Party Going in a Pandemic

1 June 2021

Thomas J. Sojka, Boston University

In Henry Green’s Party Going (1939), a fog descends upon London, stopping traffic and trains and leaving travellers bound for home or holidays stranded. A travelling party en route to the south of France seeks refuge in a nearby hotel, while many people are left standing outside, full of uncertainty of what to do next. The novel is one of plans interrupted, of inertia stalled, and of anxieties about the impossibility of mobility. Similarly, the world shuddered to a halt in early 2020 with the onset of a pandemic. But, unlike the fog in the novel, which lifts after four or five hours allowing for normal life to resume and for travellers to continue their journeys, the pandemic that drove us indoors and disrupted our travel has been here for a year and a half. In contrast to other party fiction from the interwar years, where the parties never seem to end—one only needs to think of the oft-quoted litany of parties[1] from Evelyn Waugh’s Vile Bodies (1930)—the party in Party Going seems to never start. The frustration with this sense of being trapped and with the inability to do anything to change our circumstances makes Green’s novel a choice read for our present moment. The end, similarly, gives us some hope for the months ahead—the fog does lift, and everyone, suddenly, is able to resume their daily lives.

In his introduction to Party Going, Amit Chaudhuri compares the novel to Jean Renoir’s The Rules of the Game (also released in 1939), in which members of upper-class society similarly find themselves trapped inside and making much ado about nothing. These works are not ‘about either belonging somewhere or being in exile’, but instead, much like pandemic living has felt, ‘about inhabiting a transient, busy state of unfinishedness. […] Both appear just prior to the destruction of the worlds contained within them, and both possess an odd indestructibility’.[2] This sense of catastrophe on the horizon pervades the mood of the novel, particularly as Miss Fellowes, an elderly aunt of one of the travellers, falls ill after handling a dead pigeon that had fallen from the sky in the novel’s opening line. Despite all this, there is an attempt at normalcy in a crisis. As one character settles in to the hotel, he immediately phones for cocktail ingredients (likely for a ‘Pegu Club Cocktail’[3]):

Please send up cocktail things. No, I don’t want a man, we’ll make it ourselves. I want a shaker, some gin, a bottle of Cointreau and some limes. How much? Send up two of everything and about twelve limes. No, no only one bottle of Cointreau. These people here are fools.[4]

Green, at times, lacks subtlety—among the paintings adorning the hotel walls is one of Nero fiddling while Rome burned: those indoors drink cocktails and tea or bathe to pass the time, while the crowd below chants for want of trains. Here we see a kind of ‘failed festivity’, as described by the critic Christopher Ames: ‘the undifferentiated masses grown too large for a whole community to be viable; and the frightened rich cut off from so much life. […] If human contact is possible, it must be in some other context’.[5] The party inside the hotel pales in comparison to the Riviera sunshine they might have expected, just as attempts at Zoom happy hours, a simulacrum of sociability, fall flat for us.

As in The Rules of the Game, Party Going likewise lays bare the differences in experience between the wealthy and working classes. The doors to the hotel, in which the travelling party takes refuge, are closed off with steel shutters to keep out the throng of people at the threshold (a precautionary measure, as during a previous onset of fog, a crowd rushed in and destroyed the lobby). Julia, leaning out the window to view the people, looks on their lozenge-like faces with fear:

‘It’s terrifying,’ Julia said, ‘I didn’t know there were so many people in the world.’

‘Do shut the window, Julia.’

‘But why? Max, there’s a poor woman down there where that end of the crowd’s swaying. Did you hear her call? Couldn’t you do something about it?’

He leaned out of the window.

‘Couldn’t get down there I’m afraid, doors are shut,’ he said.

At that she closed this window and said he was quite right and that it was silly of her to suggest it. ‘After all,’ she said, ‘one must not hear too many cries for help in this world. If my uncle answered every begging letter he received he would have nothing left in no time.’

It was extraordinary how quiet their room became once that window was shut.[6]

While Julia can seek refuge because of her wealthy uncle’s connections, so many others are unable to gain access to the inside to await the passing of the fog. Similarly, the pandemic has showcased differences in lived experience between the rich and the poor, specifically in differing access to medical care and vaccines. As Julia points out, helping everyone who needs assistance seems like an impossibility. But should it be?

The fog of the novel has something of a levelling effect—everyone is trapped and together, though their individual circumstances might differ. In contrast to the comfort of the hotel interior, those outside were ‘so crowded together they were beginning to be pressed against each other, so close that every breath had been inside another past that lipstick or those cracked lips, those even teeth, loose dentures, down into their lungs, so weary, so desolate and cold it silenced them’.[7] But as the fog lifts, the crowd disperses, transforming from a menacing mass to submissive sheep who are ‘shepherded into pens and journey back to food, home, warmth and sleep’.[8] As our own pandemic fog begins to lift, where are we going? And should we be as quick to rush out to resume our lives as though nothing has changed? The novel’s fog was a temporary inconvenience, but its publication coincided with another catastrophic war. So, while the darkest days of the pandemic seem to be behind us, we should be mindful of the potential danger ahead and not rush too brazenly back to normalcy. As Amabel, the novel’s it girl, remarks: ‘“What’s the hurry?” she said, noticing at once how he had changed, “they’ve waited all this time they can wait a bit longer.”’[9]


Sources

[1] ‘“Oh, Nina, what a lot of parties.”

(…Masked parties, Savage parties, Victorian parties, Greek parties, Wild West parties, Russian parties, Circus parties, parties where one had to dress as somebody else, almost naked parties in St John’s Wood, parties in flats and studios and houses and ships and hotels and night clubs, windmills and swimming-baths, tea parties at school where one ate muffins and meringues and tinned crab, parties at Oxford where one drank brown sherry and smoked Turkish cigarettes, dull dances in London and comic dances in Scotland and disgusting dances in Paris—all that succession and repetition of massed humanity… Those vile bodies…)’. Evelyn Waugh, Vile Bodies (New York: Penguin, 1996), p. 104.

[2] Amit Chaudhuri, ‘Introduction’, in Henry Green, Party Going (New York: New York Review Books, 2017), p. ix.

[3] A specialty of the Pegu Club, Burma, s.v. Harry Craddock, Savoy Cocktail Book (London: Constable & Co, 1930), p. 120.

[4] Henry Green, Party Going (New York: New York Review Books, 2017), pp. 39–40.

[5] Christopher Ames, The Life of the Party: Festive Vision in Modern Fiction (Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 1991), p. 218.

[6] Green, pp. 62–63.

[7] Green, p. 128.

[8] Green, p. 159.

[9] Green, p. 146.

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