Henry Green was a rarity among the British modernists, for he used his daring experimental style in the service of social comedy. As a result, his books can be offputting for some. He possessed little of the limpid ease of an Evelyn Waugh, say, while at the same time his subjects can seem trivial (on the surface, at any rate), lacking the weightiness of a Conrad or Joyce. His prose also proves difficult both for the reader seeking underlying themes and for the reader hungry for easy explication. Points of view shift rapidly and abruptly. Green’s heroes behave unheroically. And there is an abstract quality in the images and symbols that can defy immediate understanding. But few novelists have as brilliantly made art out of the small daily events of people’s lives. The gerundial titles of several of his books —Loving, Party Going, Doting— suggest movement, action, the process of living. Indeed, whether his setting was the grim industrial world of the factory or the dining rooms of posh London hotels, Green’s characters are constantly struggling to live, trying to make sense of what a complicated business living really is.
Green altered his style so dramatically from book to book that each novel seems almost to have been composed by a different hand—from Blindness (1926), a youthful caprice of a book, to the self-consciously made Living (1929), with its frequent omissions of definite articles (something Green picked up from C. M. Doughty), to the dense and symbolic Party Going (1939), perhaps the writer’s most enduring book, to the late novels Nothing (1950) and Doting (1952), in which dialogue, deceptive and hilarious, dominates, and in which the authorial role has been seemingly reduced to mere scene-setting, lathed right out of the narrative.
The same writer who could produce the gritty descriptions of industrial life that make up Living could also render the most luxuriant of scenes: the shimmering prelude to Jane Weatherby’s party in Nothing, for example, or the unforgettable sequence in Party Going in which the exquisite and narcissistic Amabel emerges from her bath, traces her name in the steamed-up looking glass, and gazes at the “faint pink mass” of her body (a body Renoir would have surely adored) until the image dissipates. Even on a single page Green could exhibit great rhetorical variety. Here he is opening his sixth novel, Back (1946), with an almost childlike simplicity:
A country bus drew up below the church and a young man got out. This he had to do carefully because he had a peg leg. The roadway was asphalted blue. It was a summer day in England.
Just a few sentences later, however, we encounter complex syntax, clever wordplay, and prose-poetic quality:
For, climbing around and up these trees of mourning, was rose after rose after rose, while, here and there, the spray overburdened by the mass of flower, a live wreath lay fallen on a wreath of stone, or on a box in marble colder than this day, or onto frosted paper blooms which, under glass, marked each bed of earth wherein the dear departed encouraged life above in the green grass, the cypresses and in those roses gay and bright which, as still as this dark afternoon, stared at whosoever looked, or having their heads to droop, to grow stained, to die when their turn came.
In this elegiac churchyard scene, which describes Charley Summers’s search for the headstone of his beloved Rose, we see one hallmark of the Green style, the counterpoint of imagery. The live wreath compared to the dead bodies underground, the brightness of the roses contrasting with the darkness of the day, the climbing up versus the drooping down—all of this suggests the complex emotions cresting and subsiding in Charley, a wounded young man recently returned from war.
As Jeremy Treglown writes in his fine biography of the writer, Green was one of the most elusive of novelists, treasuring anonymity as much as he did female companionship and the bottle. He was born Henry Yorke, in Gloucestershire in 1905, though he never wrote under that name. Shy and reclusive, he disclosed to the public only the barest essentials of his life’s story. He avoided being photographed, consenting only if his back was facing the lens. Among his own social set, the Eton and Oxford crowd (his friends included Anthony Powell and Evelyn Waugh), Green felt out of place, never comfortable with the upper-class milieu that was his inheritance. He would have surely recoiled from our own market-driven age, with its book tours and author signings and the frenetic drive for publicity.
Early on in life, Green developed a passion for the “lives of apparently insignificant people,” for the working class, a passion more akin to Orwell than to Powell or Waugh. He relished urban life, found comfort in crowds. “He did not share the fear of the masses that obsessed some earlier modernist writers,” Treglown explains.
On the contrary, he seems to have literally found safety in numbers, while seeing firsthand that the apparently cramped and impoverished surroundings of working people could give a special sharpness to any kind of visual beauty: urban flowers and birds, the play of sunlight in water dripping from a tap.
The denouement of Blindness, a novel Green began during his last year at Eton, finds the blind John Haye abandoning “an anachronistic, feudal, rural world” and embracing “a life in which the sheer vibration of traffic on the streets brings him happiness.”
It is perhaps no surprise, then, that in January 1927, Green, fed up with Oxford life, went to work in his father’s Birmingham factory, which produced brewery and plumbing equipment, not as an official but as a laborer—though he would later move into the boardroom. For two years, he worked among people his friends might have found repulsive, listening to the idiosyncrasies of their speech. All the while, he sought, in the manner of the French naturalists, “to record ‘scientifically’ the prosaic details of everyday life and the structures of class and power that they expressed.”
The experience gave him Living. It also added a particular vitality to the scenes Green later wrote centering upon crowds and ordinary people. A wonderful contrast is made, for example, in Party Going, between the shallow, self-absorbed, well-to-do travelers holed up in the railway station hotel, the fog preventing their departure, and the great menacing masses outside. This vast crowd of servants and commoners could, one feels, burst in at any moment, despite the locked front doors, and do considerable harm to those inside. Green was as skilled a recorder of ordinary lives as he was a satirist of the upper classes.
At home, Green’s relationship with his wife, Dig, was stable, though not, it seems, fulfilling enough to prevent his many love affairs. And his views on children, that men who want them are merely deluding themselves, seem consistent with the way Henry and Dig often neglected their son, Sebastian. (In Back, Green reduces childbearing to mere perpetuation of the species, a process stripped entirely of love.) In 1943, while revising his fourth novel, Caught, the writer had an affair with a woman named Mary Keene. She became pregnant, and there was some question as to whether Green was the father. Dubious paternity plays a part in Back, with Charley doubting whether Rose’s son is actually his. And in Nothing, Mary Pomfret thinks that her father, John, might also be the father of her potential husband, Philip.
The Henry Green emerging from Treglown’s portrait is a somewhat unfeeling, self-absorbed man given to spells of loneliness and depression. As a boy, Treglown reports, Green found himself unable to mourn his brother’s death from leukemia. Not long afterward, his parents, traveling through Mexico, were involved in a railway accident; though they survived, the good news did not make it back to England for some time, a period during which Green again felt little sadness. This difficulty in responding to death takes a comic turn in a novel such as Nothing: Arthur Morris, who hovers in the background of the narrative, slowly gets sicker and sicker, and though the principal characters gossip constantly about him while consuming expensive lunches, they do so flippantly, as if the illness isn’t quite real. Then the poor bloke dies, and we don’t know whether to laugh or cry.
Green’s depression only intensified with his increasingly unquenchable thirst for drink and led eventually to the severing of friendships. On Christmas Eve in 1942, he wrote to Waugh: “How we came to part or how I came home I dont know. Am very depressed, lonely, & overworked.” By the 1950s, Waugh was brutally gossiping about Green’s physical and mental state; Powell “found him simply offensive.” Green’s father, Vincent Yorke, thought his son a failure, not only as an industrialist but also as a writer, simply because the books—nine novels and a memoir—did not sell. All the critical acclaim Green received mattered little to him. At the end of his life, Green descended into a miserable state: watching television, continuing to drink, clutching hot-water bottles, his hands perpetually cold. By the time he died of bronchial pneumonia in the winter of 1973, he hadn’t published a book in twenty-one years.
Treglown writes that one of the themes of Party Going—and indeed this is true of several other Green novels—is the “impossibility of … knowing anything certain about other people.” The same could be said of the elusive Green. Despite this, Treglown gives us a detailed, sympathetic portrait of the artist that consists of equal parts biographical detail and literary analysis. If this sensitive book brings more readers to Green’s novels, helps elevate him from the status of “writer’s writer’s writer,” as the Beat novelist Terry Southern once described him, it will have succeeded. A terrible thing it is that Green isn’t more widely read, mentioned, and written about today. Green knew, as Treglown writes, that bathos was “much truer to life than pathos” and that “most of the dramas in most people’s lives fail to transform anything.” In this regard, he was a novelist of everyman.
Sudip Bose is the associate editor of Preservation magazine
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