Book Report 001: Denis Mackail, GREENERY STREET

Persephone Books · 1925

There was no question what the inaugural entry in this mad project would be; at least, there wasn't once I remembered it. I'd been champing at the bit for six months, ever since I'd sent away for the Persephone edition of this book, the book that first made me aware of the Persephone Press back in 2004, a book that had achieved a sort of mythic aura as I groped for it on the nightstand and then shoved it away resolutely. Not yet; wait till the new year. I've put off a lot of reading for this blog.

Persephone Press, in case you don't know, is a boutique English publisher that specializes in reprinting women's literature. Not with the feminist's gimlet eye as employed by say, Virago, but with an interest in vanished or overlooked representations of feminine interests, manners, and mores from the Victorian era to the not-too-recent past. Their biggest success so far has been their reissue of Winifred Watson's Miss Pettigrew Lives For A Day — as books on which even small movies are based tend to be. (Remind me some time to tell you of my adventures among the Yateses.) I loved Miss Pettigrew (both book and movie, but book more than movie) with the simple love which I reserve for children, animals, and sedate comic fiction, and I was expecting, or at least hoping, to love Greenery Street as well.

But before I talk about the book in question, let me go back to that phrase "comic fiction." It's just as well that we get one thing straight before proceeding any further: I believe that comic fiction is its own genre, just as worthy of attention and respect as the conventionalized genres of mystery, science fiction, fantasy, western, or romance — or of any other literary form. P. G. Wodehouse is about the only writer in the genre generally recognized by the standard authorities — and they're not wrong, he's the Master, and stands in relationship to comic fiction as Tolkien does to fantasy — but he's far from being alone, even if he is unique. Denis Mackail was one of his peers, and one of his friends, and in her introduction to Persephone's edition, Rebecca Cohen quotes a letter Wodehouse wrote to Mackail in which he calls Greenery Street "uncommonly like genius."

Genius is not a word I'm comfortable using (I try to live my life by the motto "it takes one to know one"), but I can't remember the last time I took so much real delight in reading a book as I did this one. If it occasionally stumbles into tweedom — a few too many apostrophizing asides for modern taste — it still never fails to be utterly charming. Almost nothing happens in it, neither of the two main characters are very intelligent and even when they are they're miserably inarticulate, and everyone is so unfailingly polite that the most tense scene in the book is composed of two men mostly saying "Oh — nothing," to each other. It's cozy and comfortable —I've read two reviews on the Internet that insist it should be read with hot cocoa, preferably under blankets during a rainy day — but there are intriguing hints of a wider vision. I could see a very different novel — a stern, clear-eyed modern novel of the period — being written about a secondary character, full of psychological drama and sexual frankness and Not Caring A Damn.

But Mackail (like Wodehouse) does care; which is just the trouble. Cohen's portrait in the introduction of the author as "a rather lonely young man who cannot believe the happiness that is allowed him when he gets married and comes to live in his own house with his own wife whom he adores" is heartbreaking on the one hand and pathetic on the other — the two-fisted "terrible honesty" aesthetic of modernism just then ascendant would cast all such sensitivity as unpardonable weakness. Greenery Street, by embracing this sensitivity — there isn't a single male character in it who doesn't turn shy and incoherent at the slightest sign of conflict, or even praise — becomes an unlikely champion for the "feminine" virtues of domesticity and placidity. Which is why it makes sense as part of the Persephone line; even if Mackail was a man, this is the least masculine literature (if, say, Hemingway and Hammett represent that end of the spectrum) that there is. But I always liked Jane Austen more than Mark Twain anyway.

Which reminds me: if I'd read this book five years ago I probably wouldn't have liked it as much — that quicksilver drop of Real Life running through the gentle comedy would have spoiled it, in my Wodehouse idolatry. But where Wodehouse was clumsy about things like sex and passion and therefore left them alone, Mackail has a defter touch, and manages an Austenian moral drama without compromising his airy comedy.

I first heard of Denis Mackail when I was going through the university library's stacks looking for short stories to photocopy. (Don't ask.) I next heard of him when I read a short story of his in an anthology curated by Wodehouse. A web search brought me to Persephone; and now that I've read Greenery Street I'm eager to read more. Of course, that will have to wait. I've still got the rest of my library to get through first.

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