Monday, May 17, 2010

Greenery Street

So it's a week since the end of Persephone Reading Week, but I've finally finished Greenery Street, by Denis Mackail. It's a lovely, lovely book, my third Persephone read, definitely confirming my love for these books.

Greenery Street is a road full of identical houses inhabited by newly married couples, who inevitably have children, find their homes too small to accommodate them, and move away. These are houses which no one these days would find too small for a family, and which might even be split up into flats. But in 1925, they were impossibly small for husband, wife, two servants, and children. Greenery Street is sort of its own character, with little gobliny gods who sit on the mantelpiece and laugh at all the couples who think they'll live there forever.

It's an interesting book because it's told in such a variety of styles. Sometimes it's just ordinary prose, sometimes it looks like a script, complete with stage direction. One section is an itemized list of 23, Greenery Street's library, which contains 24 books.
"Item. Cheap edition of The Three Musketeers. Still cheaper edition of Twenty Years After. Bought with present owner's pocket-money, and read almost to pieces.
Item. An exquisitely-bound volume with a gilt lock. Owner was given this by her grandmother, and intended to keep a diary in it. May have actually begun it, but lost the key about seven years ago and so cannot be sure. A very choice specimen." (pg 147)
Felicity and Ian Foster are the very young newly married couple who live at 23, Greenery Street. They have small domestic disputes, money troubles, servant troubles, encounters with family and neighbours, and a continuing inability to retrieve the fish-kettle (whatever that is) or the step-ladder from the neighbours, who borrowed them and never returned them. Few of their difficulties are particularly dramatic, but they're all entertaining. Denis Mackail has a lovely turn of phrase, which can make the most ordinary things very funny. Here is one passage I particularly liked:
"But in Felicity's mind, as she waited to hear his voice on the line, it was Ian's office and Ian's office alone. A composite picture which drew something from her mother's bank, something from the stationery department at Harrod's, and a great deal from the business scenes in American films. Ian would thus be sitting at an enormous roll-top desk, covered with telephones and paste-bottles and cardboard boxes, in a vast apartment with a quantity of glass-panelled doors. A tape-machine would be disgorging into a high, narrow waste-paper basket, and a number of minor characters - vaguely identified as 'the staff' - would keep running in and out of the glass-panelled doors, rather like people in a farce. As for the atmosphere of the place, that would be charged with a tense, electrical excitement. The words 'My God, I'm ruined!' or 'Thank Heaven, we're saved!' would be heard there twenty times a day, but in either case Ian himself would remain imperturbably at his desk, calm, serious and - and perfect. The last adjective was for private consumption only." (pg 2a)
As Rebecca Cohen's preface tells us, Greenery Street is semi-autobiographical. Denis Mackail obviously has a very personal connection to the story, though he also sees the ridiculousness inherent in Greenery Street. This combination is, I think, what makes this book so good.


Thomas at My Porch said...

This is one I read during Persephone Reading Week. And I thought it was a really wonderful read.

Hannah Stoneham said...

This sounds lovely and is one that I have not come across yet so a great recommendation. I read Mariana for PRW - also rather later than the official week itself, and I did enjoy it.

A pleasure to discover your blog.



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