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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