Henry Green Essay - Green, Henry (Vol. 2)

Henry Vincent Yorke

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.