The tension between precisions and generalities that catches scholars seeking to define the character of literary modernism fruitfully animates the work of novelist Henry Green. Green takes as his subject matter the ordinary stuff of life—commonplace language, routine experiences, unremarkable relationships—transforming dullness into novelistic event. Two novels demonstrate Green's extraordinary effects achieved through and with the banal, the boring, the vague, and the everyday: Party Going (1939) and Nothing (1951). In Party Going, a group of people stranded at a train station wait with their luggage, order drinks, and lose and find various members of their party. In its attention to the bathetic quotidian, Party Going animates a range of late modernist anxieties about time, leisure, and subjective experience that manifest in the novel's fretful leveling of objects and experiences using the repeated, vague signifier things. Later, in Nothing, a group of socialites—a young couple, their parents, who were former lovers, and the parents’ lovers—have conversations in restaurants and pubs. Nothing dramatizes the inane nature of polite conversation, in which “-thing” is used as a block, as though to empty a conversation of significant information. The multiple subjects and objects embraced by the vague term things suggests that Green's fiction is preoccupied with the “utter contingency of everything (and every thing)” in the modernist period, as Douglas Mao notes. In these novels’ recourse to the any, some, every, or no things of the quotidian, Green explores the potential difference, remarkable sameness, and fuzzy difficulty of late modernist style.
Things and Nothings: Henry Green and the Late Modernist Banal
naomi milthorpe is lecturer in English at the University of Tasmania. The author of Evelyn Waugh's Satire: Texts and Contexts (2016), she is currently interested in the negative affects that cling to comic and satiric representations in the literature of late modernity.
Naomi Milthorpe; Things and Nothings: Henry Green and the Late Modernist Banal. Novel 1 May 2017; 50 (1): 97–111. doi: https://doi.org/10.1215/00295132-3854315
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