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Reading Henry Green
by Brooke Allen
A review of Surviving: The Uncollected Writings of Henry Green edited by Matthew Yorke.
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Henry Green is one of the literary enigmas of the twentieth century. Twenty years after his death, posterity seems still to be groping for an evaluation of his slim oeuvre—nine novels and a memoir, all produced between 1926 and 1952, when he stopped writing at the age of forty-seven. “I find it so exhausting now I simply can’t do it any more,” he told an interviewer, though he lived on for over twenty years, increasingly eccentric and reclusive. He refused even to leave his London house for the last seven years of his life, nor would he consent to being photographed except from the rear. In 1973 he died, a very old sixty-eight.
He achieved neither commercial success nor wholehearted enthusiasm from the literary pundits, though he commanded, then and now, excitement amounting to passion from certain readers, an oddly assorted group including W. H. Auden, Elizabeth Bowen, Terry Southern, Eudora Welty, and John Updike. About his readership he exposed the ambivalence that characterized every attitude he ever held. “I write for about six people (including myself) whom I respect and for no one else,” he claimed, though he never gave up the vain, one might even say deluded, hope that his work would one day bring in a comfortable income. So oblique and subtle is Green’s style that, as Terry Southern points out, he has been called not merely a writer’s writer but a writer’s writer’s writer; yet he himself criticized Joyce and the later Henry James for allowing the excesses of their styles to hinder communication between author and reader.
If Green’s working aesthetic was delicate, allusive, and cryptic, it was in mysterious contrast to the anti-intellectualism he otherwise affected. He despised literary conversation, preferring flirtation and gossip. Though he read about eight books a week, according to his son, Sebastian Yorke,
the standard of the novels never seemed to matter… . He rarely praised a book; there were some American authors he would admit to liking, but he seemed to admire no contemporary English writers. He never re-read a book or selected one from his small library of ‘classics’ collected in his Oxford days. Nor can I recall him reading anything by his professed idols: Gogol, Turgenev, [C. M.] Doughty [the author of Travels in Arabia Deserta], Céline or Faulkner. He only liked novels—he would not read poetry or biography. He loved thrillers and magazines, particularly Time magazine.
This most artful and self-conscious of writers was very clearly uncomfortable in the role of artist. The discomfort was perhaps inevitable when one takes into consideration the fact that Green never rejected his decidedly philistine background.
It seems fitting to follow Green’s own careful differentiation between his literary and non-literary selves and to call him by his pseudonym when speaking of his work and by his real name, Henry Yorke, when speaking of his life. Henry Vincent Yorke was born in 1905. His father was the owner of a large Gloucestershire estate, and the chairman of the Birmingham engineering works of which Henry was to become managing director, H. Pontifex & Sons. (With his usual love of the grotesque, Henry liked to claim that the firm manufactured toilets, though its principal products were in fact beer-bottling machines.) His mother was a daughter of the second Baron Leconfield. Henry Yorke was thus not only an aristocrat but an industrialist as well. Anthony Powell, a lifelong friend, remarked that “if one side of Yorke found the silver spoon a handicap to respiration, another accepted it as understandably welcome; and coming to terms with opposed inner feelings about his family circumstances, his writing, his business, his social life, was something he never quite managed to achieve to his own satisfaction.”
Apart from his writing, Yorke led a fairly conventional life. He was not academically brilliant like his father and older brothers; though he was a published novelist while still an undergraduate, he left Oxford without a degree. He then began working for Pontifex, spending his first year on the shop floor with the men before joining the management in London. He passed the rest of his working life with the firm, living in a comfortable house with his wife, Dig (Adelaide), and their son. Though Yorke was not a successful industrialist, he was a dedicated one, and he never let his writing take precedence over his business responsibilities. His books were written in his spare time and his habits were those of any upper-middle-class businessman; he abhorred all things bohemian. It has become customary to refer to him, in his youth, as a Bright Young Thing, but the cliché is misleading: Diana Mosley, writing that “The Bright Young People [was] an expression that always made us laugh,” says that she and her circle used it “of our particularly serious friends, Bright Young Roy Harrod or Bright Young Henry Yorke.”
Green’s unwillingness to pontificate about aesthetics has resulted in a general critical uncertainty about his actual importance as a writer. His books are rarely in print and, though he receives a few passing glances from the academy, an enthusiasm for Green is now seen as evidence of specialized, even arcane, tastes. When speaking of his work, people hesitate to commit themselves, usually saying that he is an interesting writer, but … For if it is difficult completely to swallow Green’s demanding, often precious prose style, it it also impossible to write him off. And the extraordinary range of his gifts is indicated in the fact that, among the nine novels, there is virtually no repeat material; each novel attempts something wholly different from the last. Green was not one to develop a style or theme over the years, building onto it with every new book. Rather, with reckless confidence, he attacked each novel as though it were his first.
Nor did Green ever attempt to take the easy route in his writing. He always reached for extremes, sometimes becoming labored in his wish to avoid the elegant and the Augustan. His own literary tastes were for the strenuous, the magnificent, the muscular: Carlyle and Doughty were lifelong passions, and his admiration for James and Woolf is unsurprising. In Blindness, his first novel, begun and mostly written while he was still at Eton, Green had already begun seeking the limits of the possibilities of English syntax, and in his second novel, Living, he found those limits and began to stretch them.
A certain degree of failure, of course, was inevitable, and the diversity of Green’s achievements is matched by a corresponding variety in quality. In one paragraph he will hit the bull’s eye with a magnificent felicity of phrasing, in the next he will overreach himself and produce a piece of prose that is very bad indeed. He could produce a vivid image with a minimum of words, and Green was always strongest when handling the concrete, either in descriptive prose or in dialogue. In Nothing, for example, a young couple enters a French restaurant without having reserved a table: “They were standing before Pascal, close together in an attitude of humility while Gaspard sneered in their faces. It was plain they were not known.” By the same token, Green’s stylistic exertions can be disastrous. His omission of the definite article in many of his early stories and in Living is a case in point. “I wanted to make [my prose] as taut and spare as possible,” he later said, “to fit the proletarian life I was then leading.” Intermittently, the trick is effective, producing scenes of great beauty, as in this passage from Living:
In 1958 Green said that he would not employ this technique again, giving as his reason that “it may now seem, I’m afraid, affected.” And so it does, especially when he insisted upon the principle too dogmatically:
The conceit is audacious, and in order for it to succeed each sentence must be perfect; even a slight bungling is enough to make an entire passage ridiculous. Green’s style thus often descends into pure mannerism, and it is certain that he has antagonized many readers who ought otherwise to be favorably disposed to his work. Both Southern and Updike describe Green’s “tendency toward authorial invisibility,” but in fact precisely the opposite is true, for there is never a moment, even during Green’s smoothest displays of ventriloquism, when the reader could possibly mistake his work for that of any other author. Concluding, a case in point, establishes atmosphere with such obsessive detail that it becomes a book about atmosphere to the exclusion of everything else. Caught is another novel in which style takes center stage; Green focuses so single-mindedly upon re-creating nuances of voice and dialect that the central psychological situation is finally consumed within the showy display of fine characterization. Orville Prescott complained of Green’s “excessive concentration on method rather than matter,” and Philip Toynbee called him a “terrorist of language”; “‘the,’” he wrote, “is both an innocent and a useful word and to concentrate so heavy a gun against it seems a curious misdirection of this writer’s fire-power.”
These censures are too often merited. But in a masterpiece like Loving, where Green was able so exquisitely to modulate his idiom to suit his glorious and trivial subject, the reader forgets all of Green’s sins in pure admiration of his virtuosity.
This novel about the goings-on among a group of servants in a great country house in Ireland during the owners’ absence is, perhaps, the best-known and best-loved of Green’s novels. It is characteristic, too, of one of the features that has made Green such an anomaly among English writers of this century: his apparent classlessness. Though Green can describe his own milieu, and brilliantly (Blindness, Party Going, Nothing, Doting), he seems equally at home among the petty bourgeoisie (Back, Caught) and the working classes (Loving, Living). In fact he is perceived by many readers to be a writer specifically proletarian in sympathy and focus. But the fact that these same readers all tend themselves to come from the upper and upper-middle classes should alert us to be wary of this conclusion. Though Living has been called the “best proletarian novel ever written,” Green himself was quick to point out that “the workers in my factory thought it rotten. It was my very good friend Christopher Isherwood used that phrase … and I don’t know that he ever worked in a factory.” Green’s year on the works floor in Birmingham gave him a lifelong respect for the proletariat, and it is possible that Living celebrated that world with just a touch of romanticism. Though Green himself believed the proletarian inspiration to be central to his aesthetic, he led (except for the Birmingham period and his time in the Auxiliary Fire Service during the war) an unexceptionably upper-middle-class life.
And while Green was a member of the so-called Auden generation, he was entirely out of step with that group’s philosophy of political commitment and activism. Throughout the Thirties (the decade in which Auden, Day Lewis, Orwell, and Upward, all Green’s contemporaries and social co-equals, were producing literature of passionately left-wing inspiration), Green was engaged in the painstaking composition of Party Going, a novel which dwells almost exclusively upon the fatuous doings of a group of rich and aimless young people.
In reality Green was concerned less with any one social group than with the entire spectrum of human grace and folly. Rather than being divided by socio-economic factors, his characters, finally, are united by the vanity, greed, and generosity common to the species as a whole. It is not that Green was uninterested in the minutiae of social distinction; indeed, he liked to point out that there exist not three, or five, but hundreds of clearly demarcated social classes in England, and he spoke scornfully of “the English novelist’s worst restriction—ignorance of life in all social classes but his own.” Social distinction, however, manifested itself for him not as a monolithic or necessarily desirable aspect of culture but as yet another facet of the human race’s ever-imperfectible nature. Inverse snobbery has caused critics of the last novels, Nothing and Doting, to belittle their “significance” because of the impenetrable frivolity of their upper-class characters. But these characters are not so very different in essence from the lower-class ones in Loving and Living, and the books’ libidinous middle-aged men and scheming women are every bit as deserving of their happy endings as are Loving’s scoundrelly butler and less-than-honest maid. It is difficult to see where Nothing and Doting are more “trivial” (an insult often aimed at them) than any of the other novels. The pursuit of self-interest is to Green both natural and acceptable; Green, wrote V. S. Pritchett, is “inside the human zoo, preoccupied with it, and occasionally giving a sad startled look at the bars he had momentarily forgotten.”
Hence the apparent moral vacuum that mystifies or repels those readers who demand from literature the affirmation of a system of values. Green’s refusal to judge his unregenerate characters is absolute, as is his refusal to endow them with any of the redeeming features most authors allow. All of his creatures are commonplace in the truest sense of the word: they are without intellectual or spiritual interests, without philosophy, wholly lacking in curiosity about the rest of the world and even in self-knowledge. But they are comic rather than tragic, and their very humanity is ultimately a force for redemption.
Surviving: The Uncollected Writings of Henry Green, which appeared in England last year, is now being put out in this country by the Viking Press. It is a valuable volume, adding substantially to the little we possess of Green’s output. As well as stories, articles, and reviews by Green himself, it contains an introduction by John Updike, an interview from the Paris Review: Writers at Work series, and a superb memoir by Sebastian Yorke, who clearly inherited his father’s love of the macabre and the absurd. The contents of this collection, according to the editor, Green’s grandson Matthew Yorke, represent three quarters of the material in the slender Green archive. Arranged chronologically, the pieces begin with a schoolboy story dated 1923, and wind up with a short, eccentric self-portrait published in The Spectator in 1963. Fiction predominates in the Twenties and Thirties, essays and reviews from the Forties on.
The collection is interestingly named. Surviving suggests that the quality of the work continues to stand on its own merits—but how well does it, in fact, “survive”? The question is a difficult one to answer, for in the last analysis these pieces will probably be of interest only to the confirmed Green enthusiast. Green’s reputation still must rest on his nine novels, and not on the material in this volume, which varies wildly in quality.
The short stories are of interest mostly for the light they throw upon the developing sophistication of Green’s touch. Unlike so many novelists, Green did not produce his best work early in his career, for his particular vision, dark, morbid, and with a powerful sense of the ridiculous, is one which comes naturally with middle age rather than youth. In 1958 he stated, as though it were a generally-accepted fact, that “the whole of life is now of course absurd,” and said that “most of us walk crabwise to meals and everything else. The oblique approach in middle age is the safest thing.” It is this instinct for absurdity and obliquity—which he did not begin to develop fully until his thirties while writing Party Going—that is fatally lacking in the early stories of Surviving. Most of these are experiments in the use of language. They proliferate in the kind of syntactical excess that Green largely succeeded in purging from his novels, but they nevertheless contain strokes of brilliant originality.
The most considerable story from this early period is “Mood” (1926), the beginning of what was to have been Green’s second novel, abandoned after twenty pages. It is a subjective narrative from the point of view of a young girl, Constance Igtham, upper-class, unmarried, somewhere in the no-man’s land between childhood and adulthood. As she wanders through London the reader is made party to her mixed impressions and memories. One hesitates to call this narrative “stream-of-consciousness,” for there are occasional, sometimes ironic, comments from the narrator (“… she went everywhere and was everyone’s bridesmaid. Constance was utterly charming. This book is about Constance. When you have read it you too will say how charming Constance is”). “Mood” is, in fact, remarkably close in technique and even subject-matter to Mrs. Dalloway, which had been published only a year before, and it confirms one’s instinctive feeling that Green, in his visual power, his irony, and his insistence upon the caught impression, was a close artistic ally of Virginia Woolf’s. (Green admired Woolf, calling her “one of the great women of our time,” but he suspected that she was less enthusiastic about his own books and had taken him on as a Hogarth Press author purely as a favor to John Lehmann.)
“Mood,” for all its beauties, is not wholly successful. Later in life Green was embarrassed by his youthful self’s innocent use, in the fragment, of the most obvious Freudian symbolism, and he wrote that “to establish a girl … in a static situation where nothing is happening to her except her thoughts and feelings, is an impossible project for the novelist and one which only a young man, as I was then, would try for.” Of course, other novelists have tried and succeeded in this venture; what Green really meant was that it was an impossible project for the kind of artist he was. For Green’s most successful technique is the vivid presentation of significant surfaces: in his best work he never presumes to trespass upon his characters’ thoughts or pasts. “Do we know, in life, what other people are really like?” he wrote. “I very much doubt it… . How then can the novelist be so sure?” Green’s characters, as his work develops, communicate only by accident, as it were; they expose their real motives and passions not through straightforward thoughts and deeds but through chance actions and vacuous asides.
The quantity of the fiction thins out as Green ages, but its quality improves immeasurably. While the rhapsodic nature of the early work wanes, the cool, restrained tones that suited Green so well now make their appearance, and one very short story, “The Great I Eye” (1947), is as good a piece of fiction as Green ever wrote, a combination of macabre fantasy and bland realism. A hungover husband wakes on the morning after a party, trying to remember what exactly went on the evening before: it is a masterly, surrealistic story that grazes the mysterious and obscure origins of marital guilt, a subject to which the later Green returned again and again.
This, from a 1954 essay called “Impenetrability,” represents for Green not a passing mood but a deeply felt conviction. Another excellent and disturbing exploration of this theme is “Journey Out of Spain,” a short, never-produced play that Green wrote for television. Ostensibly a variation on the hackneyed subject of the travel nightmare, in this case the apparent inability of an English couple to escape from the vile Spanish backwater they are visiting as unsuspecting tourists, the play is also a disturbing and sinister vision of the guilt, demands, and devouring selfishness behind the façade of a very conventional marriage. The sincere and almost religious conviction of the primacy of guilt in human relations is one of Green’s most fruitful sources of inspiration, and he forcefully develops it in Doting and Nothing, his last, great, and dismally underrated novels.
Surviving shows the line of development in Green’s fiction to be straight and strong, but his non-fiction—particularly his criticism—tends to be weak throughout his career. For while certain advantages accrue to an artist who remains purely an artist as opposed to a critic, he will tend to be shown up rather badly when he does turn to criticism. And Green’s anti-intellectualism, worn like a badge of honor, finally turned into a terrible handicap. His thought processes were finely adjusted to every nuance of observed behavior, but when he tackled the abstract they became convoluted and clumsy, his usually delicate prose fumbling. In his only attempt at art criticism, for example, a 1953 essay on the painter Matthew Smith, he is tentative in every statement, as though fearful of sounding either foolish or pedantic. He obviously recognized the problem, for he said at the time: “I have never written about painting before and never shall again. It has given me hell.” Some of his attempts at expository writing show just how bad things could get when he lost control:
Now that we are at war, is not the advantage for writers, and for those who read them, that they will be forced, by the need they have to fight, to go out into territories, it may well be at home, which they would never otherwise have visited, and that they will be forced, by way of their own selves, towards a style which, by the impact of a life strange to them and by their honest acceptance of this, will be as pure as Doughty’s was, so that they will reach each one his own style that shall be his monument?
What a tangle! One can only fear that Green’s style, too, will be his monument. As H. G. Wells said of the later Henry James, “his great sentences sweat and strain,” and the more desperately he reaches for precision the further it retreats from his grasp. Green’s essays on fictional technique also suffer from want of a frame of reference. In the Fifties he wrote several remarkably naïve pieces on narrative theory. Here, for example, is his case against the omniscient narrator:
It might be 1870 and Green inveighing against the despotism of Dickens and Thackeray, rather than 1950, with Proust, Joyce, and Woolf (to name only a few) already dead and buried; one would think the author didn’t control what his creatures say as well as what they think, and that the novel had a life of its own independent from that of the author. The violence of his reaction to what he seemed to perceive as unquestioned literary convention is bizarre in view of the preceding century’s achievements.
But fortunately Green the novelist never completely followed the dicta of Green the theorist. His art was both too delicate and too ambitious to yield to formulae, and indeed the reader who still turns to Green does so as much for his mysteries and illogic as for the frequent beauty of his style.
That this magnificent and uncompromising declaration is sincere there can be no doubt. But neither can we doubt that Green was sincere in agreeing, at about the same time, that all of his books are love stories, “inspired by the belief that love is the most absorbing human experience of all and therefore the most hopeful.” Green himself ardently mixes darkness and light, and his work must always appeal to those readers who, like him, do not fear life’s inevitable contradictions.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 11 March 1993, on page 61
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