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Thursday, 6 June 2013

Henry Green: Mirroring


Young Woman in front of a Mirror (detail): Giovanni Bellini, (1426-1516) 1515 (Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna)

All of a sudden she was so angry she began to tremble from her toes up.

And Amabel was just drying hers on a towel. The walls were made of looking-glass, and were clouded-over with steam; from them her body was reflected in a faint pink mass. She leaned over and traced her name Amabel in that steam and that pink mass loomed up to meet her in the flesh and looked through bright at her through the letters of her name. She bent down to look at her eyes in the A her name began with, and as she gazed at them steam or her breath dulled her reflection and the blue her eyes were went out or faded.

She rubbed with the palm of her hand, and now she could see all her face. She always thought it more beautiful than anything she had ever seen, and when she looked at herself it was as though the two of them would never meet again, it was to bid farewell; and at the last she always smiled, and she did so this time as it was clouding over, tenderly smiled as you might say good-bye, my darling darling.


Her bath-towel was huge and she slowly rubbed every inch of herself with it as though she were polishing. She was gradually changing colour, where she was dry she was going back to white; for instance, her face was dead white but her neck was red. She was polishing her shoulders now and her neck was paling from red into pink and then suddenly it would go white. And all this time she was drying herself she moved her toes as if she was moulding something.

When Alex came to an end she had not properly heard what he had been saying so she said something almost under her breath, or so low that he in his turn should not catch what she had said, but so that it would be enough to tell him she was listening.

As she went over herself with her towel it was plain that she loved her own shape and skin. When she dried her breasts she wiped them with as much care as she would puppies after she had given them their bath, smiling all the time. But her stomach she wiped unsmiling upwards to make it thin. When she came to dry her legs she hissed like grooms do. And as she got herself dry that steam began to go off the mirror walls so that as she got white again more and more of herself began to be reflected.

She stood out as though so much health, such abundance and happiness should never have clothes to hide it. Indeed she looked as though she were alone in the world and she was so good, and so good that she looked mild, which she was not.

Henry Green (1905-1973): from Party Going, 1939

Young Woman in front of a Mirror: Giovanni Bellini (1426-1516), 1515 (Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna)


TC said...

Henry Green spent eight years working on Party Going, from 1931 to 1938. He was in his mid-twenties when he began work on the novel, well into his thirties by the time he had done with it.

Giovanni Bellini was nearly ninety when he made this painting.

TC said...

More of the brilliant, one-of-his-kind Henry Green:

Henry Green: The Glory

Henry Green: Empty

Wooden Boy said...

...which she was not.

The whole scene changes with those four words. The play in the mirror stops dead.

Wooden Boy said...

I read just a few sentences of Green and everything else seems overladen, dull.

TC said...

Absolutely. That is the genius. He was of that class-set, yet he saw it for what it was, and allowed us to do the same.

With just those four little words.

Marie W said...

The last line, yes. And the first one too? After reading 'All of a sudden she was so angry she began to tremble from her toes up' the scene one expects is a very different one.
A choreography of flesh and cloth.

Marie W said...

her - the towel - a mirror
damp - pores - dilate
surface - slowly - unfolds

TC said...

Marie, this is the climactic scene in a short novel which really gathers its mysterious comic power halfway through with the entry of Amabel, the magnificently self-pleased and beautifully vainglorious rich woman who rides serenely like a swan through the swirl of small agitations that besets a group of "party-going" types stranded in London during a dense fog. The second half of the book builds toward Amabel's bath, and as she finally has it, she maintains a conversation with a fellow just outside, Alex, while her own husband, Max, hovers in the penumbra. The toes in the "entry line" that initiates this grand set-piece passage are those of another member of the party, Angela, a less rich, less beautiful, anxious and clueless woman who serves as a kind of foil to Amabel.

The unique style of Henry Green is a a medium of great complexity, fluidity, and expressiveness. The expressiveness is achieved largely through a sort of "loose" or "subjective" approach to syntax, Green's signature really. He had learnt this approach at "an impressionable age", while at Oxford, by reading the work of Charles Doughty, the great Victorian travel writer. The transposition of the style of Doughty's Arabia Deserta from the deserts of the Sahara to the drawing rooms and hotels of London might seem an unlikely feat, but Green was an unlikely writer, and that transposition became the stylistic foundation upon which he built what I consider to be the most thrilling series of novels writ in English in the past hundred years,

Marie W said...

Thank you for taking the time to write more about this text, Tom, a little bit of background is always very helpful. Not knowing anything about it, I was trying to figure out who is present in the "bathroom", who is observing whom, who is looking in the mirror. Complex and fluid and expressive, that's a beautiful signature indeed.