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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...

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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.)

Michael Dirda

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1192

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 longer does it lack articles; indeed, the prose becomes evocative and luxuriant in keeping with the character of decadent partygoers. A famous passage describes Amabel in her bath:

As she went over herself with her towel it was plain that she loved her own shape and skin. When she dried her breasts she wiped them with as much care as she would puppies after she had given them their bath, smiling all the time. But her stomach she wiped unsmiling upwards to make it thin. When she came to dry her legs she hissed like grooms do. And as she got herself dry that steam began to go off the mirror walls so that as she got white again more and more of herself began to be reflected.

Such delicate and sensuous details … give the novel the feel of a play, of a late Shakespearean romance with a hint of doom just off stage….

[In his Auxiliary Fire Service experience during the war] Green rediscovered his "proletarian inspiration," out of which emerged his next three novels—Caught (1943), Loving (1945), and Back (1946). Caught deals with firefighters in London and Back is a highly symbolic novel about a returning veteran haunted by "rose"—the woman with this name who is dead, the flower, and the color.

In Loving Green produced what many view as his most balanced achievement. Set in an Irish castle during the war, Loving possesses more of the fairy-tale traits adumbrated in Party Going (and which were to become an allegory of the rose in Back).

The novel begins "Once upon a time" and ends with "and they lived happily ever after." It is a love story between a butler and a chamber maid, containing both satire and wonderfully human portraits of the cooks, nannies, and servants who have divided an estate into bailiwicks.

But above all, the action focuses on loving, its forms and variations from the Platonic to the adulterous…. Around them all, in this enchanted castle, come the rumors of war and the I.R.A., but these are held off—for a while—by the spell of Edith's "dazzled dazzling eyes."

After Back, Green brought forth in 1948 what he himself called his best novel, Concluding. It is a rich, melancholy work, offering all summer in a day, evoking the religious, somber tone of a poem like "Four Quartets." (p. R11)

The few events of the novel take place in a single day when two students disappear and one is found, while the remaining girls—whose names all begin with M—prepare for the annual founder's day dance. Throughout, a sense of loneliness and age, of the animal need for love, and of the rivalry between young and old, withered and blossoming, create a trance like feel to Concluding—from misty morning, to the dizzy heat of day, to the romantic whirl of the dance, to the overwhelming black of night.

Yet the conversation remains vivid….

And Green's descriptions are never more provocative….

If Loving is Green's fairy-tale Eden where all is lovely, then Concluding is his autumnal world of romance after the Fall, dominated by memory and nature and young girls swirling in a dance to the music of time….

In his last two books he once more changed his style and returned to the milieu of the upper classes. Nothing (1950) and Doting (1952) are written almost entirely in dialogue. They are witty, but concentrate on shallow misalliances; most readers feel Green denied himself too much by eliminating description….

Green once described his artistic goals: "Prose is not to be read aloud but to oneself at night, and it is not quick as poetry, but rather a gathering web of insinuations which go further than names shared can ever go. Prose should be a long intimacy between strangers with no direct appeal to what both may have known. It should slowly appeal to feelings unexpressed, it should in the end draw tears out of the stone."

In Henry Green's work, in his experimentation and rich symbolism, in his masterful juxtaposition of scene, in his musician's ear for speech and restrained sensuous detail, in his focus on the ordinary activities of ordinary human beings, above all, in his warmth and humor and absolute inner integrity, the novel becomes vision, inescapable and unforgettable. (p. R12)

Michael Dirda, "Rediscovering Henry Green," in The Chronicle Review (copyright © 1978 by The Chronicle of Higher Education, Inc.), November 13, 1978, pp. R11-R12.

Irving Howe

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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 of relationship falling into or out of place….

His greatest gift is for language. In the early novels he yields to an irritating mannerism, so intent is he on "making it new," but later his prose becomes serene and supple. Words are never used approximately, to induce clumsy blotches of feeling. They point to objects, they take on strength through particularity. From sentence to sentence the flow of Green's prose is jumpy, as in some of Virginia Woolf's novels, or, to venture a wilder comparison, as in Seurat's Pointillist paintings, where the eye's unprepared journey from dot to dot creates an effect of staccato flow, a universe of perception no longer secure but nervous, insistent, renewed.

Not all of these traits are fully visible in "Blindness," [his first and] perhaps the only Green novel that can be called conventional. But as he goes along, one can see him sliding into his own manner; indeed, a secondary pleasure in reading this book is watching a 20-year-old writer marshal his gifts to become Henry Green….

How is a novelist to represent the experience of blindness [suffered by Green's 17-year-old protagonist, John] which he himself has never known? How did Faulkner represent the experience of idiocy when creating Benjy in "The Sound and the Fury"? The answer is not a claim to be imitating a reality that by its very nature one cannot know, but to improvise a plausible simulacrum, an as-if version that can be accepted provisionally. Green doesn't convince us that he is protraying the actuality of a boy suffering blindness; he convinces us that, for the purpose of this novel, his fiction will serve as a kind of truth. (p. 11)

The novel concludes without high-minded fakery, asserted resolution. There is no cant about anything compensating for John's loss—what could? But we have been given a splendidly dry and controlled evocation of the boy's struggle to find his way in darkness.

Sometimes the book lags, sometimes its young author uses too much interior monologue. We know from the books to come that he will get better. Still, this is the real thing, the entry into literature of a writer who cares for exactness of looking. There ought to be some people willing to push past the mounds of rubbish that fill bookstores these days and find their way to the light of "Blindness." (p. 57)

Irving Howe, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1978 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), December 10, 1978.

Richard Horn

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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 and loving that all fall under the heading of day lit daily life…. Green stubbornly adheres to a set of rules that forbid his drawing us along with either story-line or psychological insight. Nothing happens—that's the point—and no one is explained. Because there is no pervasive rhythm of revelation or event to get caught up in, we are obliged to renew our interest in and revise our opinions of characters of whom we learn nothing with almost every line—a task that soon becomes impossible. We are left with an intentionally objective presentation of characters interspersed with precise descriptions wherein things take on a transcendent glow, and against these dreamlike back cloths the characters' actions are meant to become transcendent, too: mundane but glorious, an affirmation of life itself. Green's hope is that these scenes that never really "go" anywhere or build to anything will coalesce into what he calls in his "self-portrait" Pack My Bag "a gathering web of insinuations," whose accumulation will let flow the feelings we have searched for unsuccessfully on page after page. But when the glow of pure phenomena does not shine with the almost spiritual intensity Green counted on, the going can get pretty tedious….

It is strange to spend two hundred pages with a group of characters who don't seem especially interesting without even knowing why the author bothered with them at all…. Green never tells us what he as author thinks about his characters, so all we as readers can do is keep guessing; are they idiots? are they sincere? are they pathetic? silly? malicious? and is this all "life itself"?…

Only at the end of Loving and Party Going does the uncertainty that has been thrown like a blanket over our heads provide a point/non-point-of-view of its own. We realize, perhaps too late, that the characters might have had depths we'd never suspected. Just as we close each book we feel that at last we know exactly what they were like, though we cannot say it….

[The] author of the laconically-titled Living, Loving, Party Going, Loving, Concluding, Nothing and Doing is anything but giving. His determination to say nothing definite seems too coy, too calculated and too programmatic to be anything but a pose, and a rather cruel one at that. We read and read and read but it seems entirely up to us whether there is something there, or nothing at all—not an especially comfortable position to be placed in…. [To] be elusive on purpose, to avoid, out of reticence, committing oneself deeply to anything (even if it is something as transitory as a feeling) seems like a sneaky kind of sadism when it becomes the guiding principle for novels meant for others to read and presumably get something out of. We want to understand the author, he consistently defies our understanding. Like life itself, you say; like someone who refuses to make himself known, say I…. For those who like to see human interaction as one big riddle (or one big, million-faceted prism), Loving, Living, and Party Going will take the breath away. But those who ask fiction for something more sustaining and certain may accuse Henry Green of taking away the very air they breathe.

Richard Horn, "Breathless," in New York Arts Journal (copyright © 1979 by Richard W. Burgin), #13, 1979, p. 16.

Ben Yagoda

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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 of the author's age, but it offers little of the compelling originality of Green's later work. Still, Blindness sheds considerable light on this singular novelist. Its first twenty-five pages are from a diary John keeps at Noat before the accident [which leads to his blindness] and are easily the most rewarding section of the book. Here, as in the mature Green, drama and interest are found in the everyday and necessary, not in the catastrophic and contingent….

Green's memoir, Pack My Bag (1938), reveals that he was secretary of the Eton Society of the Arts and was himself an aesthete ("that is a boy who consciously dressed to shock," he wrote later). One cannot help speculating on the relation between John Haye and Henry Vincent Yorke, or coming to the conclusion that the creator disapproved of his creation, and, by implication, himself. Although John is likeable enough, and almost touching in his enthusiasm …, Green clearly views the affliction as a deserved punishment. John had been living a useless, profligate life; only blindness, paradoxically, can make him "see." The fit and mysterious, redemptive vision he experiences in the final scene remind us of Dostoyevsky and Crime and Punishment, which he had described in the diary as "dreadful, awful, supremely great."

Was this book—and, in a way, his career—the punishment Green inflicted upon himself for his dandyism? One cannot say for sure; but this was certainly a young man who was very hard on himself. There is the simple fact that Blindness must have been an extraordinarily difficult book to write. After the diary, little real action transpires, with the bulk of the remainder being a mixture of dialogue and third-person exposition colored by any one of a half dozen characters' perceptions. The book had to have been written, in other words, not merely described….

Living is correctly called a proletarian novel, but it is not didactic…. There is a fascinating dialectic—never resolved—conducted between optimism (images of birds, music, and children) and pessimism ("dully their lives went out onto the streets, promenaded dullness there. Ugly clothes, people, houses"). Green was only a little overambitious in choosing his title, for the novel is as noncommittal, various and full as life itself.

The unearthshaking events of Living are filtered through endless discussion by the characters, and here lies the novel's triumph. Whether or not Green's dialogue accurately reproduces "Brummagen," it is a marvel, for it does reproduce the redundancies, non sequiturs, inanities, profanity, deceptions, humor and eloquence of proletarian speech with a doggedness that must be unprecedented. Living is the first evidence of Green's belief in the supreme importance of dialogue, and a certain kind of dialogue….

[From] Living on, Green decreases the proportion of third-person description, until his final novels, Nothing and Doting (1950 and 1952), which are almost all dialogue. Another paradox: only speech, which lies incessantly, does not lie.

But a good deal of Living is in Henry Green's voice and unlike Blindness, it could not have been written by anyone else. At times, in fact, we feel like echoing a character in a later novel who tells a companion, "Don't be so like yourself." Consider: "Dale wanted a knife, but, getting up from table, for himself fetched it."…

The style—marked by repetition; dropped articles, prepositions, and commas; archaic diction; inverted construction; run-on sentences; whatever the opposite of slickness is; and excessive literalness (Green will never write "he" when he can write "this man")—is influenced by Charles Doughty's 1888 Travels in Arabia Deserta and by the King James Bible, but really originates with Green. Indeed, its originality may have been more important than any particular characteristic. In [a] 1950 article, Green argued that novelists must use a "highly personal prose," because the "good English" and impersonal journalese that was prevalent deadened the reader's imagination. Nevertheless, Green's stylistic idiosyncrasy is not merely tactical: It can be most hauntingly musical, especially in the surprising bursts of lyricism that dot the early novels and contrast strikingly with the generally grim themes. (p. 23)

Party Going (1939) shows the other side of Living's coin. The upper crust gets most of the space here, with the worker making only occasional appearances. Eight young socialites gather in a London railway station to leave for a holiday in the south of France, but the heavy fog forces them to spend four hours (the time span of the book) in a railway hotel. Physically, even less happens than in Living: what we learn about is the internal dynamics of the group, the shifting alliances, sexual games, and individual hobbyhorses that lurk not so far beneath the surface of their conventional, polite behavior.

Party Going introduces into the Green canon one of his major themes—sex. For the partygoers, sexuality is miles away from what it should be. Most of them are merely observers…. The real fight is for Max, who is footing the bill, and is waged between Amabel, his current companion and Julia, a comer. For them sex has nothing to do with love or even physicality: It is a transferable function of power. After having decided not to ask Amabel along, Max forgets his reasons and reverses himself. In the terminology of Green titles, these people are doting, not loving: Their bonds are ephemeral, and can be broken or altered on a whim.

The rhetoric of Party Going is a subtle irony achieved by montage and suggestion. In the first scene Miss Fellowes, an aunt of one of the party, finds a pigeon (the novel is as full of birds as Living) that, disturbed by the fog, "went flat into a balustrade, and slowly fell, dead, at her feet." She picks it up and walks into a tunnel with the word "Departures" over it. Immediately we are in an atmosphere of heightened significance. Green does not have to press his points: The job has been done, and we cannot help thinking about the "terminal" and the fog symbolically. (pp. 23-4)

The verdict on these parasites is guilty, guilty, guilty, but Party Going manages to be no more of an anticapitalist tract than Living. For one thing, Green spends so much time on his characters' words and thoughts that they cannot seem evil: They are simply there. And he is once again most interested in the way experience is refracted through the lens of talk. These people may speak more grammatically than ironworkers, but they misinterpret just as obsessively. That condition is here represented by one "Embassy" Richard, an absent member of their set who was recently involved in a minor scandal. His case is picked at to the point of absurdity, with people forgetting their arguments, changing sides and making pointless points, until talking about him appears as the ritual that it is. (On the third to last page, in a brilliant stroke on Green's part, Richard actually shows up; we had somehow assumed that he didn't really exist.)…

[The characters in Loving, perhaps Green's most conventional novel, are] on the whole, selfish, oblivious to the outside world, and ineffectual. It is a point of view that a reader of Green has come to be familiar with: Besides how bad he is at being bad, and an occasional burst of undeserved providence, man has precious little going for him.

In Loving Green is in complete control of the technique he had been developing. The method is familiar—the events of each day are turned over and over again by the servants' dinner table talk—but the touch is lighter, more effortless. It is left up to the reader, for example, to notice that Raunce, the butler, after berating a maid early on for wanting to quit without giving notice, takes the opposite tack when making elopement plans: "We shan't hand it in mate that's all. We'll flit." And Green here puts into practice for the first time what he had remarked on in Party Going, "how impossible it is to tell what others are thinking or what, in ordinary life, brings people to do what they are doing." Loving is filled with constructions like "she lied, it may have been to protect the lad"; "it must have been that she could not help herself"; and "it seemed that she was not thinking of the servants." Such circumspection strengthens Green's case: We never have to take him on his word….

[Living, Loving, and Party Going] form a definite piece of the Green oeuvre. Each limns a world bounded by geography, viewpoint, and most important, language. The books are alike, too, in not really ending. Though a denouement of sorts is effected in each, the strong implication is that events will go on much as before. In Loving's first scene the old butler Eldon, dying in his room, utters the name Ellen over and over (we never learn who she is). At the very end, Raunce, in "exactly that tone Mr. Eldon had employed when calling his Ellen," moans, "Edie." Life, love, and parties are circles.

In Caught and the later novels Green narrows his scope, but continues to experiment, with consistently impressive results. Caught … is unusual for presenting a character from the author's own social station who is sympathetic (albeit somewhat neurotic). Back (1946) is the story of a returning veteran's gradual recovery of emotional health; what distinguishes it from the comparable Blindness is the uncanny way Green makes the reader share in Charley Summers's delusions and discomfort. The extraordinary Concluding (1948) is set in a girls' boarding school in the future, when England is ruled by an authoritarian State. Published the same year as 1984, it makes a stronger case: Totalitarianism is scarier when (as may be expected) the dictators are ineffectual and no one seems to know exactly what's going on. Nothing and Doting, admittedly abstract novels, consist of spare set pieces in which the Party Going set, now middle-aged and suffering from the stringency of the postwar economy, comically reveal themselves to be as vacuous and sex-obsessed as ever.

What makes Henry Green a truly unusual writer … are his style and his pessimism, and these must be confronted by everyone who reads him. The former is not so difficult a proposition. Green felt the language available to him was lifeless, and he took it upon himself to make it new. After the initial testings of Blindness and the excesses of Living, he found his voice; it is "nonrepresentational," as he insisted in articles and interviews, and its stylization always reminds the reader that what's in front of him is more than a story. Green's prose takes some getting used to, but gradually his strange rhythms etch their way into the mind and become delightful.

His misanthropy is a little harder to swallow…. [There] is no room for a Henry Green in a Henry Green novel. His characters are above all limited, and live in a different world from their author's; if they end up happy or successful it is always in spite of themselves. He came down hardest on his peers. Virtually without exception, they lead lives in which doting replaces loving and party going replaces living: result, nothing….

Whatever the reasons for Green's dim view of humanity in general and his class in particular, it consigns him to the position of comic novelist. For if people are deceived and ineffectual, and don't even know it, how can they enter the realm of tragedy? It is fortunate, then, that Green accepts the comic spirit so fully and so well. Unlike Waugh, who covered similar ground, he is never mean, and seems as pleased as his characters when their triumphs-in-spite-of-themselves transpire. He is genuinely grateful for small favors: "The mere fact that we talk to one another is man's greatest asset. That we talk to one another in novels … is nothing less than miraculous." Occasionally, in the midst of misunderstanding and deception, communication will actually be reached, or a wish will come true…. We can only marvel that the odds have been beaten, and thank Green for letting us know. (p. 24)

Ben Yagoda, "Hazards of Language," in New Boston Review (copyright 1979 by Boston Critic, Inc.), February-March, 1979, pp. 23-4.

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