerund formation titles of Green novels: Living, Party Going, Doting, etc. Not that they're all like that (e.g., Blindness, Caught, Nothing). But they do all have a Pet Shop Boys kind of single-word tang. Loving is good enough I might look into some of them.

In case it's not at the library.

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