The ambiguous nature of Henry Green’s fiction has long piqued and captivated the attention of readers and critics alike, for his individual departures from conventional narrative technique separate him from the literary mainstream. A successful businessman independent of popular success, Green felt free to experiment with the form and theory of the novel. His novels speak directly to the reader with minimal interruption or interpretation; taking on lives of their own, they maintain their own shifting realities and sustain an uncanny sense of the present.
Evident in his novels as early as Blindness are characteristics that Green was to polish throughout his writing career: close attention to balance and symmetry, objectivity in character presentation, action developed through juxtaposed scenes, and remarkable re-creation of spoken English interspersed with lyrical descriptive passages. His singular treatment was given to classical themes. Fascinated by language and the human capacity to interpret, Green dramatized the problems of communication by having his characters misunderstand one another. He further complicated these problems of understanding by creating intentional verbal ambiguity, so that the reader might also be uncertain of the speaker’s intent. Often talking at cross purposes, Green’s characters, prompted by loneliness, search for love. Although their love objects may at times seem strange, ranging as they do from peacocks and a pig to houses and fantasies, they nevertheless reflect the range of human passion. In an atmosphere suggestive of social dissolution, Green’s characters pursue the relative stability of love, which they often discover in unsuspected places.
Most of Green’s solipsistic characters are neither intelligent, gifted, nor particularly beautiful. Often vain and fanciful, they reveal themselves to be profoundly human as they engage in conversations revelatory of their own preoccupations. Fascinated by what people communicate through both speech and evasion, Green sought to make dialogue the vehicle for his novels, refining his conversation and decreasing his descriptive passages until, in his last two novels, dialogue carries almost the entire weight. To avoid the static quality of conversation, he created brief scenes, shifting his reader’s attention from one group of characters to another. His technique also produces an acute sense of the present, a sense emphasized by the “ing” ending of his novels’ titles.
That Green’s novels create their own sense of the present is only one of several important factors to be considered when reading his fiction. Above all, Green wanted his work to assume a life of its own, a life differing according to the reader, providing each one with a sense of connection until he or she is drawn into a “community of people.” Green accomplishes this primarily by suggesting rather than stating. Time and place, motivation and reaction, action and resolution are often evoked rather than delineated. Behind the slight plots and often silly activities is an unstated social context that tacitly influences action. Green’s characters are also created through indirection. By allowing them to inarticulately express their obsessions, fears, anxieties, or confusion, by having them avoid direct responses, by refusing to make authorial judgments, Green populates his novels with lifelike creations. Their humanness is mutely expressed in their search for love. Examining Blindness, Loving, and Nothing with these ideas in mind, the reader can begin to understand Green’s elusive art.
When Green had a family friend read the manuscript of Blindness, he did not receive much praise. He was, however, encouraged to show his work to Garnett, then a publisher’s reader, who gave Green sound advice concerning narrative technique and character development. The result is a first novel remarkable primarily for its close attention to structure and its multidimensional characters. While taking a usual avenue for a first novel, Green proceeded to treat his subject with daring. His protagonist, John Haye, a sensitive upper-middle-class schoolboy who aspires to be a writer, is blinded in a freak accident. During the course of the novel, John comes to new terms with himself and his world, awakening in the end to a fresh appreciation of life.
With the theme of growth in mind, Green divided Blindness into three sections—“Caterpillar,” “Chrysalis,” and “Butterfly”—suggesting John’s psychological metamorphosis. “Caterpillar,” presented as John’s diary, reflects his physical response to natural beauty, his passion for literature, and his concentrated ambition to write. Because John derives intense pleasure from visual stimuli, his blindness seems especially cruel. In “Chrysalis,” he reconsiders himself. As he lies dormant in layers of a protective cocoon—his bandages, his blindness, his fantasies and self-pity, his stepmother’s pity and worry, the physical safety of his inherited estate—his creative life is threatened until he determines to break free of this smothering safety. He emerges in “Butterfly” scarred but acutely aware of the value of life.
The narrative passages of Blindness are lush, as exuberant as John’s imagination, as soaring as his emotions. Echoing with poetic resonance, Green’s descriptive passages in Blindness far outweigh the oblique dialogue. Nevertheless, there are signs of Green’s later mastery of dialogue: Speech patterns are distinct for each character. The language is spare, with internal monologues reflective of individual character. John’s thoughts are full of wonder and pain, his stepmother’s are busy with seemingly dissociated concerns. Both characters’ thoughts, however, circuitously return to one subject: blindness. Where Green introduces rich visual images through John’s eyes in the first portion of the novel, he later confines John’s responses to those of touch and sound. Indeed, the novel ends in a cacophony of bells and traffic noises, affirming John’s rebirth.
Green seems precocious in his handling of the symbolic value of blindness. This he does by indirectly comparing John’s blindness with various metaphorical failures of vision. Mrs. Haye, John’s horsey stepmother, is “blind” in a number of...
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Green, Henry (Pseudonym of Henry Vincent Yorke)
Green, Henry (Pseudonym of Henry Vincent Yorke) 1905–1974
Green was an English novelist. A man of original ideas and talents, Green possessed a unique style and approach to literature. Eschewing long passages of description, Green allowed his characters to reveal themselves through extensive dialogue, rendered in carefully wrought prose. Originally concerned with presenting a comic view of the life of the English upper class, Green expanded his artistic vision to include all strata of English society. Often the setting and background of his novels function symbolically, lending a mythic element to the lives and lifestyles delineated. The one-word titles of his novels, usually participles or gerunds (Living, Loving, Concluding), reflect the essence of Green's literary purpose: "to create 'life' which does not eat, procreate, or drink, but which can live in people who are alive." (See also CLC, Vol. 2, and Contemporary Authors, obituary, Vols. 49-52.)
More virtuoso performance than novel, Blindness remains beguiling for its prefiguration of the major themes and techniques of Green's mature fiction: the exact rightness of the conversation of both landed gentry and servants, the machinations of people at cross-purposes, symbolism in nature and names, the young and old locked together in death-grip relations, and much humor and sadness. Significantly, the last sections of the novel are called "Finishing" and "Beginning Again"—participles that look forward to the titles of Green's later works….
[Green] learned to write by listening to the workers around him [in his father's factory]: "Unlike literary men, factory workers are interested, passionately interested, in one subject above all—the lives and habits of other people. Get into conversation with any group of workmen—and other people is what they talk about."
In 1929 Green published Living, a novel very much about people. Like the other "ing" novels to follow, its title is exact: Living depicts daily life for a group of workers, a young girl, and an upper-class family that owns a foundry. The book received poor reviews, with the exception of one by the young Evelyn Waugh, who proclaimed it a "triumph."…
What most upset critics, and what makes the novel a bit foreboding, are the rapid scene shifts, loose grammar, and light punctuation—and the elimination of "a," "an," and "the" from much of the narration. "I wanted to make that book as taut and spare as possible," Green later explained, "to fit the proletarian life I was then leading. So I hit on leaving out the articles…. I suppose the more you leave out, the more you highlight what you leave in."
Especially "highlighted" was the realistic speech of the workers, a lingo that can be difficult to follow at first—especially for Americans. But it possesses such gritty authenticity that one is gradually sucked into the book's vision. (It would be easy, but wrong, to label this a naturalistic or leftist vision: There is absolutely no tendentiousness.) One gets to know the girl Lily Gates and the old moulder Craigan so well that one feels with them, never for them—they are living, and isolation from each other, small triumphs, and disillusionment make up the richness of their ordinary lives of work, love, and family. As Eudora Welty has said: "Here the world is always right up against our eyes."…
If Living seems to anticipate the novels of the 1930's, Party Going appears a holdover from the 20's, an echo of early Waugh and Huxley. Green worked on this "novel about my own circle in London" from 1931–1938….
[This] novel transcribes bitchy upper-class speech as faithfully as Living replicated the talk of factory workers. However, Green's narration has changed: No...
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The fiction of Henry Green is utterly English in tone. A disdain for used-up rhetoric, a nervous eccentricity of voice, a liking for understatement now and again relieved by shy outpouring of lyricism, a mild yielding to quirkiness as the commonplace of existence—these make him seem an English writer in the line often fecklessly called "minor."…
Green's novels are comedies, but not often of the kind that elicit bursts of laughter. Some of his books are shadowed by fear and delusion, most speak of the usualness of the unusual. Green keeps returning to the deceptions of the self, in "Loving" to that complex kind of deception where the charms of fantasy thicken into hallucination. He avoids the large public themes favored by Victorian novelists; he rarely indulges in ethical or social declamation. Psychologizing is also taboo: no hovering over the emotions of characters, no fussy probing into "depths." Green tries instead to ambush experience, hoping to achieve freshness through the oblique….
Into each novel he fences a plot of English life…. Through these miniature worlds, his brittle characters act out private crises of friction and delusion. They act them out against a lightly sketched background of English society of the prewar years, that flittering, shaky scene of decline. Green is especially good at noting "the half-tones of class." Rarely sentimental and never pontifical, his novels still take on large implications: "True life," he said, "has nothing to do with sudden death and great tragedy." In his vision of things, it has to do with wry vignette, clipped incident, sudden turns of feeling, bits...
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Now that at least [Loving, Living, and Party Going by] Henry Green, most neglected of twentieth-century novelists, have been reissued (along with Blindness, his first novel …) after more than twenty years of out-of-print oblivion, any unfavorable criticism may seem like a badly timed kick in the face to an author who is just—posthumously—getting back on his feet. Still, though these four Green novels deserve to be welcomed back with praise, that praise should be qualified; writers are, after all, neglected for reasons.
For me, at least, Loving/Living/Party Going do not present Henry Green at his most accomplished. For that, one would have to pick up Caught…. With its weirdly incandescent setting in pre-Blitz London, its atmosphere of desperate sexuality, its awkwardly rounded-out characters and extremely peculiar construction that shifts almost imperceptibly from story to prose poem to slice-of-life dialogue to interior monologue, Caught may be one of the most convincing novels about daily life in wartime ever written…. Green wrote about people and how they got on with one another in the course of daily life, but where his contemporaries Elizabeth Bowen, Ivy Compton-Burnett, Virginia Woolf and E. M. Forster would tell all, Green is reticent. Unlike them, he says very little that is direct about his characters, and says it in a style given over to aimless conversations, bursts of dense metaphor and highly mannered description. Often the conversations have the ring and rhythm of real ones, and the prose itself can glow in places with an unexpected radiance. In Caught and Concluding, Green's concern is, as always, with the mundane incidents of everyday living, except that in both books life has assumed a dark, nightmarish quality, so that Green's characteristic reticence and the peculiar milieu of each meet halfway to create phantom worlds so bizarre that the meaning of what happens in them can only be guessed at.
In Loving, Living, and Party Going, Green's reticence keeps us in the dark, but this time in the midst of the talking, eating, working, hating...
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A host of conflicts animate Green's books—between the classes, between the generations, between expectation and reality—but none is so prevalent as that between what is said and what is understood. The ways Green's people manage to misconstrue each other constitute almost a catalogue of the hazards of language—solecism, lying, obfuscation, mumbling, on the part of the speaker; inattention, lack of interest, insufficient data, on the part of the listener. For Green, communication is so damnably difficult that when it is achieved—by sign language, shouting, or sheer luck—the appropriate response is rejoicing….
[Blindness] is an accomplished novel, and all the more impressive in view...
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Green, Henry (Vol. 2)
Green, Henry 1905–
Pseudonym of Henry Vincent Yorke. Highly original British novelist, author of Blindness, Loving, Party Going, and other novels often titled with present participles.
Henry Green [is an eccentric] whose novels, with their unusual titles—Loving, Living, Nothing, Concluding, Back—have a cultivated naïveté…. Green looks at life as if for the first time, and the result is a strange and often effective primitivism. His naïveté is, of course, highly sophisticated (if one may be paradoxical); it is, that is to say, a pose deliberately assumed for technical purposes. The result is impressive, a picture of human beings in action seen freshly, with a gaze of quizzical wonder.
David Daiches, The Present Age in British Literature, Indiana University Press, 1958, p. 117.
[Green] has created people who are neither particularly important nor savory, but who live through the power of their individuality. And under the guise of eccentricity, they represent, for Green, a stable world…. Green defines his people through their manner of speech. Language is as much a key to Green's work as it is to the work of any novelist or poet concerned with details….
Perhaps more than any of his contemporaries except Samuel Beckett, Green exploits the trivia and minutiae of life. His characters react to life in terms of basic needs, the most basic of which is how to relieve boredom or dispel loneliness. The need for conversation, the need to verbalize, is of course attached to one's desire to avoid tedium; and Green's characters frequently talk not for the sake of communicating particular ideas but rather to occupy themselves….
Joyce triumphed, where Green partially fails, in his use of "disconnected" language almost solely as interior monologue; when his people do talk, they speak in the expected manner. With Green, however, thought and conversation sound alike. The two should of course be different, for in transforming thought into speech, the mind creates the order that makes connectives necessary, as well as pauses, and punctuation marks.
Nevertheless, Green uses prose artistically, in fact, somewhat like the abstract painter whose canvas hints without representing the object or divulging his intention. Green's use of disjointed language also suggests that his characters must go their own way once the novelist has sparked them to life.
Disjointed language works with titles laconically clipped short to convey, paradoxically, the roundness of life as well as its incompleteness. The titles, as much as his subject matter, suggest Green's attitudes. Somewhat arrogant in their curtness, they imply a prophetic tone that is almost pompous.
Frederick R. Karl, "Normality Defined: The Novels of Henry Green," in his A Reader's Guide to the Contemporary English Novel (reprinted with the permission of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Inc.; © 1961, 1962, 1971, 1972 by Frederick R. Karl), Farrar, Straus, 1962, pp. 183-200.
Henry Green has been the least predictable of contemporary English novelists and, Ivy Compton-Burnett excepted, probably the most original….
After Loving, there seems to me a fragmentation of Green's talent. In Back (1946) and Concluding (1948) poetry, one might say, takes over almost to the exclusion of everything else. What one takes away from Concluding, which is at once a novel about old age and about the future, is something similar to the effect of a late Impressionist painting: action, plot, character, scene are dissolved in the play of light and colour. The effect is obtained consciously and carefully; but it is obtained at the cost of the work as a novel.
In Green's two novels, Nothing (1950) and Doting (1952), the poetry has been jettisoned. They are brilliantly entertaining renderings of upper-class life in London in the decade after the war; but in them Green relies on one strand only of his talent, his ear for speech, and uncannily accurate though it is, it is not nearly strong enough to bear the weight of a whole novel. Living, Party Going, Caught and Loving are a different matter altogether. They succeed as novels in the most mundane sense. All have passages of haunting visual beauty, passages which are immediately poetic in their effect. But they do not take the reader away from the scene Green is rendering; indeed, they serve to render it more intensely and more particularly, bring it into sharper focus. Their function is to heighten, but they are still subordinate to the prose narration.
Walter Allen, in his The Modern Novel: In Britain and the United States (copyright © 1964 by Walter Allen; published by E. P. Dutton & Co., Inc. in a paperback edition and used with their permission), Dutton, 1964, pp. 214-19.
Henry Green has [attempted to bring to the novel] that unity, close-knit and taut, we find in the sonnet-form. His novels stay in our minds as entities, not as mere pretexts for the strutting of characters of self-indulgent scenic description…. [In Loving], more than in the earlier novels, Green uses symbols … to show subtleties of motivation that direct statements would only make crude. But with the later, post-war, books Green has become more concerned … with the exact rendering of the surface of urban life, particularly the rhythms and idioms of London English. This has its own fascination and value, but something of the old magic has been lost. Still, Green's books remain solid and glittering as gems; they could not be cut without being impaired—they are not, like so many contemporary novels, mere slices of life but highly successful attempts at making art give meaning to life.
Anthony Burgess, in his The Novel Now: A Guide to Contemporary Fiction (reprinted by permission of W. W. Norton & Co., Inc.; © 1967 by Anthony Burgess), Norton, 1967, pp. 111-12.
Trying to come to discursive grips with [Green's] novels is rather like trying to pluck and pocket smoke rings; the attempt yields intimations of design, evanescent luminosities and pervasive fragrance, but precious little palpable residue. (p. 3)
Green … [chooses] his title [s] with care, and his use of the present participle emphasizes the tentative quality of the book. Nothing is finally concluded; everything is left dangling…. Green's concern is larger than politics. He seems to be dealing with the central ambiguity of human experience itself. The individual is engulfed in a morass of misunderstandings and cross-purposes, adrift in a sea of uncertainty, unable to establish much in the way of communication. (pp. 34-5)
[Green] has already indicated his view that art is not representational; communication, it then follows, is not a direct, one-to-one affair, nor is dialogue representational either. His own dialogue does not represent exactly the way people talk; it is oblique, and for a very good reason. "For if you want to create life the one way not to set about it is explanation." Life itself does not explain itself; it is oblique in its impact on us. That is why, Green tells us, the time has come for a change from traditional narrative techniques to an increased emphasis on oblique dialogue, which must "mean different things to different readers at one and the same time." (p. 36)
What sort of conclusions (or should they be called concludings?) does our examination of Green's work suggest? Most readily apparent is his astonishing versatility, manifesting itself in the wide range of subjects and characters in his fiction. One of Green's most remarkable achievements is the psychological verisimilitude throughout: all his characters are credible. He is particularly skilled, it seems to me, at dealing with working-class characters, and is often able to change our initial perception of them by revealing unexpected depth and dignity. As might be expected, he uses a variety of styles commensurate with this sort of diversity. At times style obtrudes and seems excessively mannered, as in Living. For the most part, however, style matches and serves subject. (pp. 42-3)
Above all, what [Green] shows us in his fiction is the imponderable variegation of human experience in an ultimately cryptic cosmos. Like Conrad, Green sees an undecipherable world; like Joyce, who coined the word, he sees a jocoserious world. Joy and sorrow intermingle, as do the lovely and the grotesque, sanity and dementia, love and lovelessness. (p. 46)
Robert S. Ryf, in his Henry Green ("Columbia Essays on Modern Writers" Series, No. 29), Columbia University Press, 1967.
Green, Henry (Vol. 97)
Henry Green 1905–1973
(Born Henry Vincent Yorke) English novelist, short story writer, autobiographer, and essayist.
The following entry provides an overview of Green's career. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volumes 2 and 13.
Yorke adopted the pseudonym Henry Green for all of his literary productions in order to conceal his identity as a wealthy industrialist, and during his lifetime he scrupulously avoided involvement in literary circles. Possessing a distinctive writing style marked by dropped articles, sentences without verbs, and highly idiomatic diction in both narrative and dialgue, Green eschewed long passages of description in favor of extensive dialogue among his characters. His novels, usually titled with such participles or gerunds as Living (1929), Loving (1945), and Concluding (1948), focus on the everyday lives of a range of characters. Fellow writer John Updike declared Green "one of the most piquant and original English writers not only of his generation but of the century." Despite warm recognition of his talent by other esteemed writers, Green's works are relatively unknown to the general reading public.
Born October 29, 1905, near Tewkesbury, Gloucestershire, England, Green was the third son of Maud Evelyn Wyndham Yorke, daughter of the second Lord Leconfield, and Vincent Wodehouse, descendent of the first Earl of Hardwicke and managing director of H. Pontifex and Sons, an engineering firm. In 1918 he attended Eton, where he met young writers Harold Acton, George Orwell, and Cyril Connolly. While there, Green began writing his first novel, Blindness (1926), which he later finished at Magdalen College, Oxford. Green left Oxford in 1927 to work at his family's foundry in Birmingham until 1929, when he published his next novel, Living. He entered into management of Pontifex following his marriage in 1929 to Adelaide Mary "Dig" Bidulph, daughter of a peer. After publishing Party Going (1939), Green left Pontifex to join the Auxiliary Fire Service in London during the Nazi blitz on England. His wartime experiences rejuvenated his literary talents: between 1940 and 1946 Green wrote Pack My Bag (1940), a partial autobiography; the novels Caught (1943), Loving, and Back (1946); and several short stories. Upon returning to his prewar life, Green wrote the novel Concluding (1948); in 1950 he delivered a BBC broadcast of the essay "A Novelist to His Readers," a full statement of his theory of fiction. Thereafter, Green's literary production dwindled to two novels, Nothing (1950) and Doting (1952), and occasional contributions to periodicals. He died December 15, 1973, in London.
Green drew on his life experiences to create his fictional worlds. For instance, Blindness, written during the novelist's "aesthete" period, describes the accidental blinding of a young student at a private school who rises to the challenge of sightlessness, and Living portrays the everyday life of a foundry worker and his household in Birmingham. Both novels indicate Green's skill for rendering the precise diction of a wide variety of characters through dialogue, a technique he further developed in subsequent novels. Party Going, which concerns a group of rich, ennui-plagued young people delayed by fog in a crowded train station, analyzes snobbism and celebrity-driven society. Caught recounts a unique relationship between a professional fireman and a wealthy volunteer fireman, Richard Roe, who serve together during the London Blitz, and Back, which expands a single scene from Caught, treats the effects of war on memory. Loving considered Green's masterpiece by many, depicts the activities of several servants during wartime at an Irish country manor, while Concluding is a dystopian novel set in a public school committed to molding young females into competent state servants. Nothing and Doting, both restricted wholly to dialogue, relate the struggles of parents and their children. The posthumous collection Surviving features Green's short stories, essays, and miscellaneous prose pieces.
Often likened to such modern masters of the novel as James Joyce, Franz Kafka, and Marcel Proust, Green has generated a modest amount of criticism by comparison. His novels, however, received high commendation from such prominent writers as Updike, W. H. Auden, Evelyn Waugh, Christopher Isherwood, Eudora Welty, and V. S. Pritchett. Pritchett called Green "an assured artist, a spirit of uncommon intensity and uncommon imagination." Many early critics treated Green as a unique stylist; Philip Toynbee considered him "the most self-conscious of modern English novelists, the most mannered, the least digestible … [but] among the most natural of our novelists and conceivably the most important of them." Others cited Green's gift for language, particularly the way his dialogue captures the idiosyncratic speech patterns of diverse characters. Welty admired not merely the mimetic quality of Green's dialogue, but his knack of "turning what people say into the fantasy of what they are telling each other." More recently, such critics as Barbara Brothers and Susan L. Carlson analyzed Green's novels in the context of psychoanalytic and reader response criticism, while Andrew Gibson examined his works in terms of Green's experiments with conventions of the novel form. Most scholars remain intrigued by his self-fashioned literary anonymity as well as his literary silence during the last two decades of his life. Jeremy Treglown remarked on Green's achievement: "His strange, various, sad, lyrical, and comic novels opened up English prose like nobody else's. Most of them were new departures, both for the novelist and for fiction itself."
Blindness (novel) 1926
Living (novel) 1929
Party Going (novel) 1939
Pack My Bag (autobiography) 1940
Caught (novel) 1943
Loving (novel) 1945
Back (novel) 1946
Concluding (novel) 1948
Nothing (novel) 1950
Doting (novel) 1952
Surviving: The Uncollected Works of Henry Green (short stories, essays, juvenilia, prose) 1992
SOURCE: "The Novels of Henry Green," in Partisan Review, Vol. XVI, No. 5, May, 1949, pp. 487-97.
[Toynbee was an English novelist, journalist, editor, and critic. In the following essay, he discusses the "linguistic oddities" of Green's novels, finding them distracting but effective.]
A Golden Age in literature might be defined as a period in which there was no necessary struggle between a writer and his medium. In the first half of the seventeenth century English writers could say what they wanted to say in a language which was naturally both apt and beautiful. It is equally true that English politicians spoke with a natural eloquence which should be distressing to their modern counterparts. Whatever may be said about the English language in our own time, it is bitterly clear that it no longer offers itself as a willing bride but cowers coyly and unalluringly behind an armory of chastity belts. Jean Paulhan discovers the same intractability in modern French, and he has invented a useful term to describe one method of approaching the recalcitrant and unappetizing victim of our passion. The Terrorists are those writers who confront their language as a wrestler confronts his adversary, knowing that they must twist it and turn it, squeeze it into strange shapes and make it cry aloud, before they can finally bring it to the boards. An opposite view is provided by the few surviving dandies among us, and was perhaps most eloquently expressed by Mr. Logan Pearsall Smith. To them the present English vocabulary is like a box of delicious sweetmeats, which may be culled one by one in delicate fingers and exquisitely melted on the tongue. Yet another, and perhaps the predominant view among modern novelists, is that the language of contemporary speech must be directly transcribed into literature, since any deliberate avoidance or transmutation of it will lead inevitably to something either dead or at best unnatural. Finally there remain among us a tiny band of archaists who are so shocked by the present condition of their language that they prefer to ransack the past for words and word formations which seem to them more vivid and more accurate.
During the last fifteen years a majority of our respected novelists have belonged to the third of these categories.
He had only, he told himself, to find a girl; there must be hundreds waiting to be picked up on a Whitsun holiday, to be given a drink and taken to dance at Sherry's and presently home, drunk and affectionate, in the corridor carriage. That was the best way, to carry a witness round with him. It would be no good, even if his pride had allowed him, to go to the station now. They would be watching it for certain, and it was always easy to kill a lonely man on a railway station…. [Graham Greene, Brighton Rock]
Mrs. Barton Trafford had a grand time, but she did not get above herself. It was useless indeed to ask him to a party without her; he refused. And when she and Barton and Driffield were invited to a party together they came together and went together. She never let him out of her sight. Hostesses might rave; they could take it or leave it. Usually they took it. [Somerset Maugham, Cakes and Ale]
If Brenda had to go to London for a day's shopping, hair-cutting or bone-setting (a recreation she particularly enjoyed) she went on Wednesday because the tickets on that day were half the usual price. She left at eight in the morning and got home soon after ten at night. She traveled third class and the carriages were often full, because other wives on the line took advantage of the cheap fare. [Evelyn Waugh, A Handful of Dust]
His hysterical fury infected me suddenly. Stopping back I flung the door to with a violent slam, hoping to catch his thrust-forward, screaming face on the point of the jaw. But there was no impact. His voice stopped like a gramophone from which the needle is lifted. Nor did he utter another sound. As I stood there, behind the closed door, my heart pounding with anger, I heard his light footsteps cross the landing and begin to descend the stairs. [Christopher Isherwood, Mr. Morris Changes Trains]
These four quotations are taken (as nearly at random as any critic ever takes a quotation) from four extremely well-known novels written by four of the most respected novelists of our time. Now it is obviously possible to make a distinction between these voices; they are about as distinct as the different voices of real people in a conversation. The first quotation is fluent and easy and direct; the second is ironic; the third is flat and rather tired, and the fourth is quick, violent and vivid. No one of them has been chosen for any obvious fault in the writing, and by our usual standards there is nothing particularly wrong with any of them. They seem to do their different jobs well enough; they carry the reader along without either offending or surprising or boring him. Yet, distinguishable though they may be, how intimately they share a lack of all distinction in the secondary and nobler sense of the word. They are the work of journeymen, smooth, yarning voices, telling a good story over the port.
There is no cause to write any further here about the two small categories of the Dandies and the Archaists. They have played a negligible role in the modern English and American novel. The real linguistic war is being fought between novelists of the kind I have quoted—whom we might not unfairly call the Men in the Street—and the smaller but formidable band of Terrorists. The Terrorists are, by their nature, a diverse and unwieldy category. All they have in common is that they have made a conscious assault on their linguistic medium. Some have been defeated by it, and their bloody corpses lie strewn by the roadside, derided and desecrated by antiterrorist critics and novelists. Undoubtedly an appalling risk is taken, for the defeat of a Terrorist is a gross and humiliating defeat. He can be justly accused of affectation, of pretentiousness and of exhibitionism, and several modern novelists have shied so desperately away from the pedestrianism of their contemporaries that they have tumbled headlong into all these vices. But the Arch-terrorist stands now like a monolith in the waste of contemporary prose, and we can clearly make out the uncoordinated but by no means disreputable platoon which is scattered in his wake. Such diverse writers as Thomas Wolfe and Virginia Woolf, Henry Miller and Henry Green, may be grouped in this context under the banner of James Joyce.
The intention of this preamble is to prepare American readers of Henry Green for the shock which they are almost bound to feel at their first approach to him. He is the most self-conscious of modern English novelists, the most mannered, the least digestible. I believe that he is also—and I shall try to dissolve any paradox which may seem to be involved here—among the most natural of our novelists and conceivably the most important of them.
The linguistic oddities of Henry Green are not by any means his most important contribution to the novel, but to many readers they have proved the most important stumbling block to Henry Green. What is required from a new reader is, at first, no more than indulgence, and indulgence can perhaps be induced by occasional reperusal of the passages I have quoted above. Rather than write like this he has chosen to take risks with his medium. To put it more fairly, and with more dignity, I would say that Green has never doubted that his vision was a new one and that it needed a new kind of exposition. In his best books I believe that he has perfectly adjusted his medium to his vision, and that the result has been three or four of the most satisfactory English novels of our time. In his less successful books the language is often strained in a way which seems arbitrary. But Green has never written a book with the sole and deplorable purpose of exhibiting linguistic oddities. A sympathetic reading even of his worst novel reveals that his motive in writing it was that he had seen something and that he wished others to see it too. In this case he has failed to make his vision clear, but the reality and the freshness of his vision cannot be doubted.
Two o'clock. Thousands came back from dinner along streets.
"What we want is go, push," said works manager to son of Mr. Dupret. "What I say to them is—let's get on with it, let's get the stuff out."
Thousands came back to factories they worked in from their dinners.
This is the opening passage of Green's very early novel, Living. It is an intelligent and perceptive study of working class life, well documented (in private life Mr. Green is a Birmingham manufacturer), startlingly free of any preconceptions. It is at least arguable that in this book Mr. Green (an old Etonian as well as a capitalist) has written about the proletariat with more insight than has any contemporary writer of proletarian origin. There is no compassion in his vision, no indignation and certainly nothing patronizing. As in all this writer's novels, the characters appear at first to be moving in an odd and unfamiliar way; their motives and their conduct seem to be just out of focus, just to one side of center. They are not predictable, in the sense that they do not conform in their actions to the behavior of the fictional characters we know. Nor would it be true to say that this failure of conformity is due simply to the fact that the characters do conform, but that their conformity is to "life" rather than to fiction. Or at least this is only true in a highly complicated sense. At some point in this book a reader may find that the characters and the actions are suddenly in focus; that they have found their center. And in the same moment he will understand that it is not the characters and the actions which have shifted, but the focus and the center. In other words what has happened is that Green has succeeded in imposing his peculiar vision on his reader. We are seeing people from a position which we have never adopted before, and, by doing so, our stereoscopic vision has been startlingly clarified. So long as we are able to preserve Green's vision, superimposed on whatever our own one may have been, however simple or however complex it was, then our total apprehension of life has been immeasurably enriched.
Yet it remains none the less true that the beginning of the book is not inviting. We feel at once that an effect is being striven for, and, by the inevitable action of readers' resistance, we determine that the effect shall not be achieved. The assault has been too sudden. Even the great Terrorist himself began Ulysses in a prose which was familiar to his readers, and exercised considerable discretion in escorting them by devious paths to the guillotine. And in this case the eccentricities seem somehow trivial. This omission of the definite article irritates us by its self-consciousness, and seems to contribute nothing to the perfectly ordinary statements which are being made. Nor are we likely to be reassured as we read further. "Mr. Bridges went...
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SOURCE: "Henry Green: A Novelist of Imagination," in The Texas Quarterly, Vol. IV, No. 3, Autumn, 1961, pp. 246-56.
[Welty was an American novelist, short story writer, and essayist who is known for such works as The Kobben Bridegroom (1942) and The Golden Apples (1949). In the following laudatory essay, he analyzes the main components of Green's novelistic style, highlighting such elements as characterization, plot situations, and diction.]
Through the novels of Henry Green from Living on, a strong originality has poured in a stream at once pure and changing. Other good novelists in England who were brought up at the same time and in the same mold...
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SOURCE: "Paradoxes of Pleasure-and-Pain: Henry Green," in The Tragic Comedians: Seven Modern British Novelists, Indiana University Press, 1963, pp. 66-81.
[In the following essay, Hall explores the role of what he calls "play-and-pain" in Green's novels, focusing especially on Loving and Concluding.]
Henry Green published his first novel, Blindness, two years before Waugh's Decline and Fall. But, while Waugh was succeeding quickly, Green was working slowly toward the most important innovations in the comic novel since Joyce.
Most readers of Green like him for extraordinarily funny scenes like Edie's telling Kate she has found the...
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SOURCE: "Henry Yorke and Henry Green," in Twentieth Century Literature, Vol. 29, No. 4, Winter, 1983, pp. 387-92.
[Lees-Milne was an English novelist, autobiographer, and nonfiction writer. In the following essay, he reminisces about his initial reactions to Green's novels.]
I got to know Henry Yorke in the early 1930s. Henry Green I never knew at all. Henry Yorke then lived with his beautiful and gentle wife, Dig, in a house in Rutland Gate. We had mutual friends, one of whom, Robert Byron, introduced me to them. Henry had been brought up in Worcestershire in a large, rambling, romantic, slightly spooky house which had been in the Yorke possession for two centuries....
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SOURCE: "Blindness: The Eye of Henry Green," in Twentieth-Century Literature, Vol. 29, No. 4, Winter, 1983, pp. 403-21.
[In the following essay on Blindness, Brothers examines the themes of the work, concluding that the novel "is a dramatization of the individual's poignant, failed quest for meaning and understanding."]
Henry Green's first novel, Blindness, begun while he was a student at Eton and published at twenty-one while he was still a student at Magdalen College, Oxford, relates the story of a young man of seventeen, John Haye, who aspires to be a writer. On his way home from school John is blinded, his eyes pierced by glass from a window...
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SOURCE: "Henry Green's Enchantments: Passage and the Renewal of Life," in Twentieth Century Literature, Vol. 29, No. 4, Winter, 1983, pp. 430-46.
[In the following essay, Wall traces the development of the themes of passage and renewal in Green's novels, stating "Green's fiction locates a neglected area of adult experience in which we continue the kind of living we did as children, in which not ideas but symbols move us."]
Despite Henry Green's originality, he is a traditional writer. His tradition is the romance. That this has not been recognized is perhaps due to the low repute of the romance in the mainstreams of twentieth-century literary criticism. Its mode of...
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SOURCE: "Limbo States: The Short Stories of Henry Green," in Twentieth Century Literature, Vol. 29, No. 4, Winter, 1983, pp. 447-54.
[In the essay below, Russell assesses the short stories "A Rescue," "Mr. Jonas," and "The Lull" in terms of their evocation of a "limbo-like" state.]
The first two stories of the Blitz that Henry Green published, early in 1941, are about a rescue job he had to undertake and a more confusing rescue—lacking the other's ordonnance, queerly observed as though lighted up from the side—of which he was a witness. Because the storyteller in "A Rescue" is directly imperiled, its narrative has focus, "grip" as it were, of a lyric kind; whereas...
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SOURCE: "Henry Green as Experimental Novelist," in Studies in the Novel, Vol. XVI, No. 2, Summer, 1984, pp. 197-214.
[In the following essay, Gibson examines Green's experiments with traditional conventions of the novel form in his fiction, comparing his novels to those of James Joyce, Marcel Proust, and Franz Kafka.]
The originality of Henry Green's experimental fiction has seldom been given its due. He has been deemed a modernist with little understanding of what his "modernism" actually involves, or what makes it peculiar to him. Critics like Stokes, Russell, and Tindall have called him (among other things) a "poetic" or a "symbolist" novelist. But terms like these...
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SOURCE: "Henry Green: Eros and Persistence," in Antaeus, No. 63, Autumn, 1989, pp. 97-109.
[Below, Engel relates the theme of love and "a hope for transformation" in Green's novels to questions of class and gender. He also speculates on why Green stopped writing.]
The case of a writer of great accomplishment who ceases to practice his calling while still apparently in full possession of his creative powers is tantalizing. E. M. Forster, for example, lived nearly half a century after the publication of Passage to India in 1924 without producing another novel. There are ways to think about Forster's career however that can mitigate regret. It seems entirely...
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SOURCE: "An Ear for Anonymity," in The Times Literary Supplement, No. 4636, February 7, 1992, pp. 17-18.
[In the following favorable review of Surviving: The Uncollected Writings, Parker claims "we need Henry Green to remind us what prose can do."]
Every so often, a Henry Green revival is announced. There is momentary excitement, his admirers cheer, and then, very quietly, the books slip out of print once more. The latest rescue package includes a uniform paperback edition of the novels, with introductions by Jeremy Treglown, an unhelpfully overpriced paperback edition of Pack My Bag, a volume of uncollected writings, and Trapped, a television...
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Binding, Paul. "Always Alone." New Statesman & Society 5, No. 189 (14 February 1992): 40-1.
Reviews Surviving, noting that "the object of this book is to make us focus on one of the most distinguished bodies of work in English this century."
Brunetta, Leslie. "England's Finest Hour and Henry Green's Caught." The Sewanee Review C, No. 1 (Winter 1992): 112-23.
Discusses both the plot and the writing of Caught in the historical context of World War II London.
Carison, Susan L. "Readers Reading Green Reading...
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