Oh Henry Green, why don't more people read you? It's time this changed, and perhaps Henry Green Week (Jan 23-29 2012) is the moment for this to happen.
Anyway, I've just finished Concluding, which is the third Henry Green novel I have read. The first two were Loving and Party Going and as you will see if you click on the links I was absolutely astonished, amazed and in love with both of them. I'm glad I read them before Concluding, which is a different kind of novel. Well, in fact those two are also different from each other, but for me Concluding, though it has some wonderful moments, is not so consistently magical as the first two.
The novel was published in 1948 and it's set -- when? I'd like to say in a sort of mildly dystopian present. You would probably not notice this at first, but it gradually dawns on you that the girls' boarding school in which the novel is set is under the control of a repressive State, which demands Reports and lays down stringent Rules which are often hard to follow. At one point the two principals, Miss Baker and Miss Edge, are confounded by a Directive that the whole institution is to be turned over to pig-farming, which the girls are to be trained to pursue. But all this is almost incidental to the main plot, which takes place over the course of a single day.
Central to the novel is Mr Rock, an 'old and famous' man, who lives in a cottage in the school grounds. The cottage is coveted by Miss Edge, who wants to move him into an old folks home, something he is well aware of and is resisting like mad as he wants to stay there with his beloved goose Ted, his equally beloved pig Daisy and his cat Alice -- not to mention his grandaughter Liz, who is recovering from a recent breakdown, and her lover Sebastian Birt who is one of the teachers at the school. As the day begins the school is in an uproar as two girls, Mary and Merode, have gone missing. Later Merode is found by Liz and Sebastian in a wood, asleep, wearing her pyjamas, which are torn. The school puts her into isolation where she is told she will stay until she reveals what happened, which she never does, or at least she has not done so by the end of the day. As for Mary, who knows where she has gone, and we certainly never find out. As the day wears on the school starts to prepare for the founders' day ball in the evening, which despite all the upheavals does at last take place. Many perplexing things happen during the evening, and the novel ends as Mr Rock is escorted by Liz back to the cottage through the dark night.
So yes, there is a plot, but for goodness sake don't go expecting it to be a conclusive one -- indeed the novel's title seems to be ironic, for nothing here is concluded at all -- everyone talks at cross purposes -- Mr Rock is deaf and mishears much that is said to him -- Miss Edge almost passes out from smoking too many cigarettes and makes a ham-fisted attempt to propose to Mr Rock in order to get her hands on the cottage -- the girls seem to be drawn sexually to Sebastian but also perhaps to Adams, a surly widower who lives in the wood -- Liz is desperate for Sebastian to marry her but it's unclear whether he ever will -- and so on. There is comedy of a sort here, but also much that is disturbing, and the lack of closure is quite unsettling.
But what I love most about Henry Green is his passages of astonishing beauty, of which there are fewer here than in the other two I've read. Those there are, however, give me a pleasure possibly more intense than I get from any other writer. Here are Liz and Sebastian out walking in the wood:
A world through which the young man and his girl had been meandering on dreaming shade through which sticks of sunlight slanted to spill upon the ground, had, at this point, been struck to a blaze, and where their way had been dim, on a sea bed past grave trunks, was now this dying, brilliant mass which lay exposed, a hidden world of spiders working on its gold, the webs these made a field of wheels and spokes of wet silver. The sudden sunlight on Elizabeth and Sebastian as, arms about one another's waists, they halted to wonder and surmise, was a load, a great cloak to clothe them, like a depth of warm water that turned the man's brown city outfit to a drowned man's clothes, the sun was so heavy, so encompassing betimes..... "Adams won't like this", she said, and turned with a smile which was for him alone to let him take her, and helped his heart find hers by fastening her mouth on his as though she were an octopus that had lost its arms to the propellers of a tug, and had only its mouth now with which, in a world of the hunted, to hang onto the wrecked spars.
How could you help loving a novelist who can write like that?
Now on to Henry Green Week. I only just discovered this by virtue of Simon's announcement on Stuck in a Book, which pointed me towards its originator, Winston's Dad. So if you are one of those people, of whom there seem to be an unnerving number, with unread Henry Green novels languishing on the shelf, just dust them down in January and get on with it. It will, I promise you, be an experience you will never forget.