Philip Toynbee (essay date May 1949)
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4667
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 down through works in Birmingham till Tupe he found." "Again was first day outside, another fine evening." Many such sentences as this confront us on every page of the book, and it would be difficult to excuse them. In the first of them I can think of only one conceivable reason for such an inversion. Had the reader been led to expect that Mr. Bridges was likely to find not Tupe, but someone else, then this bringing forward of, and consequent emphasis on, the proper name might conceivably have been justified. But in the text no such reason exists. One can only feel that the writer was alarmed by the flatness of the sentence he so carefully avoided, and that this inadequate motive was the only one which moved him to make his distortion. As for the second sentence, I find it frankly incomprehensible. If it was first day outside, how could it also be the evening?
Yet the general motive for Green's oddities of diction in this early book do not seem to me to be very difficult to discover. He had felt an aversion to the looseness of modern English prose, and to avoid this weakness, he has tried to write in what is virtually a kind of shorthand. His sentences are short and staccato. Many of his inversions do save the use of a word or two. He omits articles, and sometimes the connecting particles. To my mind, and to the later mind of Henry Green, this was a wholly mistaken method of confronting the contemporary linguistic problem. Telegraphese is simply one of the diseases of our time, and homeopathic remedies are patently inapplicable to literature. Certainly it is true that a great fault of current speech lies in the proliferation of superfluous and meaningless sounds. Phrases like "as a matter of fact" and "taking everything into consideration" have lowered the currency of speech, and some severity is needed. But "the" is both an innocent and a useful word, and to concentrate so heavy a gun against it seems a curious misdirection of this writer's fire-power.
Green's two earliest books, Blindness and Living, revealed a young writer of obvious originality but confronted by obvious dangers. Would he surrender to his idiosyncrasies and dissipate his talents in a mere striving at any price for the outward appearance of novelty? His next two books were not encouraging. Party Going is a whimsical description of a group of rich young people leaving from Victoria Station for the continent. One has the gloomy feeling when reading it that what was aimed at was quite unashamedly a tour-de-force; and nothing in the world is more discouraging than a tour-de-force manqué. The language of this book is not so much distorted as archly contrived, and although there are moments of superb and individual humor the whole book leaves a rather sickly taste in the mouth. When Party Going was followed by a slapdash and totally immemorable autobiography, any critic would have been justified in suggesting that Henry Green's name might be regretfully added to the long list which is headed Hopes Dashed or Promise Unfulfilled. Fortunately this judgment would have proved grotesquely premature.
Almost all the admirers of Green would agree that his three best novels, the oeuvre by which he may be allowed to stand or fall, are the three which followed in fairly quick succession on his unfortunate autobiography. To these three, Caught, Loving, and Back, some of his more extreme devotees would add his 1948 novel, Concluding.
A great difficulty in writing about Henry Green is that a mere precis of his "plots" serves almost no purpose at all. Caught, for example, might be described as the dégringolade of a fire officer during the early raids on London. In it there are vivid and terrible descriptions of fire fighting (Green was an active member of the London fire service throughout the war); there is a sub-plot which is concerned with the abduction of a child by the fire officer's crazy sister, and there is a climax in Pye's final folie de grandeur. Loving is a comedy about the servants in a large Anglo-Irish house, a comedy in which almost nothing happens except the discovery by the servants of adultery among the gentry. Back is the description of an English prisoner of war's first months in England after several years' absence, While Charlie has been away, his girl has died, and the theme of the book lies in his refusal to recognize this fact, his insistence that the girl's half sister is herself, still alive but refusing to recognize him. From these descriptions it might be supposed that Caught was the most conventional of the three books, since its plot, though unusual, is at least describable in other than the book's own terms. Certainly it would be impossible to describe the devious and apparently trivial episodes which follow each other so inconsequentially in Loving, and it might well be imagined that the curious notion which inspired Back would suffice at most for a somewhat tenuous short story. But the fact is that any approach to Green in these terms is certain to be abortive. By this I don't imply that the subject matter of his novels are of no importance; they are vitally important, but important principally as the vehicle for something else.
Already on several occasions in this article I have been obliged to use the word "vision" when writing of Green's achievement. In this context it is a word which requires definition as sternly as it defies it. Certainly Weltanschauung will not do instead, implying as it does a consciously held and readily expressible body of belief. Henry Green is totally and remarkably without a Weltanschauung; it has proved one of the most awkward facts about him to those critics who are forever anxious to explain in their own words the precise message which their victims intended to purvey. I am not suggesting that this is a bad form of criticism. When Mr. Trilling writes almost exclusively in these terms about E. M. Forster he is applying his keen and argumentative mind to an admirably suitable field. In fact the majority of novelists are not only amenable to this type of criticism, they demand it. It would be possible, for example, to write of Conrad entirely in terms of his "vision" (which I would now hesitantly define as a writer's sensual, emotional and instinctive apprehension of the world, as opposed to the intellectual superstructure which he constructs on top of it). But such a criticism of Conrad, though apt and instructive would also be grossly inadequate, since Conrad was a novelist of strong and consciously held moral views. When Mr. Trilling epitomizes the work of Forster in a single phrase, "The underdeveloped heart," his epigram is wholly justified. No reader would be so foolish as to suppose that this epitome will absolve him from reading Forster's novels, that it is an adequate summary of what Forster has to say. Because he is a good novelist what he has to say can only be said as he said it. Yet the epitome is justified because the novels of Forster are the vehicles, the necessary vehicles for expounding, deepening and realizing our inadequate apprehension of Trilling's single phrase. My point is that no such phrase exists by which the burden of Henry Green's song can be epitomized.
Earlier in this article I wrote that there is no compassion in Green's vision. Perhaps it is by this fact that his achievement can be both understood and "placed." It is both his strength and his ultimate limitation.
Henry Green's almost unique gift is for hallucination. By this I mean neither fantasy nor obsession, but a bewildering ability to see far and wide over the landscape, and to see everything through strange-colored glass. Or one might say that in Green's case one has the impression that he has stepped confidently through a looking-glass and is staring back at us from there with a certain calm and appraising satisfaction. Or again, to pursue this purely visual analogy, this writer might be pictured spread out in the middle of a ceiling and seeing the people below him in what they would hold to be distorted and unnatural shapes. In fact I do not use the word hallucination in opposition to something else which is to be called reality, but in opposition to normal vision. What is really amazing about this writer is that he can comfortably remain in the extraordinary positions he chooses for the whole duration of a book. Many writers attempt this, but in most of them one is aware either of the mounting strain which they are feeling, splayed up there on the ceiling, or of their plain inability to sustain their vision for more than a quaint passage here and there. Yet the whole of Caught is made lurid by the freakish character of the fire officer; Loving is a kind of particolored mosaic in which the quirks, the ignorances, the perversities of the servants are not simply described but actually describe themselves, are both the matter and the manner of the whole book. In Back Charlie's obstinate error of mistaken identity so colors his vision that the whole panorama of postwar England is seen from a strange and hallucinatory angle.
In fact the analogies which I used to exhibit Henry Green as a spectator are useful but incomplete. For he is also a participant. Poised aloft he not only surveys the scalps of his victims, but is able to become himself a scalp. This is due to his astonishing gift of dispassionate sympathy, in the most literal sense of the word. When Charlie, the returned soldier, observes the world through the colored spectacles of his obsession, his creator is also behind those spectacles, sharing and encouraging that peculiar but illuminating vision. Green's ultimate limitation (every novelist has one) is that his activity, both as spectator and as participant, is fundamentally lacking in human passion. His books are exquisite, subtle and entrancing, but they remain a brilliant exercise. At times he simulates tenderness with an astonishing and deceptive skill, but the final effect is almost frigid. We have been fascinated and convinced by Pye, by Charlie, by Raunce the butler; these figures have revealed to us a new dimension of human experience, but they have not moved us as we are moved, for example, by the far more conventional creatures of Forster. Indeed it might be helpful to regard Henry Green as the perfect complement to Forster. He is a subtler, a more sophisticated, a more magical writer, but, owing to his lack of either passion or compassion, he does not enter into the substance of our lives as Forster does. He has instructed us in new uses of the pure imagination, clarified and enriched our sensual understanding of the world, but he has neither tried to achieve nor accidentally achieved a moral effect.
This becomes clearer in his last novel than in any of the three I have been considering. In some ways Concluding is the most réussi of all his books. Approximately, it is concerned with an English girls' school in the country, and the events would appear to be taking place some time in the nineteen-seventies or eighties. An old retired professor lives on the grounds of the school, and the main theme of the book is his growing fear of eviction at the hands of the hostile headmistresses. Two of the girls disappear; there is a love affair between the old man's daughter and one of the masters; the book ends with a dance for the pupils. The book's title is misleading, for it is the most deliberately inconclusive novel which can ever have been written. Nothing is settled. We do not learn what has happened to the vanished girls, or what will happen either to the professor or to his daughter. On the first page we enter a sort of timeless dream, and on the last page the dream breaks off. It breaks off but it does not end. The world of Concluding is a world of pure hallucination, timeless, unhampered by the accepted sequence of cause and effect, yet strangely unified, strangely possessed of its own private logic. It is an exceedingly uncomfortable world to inhabit, a beautiful but pitiless nightmare in which the only warmth comes from the treacherous adolescent bodies of the girls.
Quite soon, girls began to cut in. While Inglefield kept the instrument hard at it, the original partners began to break up, to step back over the wax mirror floor out of one another's arms, moving sideways by such as would not be parted yet, each to tap a second favorite on a bare, quiet shoulder. Then the girl so chosen would give a little start, open those great shut eyes, much greater than jewels as she circled, and, circling yet, would dip into these fresh limbs which moved already in the dance, disengaging thus to leave her first choice to slip sideways in turn past established, whirling partners until she found another who was loved and yet alone.
This passage is typical of the last stage of Green's curious manner, typical in its deliberate clumsiness, its complexity and its curious effectiveness. It is also typical of Green's emotional stance. He is erotically enchanted by the dancing girls, and we are enabled to share his enchantment. But the final reaction to that dance is a shiver down the spine, as if the girls had really been ghosts and were to fall into dust at the last note of the gramophone. And this, indeed, may well be a reader's final reaction to the whole book, a sense that he has been enchanted by an uneasy suspicion that the magic was black. There is not only no compassion in this book; there is, for the first time, a subtle assault on compassion. Not that the book is cruel in any obvious way, but that by the curious purity of its negation it inspires a sort of chilly despair.
Whatever Henry Green does next—and he has already proved the unwisdom of making prophecies about his future—he has already written three of the most original and stimulating English novels of our time. His curious manner has been a wonderfully apt vehicle for his curious vision. Since they are inseparable it may be well to finish this article with a quotation.
A country bus drew up below the church and a young man got out. This he had to do carefully, because he had a peg leg.
The roadway was asphalted blue.
It was a summer day in England. Rain clouds were amassed back of a church tower which stood on rising ground. As he looked up he noted well those slits, built for defense, in the blood-colored brick. Then he ran his eye with caution over cypresses and between grave stones. He might have been watching for a trap, who had lost his leg in France for not noticing the gun beneath a rose.
For, climbing around and up these trees of mourning, was rose after rose after rose, while, here and there, the spray overburdened by the mass of flower, a live wreath lay fallen on a wreath of stone, or on a box in marble colder than this day, or onto frosted paper blooms which, under glass, marked each bed of earth wherein the dear departed encouraged life above in the green grass, the cypresses and in those roses gay and bright which, as still as this dark afternoon, started at whosoever looked, or hung their heads to droop, to grow stained, to die when their turn came.
This, the opening passage of Back, is the later Green at his most exuberant. Nobody could deny that it is mannered writing, at least in the sense that it is not what one has become accustomed to. But it is the only kind of writing which is natural to the natural vision of this unusual man. For my own part I find this passage both beautiful and effective. I am persuaded by it. I am seduced into the mood which the writer urges on me, and at the end of the book I feel that I have been well rewarded for my willing seduction.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 857
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."
Eudora Welty (essay date Autumn 1961)
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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 of home and school and University wrote and still write at times rather like one another, but not one has produced one novel that in the conception or in the writing seems now in the same world of art with Living or Party Going or Caught or Loving or Back or Concluding or Nothing or Doting or, in quite the same way these novels seem, in the world with us. His novels are not only unlike those of other writers, they are to an unusual degree unlike one another, and while each has been made to stand as clear as possible out in space, yet there could be above all no mistaking of the hand. The intelligence, the blazing gifts of imagery, dialogue, construction, and form, the power to feel both what can and what never can be said, give Henry Green's work an intensity greater, this reader believes, than that of any other writer of imaginative fiction today. For thirty years the nature of each next work has been unpredictable, and this is still the case. His remains the most interesting and vital imagination in English fiction in our time.
He brings to bear on that imagination a knowledge of the wide world as intimate as Jane Austen enjoyed of her own. To be sure, their sex and their centuries divide them, so does the different order and play of their powers, but any two unfooled novelists may meet somewhere, and it is no little thing to have a sense of the absurd in common. While they could meet as wits, and he could get away as she passes judgment, it would be he who finds human behavior extraordinary and she who finds it not too different from what she'd expected. The at-homeness possible to him in the wider world allows him irony and apprehension as well, and has made him richly aware of the comic and also of the outrageous, the bizarre, the awful, the inhuman—all that "home" is not. She never saw the landscape which has so often carried him away; with her own good eyes she was as innocent of that world as she was of the symbolic that he can also see. And then another divider would have opened between them, this time the true Grand Canyon, love. Without ever taking us back, this not being his direction, Henry Green may seem more congenial in mind, perhaps, with a century of order, form, and reason than he does with ours, and a sense of order appears to lie deep in his writing; nevertheless we may feel that it is not so deep as where the spring rises.
For his seems a lyric voice that first and last praises the phenomenon of life, and the effect of his fiction is that we have been charged in various and astonishing ways with seeing the phenomenon and in time, before its radiance is spent. And in this he is not typical of our century either; indeed he is nowhere this.
You could say that he starts with the visible and present world, the variety of its people, and time. Then you could take one theme of his to be the extreme, almost triumphant vulnerability of man to this mortal world and variety, what with the power of the feelings and fates and the plain nuisances that come in the course and confinement of time to assail him. The characters in his novels live to a degree aware of their own exposure even when not too steadily aware of the world, even when deaf and blind to it. A character with defenses up on three sides will be found in the end helpless as a baby on the fourth side; and generally—here is a mark of this writer—feeling the better for it. Vulnerability is a personal and valuable and selfish possession—perhaps more; perhaps in effect it is the self. At any rate tolerance for the condition comes not too hard.
Signs, omens, charms and works, hopes, confidences, deceptions and self-deceptions, truth and lies, loving and harmdoing, everything sweet or formidable that we go provided with, all in the end will tell what we tried to provide against. All, down to the most frittering talk and most antic behavior of daily living, are eloquent of the complicated, almost oriental threats that are constantly being made against our living at all. Death by inches is waiting just beyond the door, and someday the dead pigeon, or the fire bomb, will come tumbling down from the sky straight for somebody's head.
For of course he is writing against death, and this the artist whose medium is the word is always doing. A painter may paint merely against boredom and come up with a master-piece—we have read that. But whoever turns to incantation, just as whoever turns to reasoning, seizes the word. (And might it not be that all Mr. Green's titles go back in turn to one word, that Living is the generic title of all his work?) With its vigor, its true gaiety, its satire quick as a nerve, with its tireless glow of beauty, with its blessed oddity, work which has many a strange and never a ponderous line in it, you are left free to find as you will: it is presented as and for itself only, and this to me fills it to the brim with "what it means": itself.
Here the world is always right up against our eyes. The characters are shown doing the daily kind of thing, dining, working, bathing, sleeping, dancing (they can nearly all dance, barring a missing leg, and you know they are going to keep on dancing), making love, sitting in pubs and nightclubs and movies, meeting, talking, talking, but nearly always failing to get much further along with it. As Henry Green proceeds with them we are given matchless descriptions of indolence itself, of sleep itself, of moving through woods, through streets of cities, through rooms and gardens of houses, through times of secrecy and of driving emotion, of hallucination, of pain and plain giddiness, through a dream or a factory, a toy shop or a railway station, through fire. What is typical and what is incalculable about people are set forth with no favoritism shown. Mr. Green has imagined characters of a free range in kind and sensibilities and age, of an average sanity (some at both ends), and all of them—Birmingham factory workers, the young of Mayfair, the men of the Auxiliary Fire Service, the servants in an Irish castle, the bereaved soldier coming back to life from the war, tomorrow's forgotten sage surrounded by schoolmistresses of the State and schoolgirls lost or hiding in the wild—all these are people who are ordinary inside their world and might have stepped into being as part of their year of origin. Though Party Going may happen in Limbo, and Concluding—that novel of projections, protractions, long shots, and shadows flying ahead, a slow fall—does happen, we are told (1948) in the near future, these obliquely seen settings only increase the sense of today's life dying. In these novels—and only their titles can, and do, begin to describe them—place and time are mortally real, and the characters and happenings of the imagination rise up by the grace of the time and place, but their life is on the instant their own, each is a single and separate spirit, and in much the same way the life of each novel is peculiarly and intensely its own. How strong everywhere do we feel the power of the personal, its power all but incredible. When London starts to burn at the end of Caught, with the holocaust in our faces, what we cry is "At last!" for Richard Roe.
Mr. Green takes delight in his characters, and it is not more than we take. He explains none, exploits none; he is just without solemnity, satirical without malice, he never deprecates them or sums them up, doesn't inflate them, diminishes nothing that they feel, he can be at one with their spirits, he is at home with them all. He seems equally free of bitterness, boyishness, ridicule, and religious pranks where they are concerned. His sympathy is even quicker than his wit, not to be caught up with. Only a man of reason, we feel, is likely to be so aware of and so fascinated by the irrational in human motive and behavior; only an artist could show the extraordinary aspects of behavior in ordinary people and suggest, without robbing them at all, where they keep the kernel of their singularity, which as in the fairy tales is well guarded but not too well guarded.
The events in these novels could be said to hang upon how well the characters find out and keep hold of who they are, often by feeling where it hurts or how it pinches; whereupon they take up some fresh responsibility for the self to the self and (always) at least one other; and not a man among them will so slip as to do this heroically, but rather by the accident of circumstance, by the pull of the instinct of self-preservation, by falling for a girl.
In each novel, the characters within its world are busy, no matter what happens, making a world—with the hands perhaps, but certainly with the emotions; something will get positively pulled into shape, patched together, to hold onto against time and death. The characters would like well enough to speak to each other but most of them are like us, not good at it. But they can create. To create is after all easier than to communicate—fantastic truth. Even if it is a creation of self-deception, they can throw together for the time being a little peace, goodness, gaiety, creature comfort, they can feather the nest, and this success is the sweeter because it is loneliness that is getting cheated and what they are making turns out, some way, to be love. They can make at least a partial settlement with life, on the basis that intimacy comes to be a fair substitute for understanding.
Even when the events in their lives are themselves of frail import, what underlies these is major, some plain deal from what life has in store. This may be unstated, may be ambiguous, and ambiguity may be the novel's origin, as in Back. Always at the core of the book is common experience, mystifying or not—but then it always will be, for in every novel it is given that much powerful immediacy.
There is no lack of the sinister in Henry Green's work, of horror and violence; they are present as the fact that the day brings forth, the fiction showing the characters' response to the daily fact. Their horror as well as their delight can tell what they feel they are looking for, the implication they find or miss or lose and mourn, how much they can resist or share or get the better of. Their tragedy this writer knows and accommodates, their comedy he runs out to meet.
Henry Green has shown to what lasting pleasure that nothing about the revelation of humankind requires that it be solemn. Some of his most brilliant insight makes for highest comedy. Nor is the comic confined to the novels of comedy; he makes it appear to enter at will, its own, as in life, and even in the midst of horror we will meet with an insight of such intensity that it could have come in at that moment by no other door. Humor is not a relief, as beauty is not a decoration; all that can be said is that there occur, when these qualities appear, highly sensitive spots where you are surest to hear the pulsebeat of the fiction.
In his love scenes, and there have been many of many kinds since Lily began beating time on Mr. Dale's arm to the cinema band in Living, there is never any question as to love's presence. How well he can convey pleasure and pain and the suspense both carry! Love and anger, at the moment we confront them in everyday life, are apt to seem as experiences brand new; and were they so, they could not half so seriously challenge the novelist. Perhaps what Henry Green is able to do, through some power of concentration, is to see them new. In his scenes, when emotion strikes us, it may be by the shock of what first seems new that we are led so truly to recognize the familiar.
There is nothing mystical but everything mysterious in what this writer sees and makes of a given set of experiences. For it is a fact in life, certainly, and is Richard Roe's complaint when he tries to describe the blitz on London to his sister-in-law: you can't explain "difficult" things "ordinarily." And what is not difficult? The Green characters in their experiences—some that hurt or try to walk over them, some that hold out promise of comfort and change and, who knows, maybe more—live through fits and starts, fevers, caprices, dreams and terrors and chases and obsessions, oblivion malign or benign, while simply doing the daily thing. And there is always a wild appropriateness about the business. Nobody steps out of line for long to take a roaring stand or to wave his fist, hardly anybody is going to make that kind of fool of himself. I suppose failure of the understanding is what they go on enjoying or suffering from—a wasting disease: we have it. It's like vulnerability, though—being our own private complaint it has its charms. But meanness of heart, inhumanity, is the foe, the real and awesome foe; it is all the dangers of the future in one, and so real at any given moment as to all but paralyse the spirit—yet so far we can still cheat paralysis. Whether it be from the inhumanity of the war in Caught or from that of hateful, withered Miss Edge in Concluding, something is saved. Native, cranky, frolicking, magnificent will-fulness has been our blessing. And the pet peeve, the private joke shared, the hope of a stolen kiss, like the thought of tomorrow, is as hard to dislodge as any passion.
Henry Green seems to me to be a romantic artist who has chosen to write from inside the labyrinth of everyday life, whose senses and whose temperament are and have remained romantic and whose reason and experience are lying in wait for the romantic at every turn. So all the novels make new departures. Too much must have always been at stake to stop for the conventions of the novel, and he has done away with scaffolding, with one prop after another, as rapidly as his contemporaries seem to have added them, as promptly as he disposed of the "the" in Living. (A still earlier novel, begun while he was at Eton, was published while he was still up at Oxford, not available here as far as I know, but with the title one whale of a prop went down: Blindness.) What matters most is that the feeling which the early Living revealed must have already been more than he could use; but for the feeling there could never have come the need that has kept pressing this writer to experiment again. For what he wanted in writing his fiction was to communicate: "Prose is not to be read aloud but to oneself alone at night, and it is not quick as poetry, but rather a gathering web of insinuations which go further than names however shared can ever go. Prose should be a long intimacy between strangers with no direct appeal to what both have known. It should slowly appeal to feelings unexpressed, it should in the end draw tears out of the stone."
After a rapid-fire quintet of almost uncannily seen novels, each a major work of his, and how dissimilar they are—Party Going, Loving, Caught, Back, Concluding—the next, and then the last so far, are provided with key settings and then the characters open their mouths and raise their novels from scratch. Henry Green can do this because, for all his justly renowned ear for the way people talk, he has the gift beyond that of turning what people say into the fantasy of what they are telling each other, at the same time calling up out of their own mouths their vital spirit. His ear is the organ of his sense of comedy as, it might be imagined, his eye is that of tragedy.
And how well this novelist knows and conveys what is wordless, as he makes us aware of those tracts in mind and heart too dark since the beginning for eye to see into. His novels are as charged with feeling beyond the feeling stated as their landscapes are alive with birds.
I seem to remember that readers who only wanted Loving again said that Nothing and Doting, when they appeared, were frivolous novels. But aren't these novels about frivolity, which is part of the everyday world along with the murder in the next street and the rose in the garden—with us, within us. As when in Caught Henry Green makes a tragic novel out of wartime London and its night lit by unnatural passion and inhuman fire and "the intense impartiality of moonlight," in Nothing and Doting he makes comic novels out of the pinch and press of a postwar middle age. The working class was unfamiliar matter for a novel too, in 1931 when Living rushed forth like a pear tree into bloom on a black morning. It was from this novel, set as it was in drabness and monotony, that it became clear that Henry Green had a gift of gaiety more dazzling than any of his contemporaries, and is more dazzling today than his youngers too, I think.
Different as they are from one another, all Henry Green's novels are likely on first impact to seem at once odd and oddly familiar. One reason must be that they touch; as they always do, uncommonly close to the quick of experience. Another reason may be that when after moving you as they do they come to an end, they do not (I think) release you, like the more orthodox novels and like the greatest novels. Particularly do you stand a chance of being left in the power of Concluding—of all that has deliberately not been said, has been mysteriously implied. The spell comes each time from his style, a fact which explains nothing, for style is as mysterious a thing as any spell.
The structure of a Green sentence is as eccentric and as purposeful as a Faulkner sentence. But the physical character of Henry Green's prose is no more like William Faulkner's than it is like anybody else's. The short, spare, dealing-out sentences, made up of one- and two-syllabled words, the only long words being perhaps the given names of women or the young, are designed to convey what is happening in the action, of course, but designed just as often to convey emotion. The sentences are short but they are glancing—the effect can be magically exhilarating: as when the knife thrower does not pierce but surrounds the living target, and it is the reader whose heart is thereby found. If these short sentences have the look of simplicity, let no simplifier try to copy what they do. And the long sentences, lengthy with unsimple modifications and qualifications, that this master of imagery constructs with hardly ever a use of the word "like," are above all precise in their ordering. Indeed he has shown best of any writer I know that no power may be exercised with greater precision than the power of suggestion. Never was live presence better called up than by those ringing blades in the shape we saw them reach. Henry Green's imagery is evocation by precision and also by grace of daring, which as in every true artist's case may be the ordinary act of the passion to see. Not to copy what is there to his knowledge, but to show you what is there as alive, basically inviolate, a person or a moment in time—this is what he does in prose, and to show you a thing this tender and fragile is to invite disaster and to escape it by a hairsbreadth. Yet novels that have been this risky for the writer to write seem in an odd way so reliable for the reader to read, the only safe place to lay some faith in this world, and I find in the paradox something characteristic of Henry Green.
Certainly he risks more than we readers can know. (Indeed it goes without saying, there is a superb lack of fuss in any of his work.) Party Going is a novel that might be all an image in itself, satirically conceived, mysteriously complicated, held like the long breath of enchantment. The shape of it might be a turning arabesque, delicate and shimmering as the threads in the stem of a wine glass, that, after the novel becomes part of your memory, seems as sobering and sad as a monument destined to stand in its lonely park after you have passed by. You may look back on this satiric yet tender story of the young and gilded and see the monument in it, raised indeed to their "going," and since you have been inside you know the interior vistas, whose dimensions may take on more and more a Piranesian scale.
While Party Going is a continuous visual experience, Nothing (which might be about some of Party Going's characters twenty years later—this is where they went) and after it Doting assume forms you are aware of almost kinetically, as you are of the juggling act in Doting. In this latest novel of Mr. Green's, through dialogue alone one pair of characters, now another, are set in bantering motion, at the right moment the odd third is introduced, then the even fourth gently insinuated and presently the whole set are brought into play with a brilliant finale that recalls and smiles back on the beginning. (Arthur Middleton has only to make one spill to bring down the whole thing and he is allowed precisely the moment to do it.)
We may not be used even yet to imagery that can be small as a proper name, large as a whole novel, or even something we cannot see; to forms of construction as fully and subtly realized; to symbols as looming or as fleeting or as weightless and free as his, and as subject to mutation; even to the sources he so readily takes them from—geography, the animal kingdom, the machine parts in a factory, anywhere but out of a book. There are some of great power that are more felt than seen, that are so strong that the curiosity is stirred as to whether these might be not too far removed from those first pictures in the mind that later became the novels.
In all that he writes the senses play their part and a great one. Amabel coming out of her bath in the station hotel in Party Going is something that on the face of it I feel Colette has never done better, yet Colette, I believe, at such moments submerges identity when Henry Green intends to state it. He can walk through walls of consciousness and down the corridors of the senses, as it is obvious he can walk through walls of class in English society, with a step so light that it is like the future's, and nothing in the novel appears altered by it; his regard goes in, his word comes out, the effect is of transmutation.
He has both solved and set up a fair number of problems in the novel, along his way. He leaves out a good deal that we are accustomed to, such as omniscient explanations of motive in the characters; and human behavior thereby seems for the moment as phenomenal as it must be in truth. The moon seen in partial eclipse tells us something moonlike that the big broad shiner doesn't, and the phenomenal is simply the usual on view with the coziness sheared off. Mr. Green does not tell you what his characters think nor assume their points of view; he sees through no single mind. (Yes, in Back he does—do not generalize about this author; but the mind of Charley Summers, that the war has set to working in strange ways, is that novel's territory, is back of Back.)
And all the time, with all his resources, he is telling us, I think, how extraordinarily different all ordinary human beings can be from one another. It takes the extraordinary writer to tell us this, and never to mention it in words; but indeed it is only as long as there are writers like himself able to imply that the unique is blessed and gives us blessing, that life on earth is still being celebrated.
What is unmistakable is that Henry Green is inside his character's world, totally and literally, down to the last inch they fill up in their boots and from the moment they open their nearly always big eyes. In Loving, the landscape pulses with a fairytale glow and the characters, themselves aglow, rarely even see it. The sinister world of Concluding is, if possible, still more beautiful, side-lit and colored like an undersea kingdom (it is the welfare state of the future)—and Mr. Rock sees it, as with the finally satisfied gaze of farewell; but Loving, in scene after scene spread as at the strokes of a wand, is the seducing one; and it is through your eyes you know it for the world of sans souci. Loving's own characters simply respond to it—in play, through the motions of a dream or game of blindfold, in dancing together, or perhaps in the sandy-eyed oblivion of a picnic by the edge of the sea; on further thought, it's a hundred times better than that: Edith, when she looks out on the morning, "the soft bright morning that struck her dazzled dazzling eyes," is at least near to being herself what that world is.
There is no need to say whether such writing is of the exterior or the interior world. With the old man of Concluding, his granddaughter, and the starlings at evening, with "the enormous echo of the blood, or of the sea," where does the line come? What the poet, and he is this, has found most explicit about life was clear to him before the line between exterior and interior was ever invented.
You never see Henry Green, he takes up no space as the author. But though he has never intruded the self, you feel his authorship continuously and pervasively because his novels have a mind—an acute, subtle, impartial mind, a partial disposition, and a temperament that streaks the most marvelous color through the work. He is there at the center of what he writes, but in effect his identity has turned into the fiction. And while you the reader know nothing of Mr. Henry Green's life, as he has taken good care to see to, in the long run a life's confidence is what you feel you have been given.
This author seems to say: if the transitory cannot be held fast, it can be made to seem more itself, can have its intensity matched in words, to persist there. He uses artifice, uses "naturalism," symbols, every device at his command and there are many, but his work in long and best result lies at the other extreme from the artificial, in the open country of poetry. In Pack My Bag, the "self-portrait" from which came the lines quoted above, the author suggests it is the common memory he addresses himself to and that will respond. Surely his concern, like his delight, his hope implied, his deepest feeling, seems to abide in indelibility in the face of chaos, and through his novels, in every one, a shape for indelibility is what he has made.
And this, discovering a shape or pattern to some set of experiences, is the way we all take of imagining what life is up to. I think the novelist through the long act of writing evolves his pattern, and it is this resulting and unpredictable thing, which was intuitive but discernible only through art, that is impressed, without announcement, on the mind of the reader in a way not to be put into words but all the more greatly to be felt. Indelibility itself is subjective, is an image; and with the kite up it is so much better not to talk kite at all. Because if it flies, a marvelous one-time-only construction in thin air, that is everything, that is enough, and we never deserved it.
It is true that passages like the one about Mr. Rock and the starlings at evening are not only indelible in themselves, they have the aura of indelibility about them. The ears seem to ring when we come to them on the page. They seem frank soaring over and above the thing at hand, intensifications both deliberate and justified; not showing off, though who else could write them, but serving a purpose, the most serious. Virtuosity, unless it move the heart, goes at the head of the whole parade to dust. With Henry Green we always come back to this: this work is so moving. Some scenes and paragraphs have a quality of being offered—to the moment itself? To life?
Surely each novel written stands as something of a feat. For what has been done? First ask, what was the heart's desire? Not the creating of an illusion, but the restoring of one; something brought off. We are not children once we have pasts; and now as we come looking in fiction with more longing than in any experience save love, but to which love adds, looking for reflections and visions of all life we know compounded through art, performance itself is what we ask for. We ask only that it be magic. Good fiction grants this boon, bad denies it. And performance is what the novelist would like to give—a fresh performance; not to show off skill, which would be (as obviously in the case of the pseudonymous Henry Green) a thing to be despised, but, out of respect, love, and fearlessness for all that may be tried, to command the best skill.
As told in Pack My Bag, Henry Green was born in 1905; this is only 1961. His novels so far are dissimilar enough to suggest that their whole, whenever he chooses to draw this line, which one hopes is a time out of sight, will have a meaning then to be looked at for the whole; yet it has always seemed that his whole meaning expressed will be more than the sum of its parts. These eight together make it plain that his focus, instantaneously seen to be sharp and clear, is also wide and clear; they show us the sweep of his sympathies and the drive and control of his feelings, and we know that there has been no stopping of him technically. His grasp of imaginative construction alone is altogether astonishing. He has not shown a sign of repeating himself, unless this could be said in some respects of Nothing and Doting, and it was said; even so, the repeat in itself is remarkable, as if Daniel had got out of the lions' den twice in a row.
As to what his work is doing all along for the development of the novel, I doubt if it is able to do much. And why would we think this an additional good? Better than any influence is the living artist, and we here are the ones who can now read. The novel will take care of itself, or else it will perish. And it is for themselves to tell what the readers of the future will think of Henry Green. But a writer so consistently intuitive does seem to have a good chance of speaking to the future, and one so original, it is to be hoped, will to any generation have something to say. It can be believed that he will if they have something to say. This much can also be remarked now, that from the first his best has stood for experiment and must continue to stand for this, that it will not be on Henry Green's head if the novel for its life does not look to its own future rather than to its past.
While you are reading these novels, the novels of no one else ever come to mind, but over the years points not of similarity but of kinship with some other writer might strike you about Henry Green. With all their differences, it is with William Faulkner that I see him holding anything at all in common today. Each of these born romantic writers has back of an intensely personal and complex style an intimate, firm, and uninhibiting knowledge of the complicated social structure he is part of and writes in, and an unquestioned fidelity to it, the ear for its speech, the eye for its landscape. Each takes over by poetic means his tract of the physical world. Each reflects on the fate of individual man set down very much alive in a dying society. They are not too far apart, perhaps, in their tragic conception of life, or in the unpredictable relationship they variously find and show between the tragic and the horrendous, the poetic and the absurd. The laughter of a man in the middle of it shouts from the pages of both. On the subject of love here comes the Grand Canyon again. But they join in clear belief that it is man's inhumanity to man that degrades him. Man's dignity lies for the one in endurance, for the other in resistance, resourcefulness, devilment, in a bit of consolation. Their styles are two living organisms growing in different clays wide apart. But to some extent in vision of life, and perhaps still further in vision of art, they are a little nearer to each other, this reader thinks, than Henry Green is near to any of his fellow English writers.
Reading and writing can each teach us something, eventually, about the other, though it is nothing to brag about. Because fiction flows so close by our door, jumping with words that we use every day and all of them to do with men and women like ourselves, there is too much thanking Heaven for the novel as one art that is easy to understand, to explain, even explain away. But a novel ought to at least start out by being able to stump us. As for explaining one, I could say that Concluding is like Venus on a clear evening going down over water, and if you agreed—still worse if you disagreed—where are we now? No, we must go back into the pages of the book to recognize it. A novel outside its own terms, which never were explanatory, no longer exists; in the course of being written it apprehended all the reality it could, drank up all the existence around it. Further words, even the author's, could add nothing to what is now complete, any more than they could by being hung around the neck of a statue. Reading can teach us something, and it is endless, about reading, about meeting with art.
After Monet was impelled to break up pigment to convey light, so that a new kind of color poured alive through those fissured walls, now a Monet painting is a place you can never go. And neither is a novel by Henry Green the land you thought you knew. His work indeed does not represent life, it presents life. What you discover about it is not the "key" to it, not the "secret" of his work, which is his only, anyway, but the experience of giving your regard to beauty, to wonder. There you have come slap up against the reality of fiction.
And everybody who can read knows that by fishing a sentence out of a novel, to spread like a captured sea serpent on the bank with the color going out of it, the creature's scales can be counted; but in the element where it lived it was, to begin with, not a monster. The element is illusion, the words that bathed in it were induced into these waters at the source, and these brought the river with them. And the landscape as far as you can see it is its dream.
Now that each passing day makes some threat or other not only against continuing reality on earth but against our illusion of it, it is the reading of novels by one of ourselves that we live on as never before, and this is not absurd, for in novels, if they are good, life on earth is intensified in its personal meaning, and so restored to human terms. We are surer of the existence of our world for the thousand evidences to which Henry Green swears in his fiction, and I think swears is not too strong a word. Also we are that much surer of what we can laugh about. For at least our lifetime, and who can say further about the roof we sit under to read, his fiction will be part of the mind; it will travel as fast as we do as far as we go, in its excellence and delight and beauty.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 35
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
James Hall (essay date 1963)
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5931
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 Captain in Mrs. Jack's bed or old Rock angrily waiting for his breakfast handout in the girls' school kitchen. But many readers finish Loving or Concluding, as I did, unsure of what else happened. There is something to be said for leaving the situation at that. Scenes are obviously Green's natural units and it is easy to suspect that, if the general direction were only a little clearer, we might not like it anyway. Still, the effort to say more accurately what we have read tells us something not only about him and ourselves, but also something of what we really think—or suspect—about his predecessors.
Green is the skilled novelist in an age which does not want to look very far backward or very far forward—a war generation that lumps all the precariousness of human destiny under fear of the bomb and that lives with so great a social and physical mobility as to make ideals of continuity and traditional living like Forster's seem impossible. Green inherits and absorbs Joyce's use of modern psychology, though he transfers Joyce's view of the mind from the world of reflection to the world of behavior. Like Joyce—and Freud—he treats the mind as a symbol-making agent ready to assimilate every object and experience to its main obsessions. But Joyce had to document his view partly because neither he nor his readers could accept his "forging anew the conscience of the race" without proof. Green assumes this conscience and assumes that his readers will assume it—seems, in fact, unable to conceive any other way of thinking. So his most visible talent is for a casual and cheery acceptance of the human nature which Joyce had to prove and Lawrence became prophetic about.
But, though Green skims the sauce and vegetables off the depth psychology casserole, he does not take much meat. He is sensitive, often oversensitive to symbols, but his comic characters have no history. Their pasts, if any—most have none at all—are backdrops rather than moral evolutions. They live in the immediate future. Their internal monologues, if they had them, would probably run: here I am, here is what I am, here is what want or have to do, how can I do it and like it? His characters allow for their own inadequacies and for a sort of microcosmic absurdity, but do not ask who they are or how they came here. So his scenes are always hurrying toward the next few minutes or the next few days, and carry little of the history which Joyce implies and Warren treats as the foundations of identity.
Green's psychological subtleties are of another kind, a twist on the turn which Huxley and Waugh in their early work gave to the comic novel. The comic novel from Meredith to Forster had a basis in truth to nature—a morally earnest effort toward accommodation between human nature and dominant forces in the culture. Huxley and Waugh focus the moral issue on an almost frantic search for enjoyment, heightened by outraging convention, and end their novels on the exhaustion that follows the frenzy. But, for Green, continuing conflict rather than struggle-and-resolution is the pattern of experience. The "war against the grown-ups" can be only an element, for he sees that we are both the children and the grown-ups. To change a little Forster's well-known phrase about "the knowledge of good-and-evil," Green treats not play and pain but play-and-pain. He sees experience as an hour-to-hour, day-to-day shift in the ratio of pleasure and pain, and cares far less than Huxley or Waugh about the major cycles. In a Green novel, action goes along with a mixture of wishes and fears, neither a direct forecast of the future. What does not happen is as important as what does happen—more important to defining the nature of anxiety. Loving sets a problem of wishes and anxieties, with a partial fulfillment of the wishes and strong desires to flee from the anxieties. Concluding presents the problem of living with wishes and actual phobias, but the characters do live with their phobias and do get some of their wishes.
Like many recent novelists, Green is a miniaturist with an angle. He deals with the conflict between the neurotic and the vital in personality and, by extension, between neurotic and lively people. His talent for casual and cheery acceptance of this situation is as much a matter of temperament as of understanding. He is good at loving what people find difficult to accept in themselves and their friends. He has, like Sterne, an extraordinary ability to like eccentrics and individualists, and to live cheerily with human weakness. He shares with many modern novelists a capacity for getting around conscience in the older sense—accepts easily, for example, a pervasive sexuality in the daily round of his characters. He likes the shrewdness by which handicapped, irregular characters get along in an organized, regularizing world, admires their capacity for giving some order to anxieties which threaten to become chaotic. He specializes in people trying to get what they want when appetites are weak and resistance strong.
But he emphasizes capable neurotics. He respects action that deals with problems as they come up, and satirizes passivity and awkwardness. His passive characters regularly get the leftovers. His bête noir is young Albert in Loving—the gawky, ashamed youth who does nothing in situations that require doing something, then takes "heroic" action to compensate. His favorite adjective, and adverb, is "sharp"—one character quickly taking up another's aggression before it gets under way and dealing summarily with it. And he has the contemporary ambivalent attitude toward organization and institutions. He admires efficient people who can handle other people and organize solutions to problems, but the organizations they create are constantly cramping the organizers as well as the cranky, eccentric, vigorous individualists.
His struggles of the sexes have the same friendly feeling for the contradictory. He caricatures the moral and temporal authority of mothers and substitute mothers—Miss Burch, Nanny Swift, Mrs. Welch, and Mrs. Tennant in Loving alone—yet his heroines are potentially maternal young—and sometimes not young—women. He treats the transition from teasing, flirtatious love to planning, semi-maternal, married relations. He is superb at showing dogged devotion to "small" personal concerns in a world of "large" events which seem to be passing the principals by and engaging their interest only as by-products of their personal problems. He uses the reverse stereotype of the uncertain man and the confident, competent woman, but adds bluster as one mark of this doubting masculinity and nagging as its feminine equivalent. He shows a continuing conflict between the wish for the maternal in woman and the wish to maintain individuality and bachelorhood against organizing, marrying women. His men are not sexually aggressive, his women alternately tease and sympathize—a combination that worries and pleases him. His individualism combines with a strong feeling for groups, especially groups with more women than men.
Though he writes another kind of novel almost as well, the general view of Loving as Green's best novel is accurate. The demand for some explanation of its structure is more than academic. There is just enough order, disrupted constantly by farce, to make the reader feel that he missed something which would explain the whole. The plot is not the difficulty. A group of servants keep things going in an Irish castle which gives them a refuge from the war, two of them fall in love and run away to England to be married. And, plainly, there is the fairy tale framework, which begins
Once upon a day an old butler called Eldon lay dying in his room attended by the head housemaid, Miss Agatha Burch….
One name he uttered over and over, "Ellen."
and returns to this unseen Ellen two paragraphs before the end:
"Edie," he [Raunce] appealed soft, probably not daring to move or speak too sharp for fear he might disturb her. Yet he used exactly that tone Mr. Eldon had employed at the last when calling his Ellen. "Edie," he moaned.
And the final sentences say
The next day Raunce and Edith left without a word of warning. Over in England they were married and lived happily ever after.
But what happened between? Does the novel have a structure obscured by the short, shifting scenes or is its apparently reckless picking up of everything its principle of movement?
An honest answer would be yes to both questions. The novel does have a structure and one of its elements is the carrying on that ignores all anxieties and obstacles. But the basis of Green's skill is the free rolling interplay between his symbols and his characters' minds. (He sometimes seems obscure because a multitude of symbols float so loosely in the novel that the key ones are lost. And every important symbol has at least two meanings—a general, often sexual one which reflects human nature and a personal one which each character attaches to the object or experience.) Most of the characters in Loving are more easily worried by symbols than by events—they have established methods for dealing with events. Edith, the beautiful, lively housemaid, is not afraid to "find" Mrs. Tennant's ring because the possible penalty does not seem real to her. She learns about findings from Raunce, the butler, and makes no distinction between large and small ones. But she goes outside around the castle rather than go through the deserted rooms, and considers it proof of Raunce's masculinity that he looks for her by going through the rooms with sheet-covered furniture. Mrs. Jack endures a long scene of symbolic double talk with her mother-in-law in the "dairy" drawing room where almost every sentence of Mrs. Tennant's and even every object she picks up suggest to Mrs. Jack suspicion about her affair with Captain Davenport. In the picnic scene, Edith's manipulation of the scarf with "I love you, I love you" written all over it teases young Albert as much as anything she says or does. There are many episodes like Raunce's showing Edith the mouse caught in the dumb-waiter and the passing of the dead, moulding peacock, which no one wants to get caught with, to Mrs. Welch's larder and on to Albert's boiler. And when apprehensions grow about the lost ring, Miss Burch, the stiff Victorian housekeeper, demands that the drains be dug out again—a point she has already carried before. Most of the mix-ups and anxieties in the novel come because someone, most often everyone, has appropriated an object or act to his own obsession.
If this is the mode of Green's comedy in Loving, its theme is "free" love and responsibility. The structural symbol is the lost ring. Mrs. Tennant considers the loss a nuisance. She loses objects of value regularly, but this time the consequences disturb the security she wants from ownership of the castle. The insurance company investigates and refuses to insure further. Mrs. Tennant's loss of the ring implies loss of direction and loss of capacity for loving, while its passing to Edith, who has both in plenty, is the passing of a symbol of power. The consequence for Mrs. Tennant is anxiety. There is a thief in the castle, the servants are conspiring to keep things from her as well as take things from her, and Mrs. Jack is hiding some secret about Captain Davenport.
But the ring is more important to the servants, in whom Green's two aspects of reality, love and work, come together. Before Mrs. Tennant loses the ring, the main action is Charley's establishing himself as Raunce, the butler, rather than Charley the footman or "Arthur," the generic name Mrs. Tennant uses for all unimportant male servants. To do this he has to bluff his way past Miss Burch, who resists out of devotion to the dead Mr. Eldon, a dislike for change, and a well-grounded distrust of Raunce. Simultaneously, the action develops an especially cheery brand of pansexual loving. Raunce is coming to like Edith, but he chases both of the maids and can kiss Kate with energy. Kate and Edie are still living in the good old days of long talks about boy friends accompanied by gigglings, undressings, and back rubbings. Raunce bullies and defends young Albert. Miss Burch is devoted to her maids and tries hard to protect them from "dangers"—Raunce's attentions and finding Mrs. Jack in bed with the Captain. (They are, of course, a good deal more capable than Miss Burch of dealing with both.) All the potential guardians of the moral law are happily ineffective. Mrs. Tennant is too unconcerned, Miss Burch is too horrified by events, and old Nanny Swift, sick, believes only good and sees no evil, hears no evil. The results are merrily anarchic.
But this anarchy has its efficient side. Raunce performs his duties as butler—mostly by ordering Albert to do them. Miss Burch supervises, Kate and Edie work hard, Edie brings Raunce his tea in bed before breakfast, and Albert does almost everything else. Mrs. Welch drinks but cooks, and is sensitive about the product.
Through all this Edie becomes so attractive and vital that some critics have called her the central character. But her very naturalness and energy make it impossible for her to be the main dramatic figure. She has no inner conflict and very little outer, though other girls might have a good deal over taking Raunce for a husband. Her flirtatious and accepting spirit creates problems for others, Raunce especially, but she herself is a force-of-nature character, one of the many in literature who lead others on to a more mixed experience. She knows instinctively how to live, Raunce must always figure out how to do it. Edie is a child of nature modified by the traditions of "service." Raunce has strong inner and outer conflicts that make for drama.
The loss of the ring appears at first to be only another episode, almost predictable, in this cheerful anarchy. Edith finds it and becomes engaged to Raunce at almost the same time. But the ring is an engagement ring in the existentialist sense, too. Mrs. Tennant leaves, apparently freeing the servants to do as they please. From that point on, for Raunce, the cheeriness, the effort to get established, and the free loving begin to give way to anxiety, the trials of responsible position, and possessiveness over Edith. Just as he has persuaded Miss Burch to recognize him as butler, the situation threatens to get beyond his control. He prides himself upon his craft and suavity. (He has set up a small system of cheating on the books weekly, though he has found no way to tap the profitable blackmail his predecessor had built up from Captain Davenport.) More than anything else, he wants a smooth-running organization. But, though he has he script for this operation in mind, he constantly meets absurd situations which interrupt his plans and force him to readjust. For Raunce, as for more serious characters, the absurd is the unexpected, irrational turn of events and emotions which deviate from his prepared script. The test of Raunce's competence is his ability to withstand these small jars. When he finds that Edith means to keep the ring as a nest egg for their marriage, he has to explain practical morality to her without losing her love. Edith traps him into admitting the amount of his weekly findings, but his habitual caution makes him try to downgrade the estimate within a day or two. When Edith's weakness for children leads to their theft of the ring from her, Raunce has to concoct a new plan which involves, to his taste, trusting too many people. Just as he has readjusted to this perspective, the lisping insurance investigator, ridiculous but threatening—a prime symbol of the difficulties in Loving—appears to cross-question the servants. Young Albert, out of a misplaced feeling that Edith needs protecting, "confesses" to the crime. Raunce blusters his way through this situation, but with a loss of poise and with the investigator's threat not to pay the claim increasing the threat in Mrs. Tennant's return.
The investigator's card, with its initials I.R.A. (Irish Regina Assurance), sets off a new round of the general wartime apprehensions into which the lesser characters translate their personal anxieties. Raunce has been using the threat of war service for women in England, along with the invasion talk, to keep Kate from going back home, but now he has to deal with semihysterical fears which have hitherto been peripheral—the I.R.A. (Irish Republican Army) is going to attack the castle, the Germans are going to invade Ireland as a steppingstone to England and rape all the women (old Miss Burch toys with this idea), the Irishman Paddy is a secret I.R.A. man who is going to betray them. But all the worries, real and imaginary, are mixed in with the also half-hysterical horseplay about the investigator's lisp.
The ring, the investigation, and the threat of further investigation aggravate Raunce's anxieties about marriage. [In a footnote the critic adds: "Earle Labor's 'Henry Green's Web of Loving,' Critique, IV (Fall-Winter, 1961), gives a thorough account of the threatening elements in the courtship and marriage."] He begins to turn up unexpectedly while Edith is teasing young Albert or doing Captain Jack's room, and to question her about possible advances from Captain Jack. Raunce's script for living calls for smooth progress of his limited plans plus being "properly valued." The events which interfere make no sense, and his anxiety that he cannot deal with them increases along with his anxiety about the engagement to Edie. His symptoms increase, too—his glands become enlarged and he has to wear a neckcloth, his fear of being outside the castle in the open air reasserts itself in spite of Edith's coaxings. When his mother refuses to help him establish a family by moving to Ireland and Mrs. Tennant refuses to value him properly, he slips out of Ireland with Edie and returns to war work and his mother in England—a compromise with the typical Raunce dubiousness about it. He goes into the marriage hesitantly yet insistently, and he gives up trying to manage either Edith or the castle. The desire to do as he is told and let someone else manage seems to triumph, yet to the end of the novel he is busy managing the clandestine trip. He accepts his public responsibility in wartime England, but by running away from the more immediate responsibility which has become too complex—as young Albert runs away from his inadequacies to become a hero as a tail gunner.
Loving is the showpiece of one symbolic action Green has repeated in all his comic works—Living, Party-Going, Nothing, Doting, even Concluding. From his first novel onward he has been trying to prove that people who, by some going standard, ought not to be enjoying life are enjoying it and that other people who ought to be enjoying it are not. Paradoxes on the conventions of pleasure are his specialities. But he cannot give over the problem, as Huxley and Waugh do in their comic novels, by showing that the human animal is not made for enjoyment. He wants too much to find the unexpected pleasure amid anxiety, exasperation, pain, moral stasis.
His most persistent formula for resolving the paradox is "easy does it." His people who conscientiously try to have fun, like his people who try to do good, never do. The playboys and playgirls in Party-Going, Mrs. Jack in Loving, and the Middletons in Doting all fail by trying too hard too directly. But his factory workers in Living, the servants in Loving, the retired playboy and playgirl in Nothing, the retired scientist who slops pigs in Concluding, and the bachelor and plain secretary in Doting have fun by dealing with the immediate without expecting too much. They work on limited but possible goals and refuse to concentrate on some total, permanent good. Green works with dynamic rather than static concepts of enjoyment. The truly unhappy people in his novels want to organize life too thoroughly and, while Green likes the organizers for enjoyment better than the organizers for public good, he sees an obsessiveness common to both groups.
But here, too, Green lives on contradictions. In spite of this distaste for organization and drive, no novelist admires more than Green small schemes and smooth-working organization—but he wants the schemes to be petty and the organizations small and loose. He loves the ins and outs of the urgency that he dislikes. His "easy does it" takes hold because he recognizes the force of the driving spirit. He plays the urge to drive immediately toward the best against the necessity of indirection and limited aims.
Many people undoubtedly think of Green as a purely comic novelist, but long sections of Party-Going, Caught, and Back make unpleasant reading because of his preoccupation with depression. Caught and Back explore depression almost as far as the later novels of Anthony Powell. In the best comic novels Green hits an equilibrium between this depression and his extraordinarily cheery ability to accept human nature. But one of his best novels, Concluding, pegs the equilibrium so far on the side of dread that there is a question whether it is comic at all.
Concluding is certainly about the deeper, more unresolvable anxieties. In spite of all the worries, Loving treats only two real grounds for anxiety—Raunce's inadequacy as butler-manager and the complications in his love for Edith. But the dread which hangs over the characters in Concluding exists more in reality and is only partly resolvable. This partly, though, is the story, for it keeps life going with a degree of cheerfulness. The conflicting and sustaining forces are the same: the organizing spirit of contemporary institutions and a cagey, crusty individualism.
For the two principals of the school set up by the government to produce workers for the bureaucracy, both the deeper anxieties and the smaller ones come from resistance to the regimented society they are trying to sustain. Their sense of disaster centers on the disappearance of two girls. One is found during the day the novel covers, but avoids having to explain by using the "fair," maternalistic rules of the school system. The other, an anonymous orphan named Mary whom nobody seems to know, never appears, but Miss Edge and Miss Baker keep fearing the news that she has been found dead, and keep hoping that her anonymity will minimize the painful investigation by the bureaucracy. Miss Edge, the dominant co-principal, continues to insist that the rest of the girls must have fun at the annual school dance scheduled for the evening. (And, for the girls, the superbly exciting disappearances do add to the fun.) It takes the reader very few pages to see that Miss Edge is a villain, but most of the novel to see that she is a villain heroine.
The chief resister to this caretaking spirit is cagey, eccentric old Mr. Rock, a retired scientist who once made some anonymous but great discovery and is now busy slopping his pigs, cadging food for himself and the pigs from the school kitchen, and chasing a pet goose around the grounds of the chartered estate. Miss Edge covets the cottage he lives in on the edge of the grounds, partly to become mistress of all she surveys and partly to spare the girls the evil influence of the pigs and the old man, whom they of course like. Mr. Rock, though oppressed by a vision of finding Mary's body in the pond on his way back from chasing the goose, worries chiefly that he will be forced out of his cottage by election to membership in a home for retired scientists. (He resists Miss Edge's efforts to get him elected by stuffing the society's letter into a trunk along with the other unopened letters he has kept for years.)
Green's sterner comedy depends again upon cross-purposes and contradictions in personality. Mr. Rock's daughter, Liz, is recuperating from a mental illness caused by "overwork" in a government bureau, but shows stamina in pursuing Sebastian, a teacher in the school. Sebastian, worried about his masculinity in this feminine environment, wants to marry her and get a better job, but also wants not to marry anybody and stay where he is. Liz is even willing to sacrifice Mr. Rock's cottage to her plans. Both Sebastian and Liz, like Miss Edge and Miss Baker, worry about ratings and the whimsical distant bureaucracy in London. Miss Edge threatens continually to do something drastic about Mr. Rock and the pigs, Miss Baker continually reminds her of channels to be gone through, but Miss Baker panics and upsets the system by bringing in Merode's aunt to complicate the problem of the runaways. Miss Edge wants the girls to like her, but Mr. Rock is initiated into their "secret" club of rebels. Mr. Rock is taken to the dance uninvited, by Liz, but has fun and rejects a proposal of marriage from Miss Edge, who has tried to solve her frustrations about marriage and the cottage in a final bold scheme.
Like Loving, Concluding leaves the reader feeling that he missed something. Almost every reader believes he must have skipped the page which tells what happened to the missing girl. But even more primary dramatic considerations are unclear. Why does Green choose a retired old man, scrambling for a living after a distinguished career, as his hero? Why does Miss Edge come through so equivocally—so clearly the villain, yet with an odd heroic proportion? Is the novel a reversion to cynicism about loving?
The three hundred girls, so anonymous that all their names begin with M, carry the theme of love as potential. It is the chief threat to Miss Edge's system of rules—is, in fact, what the rules propose to suppress. These girls at the budding stage are attractive, flirtatious, and hopeful in spite of their circum-stances—anonymous copies, almost, of Edith and Kate. Since there are no Raunces around, they seize on whatever they can for excitement. Moira flirts with Mr. Rock while she watches him slop the pigs. (Miss Edge is not wholly wrong in believing that the pigs give her girls wrong ideas.) The runaway Merode contrives to have Sebastian find her, under a tree, with a recently bared leg. She settles luxuriously into the warm bath that Marchbanks provides on her return. The girls induct Mr. Rock into their secret society in the basement and want to play kissing games. Even the principals apparently tolerate the society as a safety valve for these nonutilitarian emotions.
Against this potential Green sets a devalued image of love between Sebastian Birt and Elizabeth. Sebastian's continual imitations of other people's voices and accents indicate that he does not know who he is. Elizabeth's love is distrustful, troublesome, and capricious. Neither lover believes himself lovable, yet for different reasons they will presumably marry and face together the uncertainties of their futures. Adams, the handyman, furnishes another devalued symbol, the "dirty old man," Mr. Rock's malign counterpart. No one knows whether the girls really slip out to Adams in the woods at night, but their talk shows another side of loving in their confined situation.
Love as potential, then, is poetic and merry, the hope of the world; but the only adult love in the novel seems intractable, neurotic, sometimes silly. Yet the temptation to read Sebastian and Elizabeth as a prediction for the girls is wrong. Like the missing Mary, the couple represent a threat. Unlike the girls, they have accepted the organization world. Sebastian's imitations are his joke against the system, but they are also a joke against him. He twists his personality to fit the system; he is a different person with Edge, with Winstanley, with Mr. Rock, with Elizabeth. Elizabeth, too, wants only to fit into a corner of the organization, even if she has to sacrifice her grandfather to do it. So she and Sebastian do not so much represent adult love as the threat of trying to make peace without exerting any personal force. They hope to slide through the organization world without bringing its power down on them. Neither Mr. Rock nor the girls have yet accepted this defeatism. Merode's shrewdness in using the rules to outwit the managers is one of many episodes promising that no organization can quite confine the spirited.
Mr. Rock, though, seems involved with neither the girls' hope nor the young adults' compromise. Kingsley Weatherhead has shown the importance of growth in Green's earlier heroes—Max in Party-Going, Charley Summers in Back, Raunce in Loving. But Green deliberately puts Mr. Rock past the stage of any obvious growth. Mr. Rock's object is to maintain life against the approaching threat of death, not to advance. Yet in him Green tests the possibility of loving at a stage when the future no longer promises to be better than the present.
Rock is a hero maimed by age, but akin nevertheless to the many other maimed heroes of modern fiction. His wound acts as a defense against the managing women, and there he is willing to make much of it. Otherwise, he ignores it. He has his affections and, even more, his sense of responsibility. His work is taking care of unmated animals—Daisy, the pig in the pen; Ted, the earthbound goose; the ranging cat; and Elizabeth. He approves of the animals thoroughly, of Elizabeth very little, but he feels responsible for her. Significantly, though, he will not and probably cannot exert authority over her, even to forbidding Sebastian's staying overnight. He can only be grumpy. Yet by the end of the novel Elizabeth seems well on her way to marrying, Daisy is happily asleep in her pen, Ted flies, and the cat comes home.
But Mr. Rock gets some reward. He pleases his animals, and he sees himself clearly as lovable to those capable of loving. The girls want him in their secret society. They believe him on their side in spite of his age, and he is. He does love and cherish; he does not impose authority. He does the dirty work and rejects entirely the public image of eminent, outmoded scientist. He has had a good day "living in the present."
The novel as a whole shows authority extending itself into every detail of conduct, all in the name of responsibility for the future. The drama deals with ways of bearing this burden of being responsible—not, as in Loving, with the discovery that responsibility is easier to achieve than to bear. Mr. Rock is the good burden bearer, Miss Edge the bad. She opposes her authority of rules to his authority as a person able to command by example. But the bad has its human side; life is not a melodrama. Miss Baker, the other co-principal, is maternal and cautious, more aware of the prohibitions in the rules than their use for imposing the will. Miss Edge's consciousness will not organize itself around her will. Green makes her human in much the same way that Faulkner makes Mink Snopes human in The Hamlet. Miss Edge has tried to impose her will without much thought about consequences, believing only in her own form of right, but, faced with Mary's disappearance, she suffers hallucinatory fears and "sees" Mary's body among the greenery piled up for decorations. Her efforts at control during the lunch, when she feels all the girls watching her, inevitably produce sympathy. Green gives her the apprehensions as well as the irritability attending the life of the will. And though the dance—without men—is an imposed, misguided form of gaiety, Miss Edge carries it through in spite of her own confusion.
But why do we never find what happened to Mary? The answer has already been implied. Mary represents the permanent threat of outbreak against repressive conditions—in the school and in living itself. Finding Merode, who halfheartedly ran away, half solves the problem, which can never be more than half solved. So Mary, like the lost ring in Loving, provides a continuing spur for each character's apprehensions. When Miss Edge's frustrated aggressiveness approaches the point of outbreak, the doll in the shrubs seems to her Mary's body. In her calmer moments, she prefers to believe that Mary has run off with a man and hopes to turn this suspicion against Mr. Rock. She fears most of all an "investigation" from London. For Mr. Rock himself, the man with no future, the suicide threat remains the most important face of Mary. He fears finding her in the pond, and yet thinks it ought to be dragged. For Sebastian and Elizabeth, Mary's disappearance means an upset that may start arbitrary authority off on some course dangerous to them. Miss Winstanley, the teacher with few pleasures and hopes, finds in Mary one more prohibition: Miss Edge has forbidden swimming in the pond. There is, in Concluding, no way either to find Mary or to get rid of her. She is a protean burden that all the characters must carry.
The depression and threat in the novel are fairly earned. Green's animosity toward organization and aggressive women, as well as his admiration for individuality which manages to maintain itself, is more open here. But, though Miss Edge's determination to keep organized fun going is grimly comic, it also comes through as real. Better grim fun in the face of the disturbing than not carrying on at all—and her decision to go on with the dance in spite of her hallucination is one of Green's memorable scenes.
Mr. Rock does a little better than merely maintain his individuality. In spite of his absurdities, he is an idealized father, debarred from taking his opportunities for love, considered a menace by the managing women, doing the dirty work and expecting only a little admiration and affection. The cook forgets his breakfast, but he eventually gets it—and some slop for Daisy. He resents his granddaughter's conduct, but gets a little affection from Moira. He has a puzzling conflict with Adams and suffers genuine apprehension about Mary, but has a succès d'estime as an uninvited guest and refuses Miss Edge's offer of marriage. At the end of the day he still has his cottage, and Miss Edge is doubtless planning some new threat to it. He fears going home in the dark, which means loneliness and death to him, but Elizabeth, who does not fear the dark just now, helps him home. A day of checks and balances.
So Concluding concludes nothing. The characters are projected forward into some tomorrow. If the analysis so far is true, it is equally impossible to conclude a chapter on Green. The summary is in the -ing.
James Lees-Milne (essay date Winter 1983)
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2329
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. My old home was fifteen miles away in the same county. We had both been at Eton and Magdalen College, Oxford. These basic facts were some sort of link. But Henry was three years older than I was, and in boyhood three years make a large gap. We did not know each other as children. Throughout the 1930s we met fairly frequently. The Yorkes were by my standards rich. They gave delicious dinner parties with silver candlesticks and parlormaids. Then the war came, and we met less often. The last time I sat at the same table with Henry was in a London restaurant in 1943 at a small dinner party I gave on my birthday. On that occasion Henry was charming, but reserved. He spoke little. When the war was over he became more and more of a recluse. I fell out of touch, as indeed did most of his old friends, apart from a handful of intimates. In fact I think I only once met him again (I guess about 1948) on the top of a bus. I found myself next to him. For twenty minutes he talked, not in his customary mild manner, but vehemently. And he revealed a side of himself which I had not experienced hitherto. I shall refer to this meeting later.
During the 1930s I was not even aware that he was a writer. I only knew that he was a younger son who had to work in some family business, and moved in social and intellectual circles. He was certainly very bright, observant, but inscrutable. Inclined to be morose. I did not fathom what was going on in that dark head, under that sleek black hair, behind that straight, patrician nose, those deep-set, hawk-like eyes and that strange mobile mouth, which changed shape and expression according to his thoughts, even when he was not speaking. I imagine he discussed his writing with very few people.
Although Henry's first novel, Blindness, had been published in 1926 when he was only twenty-one, I had not read it or its successors until Caught came out in 1943. I saw Caught in Heywood Hill's bookshop, where Nancy Mitford was then working. She was amazed I did not realize that Henry Green was really Henry Yorke (indeed it was a difficult thing to grasp). I remember her remarking at a luncheon party in her languid Mitford voice that if only Henry had spelt the title Court and had written about royalty and the aristocracy instead of firemen, the novel would, at that time of austerity when everyone voraciously read books recalling glamor and glitter, have sold like hot cakes. As it was, Caught only appealed to the fans, who were few in number. Nevertheless I bought it. And then I bought all Henry's previous novels; and thereafter all his successive ones as they were published. Ten years ago I got rid of the lot for £1 each. Now I am told that the first editions are worth their weight in gold. Why did I get rid of them, apart from the fact that I was moving from a large to a small house? Because I never really enjoyed them.
The moment I opened Caught I realized that it was out of the ordinary. I was fascinated, but not enchanted. It was one of Henry's semi-autobiographical novels, about his wartime occupation in the London Fire Service. As an impression of pre-Blitz, Phoney War boredom it was unsurpassed. It was a random record of working-class conversations which had no beginning and no end. The episodes were disconnected, and lacked sequence. The dialogue was fragmented, telescope. There was little story, only symbolism, which then bored me because, doubtless, I was too stupid to understand the implications. Living, to which I next applied myself, was the same. It too was autobiographical in that the author's counterpart, a weak character, became by inheritance the head of an Iron Foundry, just as Henry, albeit a strong character, became Managing Director of H. Pontifex & Sons, manufacturers of equipment for the food and drink trade. In Living the sentences are compressed, the scenes even more abbreviated than in the later Caught, and the author adopts a tiresome trick of omitting the definite article. Evidently he had no use for plots. And I for one unashamedly like a tale to fasten my teeth upon.
For years I persevered with Henry Green—always fascinated, but not enjoying. Party Going was about a lot of maddening, spoilt goodtimers in a fog of indecision and fatuity. Pack My Bag about a fog of alcohol. Loving was about an Irish country house, remote from the war, where everyone seemed to sleep with everyone else. Back, Concluding (a day in the life of old Mr. Rock), Nothing, Doting were ambiguous to me, but not to clever people like Mr. R. S. Ryf, who said that the title of each novel explained the story inside. To me reading these novels was like walking down a long lane shrouded with boscage on either side, hoping, hoping for a turning which would reveal ultimate sunshine and sense. Now Mr. Ryf has casually observed that God is, if not dead, then absent in Green's novels. This, I think, explains my inability to enjoy them. I find a total lack of concession to the spirit inordinately depressing. There is no promise in Henry Green's novels. The tide forever recedes leaving nothing but flotsam behind. Women who have nits in their hair miss the irritation when the insects are removed. Birds—they figure repeatedly throughout the novels—seldom fly or sing. They drop down dead from station roofs, not to be swept into a dustbin and forgotten, but to be stowed by old ladies in suitcases, to be brought out and gloated over, maggots and all.
Edward Stokes in The Novels of Henry Green has written that no mid-twentieth century novelist has shown such stylistic variations. But to my mind Henry Green's style never seems to vary at all. It is always staccato, enigmatic, and maddeningly elusive. One episode slides into another. The reader is perpetually brought up against blank walls. In venturing these criticisms I do not mean to imply that Green's style is a bad one. Far from it. Quite apart from being—to use a pedantic term—sui generis, it is seldom strained. It is damnably direct, colloquial, and powerful. Moreover, and this is why I persevered in reading everything he wrote, the novels contain sheer poetry of a morbid kind. They are embellished—if that is the right word—with passages which take my breath away. Let me quote at random one from Living:
Smell of food pressed on her. All were eating. All was black with smoke, here even, by her, cows went soot-covered and the sheep grey. She saw milk taken out from them, grey the surface of it. Yes, and the blackbird fled across that town flying crying and made noise like noise made by ratchet. Yes and in every house was mother with her child and that was grey and that fluttered hands and then that died, in every house died those children to women. Was low wailing low in her ears.
Then clocks in that town all over town struck 3 and bells in churches there ringing started rushing sound of bells like wings tearing under roof of sky, so these bells rang. But women stood, reached up children drooping to sky, sharp boned, these women wailed and their noise rose and ate the noise of bells ringing.
This is fine writing and reminiscent of G. M. Hopkins, only without the devout confidence of the Jesuit who through life's terrors certainly glimpsed light at the end of his tunnel. Henry Green saw none. Consequently all his synonyms are gray, or soot-covered. Could any passages in English literature be more depressing, and more devoid of redemption and hope? And yet could any be more horribly arresting?
Henry Green, until he threw his hand in and gave up life, took his writing extremely seriously. In 1950–51 he delivered a series of addresses on the Third Programme, called A Novelist to His Reader. They were spoken in a suave, silken, silver-spoon voice of a man apparently at peace with the world and his maker. How deceptive can a voice be? Green's message was that, art being nonrepresentational, descriptions of situations ought to be reduced to a minimum of words. He claimed that since no one wrote letters any more (not strictly true, considering Harold Nicolson, Evelyn Waugh, Nancy Mitford, and James Pope-Hennessy) and communications was only by telephone, the time had come for a change from traditional methods of storytelling to an emphasis upon oblique dialogue. Dialogue "must mean different things to different readers at one and the same time," he said. "It is only by an aggregate of words over a period followed by an action, that we obtain, in life, a glimmering of what is going on in someone, or even in ourselves." The novelist should use tone in the way that a painter uses dabs of color to convey fleeting impressions.
Thus we get from him dialogue like the following (again from Living):
"Where are you goin'?" said Mr. Dale.
"I'm not going anywhere."
"Aren't you goin' out?"
"I'm not goin' anywhere without you go."
"Don't trouble about me," Mr. Dale said. "I'm used to that."
"I didn't mean you particular, I meant all o' you."
"I'm stayin' in with me pipe," Gates said half asleep.
"You go and get the beer." Mr. Craigan reached out and took wireless headphones which he fitted about his head.
"I thought you couldn't mean me," said Mr. Dale.
"No, I should think I couldn't."
"But don't you put yourself out for us. You go on out."
"I got nowhere to go."
"What, ain't 'e waitin' for you at the corner?"
"Who's that!!" he said.
"Well what business is it of yours if 'e is?"
"I wouldn't keep 'm waitin'."
"I tell you I'm not going out this afternoon."
"Then what's it all about? 'Ad a lover's quarrel or what?"
There is no reason why this boring conversation between an indeterminate number of uneducated individuals should not have continued for another ten pages. We have all overheard such snippets of chatter between people who lead dreary lives and are incapable of expressing themselves. In fact it is difficult to go through a single day and avoid them. But do they really amount to communion of ideas worth recording? And does the dismal aggregate contribute to whatever action may follow? For me it doesn't.
I return to my last encounter with Henry Yorke on the London bus. He was on his way home from the office. I asked him how he was. "Bloody awful!" he answered. I said I was sorry, for he looked all right. "I am not at all all right," he almost shouted, "and I will tell you why." There was no question whether I wished to hear the reason, or not. I had to. Henry then launched upon a diatribe of hate against his octogenarian father because he refused to retire from the family firm, in order deliberately to ruin his son's prospects. I have in my time heard people rage against their parents, but never with the concentrated venom which Henry gave vent to on the bus. It was evident that he was being deeply thwarted in his middle age by the tyrannical and senile parent who would not relax his grip of the wheel, Henry's wheel by the rights of nature. Henry's position in the firm, which was his livelihood, was made intolerable. The whole business was suffering. The bus reached Henry's destination. He jumped up and left, throwing at me as he did so the words, "It's unmitigated hell, I can tell you!"
While I continued my journey I reflected upon this unsolicited outburst. Henry must be in a very bad way to nourish so monstrous a grievance. I decided that he knew he had not much time to enjoy a free hand in Pontifex & Sons even if his old father should retire the next day. He was boiling over with resentment against fate. Henry Yorke's ambitions were being frustrated.
Yet by now Henry Green was recognized to be one of the most fulfilled novelists of his generation. But he was approaching the end of his gamut of fiction writing. He actually reached it when at last Mr. Yorke senior retired from Pontifex. I assume there was some very subtle connection between Henry Yorke's father and Henry Green's novels. Without the nits in the hair inspiration flagged.
By 1951 Henry told a journalist that he had ceased to believe in anything at all. He was quite a hermit. He stayed at home all day with his saintly wife, and did not want to see anyone. When asked what were his reasons for not going out he said that one was because the woman at the tobacconist shop along the road had been dragged by the hair from behind her counter and stabbed to death. She had been the same age as himself. Danger threatened. It was clearly safer to remain at home. This he did until his death in 1973. And during the long, dark twilight he wrote no more novels.
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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 Readers: Discovering Henry Green through Reader Response Criticism." Language and Style: An International Journal 17, No. 2 (Spring 1984): 175-89.
Argues that "Green's emphases on dialogue, irony, technique, form, and symbols [in his fiction] are all attempts to facilitate communication between readers and texts."
Doan, Laura L. "Recuperating the Postwar Moment: Green's Back and Bacon's Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion." Mosaic 23, No. 3 (Summer 1990): 113-24.
Juxtaposes Green's novel and Francis Bacon's painting to show the complexity of the "postwar disposition" to artistic endeavor.
Facknitz, Mark A. R. "The Edge of Night: Figures of Change in Henry Green's Concluding." Twentieth Century Literature 36, No. 1 (Spring 1990): 10-22.
Explores the political implications of the "symbology" in Concluding.
Lee, Hermione. "Fretting." The New Republic 208, No. 20, Issue 4087 (17 May 1993): 48-50.
Assesses Surviving, claiming it "will add greatly to a growing posthumous reputation."
Locke, Richard. "An Elusive Genius." The Wall Street Journal CCXXI, No. 73 (15 April 1993): A12.
Finds Surviving "a fine, generous, provocative collection."
Odom, Keith C. "An Interview with John Lehmann about Henry Green." Twentieth Century Literature 29, No. 4 (Winter 1983): 395-402.
Relates Lehmann's insights on Green's life and writings during an interview on May 10, 1971.
Treglown, Jeremy. "Life and Letters: The Secret Worlds of Henry Green." The New Yorker LXVIII, No. 52 (15 February 1993): 62, 64-73.
Bio-critical study of Green's literary career.
Twentieth Century Literature 29, No. 4 (Winter 1983).
Special edition devoted to Green and his writings. Contains essays by such critics as Dorothy Lygon, Rod Mengham, and V. S. Pritchett.
Unterecker, John. "Fiction at the Edge of Poetry: Durrell, Beckett, Green." In Forms of Modern British Fiction, edited by Alan Warren Friedman, pp. 165-99. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1975.
Accounts for the poetic or cinematic quality of Green's Loving and Pack My Bag, Lawrence Durrell's Tunc and Numquam, and Samuel Beckett's How It Is as a condition of twentieth-century fiction.
Wall, Stephen. "Admiring." London Review of Books 14, No. 6 (26 March 1992): 14-15.
Favorable review of Surviving, Pack My Bag, and Loving, in which Wall states that Green "now seems to have more to offer us than any of his novelist contemporaries."
Wood, James. "In Front of the Servants." Manchester Guardian Weekly 146, No. 10 (8 March 1992): 27.
Positive review of Surviving, praising the volume's "idiomatic treasures, the neologisms, the retrieved archaicisms."
Southern, Terry. An interview with Henry Green. The Paris Review 5, No. 19 (Summer 1958): 61-77.
An interview in which Green comments on his literary anonymity, his writing style and habits, and the future of the novel genre.
Barbara Brothers (essay date Winter 1983)
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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 broken by a boy tossing a stone at the train in which John is traveling. Green's critics, reading Blindness through the model of the modern psychological novel, have interpreted the meaning of John's accident as a pivotal point in the interior drama of the self: through his blindness John develops, in Robert Ryf's words, "spiritual sight."
That Green's critics would perceive the interior journey into the self as the structure which yields a coherent meaning for the novel is not surprising. Little happens in the novel: John is frustrated equally by the fussing, awkward attempts of his stepmother, his nurse, and his nanny to care for him; he seeks the company of Joan, a girl of his own age, but their romance, which consists of several walks together, fails because of differences in education and class; John and his mother move to town where John hopes to begin again. Midway through the novel there is a long digression in which Joan's story is told, but little happens to her within the time frame of the novel. Just as the event that was most significant for John is placed "outside" his story—his accident is reported in an excerpt from a classmate's letter, which is set between Parts I and II of the novel—just so, those events which seem most to shape Joan's life occur "offstage" in the historical time that precedes the beginning of the novel. Joan recalls her life with her father in the vicarage before her mother died and he had been defrocked for drunkenness, muses about her life now, and daydreams about the future. The emphasis in the narration of her story as in John's falls not on the events but on her reflections on the events in her life. The light and dark symbolism that pervades the novel, the watery imagery—the novel ends with John "rising through the mist, blown on a gust of love, lifting up, straining at a white light that he would bathe in"—seem also an obvious (rather too obvious for some of Green's critics) signal that the unfolding development in the novel is of the self, climaxed by its rebirth.
Such a reading of Blindness receives further support from the allusion of Crime and Punishment. John writes in the last two of his diary entries (Part I of the novel covers a span of nearly two years during which John is a student at Noat) of the "profound effect" his reading of Crime and Punishment has had on him. The superior attitude that John expresses throughout his diary toward his fellow students and masters at school coupled with the emphasis given to Crime and Punishment suggests that John's blindness is intended to be an agent through which John's pride is chastened and his imaginative eye is opened to a more charitable and empathetic view of his fellow man. The literary device of the diary, like the one of Stephen Dedalus with which A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man concludes, gives credence to John's intention to explore himself and his world through his own language. As if to confirm that he intends us to read the narrative as tracing the inner journey that leads to discovery of the creative, autonomous but empathetic self, Green progressively labels the parts—"Caterpillar," "Chrysalis," and "Butterfly." Both Kingsley Weatherhead and John Russell, two of Green's earliest admirers and critics, have presented detailed readings of Blindness as a Künstlerroman.
My purpose in this essay, unlike that of many essays which seek to offer a reinterpretation of a work of art, is not to demonstrate that John's life cannot be read as Weatherhead, Russell, and Ryf suggest. Their readings, however, seem to me "blind" in the same sense that Blindness demonstrates all interpretations are "blind"; their interpretations are presented as "privileged" readings. But Blindness dramatizes that there is no way to stand outside of time and space, self and event, to render a statement of meaning that is "true." Because of the ironic questioning of sign and meaning that recurs throughout the novel, readers must remain unsure if, in asserting that John has come through his spiritual initiation or any other statement of thematic development, they have not imposed rather than discovered the schema of the novel. While the interpretative stance I have taken is commonplace today among reader-response and deconstructionalist critics, Green was considered critically naïve when he told his readers in "The English Novel of the Future" in 1950 that "there can be no precise meaning" in novels; novels will, of necessity, mean different things to different readers.
Rather than perceiving Green's statements on novel writing as indicating a new direction for his novels—in the future his narratives would be deliberately ambiguous and inconclusive, I believe they are better perceived as a commentary on the novels he wrote. In Blindness, Green had, in fact, written a novel which, both through the creating of the tale and through the credo of his artist-hero, had announced to his readers that the ways in which they make sense of their world—finding meaning in repetition and in symbol and image, plotting life as a journey with an unfolding meaning, or perceiving character as explicable through a psycho-historical schema—are, after all, fictions, the individual's subjective ordering of event and image. Blindness focuses on the relationship between I and eye, person and perception, belief and interpretation, reader and text. Meaning is circular, beginning and ending in the self, it is nonverifiable. The process of reading a novel, as Green tells his readers in the essay, is like the process of finding answers to life's mysteries, the creation of patterns from the clues but finding no one to tell us if they mean what we think they mean: "Narrative prose in [the] future must be diffuse and variously interpretable as life itself." Further on in the same essay, he says, "The reader of a novel somehow or other must be encouraged by the writer to extend his imagination over the whole of all the questions that have been asked in life and can never be answered if we are to continue to die without a convincing communication between the dead and the living."
John, Green's surrogate in the novel, shares Green's stated view that a story has no meaning except the one we create. John ponders the fact that different perspectives will produce different meanings. In thinking about his blindness, John compares what a blackbird "screaming" in flight means to him as an auditory impression with what it means to him as a visual image. To see a blackbird in flight is to identify its shape and color, but to listen to it is "to see it as a signal to the other birds that something was not right." For a moment he rests on the assurance that "sight was not really necessary; the values of everything changed, that was all." Then he goes on to question if there may be "nothing in all these." He becomes aware that "meaning" is itself an "illusion"; yet, as he thinks about his own fantasies—that his dead "Mummy" is near, that June (whose real name John knows is Joan) and he have a romantic relationship—he recognizes the necessity of such fictions to sustain life.
He decides to "write about these things…. And perhaps the way he saw everything was the right way, though there could be no right way but one's own. Art was what is created in the looker-on, and he would have to try and create in others." Art for John, as for Green, is to awaken the sensitivity of the reader to the act of seeing, which is an "act of conscious imagination." The distorting desire, common to all John's illusions, is for a shared presence; the suggestion is that John is like all men in his desire and differs only to the extent that his fantasies are peculiar to his own situation and that he is aware he is inventing rather than discerning meanings.
An observer, responsive to the sensory riches of the world and of art, John has been an "outsider" at school, aware of the discrepancies between appearances and interpretations of them. In the diary which describes his experiences at Noat, John views with disfavor the lack of sensitivity of both adults and fellow students. He rebels against those "who sink their whole beings in the school and its affairs, and are blind and almost ignorant of any world outside their own." He is critical of society's materialistic mentality, which would "label and ticket everything so that the world is like a shop, with their price on all the articles" and would dismiss "youthful introspection" and the world of feelings. He calls for a Carlyle, a "prophet one could follow," who would decry the present tendency to replace "art" with "photography." He records Van Gogh's rejection of the concept of verisimilitude: "If you take a photograph of a man digging, in my opinion he is sure to look as if he were not digging," and he ponders: "What is it that is so attractive in the sound of disturbed water? The contrast of sound to appearance, perhaps. Water looks so like a varnished surface that to see it break up, move and sound in moving is infinitely pleasing." His comments reveal that he finds shallow so-called physical representations; such "realistic" representations are "unreal" in that they reflect little of the feelings of the observer.
Later in the novel, John questions, "What sense of beauty had others?" He recalls that both Herbert and Egbert, two of the servants who were in Salonica during the war, have different memories of the place. The only thing Herbert "remembered afterwards was that a certain flower, that they had here and that was incessantly nursed by Weston in the hot-house, grew wild and in profusion on the hills above the port"; Egbert, "the underkeeper … had seen a colossal covery of partridges." John also reflects on the fact that Harry, who is in charge of the horses, "looked upon the country from the hunting standpoint, whether there were many stiff fences and fox coverts." Like John's mother, who spends hours in the flower garden "weeding" and "cutting off the heads of dead roses," each of the servants has his own sense of beauty, John links the idea of the varying perceptions of beauty with the differing preoccupations of individuals in their daily activities. He finds no meaning in his mother's endless hours with affairs of the village nor with her becoming upset when the Church Parochial Council votes against her proposal that there be music at matins on Christmas day. The conclusion that John reaches is that memory and beauty are distinctive for each individual because memory and the beautiful arise from what the individual attends to.
John is also acutely aware that meaning lies not in understanding the words that another speaks because he knows that what people are not saying is a part of what they are saying. He listens for hints of what the speaker is concealing: "Voices had become his great interest, voices that surrounded him, that came and went, that slipped from tone to tone, that hid to give away in hiding," That the language of conversation is like the Freudian language of dreams, a complex play of condensation and displacement, Green will dramatize much more effectively in his later novels. In them Green will rely more on passages of dialogue than on summaries of the reflections of the focal characters (which make up much of the narration of Blindness) in order to show the reader the characters' attempts to hide their fixations while interpreting all that they hear and see in light of those concerns.
Fantasizing about the mother he has never known, John thinks:
For she [Mummy] would have seen things by the light of intuitions, often wrong, but no less enchanting, and by discovering things in other people she would have shown herself. How silly people were to think a grey day sad; it was really so full of happiness, while the sun only made things reflect the sun, and so not be themselves.
The objective, the acceptance of the external public image as all, is only another fiction. But the pretense that life is just a "varnished surface," the facets of which can be "labeled" or "ticketed," is a more distorted representation than the impressions produced by the imagination. To accept life as spectacle is to be blinded by the sun. In one scene, John sees "figures, like dolls and like his friends, striking attitudes at the sun they had made for themselves, till sinking he lost sight of them, to find himself in the presence of other dolls in the light of a sun that others had made for them." The literal is an inanimate representation, for it denies the feelings of men and the inexplicableness of life.
John's observations and reflections both before and after his accident focus on the subjective nature of perceptions. His blindness does not change his sense of life. But it is not just through John's thoughts that Green calls attention to the ideopathic nature of perception. He dramatizes over and over that no two characters share the same sense of what a situation is or means. John's live-in nurse, for example, dismisses him as a very uninteresting case since for her he is "not really suffering." In her eyes "he was quite healthy, he was really healing very quickly, and he hadn't a trace of shock." How she perceives him seems to be shaped on the one hand by the measures she has developed for pain through her training and, on the other hand, by her own self-casting of the romantic heroine: "Suffering made you a great well of pity, and that of course was love." Perhaps it is because John is a boy to her rather than a man that she waits for her dream—"a case of delirium tremens" in which she will fight along with her patient to save him. Perhaps, though, it is only that she is practical and officious, devoted to the concrete; she has placed John's eyes "in spirits on the mantelpiece of her room at home in the hospital" along with her souvenirs from other operations, toes and a kidney. Green provides, of course, no omniscient narrator to tell us which explanation to choose for why she fails to be the comforting companion for whom John yearns.
Nor does Green unravel for the reader the mystery of the character of John's mother. In fact, Green deliberately heightens the discrepancies in interpretations of her personality and thus reminds the reader that "character" is itself an abstraction produced by a "reading" of another or of oneself through a chosen model. Nan, John's aged nanny, is John's only link with his mother, who has died at his birth. Nanny has told him how his mother played the piano and whistled; "beautiful" is the descriptive word John recalls Nanny using. Nanny's reveries reveal, however, that she believes in a less idealized picture of the first Mrs. Haye than the one she has presented to John. She suspects that the first Mrs. Haye may have been unfaithful—"whistling, never going to church, and so happy with all her men friends hanging around and the master too simple to notice or suspect." Unmarried, Nanny has spinsterish, prudish, and fearful misgivings about sex. Whether her feelings about Mrs. Haye mirror her own envy of a life she has been too timid to experience—"She had been near to marrying Joe Hawkins before she went out into service"—or whether her suspicions reflect those of servants who knew Mrs. Haye, the reader cannot determine. Nanny had, after all, only seen Mrs. Haye on her deathbed and knows her only through the "stories" of the servants. Did they actually say that Mrs. Haye "was too free altogether," or is it Nanny who writes the dialogue—"You can never trust men not even your husband's best friend but there it was!"? John, of course, has further embroidered the picture of his mother: "they had all loved her so"; she responded to life through her "intuitions." He has mementos of his mother. But Green will not even allow these objects to be unambiguously perceived: "And now that he was blind he had come to treasure little personal things of her own, a prayer-book of hers, thought that, of course, was mistaken; a pair of kid gloves…." Since the awareness of each character is shaped by his own personal vision, the reality he knows, present or past, is a highly selective story comprised of fantasy and fact. Green's reminders that characters are often mistaken about the facts and his refusal to differentiate the validity of the characters' visions emphasize the impossibility of man's unraveling life's mysteries of personality and event.
Each character in Blindness reads and writes the script of his life through his own interests and needs. Green makes the point that all narrators are unreliable not just through Nanny's and John's reveries of the past and the women they never knew but through Joan's recollections of her life at the vicarage as well. That her life there may not have been as untroubled and beautiful as she feels it to have been Green has suggested through entitling the chapter in which she relates that life "Picture Postcardism." Her version of her life is just as selective—"They had been lovely those days"—as "those beautiful picture postcards" she remembers Mrs. Donner having in her window. In addition, Green punctuates her thoughts with details that echo a seamy "twopenny" romance rather than the idyllic children's story she creates. Her mother had eyes for the Postman, John. Was her mother driven to the affair because Mr. Entwhistle was as ineffectual a husband as he was a minister, paying more attention to his roses than his duties, or because she was unsuited to life in the country, preferring the town and its liveliness? Did Joan's father always drink, or did he become an alcoholic, hiding his open bottles throughout the house, because his wife was a nag who even found fault with the money he spent for manure for his roses? Green leaves the reader to rewrite his own version of the story of the Entwhistles.
The tale of the Entwhistles echoes the tale of the Marmeladovs, which Green had called attention to in John's comments on Crime and Punishment in his diary. Joan, like Sonia, is passive and submissive; she looks at the world through rose-colored glasses. Rev. Entwhistle, like Marmeladov, has an inflated view of his genius:
He was so clever that he had always been bottom at school—all great men had been bottom at school. Then he had lost his way in the world. No, that wasn't true, he had found it—this, this gin was his triumph. It was the only thing that did his health any good, and one had to be in good spirits if he was to think out the book, the great book that was to link everything into a circle and that would bring him recognition at last, perhaps even a letter from the Bishop.
Entwhistle is also like Marmeladov in indulging himself in empty railings against an unjust world and in seeking solace from a bottle. Full of self-pity, he lacks the fortitude to shape a different destiny for himself.
Green's parody of the Marmeladov story and the characters' glossing of their lives remind the reader that one's version of the tale results from one's idiosyncratic sense of life. Both what one perceives and how one interprets it are the result of that sense of life. The eye perceives what the I would have it perceive. For example, what John notes about the tragic death scene of Marmeladov are the comic discrepancies: "[Sonia] in the flaming scarlet hat, and the parasol that was not in the least necessary at that time of day. With the faces crowding through the door, and the laughter behind." Readers, like narrators, are unreliable. They create meaning from what they attend to.
Emotional, sensory responses, rather than reason, guide the meanderings of the mind. An incongruous association suggests to John the punishment he would like to give the boy who has blinded him. Before the scene with the nurse in which John fantasizes himself choking the child, he has been talking with his mother, who has objected to the third housemaid's wearing her hair in a pigtail. John has protested that he likes the pigtails, which remind him of Browning's "Porphyria's Lover," and he has confessed to his mother that he would like to strangle a white neck with a "soft, silken rope." His expressed desire is most likely a manifestation not of sadistic tendencies but of frustrated sexual desire. When the nurse tells him about his accident and about the fate of the small boy who has thrown the stone, she smooths his pillow and tucks him in and he recalls the slight sexual thrill he has experienced the other times when she has done this. The boy displaces the female figure in John's imagination as he pictures himself sensually taking hold of the boy and strangling him.
The desire of human beings to make contact brings the private constructions of the characters into comic juxtaposition, for it is not just in their daydreams that they rewrite their lives. When John and Joan go for a walk, John sees himself as a medieval hero and Joan sees herself as the abandoned girl of a cheap novel, though not so "stupid" as to commit suicide. But John feels finally that she is "lamentably stupid"; she is unable to play her role as he has cast it. She thinks he is foolish for calling her June when her real name is Joan.
Another romanticism she fails to catch is his complimenting her on her "lovely blue" eyes. No, she tells him: they are dark brown and do not match her dress. Then he suggests, "Maybe they are burning now?" Joan, however, thinks not. John tries to continue by saying that his eyes "had they not been removed, would have burned so ardently." But Joan doesn't know what "ardently" means. "You know, hotly, pas—No." John has to give up: "This was awkward." He finds it just as awkward when he tries to suggest to her that he may be another Milton and write about the great themes of caring and war, since she really does not understand what it means to write. In his attempts to impress her, he has not said what kind of writer he really wants to be, nor has he chosen the right words to express his feelings for Joan.
In Green's dramatization characters shape whatever meanings experiences have for them. Unlike the psychological novelists, Thomas Hardy, Joseph Conrad, Henry James, James Joyce, and William Faulkner, he does not trace the psychohistory of a character. Green's characters do not become; they are. That which resides in the real world is so transmuted by them that events lack meaning apart from the moment. Events are "adventitious" rather than necessary; that is, their "interior resonance" is bestowed upon them by the character's own mind and they do not effect a change in him. Neither are they self-supporting links in plot development. Instead of an event deriving its meaning from its placement in a sequence of causalities, an event in Green's novel derives its meaning solely from a character's investing the immediate and contiguous with significance. The fortuitousness of events makes Green's characters hapless victims, though not ones of plot sequencing.
The frame of Blindness, its progressively labeled parts and its final epiphany, suggests, as has been pointed out, a linear pattern of metamorphic growth for John. But that larger frame is at odds with the episodic development of the novel. The novel does not treat the change wrought in John by his accident. His self-consciousness produces only an ironic awareness of his self-consciousness and does not lead to the development of a reintegrated personality able to orient itself anew to the world on the basis of that knowledge. Instead, the novel explores how "seeing" is related to John's artistic sensibility. One of the problems of Blindness is the clash between that structure and John's perception that it is the individual's interpretation which gives events that meaning they have, a perception Green has attempted to validate for the reader through the labeled parts and John's vision. The weakness in the novel is a result of the fact that the depicted equivocal nature of experience rests uneasily with the straightforward "Progression" of John to a positive and comfortable commitment to his writing. These two opposing views of the nature of experience may be a source of some confusion to the reader as he tries to respond to the felt life of the novel.
Green's ending is, however, ambiguous rather than conclusive. When John thinks about Raskolnikov's regenerative vision, he remarks that epileptic fits are "much the same things as visions really." In John's letter to a friend, which forms a short epilogue to the novel, John tells B. G. that "I have had some sort of fit, but it has passed now. Apparently my father was liable to them…." The earlier association of epileptic fits and visions may suggest to readers that they are supposed to assume John has had an epileptic fit, but Green does not state that that is the case. The reader knows how he has arrived at such a conclusion, but he is not told if it is the right one.
One could also build a case for John's "vision" being the climax of his sexual fantasies. Earlier he had tried to maneuver closer contact between himself and Margaret, the housemaid. When he touches her hand, she withdraws hers quickly: "But your hand is burning. Well, I never … I must be going." He asks her to move the lily as a means of detaining her, listens to her deep breathing as she struggles to move the stand, and then gropes about as if to help her, "bathing in her nearness." After she leaves he feels as if he would suffocate and goes to the window. Below he hears a chuckle. "[I]t was a woman and someone must have been making love to her…. He was on fire at once…. He drew back into the room, his face wet with the heat." Sitting in the chair he hears bells: "the wild peal of them … had loosened and freed everything…. He felt a stirring inside him … in a minute something was going to happen. He waited, taut, in the chair." His last thoughts before losing consciousness are: "A ladder, bring a ladder. In his ears his own voice cried loudly, and a deeper blindness closed in upon him."
The variant readings of the ending that Green sets up undercut each other and remind the reader that not even John can explain what has happened to him. "Why am I so happy today?" he asks at the end of his letter. The effects of the vision, whatever kind it was, may indeed last no longer than "to-day," though, unlike Ryf, I do not doubt that John is actually happy today. Oddly enough, while Ryf thinks that John may be "simply putting up a good front" for his friends, he affirms a reading of Blindness that denies life is an enigma—the vision is a true epiphany. On the one hand Ryf asserts more than he is told, and on the other hand he disbelieves what he is told.
Ryf's reading of the conclusion reminds me of Green's story about the readers of Loving who asked how soon the husband died. He told them "Whenever you think,' although when writing the book I had no idea but they were to have anything but a long and happy life thereafter" (the novel ends on the words "Over in England they were married and lived happily ever after"). Green tells the story to illustrate his point that a reader believes no more "of what he is told in narrative than he ordinarily believes, in life, of what someone is telling him." Idiosyncratically, blindly, we each insist that we know how to read (interpret) that which we feel lies beneath the surface or between the gaps, the metaphor one chooses depending not so much upon one arbitrarily adopting a critical vocabulary as upon one using a metaphor that fits one's sense of life.
What Green's novel does is make us aware that all our models are fictions. Ryf's symbolic reading of the ending is the very one Green's presentation in the novel disallows: there are no epiphanies to be had. Throughout the novel Green has mocked the idea of symbolic meaning. If one examines the patterns of imagery, one finds that there are none or, perhaps more accurately, that there are contradictions within the patterns that destroy the coherence of the pattern. John calls his diary "a sort of pipe to draw off the swamp water." Then he says it "rained all the past week." Next he comments on the "water fight" two classmates have in his room. In two consecutive diary entries, he mentions first a student throwing a stone at his window; and in the next a dizzy spell—"I saw waving specks in my eyes…. I suppose my blood pressure was disturbed" and notes that "For those in danger on the sea" is at the moment being sung at House prayers. The repetition of references to water in its various forms and the linking of water with an incident that foreshadows John's accident suggest to readers accustomed to the conventions of the modern psychological novel that they will find the meaning of the novel through unraveling the pattern of the references to water to discover its symbolic meaning. Yet surely the list of references already sounds discordant. John's final comment on Crime and Punishment focuses on the setting of the concluding scene: "by the edge of the river that went to the sea where there was freedom, reconciliation, love." Thus his diary begins and ends with water. Part II begins with, "Outside it was raining" and rain is falling again at the beginning of Part III. But his hyperbolic metaphor of the sea as "freedom, reconciliation, love" is, in fact, undercut not only by the mocking tone of the statement but also by the clearly unmetaphoric statement of scenic description which follows on its heels.
In the concluding scene of the novel, John is metaphorically bathing. The exaggerated quality of the metaphoric conclusion for Blindness and the one John supplies for Crime and Punishment make them into self-parodies. The self-deprecating tone of John's water metaphor for his writing in his diary (Green used a similar metaphor to speak of his novel writing in an interview with Nigel Dennis) functions like the reminder at the conclusion: John's vision, whatever its physical causes, has only the meaning that he or the reader chooses for it. The meanings of symbols like the interpretations of events is idiosyncratic, not founded on essence. Rather than suggesting through his repetition that there is a common cluster of meanings for water, Green has made evident that meaning in each case is contingent. Gray days or sunny days, as John has stated before, have no meaning other than the one the individual chooses, just as the meaning of the blackbirds in flight varies according to the system one supplies.
Through the comic devices of exaggeration and discrepancy, Green rewrites the realistic and modernist novels of the past. He overinflates the symbolic meaning of the prosaic and juxtaposes the trivial with the poetic. The arbitrary nature of meaning and the dependence of meaning upon the associative, nonlogical processes of the mind is highlighted when he draws attention to the way in which Crime and Punishment may, in fact, be an antecedent for Blindness. John says that Crime and Punishment "cuts one open … like a chariot with knives on the wheels." On the next page Green describes John's accident as occurring when the train entered "a cutting … the broken glass caught him full, cut great furrows in his face." In a hack writer one might assume that such a repetition was the result of the writer's inattention to language. But insensitivity to the language is not a criticism even those who dislike Green's novels level against him. Quite the opposite. They say Green is too conscious of language; he places too much importance on style. They say he is an aesthete, unconcerned with subject matter.
Green plays further with the "cut" John receives. Joan like John bears a scar from a cut she has received from a broken bottle tossed at her by her father. And it is through a cut from a sardine can she opens for her father's lunch that she meets John, Mrs. Haye bringing her to the house to dress the thumb. One thing leads to another, one explication suggests another. But there is neither a logical relationship nor a linkage which reveals a common core of meaning. As in a pun, the emphasis of Green's repetition is on the difference. The donnée of Blindness seems to be that in this difference lies the essential comedy and absurdity of life. And life is clearly a comedy to Green—a comedy of errors.
Through his self-mocking wordplay on cut, Green makes questionable the significance of those events identified and linked by the word—John's blindness, Joan's abuse by her father, Joan and John's meetings. These are events the reader would normally perceive as pivotal points in an interpretation of the novel. Though John's blindness brings him pain and suffering, much of the novel focuses on the mundane details of living as a blind man. His mother worries about his marrying and having children, and most of John's energies are directed to satisfying his desires for female companionship. Musing in his room a short time after the accident, John thinks that it "was now so ordinary to be blind." Later in talking to Joan, he again dismisses the significance of his blindness when he claims nothing ever happens. Joan reminds him of his accident, but he says:
"What, you mean going blind like that? Yes, I had forgotten. Except for that, then, nothing has happened. Sometimes I see a pool shut in by trees with their branches reflected in the stagnant water. Nothing ever moves, the pool just lies there, day and night, and the trees look in. At long intervals there is a ripple; the pool lets it die. And then the trees look in the same as before."
John's thoughts undercut the importance of the story as event. Instead the emphasis is on the act of telling a story which is situated by Green in man's sense of the void, that all is trivia and without meaning. A story is man's attempt to give meaning to that which, in fact, has none and is therefore more a reflection of unconscious desires than of the observable.
John and Joan's boredom is so great that they find relief in melodramatic, tragic daydreams. In an incident mentioned earlier in which John imagines himself choking the child who threw the stone that hit the railway train window, he indulges himself in playing the role of the Byronic hero: "One's fingers would go in and in till they would be enveloped by pink, warm flesh…. It would be a kindness to the little chap, and one would feel so much better for it afterwards. He would be apprehended for murder, and he would love it." He goes on to sentimental projections of the warden's reading the headlines to him:
BLIND MAN MURDERS CHILD—no, TORTURES CHILD TO DEATH. And underneath that, if he was lucky, WOMAN JUROR VOMITS, something really sensational. Mr. Justice Punch, as in all trials of life and death, would be amazingly witty, and he would be too. He would make remarks that would earn him some famous title, such as THE AUDACIOUS SLAUGHTERER. All the children in England would wilt at his name. In the trial all his old brilliancy would be there.
His fatuous yearning for the dramatic dissolves in his realization that he will be "long-suffering and good"—and "How dull" all this will be.
In her daydreams, Joan becomes a romantic heroine. When she cuts her thumb on a sardine can she imagines herself dying from blood poisoning: "Think of the headlines in the evening papers…. 'UNFROCKED GENIUS AND HIS BEAUTIFUL DAUGHTER FOUND DEAD'." Their tragic, emotional sentimentalizing of themselves is necessary for Joan and John, since their actual situations provide only the mundane (their projections also, of course, mock the tragic mode). The reaching for stoic grandeur, typical of the adolescent mind, is countered in John's case by his being aware that his projections are indeed fantasies. John understands the difference between who he is and who he pretends to be as he simultaneously struggles to shape a life out of his feelings and imagination, to endow the fact of his blindness with meaning, and to satisfy his sexual urges with a love affair.
Through de-emphasizing event both in the consciousness of the characters and in the reportage of the story, while emphasizing the adventitious and metamorphic nature of events, Green has made problematical the very basis of the novel, the use of narration to translate human experience into a structure of meaning. What is more, Green demonstrates to his readers that events are "unreal"; he foregrounds them as constructions. He begins his scenes by a description in the past tense and then, as if to announce that the play has begun, he shifts to the present tense. For example, he gives the setting—"Outside it was raining…. The walls were a neutral yellow"; and he notes the action that proceeds the rising of the curtain on John in his room—"He lay in bed…. There came quick steps … Emily Haye came in." Then the play begins: John "turns his head on the pillow, the nurse rises, and Mrs. Haye walks firmly into the room." A much longer introduction is given for the scene in which Joan wakes up her father.
What is more, Green's foregrounding of the act of exposition in relating the circumstantial particularities of his scenes calls attention to them as conventions of the realistic novel. These conventions are based, as David Lodge points out in Language of Fiction, on the novelist's attempt "to disguise the fact that a novel is discontinuous with real life"; that is, the realistic novelist attempts to blur the distinction between real life and fiction by using "a context of particularity much like that with which we define ourselves in the real world" (place, names, and the details of empirical observation). Thus through emphasizing the artificiality of labeling and describing, Green has, even more importantly, called into question our use of such surface details to claim a knowledge of that world. His telling of the tale parallels John's disdain for such so-called objective art forms as photography and John's critical attitude toward society's penchant for the concrete and measurable.
Like an impressionistic painter, whose use of color and form remind the viewer that he is looking at a painting, Green's highlighting the process of narration, the creating of event, and the selecting of contextual details make evident that a story is a schema imposed upon life and that all representations are interpretations. Furthermore he disrupts the sense of an unfolding internal and external sequence by creating self-enclosed scenes. Probably one of the most beautiful of these vignettes, set off by asterisks, occurs in the chapter entitled "Walking Out." The scene opens and closes with a description of Nanny seated by the fire, a cup of tea before her, the only sounds those of the kettle hissing and her own hoarse breathing. Shadows "jump out of the room," set in motion by the flames from the fire which gives warmth and color to the room. The lack of dramatic action and the effect of a self-sealed circle, created by the repetition of the details of Nanny's appearance and of the room in which she sits, make the scene seem like a photograph. Green even repeats a phrase from the second of the beginning paragraphs—"the whalebone in her collar kept the chin from drooping"—as the concluding phrase in the final paragraph. Behind the still exterior, Nanny's troubled mind frets about the inappropriateness of John's walks with Joan: "And that her boy should go out with that thing, him that she had brought up since he was a squalling baby, it was not right." Deaths, births, marriages, her family of brothers and sisters and offspring, and the one she has become a part of through raising John, spin together into the tapestry of her life and its impending passing. They are frozen now into a varnished surface. Such scenes emphasize not only that narration is a composition, an arrangement, but also that life is not a plotted structure. These scenes in Blindness thus emphasize that life as surface is nothingness—Nothing to be the title of a later Green novel.
Another such self-enclosed scene occurs earlier in the novel. Stretched in the lawn chair, near dozing, John is made to seem the center of his snapshot. Those who might have been present in the portrait are fixed offstage by the description with which Green begins and ends the scene. A slight movement of the figures is noted, but it is only a continuation of their opening gestures, leaving the reader with the strong sense of being brought full circle. Jenny, the laundry cat, who is "very near the sparrow now," is "two inches nearer the sparrow" at the end of the scene. The other figures—Nan, "left … to take a cup of tea"; Mrs. Haye, "gone up to the village to console Mrs. Trench"; Herbert, "leaning on the sill of the kitchen window … making noises at Mrs. Lane"; Weston, "lost in wonder, love and praise before the artichokes"; Harry, "hissing over a sporting paper"; Doris, "in an attic … letting down her hair … about to plait the two soft pigtails"—are reintroduced in the parting view, emphasizing the enclosed separateness of the moment that has been recorded:
Mrs. Haye crushed grass on the way to Mrs. Trench. Herbert stretched out a hand and made clucking noises, while Mrs. Lane giggled. Weston shifted his feet slightly, and put his cap further back on his head, before the artichokes. Harry began hissing his way down another paragraph, and Doris was fondly tying a bow on the end of one pigtail. Jenny, the laundry cat, was two inches nearer the sparrow.
Nan put down her cup with a sigh and folded her hands on her lap, while her eyes fixed on the flypaper over the table.
The figures are transfixed in self-expressive gestures. Like the pigeons whose sounds John listens to fondly, they are "cooing, catching each other up, repeating, answering, as if all the world depended on their little loves." Physically such gestures seem trivial, not worthy of attention; that is, no changes are effected, no desires culminated. The gestures are self-mirroring, as are John's fantasies which depict his emotional sensitivity to the quotidian. His daydreams are of fishing and of writing a story telling of a man's "strange passion for tulips."
In an interview, Green said that his novels were "an advanced attempt to break up the old-fashioned type of novel." As usual Green is vague about precisely what kind of novels or which writers he had in mind, though he does express his distaste for the descriptive novels of Dickens and Tolstoy. Most critics, however, in assessing Green's experiments as a novelist have addressed only his permutations of sentence structure. They have written about his prose style—his dropping of definite and indefinite articles, his omitting expletives and sometimes verbs, and his rearranging syntactical structures. They have not addressed themselves to his experiments with the larger structures of the novel.
But Blindness is evidence of the fact that Green's experiments with the novel went much deeper than matters of prose style. He parodies conventions of both the realist and the modernist novel in order to call into question the means by which we make sense of the world in which we live. He has made problematical the very act of narration by dramatizing it as structure imposed upon experience. Nor does he provide a coherent structure for experience through his symbols, images, and leitmotifs.
The "blindness," then, that is depicted in the novel is not just the physical blindness of John Haye. What the novel makes us aware of is that the world and the people in it are, so-to-speak, blind. Fate is a purblind doomster. Characters fail to see because they accept labels that society has affixed to actions and because they assume that what is visible is what is real. They lack an awareness of others because they are blinded by their own egos. They are self-deluded by their own fantasies. Yet those fantasies project and embody the feelings, which are for Green the most vital aspect of man's existence. His novel is a dramatization of the individual's poignant, failed quest for meaning and understanding.
In Blindness, Green suggests that the act of reading and responding to a literary text is like the act of interpreting and experiencing life: both require the responding subject to create meaning from the interplay of situation, character, and symbol. Interpretation reflects the interpreter; the story, the storyteller. Neither interpretation nor story is verifiable except as process. The artist's eye perceives not truth but the impossibility of knowing it; it is focused on nothingness—the gap between image or word and signification—from which emerges another text.
Carey Wall (essay date Winter 1983)
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7312
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 thought and, even more, its argument about the process and reality of life have been depreciated, perhaps because they depreciate reason and individuality. The romance is oriented, in Mircea Eliade's terms, to cosmos rather than history.
In the romance, life is natural process in which rebirth cyclically succeeds death. The continuity of life is assured, but the process of change which secures that continuity by replacing the outworn with the new brings great pressure to bear on human beings, whom it disorients. The endless drama of the romance occurs as it keeps watch on humankind's capacity to move with change to keep close to life.
The romance is also concerned with the depth of life. Life is deep when, again in Mircea Eliade's terms, the temporal, profane world coincides with the timeless, absolute reality of the sacred. We experience that conjunction by means of our mysterious capacity for symbolic vision. The romance deals especially with symbol making and symbol using. It presents the realm of wonder and finds the wondrous in the symbolic mind. Belief in one's closeness to life is what gives Green's characters the ability to reorient themselves when their worlds are altered; that belief depends upon the fluid functioning of their symbolic vision. That vision endlessly fascinates Green; it is the chief source of his fiction's energy.
To move with life's change is to make a passage. In the novels from Living through Concluding, Green creates rich dramas of passage, all of which are stories of symbolic vision. The characters are oridinary people: servants, businessmen, civil servants, factory people, husbands and wives, parents and children, lovers and workers. Modern, they live in the habit of the moment, conscious only of the ordinary, profane world of routines, commonplace identities, and mundane realities. Yet, when the need arises, their minds produce symbols of life's continuity and depth to guide them through the turbulence of change so that they arrive at new identities and understandings in which they renew their closeness to life.
Some event, large or small—the advent of war, or merely the drop of a thick fog—brings the death of an old world or an intimation of mortality. In the romance there is a darkness in which one sees what is normally hidden. In Green's fiction that darkness appears in blinding sunlight, in moonlight or fog, or in the equally transfiguring color shed by light through stained-glass windows. When it appears, the characters' minds shift from history to cosmos. The profane loosens its hold, and they are in the sacred presence of a web of mediating symbols that have apparently lain dormant and hidden but waiting and vibrantly alive in the bottom of their rationally, materially, and historically oriented minds. These symbols constitute a saving knowledge.
In their presence, the perfectly ordinary, solid things of this world become extraordinary; they become luminous hierophanies speaking of life's power and renewal. The dreaming and searching mind sees suddenly a strange and yet familiar reality. In these periods Green's characters have expanded sensory perception, and the sensory intensity seems to activate the symbols, which filter their vision of the world about them. The symbols are those the romance inherits from early religion, symbols of life's phases and its inexhaustibility. So interurban travel manifests the road of the spiritual journey; pigeons, peacocks, and starlings present the bird that embodies the flight of the human spirit; the roses of gardens and cemeteries and names like Lily and Rose disclose the flower that in blooming manifests life's urge toward fulfillment; the movement of people in a railway station or the depths of someone's eyes reveals the sea of the depth and motion and renewal of life; in the dance is the spiral of life's tendency upward; in Birmingham factory, London railway station, Irish castle, and English country mansion appears the Axis Mundi itself; and for men, women become woman, the gateway to passage.
Green's characters do not recognize symbols; they respond to realities manifested by the symbolic visitation that informs their world. In the superreal world overwhelming the ordinary one, everything gives them a reading of threat or help, danger or enticement, evil or good. They are puzzled by their own responses in moments when they return to the single plane of profane reality; nonetheless, they are compelled by the symbols to revalue the world around them.
The action starts when, in one way or another, death cuts the characters' connection with deep life. Losing that connection, they are threatened, anxious, depressed. In each book, some of the characters suffer mild or severe forms of madness, the evidence of their separation from life. But for the central characters, the symbols do their transforming magic so that the connection is renewed and the concluding experience, when the characters find themselves at the center of life, is ecstasy.
That much—the reality of death and the countering reality of renewal—Green knew from the beginning. But as he wrote one story after another, he continued to work on the problem of death. The implicit question for him is, To what extent can life's power of renewal transform the nature of the death that every individual must inevitably suffer?
Living (1929) is the story of Lily Gates and her spiritual father, a skilled craftsman in a Birmingham factory. "Home" is the book's central theme. Potentially, and sometimes actually, home creates an experience of depth that exercises the futile linearity which a young man who has not found himself sees in life: "And what was in all this … you were born, you went to school, you worked, you married, you worked harder, you had children, you went on working, with a good deal of trouble your children grew up, then they married. What had you before you died?" Living's chief event is Lily Gates's passage from dreamy girl to mature woman ready for wifehood and motherhood, and she is able to make her passage because Mr. Craigan has made a real home for her.
Lilly is unaware that passage requires not movement to a different place but rather revaluation of the one she knows. Yet her intuitive progress toward her goal—Green likens her to a homing pigeon—demonstrates that. At first she feels her need to leave her childhood home and to establish one of her own as a desire not to live like all the others and to get away to a new, wonderful place unlike this well-known "Brummagem" where people worry and have bad accidents and breakdowns. But when she persuades the livelier and less steady of her boyfriends to attempt that journey, she finds no magical Otherworld where life is exotic; instead, she finds chaos. She finds she likes the things she knows and quickly goes home to Mr. Craigan. "Dreams don't come true," he tells her; and, to the extent that Lily is disappointed and puzzled, in some measure she has had the setback he perceives. But, in fact, she is right on course. Before she can have a new life in Birmingham, she has to dissociate home and childhood, and in her elopement she had done that.
Living is a book of rhythms, Green finding all kinds of going out and coming back in ordinary movie-going, picnicking, joking, singing, and coming home. Lily's revaluation of the life she has always known is part of that deep rhythm of ordinary life and as sure as the turn of the seasons. Early on, needing to get away, she has a bad dream associating life here with death: "Yes and in every house was mother with her child and that fluttered hands and then that died…." Then her abortive elopement gives her another perspective on Birmingham, and from the time she flees home she is moving toward the discovery that for her this factory town and its life are the center of deep life. When the new spring emerges, so does her new adult self, and this place in which she is rooted, having shown her the face of the diabolical, now shows her, by means of the same symbols, the face of the divine. There is a baby and a homing pigeon, the baby crowing and grabbing at the bird: "This was moment of utter bliss for her. She was like dazed by it…. Suddenly with loud raucous cry she rushed at baby to kiss it." Like the homing pigeon, Lily is bound by the life she knows. But in this concluding moment of bliss she knows her love of that ordinary life. Living is full of secondary characters suffering psychic homelessness, so we know the great value of the understanding Lily achieves.
Life may be deep, but it does end. The book's second major event, which coincides with Lily's passage, is Mr. Craigan's forced retirement. For him, the end of work means the end of life, and when he faces that reality, he goes into a sudden decline and takes permanently to his bed, literally turning his face to the wall. This is death unmitigated, sharply juxtaposed with Lily's ecstasy. It is arresting and painful because Mr. Craigan's has been an especially valuable life. His vitality has given him thoughtfulness, discipline, dignity, and respect. Unlike the elderly child who is Lily's natural father, Mr. Craigan has personal depth: "E's like the deep sea," Lily says, and "We all live by Mr. Craigan."
The symbolic vision of life that is the ground for Green's drama of passages insists that death is not the end but rather a part of life. Life, above all, continues. So Green makes Lily's passage redeem Mr. Craigan's death. He presents death as a part of life and this relationship is a mystery. Lily has to die as a child in order to be reborn a woman. Her neighbor, Mrs. Eames, happy with her young children, knows death as mystery. Addressing her older baby one morning while nursing him, she says,
"An' when you're grown you'll marry and we shall lose you and you'll 'ave kiddies of your own…. Why do we bring kids into the world, they leave you so soon as they're grown, eh?… Sons and daughters why do we bring them into the world?" She was laughing. "Because, because" she said laughing and then lay smiling and then yawned.
From this point Green leaps to the mystery in the connection between Mr. Craigan's death and Lily's passage. He has been an apostle of home. His training has readied her for safe passage. So when he moves out of living at the same time that Lily moves further into it, it is as if the vitality of his life is passed directly on to her. He will die but his passion, his depth, will go on in her living.
Caught (1943) is separated from Living by fourteen years (I will deal later with Party Going), and when Green brought his romance vision to bear on the Second World War, he had lived through some real version of the experience he fictionalized as Richard Roe's. The issue is moral life; the revaluation is of other people and of one's relation to them. Richard Roe's passage takes place under the signs of water and fire as Green uses, for once, a set symbolic system—the one Colin Still calls "the symbolism of the elements." This symbolism belongs to the traditional story of the soul's search for the truth. Offering a sacred extension of the realities of profane, warchanged London, it allows Green to develop more fully than his natural setting alone can the crucial drama of the symbolic setting on which passage depends. The symbols may not only illuminate but even incorporate; they may take possession of the seer. Again and again, Caught evokes the power of the vision, the drowning in it and the recovery by firelight, by the water of false emotion and the fire of intuition of the truth.
Roe's story incorporates that of Albert Pye; both are adult versions of the kidnapping of Roe's son, Christopher, with which the book begins. In a toy department, under blue light from stained glass windows, Christopher sees a boat, and is
… lost in feelings that this colour, reflected in such a way on so much that he wanted, could not have failed to bring him who could have visited no flower-locked sea on the Aegean, and yet, with every other child, or boy at school, with any man in the mood, who knew and always would that stretch of water, those sails from the past, those boats fishing in the senses.
Lost in the spell, the child lets himself be kidnapped.
War gives Pye a new responsibility for others. He accepts promotion to substation chief in the Auxiliary Fire Service and then finds too late that he is not prepared for the position. He does not know how to give the people of his substation the confidence and security they demand from him. At this time, when everyone's sense of imminent death is high, Pye cannot shrug off his problem. He cannot deny the sense that life is precious and must be protected. So his inability to comfort his people becomes to him a betrayal of a sacred trust, and he comes to see himself as a betrayer. He personalizes his growing guilt, developing the fixed idea—factually false but symbolically an expression of his failure and therefore compelling—that on that night so long ago, when he had his first lovely sex, he must have forced his own sister. The guilt proves unamenable to rational disproof. Then, having lost his identity as a good and reliable man, he puts his head in an unlighted gas oven.
Roe is the one who finds him there. Roe's story is that of someone who fights free of the warped vision to which symbolic flooding can give rise when it serves to embody false emotion. Roe's great good fortune is to have been "kidnapped" by sexual love of a woman who "opened" to him as his wife. That knowledge of love ultimately carries him beyond his wartime imprisonment in self-pity. At first, his recent loss of his wife and (just by absence) of his son makes him idealize them and his prewar life, and so, by opposition, to monsterize the working-class men who have become his fellow firemen. The symbols available to him pull his class bonds tighter, and he hugs his misery. But after the training and the anxious waiting, when there are finally fires to fight, he finds his own manhood, his competence, and his capacity for leadership, in working with the others. Having gained self-confidence, he moves to an ecstatic vision of his brotherhood with them. On the strength of that, he frees himself from those of his bonds to his sister-in-law and son which demean and reduce him and his brother firemen.
Pye's sister was his son's kidnapper, and Pye himself has been to Roe a figure of distaste and even of shame. He has embodied for Roe the ineffectuality Roe feared in himself. But in the end Roe can see Pye not as a bad image of himself but as a real, separate man whose death must be redeemed because he too was one of the firefighters. As the book ends, Roe admits Pye to the brotherhood and so gets himself straight.
The high that Caught gave Green—or, more formally, the significance and comfort he found in Roe's passage—can be judged by the ebullience of Loving (1945), which takes passage straight into hilarity. Green has genuinely lighthearted fun in transforming one Charley Raunce, at middle age, from a carefree, adolescent lackey into a mature man who loves with a passion he never knew he could feel. He makes it happen in that very castle which tradition makes the fairy tale share with the Gothic romance. By and large, Green's story of passages is anything but fanciful. Passage is a necessity. Disorientation, gloom, and madness form a constant threat to life in this turning world, and only passage enables life to continue. So it is again in Loving, where life and loving are a game of blind man's buff, one's chance of capturing the loved one a matter of luck. The profane realities of his characters' physicality and morality—their mismatched eyes, baldness, wrinkles, and the like, and their predatory opportunism—spoof the fairy tale's and the Gothic romance's claims for the superreality of beauty and for the rule of a moral law. In Loving you had better latch on to what you can get of what you want. But the analogy works both ways, and the castle performs its magic; Charley's passage from captivation by the wicked witch, Mrs. Tennant, to that other kind of captivation by love of the beautiful princess, Edith, collects both the terrors of the Gothic romance and the triumphant beauties of the fairy tale for these ordinary people.
The plot is simple: Mrs. Tennant, the rich employer, gradually loses control of her small empire as her loyal old servants begin to die off and the younger ones make lives of their own, while at the same time Charley, bewildered and confused, with the guidance of an also bewildered Edith, gradually gains control of his own life. The action incorporates plot details as well as symbols from the Gothic romance and the fairy tale—from the former, terrors, surprises, moral intonings, shocking visitations from the outside, internal machinations by the wicked; from the latter, the transformation of Charley Raunce into Prince Charming, who carries away the imprisoned Princess.
Green's eye is trained on discriminating the dead from the vital. The art works of this rich man's folly, for instance, are dead—ludicrous in their empty gestures. The people, on the other hand, are alive. They display their vital energy in their loving. Charley's love for Edith encloses the stories of all the other loves. To do so, it has to incorporate not only the comical but also the pathetic and potentially tragic—the old people's loss of their place in life and young Albert's going off to probable death as an air gunner because Edith does not choose him. But it can do that because the power of life's vitality shines forth for Green, as when, for example, Edith and Kate dance together and are "multiplied to eternity" as they are reflected in the drops of five great chandeliers, or when Paddy, the lampkeeper, takes a nap in the sun so that "It might have been almost that O'Conor's dreams were held by hairs of gold binding his head beneath a vaulted roof on which the floor of cobbles reflected an old king's molten treasure from the bog."
Loving yokes together the darkness of life's changing and this glowing vitality. In the last scene, Charley is still a comical sight, he still has his dyspepsia, and love anguishes him. But his love for Edith is the great and final thing, and it takes us back to the opening, where the old butler, Eldon, dying, keeps calling out "Ellen." His love has lasted him all his life, and so, too, we should see, will Charley's last him.
In Back (1946) Green came back to the material of Caught. In creating Charley Summers, he returned to the problem of Pye's distrust of himself and faced more directly than ever before the problem of madness. Charley Summers is repatriated to England from a German prison camp in a state of self-distrust that he cannot articulate to others or even to himself. His profound unease is revealed in his response to Nancy Whitmore, onto whom he projects his self-loathing. The Romance of the Rose and, more generally, the symbol of the rose garden shed their confidence in the reality of goodness on this action, which belongs to the vein of literature in which good is found in the despised. Because in the romance the split between good and evil is paired with the conjunction of opposites, Nancy is able to heal Charley and bring him "back" to a security in life he has never before known.
Green is interested not in the overt facts of war cruelties but in what the mind makes of them. The facts of Charley's imprisonment are vague. Back in England, when Charley's former girlfriend's father is dying and his old wife cries out like an animal in anguish, Charley has to close a part of his mind to endure it and keep control of himself. Here is evidence that in prison he has heard men being tortured, at least, and perhaps that he has been tortured himself. It may be his own voice that the woman's reminds him of. At one point he manages to tell Nancy, "I had a mouse out there." He remembers his hands clutching bars, and I think we must connect the bars and the mouse to see that Charley participated, in a sense, in the torture. He may have imprisoned the mouse and may be appalled at the evil, minuscule in performance but symbolically great, in himself. It may be that he has betrayed himself and others under torture—acknowledging lies as truths? informing on others to avoid further punishment?—and is transferring that greater, unfaceable horror to the trivial imprisonment of the mouse. Even before the war he was unsure of himself; now he is imprisoned in a self-conception which, projected, only turns the whole world into a threat. He is very nearly helpless to heal himself; his return to life depends upon the ministrations of Nancy.
Nancy is the sturdy type of woman, like Lily Gates. But she is illegitimate, and her illegitimacy has told on her. Knowing herself to be a good person, she is nonetheless wracked by an irrational sense of unworthiness, so that when her young flier husband died, she gave up his name, feeling herself unworthy of wearing it because she failed to be with him when he died in battle. Her own trouble has given her a knowledge of people's need for the love not of romantic self-indulgence but of generosity, loving kindness. Her life comes together with Charley's because their needs match—his to be helped and hers to help. Good and evil merge as entangled matter of life, then good separates itself out as a reality Charley can depend on, because Nancy is the half-sister of Charley's prewar redheaded girlfriend, Rose.
During the war and when he first returns to England, Charley clings to his false idea of self-indulgent Rose as a glorious, wondrous lover of himself in order to cling to his idea of himself as he was when he knew her. When he meets black-haired Nancy, otherwise Rose's look-alike, of whose existence he has never known and who denies any knowledge of him, Charley can only believe that this is Rose, inexplicably turned whore. By a gradual process wherein she first makes herself the legitimate daughter of her natural father's wife, Nancy leads Charley to see herself as someone separate from Rose and so someone not betraying him but caring for him. Back does not deny the reality of evil and betrayal or indicate that they can be transformed into something else. Charley's missing leg is analogous to the missing part of his mind, the war horror he simply has to close off. But the book does insist on the reality of love as well as horror. By the end, when he has become Nancy's intended husband, Charley has come to see himself as an acceptably good man. It is this recovery of an acceptable self that he articulates when at the very end he calls Nancy "Rose."
I earlier omitted Party Going (1939) in its sequential place in order to consider it here with Concluding (1948). These books, because their actions cover only hours, do not allow the characters time for thorough revaluation. Instead, they present another kind of passage, a mental traveling that is a variation of the traditional magic flight. These flights are prompted by a seemingly small disruption of normal activity—the drop of a fog and the probably temporary disappearance of a girl. In both events, the characters find intimations of mortality. Their response is the same as that of the characters whose old lives dissolve: they feel the urge to renew contact with deep life. By means of the flight into Nature, they make that contact. One action is set in a city railway station, the other in the grounds and buildings of a state school, but in both books, even more intensely than in those I have already discussed, the fiction is full of birds and beasts and vegetation, which help to define the action. The fog in Party Going and the disappearance in Concluding evoke what Victor Turner calls moments of liminality, a state in which people move outside structure:
Thus it is in liminality that one finds profuse and symbolic references to beasts, birds and vegetation…. Symbolically [people's] structural life is snuffed out by animality and nature, even as it is being regenerated by these same forces. One dies into nature to be reborn from it.
Both books deal with structure's threat to life; in one case the manners and lifestyle of the wealthy London young in the 1930s, in the other the routines of a future bureaucratic State, exclude humanity. Both books reveal the dimension of life that is not structural. Green's characters know Nature's sexuality, its motion, its rituals; and in taking magic flights they dissolve their structural life in Nature. In doing so, they show that life is inalienable and that, even unwittingly, people find their way to the center of it when they need to.
Party Going is a dazzling book, a tour de force of coalescence. A group of wealthy young London socialites, intending a pleasure trip to the South of France, have to wait in the station and its hotel when a dense fog stops the trains. Green puts a prismatic perspective on their activity during these few hours (one man overwhelmingly in love "felt as though he was gazing into a prism, and he could see no end to it,") splitting it into three actions in one. Uniting them in the movement of the sea, he displays rather than simply evokes an idea of the depth of life.
First comes the love game that is the ordinary activity of these party-goers. In Edward Stokes's description of it, "For several hours, the group … talk about one another, score off one another, play up to one another, exploit one another, lie to one another, vie with one another for the center of attention, try to save their faces and to justify themselves." The pursuit is real; nonetheless, it is stylized slow motion. These people are obeying a code of manners; here is structural life in its restrictiveness. This is action of delay and deferred commitment, of striking postures that have very nearly become ends in themselves. Max may be a little more distant from Amabel and closer to Julia at the end of the day, but then he may swing back toward Amabel again. In any case, it is hard to imagine that any marriage deeper than one of manners could come out of this posturing. Green contrasts his party-goers with hordes of others also having to wait in the station, ordinary people trying to get home at the end of a working day. His descriptions suggest that the workers' emotions are direct and spontaneous, vital. The party-goers, not having to work, are cut off from deep contact with life and so have become precious and ridiculous. They are Green's waste-landers.
However, Stokes is right when he points out, "If much of the imagery conjures up an impression of death, desolation and aridity, much also conjures up a counterbalancing impression of vitality and wonder." The book's second action is spiritual traveling. When the fog drops, changes the way everything looks, and puts a stop to their physical journey, it sets off in these characters' minds thoughts both of death and of the Otherworlds story associated with the journey beyond death, beyond it to the mysterious depths of life. Some of these flights of fancy and glimpses of the symbols of deep life are fleeting, but others are long and profound. Characters only moderately susceptible to the suggestion of death have landscape fantasies; in their traveling they remain earthbound. But those most deeply moved—Julia, Miss Fellowes, Amabel (and Max through Amabel)—become assimilated to the bird. These characters make full passages in taking magic flights.
Julia, still attached to her "charms," is a child just about to turn sexual adult; Miss Fellowes is an "old" woman (fifty-one) beginning to turn away from sex and toward death; Amabel, at the supreme peak of loveliness and power, is at the age between these two, sweeping men before her tide. Julia turns gulls into doves and takes a big parachute jump; Miss Fellowes follows obediently the call of her dead pigeon. Amabel, naked after her bath under her rich fur coat, is the powerful and enticing counterpart of that dead pigeon wrapped in paper. Each of these women, according to her own age and condition, has a sexual experience during these hours in the station which shows that, no matter the social strictures of her lifestyle, she is close to the quick of life. These flights are releases, periods of suspension of socially prescribed awareness. In Party Going, as elsewhere according to Victor Turner, the structural and antistructural times coincide.
The sterile love game and the vital flight are clearly opposed to one another. Putting these two actions against one another, Green sharply registers the discrepancy. Linking them, the third action puts the characters through a sequence of moods that manifests life's rhythm of beginnings, middles, and ends. Coming to the station and getting together as a group, they are excited and full of anticipation. Intimations of mortality merely lead to intimations of immortality and they mock death. In the midsection, when the love game is on full steam ahead, power absorbs their attention and excludes death. Then, after the waiting gets to be a strain and they all begin to wish they were elsewhere, the idea of death recurs, this time as a threatening reality rather than a mystery. They have no sooner gone through this sequence than the fog lifts, the trains begin to run, and they come back to the anticipation with which they started. The sequence will repeat endlessly, through every so many hours, on any day. This sequence of moods—excitement and invulnerability, confidence and then gloom, evoked by levels of energy as well as perspectives on death—controls their assessments of life. They apprehend life in its promise, its power, and its desolate endings according to the moment. One assessment is no truer than any of the others; all are true to the moment of perception.
This third action links the love game to the flights in being the solid ground of experience out of which both the other actions come. So the three actions must be seen as one. They occur simultaneously, and they all obey the sea rhythm of waves and tides surging in, cresting and washing back, surging in…. Every bit of Party Going moves to this rhythm. The one action, through the prismatic refraction of these characters' living, entangles death with vitality in seemingly myriad ways. Party Going is full of tacit connections—between the wealthy and the workers, who are alike as well as different; or between everyday language full of metaphors its users do not think about and magic flights; or between dying and loving—and all of them refract the single duality of life and death. In the series of planes of reality Green creates here, in which the whole appears miraculously in the detail, there is all the depth of extended vision on which the reality of the deep life in these books depends.
After the war, Green saw the Socialist State coming. In Concluding he wrote about that threat to life, creating a State abhorrent for its blindness to human complexity, diversity, and vulnerability. The action takes place at a State institute for the training of female State servants. The State system threatens everyone, from the girls, who must conform to rules to keep their places; to the principals, who are subject to reports and investigations; to the book's central character, old Mr. Rock, a retired scientist from the "bad old days" before the new system. He has a lifehold on a cottage granted him by the former owner of the estate, which the State has acknowledged in confiscating the property. But the principals, Edge and Baker, are trying to get him off "their" place by getting him elected to an institute for retired scientists. He is resisting, for his granddaughter Liz's sake as well as his own, since he will leave her homeless if he goes and she is recovering from a nervous breakdown suffered in the State service. The threat imposed by the State is fully realized in the action, but on this holiday—it is Founder's Day, the tenth anniversary of the institute—all the personnel of this social microcosm play their parts in an elaborate ritual that exorcises the diabolism of the State. As in Party Going, the characters are assimilated to birds; this time it is a communal magic flight.
This State institute is installed in the former great house of a country estate, the mansion is surrounded by a gorgeous park, and this is a day in midsummer, when Nature's force stands extraordinarily revealed in the burgeoning of life in trees, flowers, and birds, and in the characters as well, in whom sexuality is running strong. Despite their beauty, all these splendors of Nature put a great strain on the school's personnel. The flowers are too fragrant, the sun is too hot, the moonlight too intense in its flooding. Sexuality is too rife and keeps threatening trouble. There are headaches, faints, tears, terrors. And it is this profuseness of life on which the State system is built. Sebastian Birt, the economics tutor, says:
Consider for a moment our whole position here…. A complete community related in itself, its output being … the unlimited demand for State servants, fed by an inexhaustible supply of keen young girls. Staffed, as well, by men and women who are only too well aware they can be replaced almost at a stroke of the pen by the State, from which there is virtually no appeal. In fact, we have here a sad bevy of teachers lying wide open to be reinvigorated … by new blood of which, worse luck, there is only too plentiful a supply in the pool.
State and Nature so coalesce that it is clear there is only Nature as a source from which humankind intuits realities and expresses them in the structuring of institutions. The human mind open to the insignificance of the individual life so replaceable in Nature's fecundity, transfixed by that horror, has produced the State. Describing a roomful of girls awakening from a nap, Green says, "The tide of late afternoon disclosed great innocence in a scene on which no innocence had ever shown, where life and pursuit were fierce, as these girls came back to consciousness from the truce of a summer after luncheon before the business of the dance." The State is only the vehicle; Nature's profuseness is the threat.
The student Mary's disappearance alerts everyone to her danger and their own. Overworked, she evokes the sacrificial victim once traditionally offered to life by societies soliciting the rain of new vitality upon them. In response to the threat, unconscious of what they are doing and why, the characters transform their life in this institution by enacting the sort of New Year's ritual Mircea Eliade talks about. They all together, but each on his or her own, violate structural expectation and habit. License is allowed on this special day. But they are moved further to a variety of orgies of pleasure that turn into whirlwinds of destruction. There is an exaggeration of the usual rumors, whispers, and echoes. The air is full of scrambled communications, "vile crosscurrents," deliberate and inadvertent mystifications. Because the characters do not consciously know the ritual they are acting out, they perceive the Rule of Misrule while hijinks and license seem to threaten the evening's dance.
In fact, the hijinks and license, like the patterned, ordering, reuniting ceremony of the dance, are archetypal. First the characters reenact the chaos of the time before the founding, dissolving the forms of the old year, and then they proceed to re-create the order of their life in this establishment in the dance. The old order, Eliade says, is destroyed through sexual license. Here Mary may have run off with a boy; Edge suggests to the local constabulary that at his advanced age Mr. Rock may have become a sexual menace to her girls; Edge faints out of a fear of dead rabbits (sign of pregnancy) when Mary's doll is found beneath a pile of blooms; and Liz and Sebastian, naked, make love out in the park where Baker nearly walks right over them. The new order is established through a reenactment of their hierogamy, the marriage of sky and earth, from which Life's vitality mythically pours. Intuiting the necessity for marriage, Liz and the girls begin to talk about a marriage between the lovers; the girls, continuing their pranks, send Mr. Rock's pig home with a white satin slipper tied around her neck; and Miss Edge herself, under the euphoric spell of tobacco, proposes marriage to Mr. Rock!
Their enactment of this ritual demonstrates that these characters know the divine as well as the diabolical. Unaware, they know community, for their behavior on this holiday constitutes what Turner calls "communitas." They know that life continues through the sequence of death and rebirth, and so impose that rhythm on their activities. They also know flight as they dance:
… oblivious yet well aware, they danced out together the dull year that was done…. [The music] came … first as a sort of jest, a whispered double meaning almost…. After which, at any rate for the women, a far rustling of violins once recognized called as air, beaten through stretched feathers, might have spoken to the old man's goose, that long migratory flight unseen. So they rose … and made haste toward their obligations in the excitement of a year's end; not without a sense of dread in every breast….
Before the day ends, old Mr. Rock's goose, who has never flown, comes flying by him. The State bureaucrats, entrenched and budding, just as domestic and earthbound as this goose, fly too. They fly because the munificence of life—in its divinity, now, rather than its diabolism—gives them knowledge of life as a gift. All day long they are moved to feel that. Mr. Rock even offers to lecture to the girls on the care of pigs, moved by a recent vision. Coming across the park to the dance, he and Liz witness a great twilight descent of starlings into a huge tree, in three shell-shaped waves, and Mr. Rock receives this flight of birds as a gift: "Then a third concourse came out of the west … which trebled the singing. The old man wondered, as often before, if this were not the greatest sound on earth…. 'I'm glad I had that once more,' Mr. Rock said aloud."
Mr. Rock's story illuminates the significance of the characters' hidden knowledge and ritual action. For him the threatening inexhaustibility takes the form of the female. This institute now organizes his confrontation with women. The mansion in which it is installed is built in the female, lunar form of a great crescent. The principals and most of the rest of the staff are women. The three hundred students are all girls. Mr. Rock knows the opposing force; in caring for his three white female pets, he is expressing his fealty to the white goddess. When Mary disappears, the vibrations of danger reach him too, and although he has never before participated in the Founder's Day ritual, this time he takes his part in it. Intuiting the deadliness of the State, he calls it "the curse of our times," but knowing life as a gift, he makes a gift of himself to it, bringing his fertilizing male presence to the female establishment. His profane consciousness never quits him, so he feels he is humiliating himself to an institution he despises, but by the time, at the end of the day, he gets home and gets his pets in and is ready to go to bed, he is "satisfied" with his day.
And he should be. Dancing to the tune of the State diminishes these characters. But dancing in the New Year's dance is joining in the cosmic whirling of life and is restorative. Here personal action is dissolved in impersonality so that the characters exercise a further dimension of their being. So in his usual practice in relating to the State, Mr. Rock begins the day by begging for his breakfast in the institute's kitchen, but after participating in the dance, he proudly scorns Edge's proposal of marriage. He begins the day as a pauper and ends it as a king. Once again, a central character's triumph redeems the reality of death, but by this time the one who dies—at almost seventy-six, Mr. Rock is coming to the time of his "long migratory flight" into death—and the one who triumphs are the same.
I call Green's novels "enchantments" because they tell the same story and make the same kind of appeal as children's fairy tales. According to Bruno Bettelheim, in The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales, the fairy tales are about children's passages. They assure children of help in the turmoil of transformation and of what Bettelheim calls "higher states of humanity" that can be attained. They communicate the tendency of human lives toward both change and renewal. 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. We continue to be challenged to make passages, to engage in revaluation. We sometimes think that for each of a succeeding set of stages of life there is a specific program of appropriate tasks to accomplish. There is no such programmatic regimentation of living in Green's fiction. There is only one task; it is always the same—to renew contact with deep life. The fiction shows that experience to be as varied as the people who achieve it.
Without denying the desolation of living, Green recovers the validity of the romance tradition and the associated values of beauty, generosity, loving, and bliss. When old Mr. Rock gets his breakfast, "his tea made his old blood run again, in this morning's second miracle for Mr. Rock." Green does not explain, but surely the first miracle was his waking up and finding himself still alive. Life is the continuing miracle in all these books.
John Russell (essay date Winter 1983)
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3650
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 the equally short "Mr. Jonas" affects the reader differently. The focus here is on the "we," first on firefighters who have been ordered out and watch from their drawn-up pumps the night's holocaust augment—men "seated hands on knees, silent beneath that awful, the wide magnificence" of the skyline ablaze. Then it is on one crew, arrived at their assigned address, a building invisible as the men lay hose up a smoke-filled alleyway toward it ("we went by instinct into the deepest dark").
From this eerie activity, the water from the pumps at last about to flow, the focus changes once more: indistinct figures are seen near an arch, inside of which can be made out the top half of a man who "seemed … to be sitting on a taut sheet of steam." The narrator's crew chief now appears:
… he told me the Rescue people had a man in under there, pointing to where the smoke was a rising wall. I was sure the individual sitting on his sheet, still coughing hopelessly … was someone who had been brought out. Then he spoke…. I realized that he must be the leader….
There was a shout of "water" behind … the jet sprang out solid, white. The leader got up. He stood. His legs were still hidden but I could now see they were in steam which was drawn in by the draught of the doorway, steam running compactly like a swollen brook. He said, "Not too near or you'll drown him, he's just below you there…." We played the water where he said and then were blotted out immediately….
… In under a minute we were breathing air … and the leader was visible again…. He asked us to keep our water still farther off [and] got into the hole…. He called out, incongruously, "Can you hear me, Mr. Jonas?"
And so do we get the title, about the jonah who is rescued, a man who now emerges, "bone dry…. As he came up and out … we all began talking to him, telling him where to tread." But Mr. Jonas says exactly nothing, and in one more paragraph the story has ended, though it took the firemen the rest of the night to fight back to that spot, from which barely in time "had risen, to live again whoever he might be, this Mr. Jonas."
The reason for the bulk of the foregoing quotation—with its "Then he spoke" and other formulae, its allusiveness and nearmagic, and its hieratic conclusion—is to indicate the presence of the epic. In one sense I mean this comment to be taken lightheartedly. (Not that the story is lighthearted of course.) One guards a bit against calling work of but six pages' sweep "epical." Still, Joyce's famous distinction (the one accounting for the emergence of epic) is quite patent in Henry Green's second story. The recurrent focus on the experiential "we," plus the belated transference of the firemen's story to that of the imminent rescue, presided over by the man first seen coughing on his steam-throne (who turns into the "leader," and a hero if ever there was one)—all these bear out the shift from "immediate" to "mediate" form that Stephen Dedalus spoke of. In the Portrait Joyce had Stephen say the epic displaced the lyric when the artist brooded over events till "the centre of emotional gravity" became "equidistant from the artist himself and others." This almost hypnotic drift of the artist's attention, onto the hero who has materialized, is a common sign of epic, and the different register of Henry Green's prose in "Mr. Jonas" (as compared to "A Rescue") attests to this shift. The story's otherworldly "telling," as set forth in a kind of lantern-slide display, makes it hieratic.
While the stories are atmospherically different, the themes of "A Rescue" and "Mr. Jonas" do have some consonance. Both stories are apprehensive of what might be called limbo states. Henry Green's then most recent novel (he was working on Caught when he published these two stories) had been a novel also limbo-like as it arrested its null party-goers in their station hotel. The "arrested state" of Green's first story, "A Rescue," is only partly due to its victim, an unnamed man who has fallen down a manhole. His "mid-air tomb looked very bleak," says Green, assessing the job that has fallen to him, as a senior crew member, of getting him out. Is the whole thing straight autobiography? A strong clue would seem so to indicate: one crewman at the start says, "Let's get on out, Henry"—words that would have been appropriate down in the manhole, where someone later will simply say, at the crisis point, "Hullo, Henry." (The witness of the Jonas rescue is given no name.)
Morally, the story approaches Joycean "lyric" because an easy task has been assigned and the narrator wants to get his crew out in the early going of a raid, before orders can be countermanded. "If we could get out of sight we might be forgotten." Someone as sensitive as Green knows the upshot of this wish in advance.
The upshot is a kind of selfish dread.
Green's contingent are looking forward to a hazard-free night, because they are to pump out the basement of a burnt-out store, the management to provide unaccustomed hot meals. The crew bicker in their anxiety to get rolling, in no way ready "on this particular evening for what was coming to us." Just short of their destination, a flashlight motions them to a halt. "I realized it was this I had dreaded all evening," says Green as a policeman illuminates an open manhole.
Fifteen feet down, "like a rag doll made full size," and draped over a pivoting sewer cover, is the jonah of this story, an injured man who needs to be brought up by firemen's lines and ladders. Green fumbles at, but finally manages to tie successfully, the bowlines and hitches that the rule book calls for, then descends on a ladder set upon the four-inch ledge on which the uptilted cover was meant to rest. In the anxiety of the work he forgets the stench of the sewer; but the limbo moment, unbeknownst, will soon be at hand. It comes once the task is done, the hurt man hauled up without a sound. To steady himself, Green puts his hand out—he is in fireman's boots on the four-inch ledge—to that cover the man had been hanging over: "It swung slightly on its pivot. I had not realized that it was loose. I was at once, for the first time, aware of the sewer twenty feet below though I could, I know, no longer smell it." Henry Green does not say that he smelled fear, but he knew he "dare not touch the cover, had my back wedged into a corner with one foot at right angles to the other. I was stuck." He needs to be and is (with a "Hullo, Henry") extricated by his second-in-command. The title of "A Rescue" must have held this in mind all along.
One reward for Green the rescuer was to have been spared something during his exploit which he'd forgotten to take into account. Breathing gear was mandatory for such a venture—and later on headquarters roundly berates him for having put himself in so much jeopardy. "What we had forgotten, and what I had not had … was sewer gas." We recall the coughing leader of the Rescue Squad, standing awash in that scouring river of steam, and understand that Green for all the "lyrical" experience in the manhole shaft does not put himself on a par with that mini-epic figure. (That man had known the ropes, and "said he would have to have oxygen breathing apparatus" just before he went down to raise up Jonas!) And so the last sentence emphasizes the words "to live again" in the case of "Mr. Jonas"; whereas of the principal in Green's own salvage story, the reader is told at the end, "We have not heard anything of him. He may have died."
Take, for quick comparison, a pair of stories like "The Wall" and "Building Alive," written by Green's friend William Sansom, who also served in the Auxiliary Fire Service. These brilliant first-person accounts in a way deserve more than Green's the adjective "experiential." Sansom's are stories that get the phenomena right—they exist for that purpose. So determined is Sansom to etch the phenomena that the doubts he expresses pertain to his own perceiving apparatus. A wall in one story, "like a rubber wall in a Disney cartoon," bulges in toward the narrator, then springs back flat. "Whether … it had actually expanded into so round and resilient a curve, or whether the noise and the windclap of the explosion jarred this round illusion within my own round eyes—I do not know" ("Building Alive.") In the other story, a wall falls like an intact grid. "Whether the descending wall actually paused in its fall I can never know" ("The Wall.") Not that Sansom makes these perceptions isolated ones of his own:
My number two, Barnes, looked at me quickly—the building was alive…. Walking in such houses, the walls and floors are forgotten; the mind pictures only the vivid inner framework of beams and supports … how, under stress, they might behave; the house is perceived as a skeleton.
These become everyman's experience, and Sansom's camera record is marvelous. But there is no resemblance to a Green story, because the incipience in the case of the Sansom recordings is not moral and not, to use a related word, mythic, in the sense of their being deepened by foreknowledge. Sansom's stories are like one another; Green's are not like one another, and are not like his friend's either (though all four stories have as their focal points rescue attempts and magical survival). Sansom's forgetting the floors and walls is an engineering reaction, perhaps we could say to put it another way; Green's forgetting of the sewer gas was metaphysical. In the absence-of-self that occurred while he had managed the rescuing, he'd won a reprieve as though granted from an outside source. Thus arrives the element of myth that separates one kind of narrative from the other.
"A Rescue" and "Mr. Jonas" are the only renditions of firstperson narration to be found in Henry Green's fiction. If the reader has anticipated me, he may have guessed that the third and last of Green's stories falls into the Joycean category of the dramatic.
Again one comes dangerously close to overstatement, in suggesting that a trio of very short fictions has run a gamut and accrued strange artistic merit to itself. But these are good stories, and do run in the odd pattern of self-interest ("A Rescue"), enchantment ("Mr. Jonas"), with, after the petering out of the Blitz, an ingress of the familiar old self-interest. Green could be said to present it now as disenchantment. Caught had by this time intervened—its dates of composition were "June 1940-Christmas 1942," and one of the novel's themes had been the enchantment that could be wrung from danger and cause commitment and the abrogation of self-interest. But it too was a "waiting" book, held as it were in the vestibule of war, and not providing much "releasing" action till the end. So Caught itself had stretches of time sensed by its protagonists as "this lull of living"; and with the passing of the Blitz Green's final story would have for its title "The Lull."
Dramatic in construction, but evocative now of nothing so much as aftermath, "The Lull" conjures up a limbo state that has become pervasive and is hardly metaphoric. The work it resembles most closely—the formal affinity ought not be missed—is Joyce's "Ivy Day in the Committee Room." And with this story Green for the first time would set himself to work within a purely scenic format (which was of course the last direction he chose to go in, with those mosaics Nothing and Doting).
It's curious that a lull also accounted for the ambience of James Joyce's only dramatic story. The limbo state there was owing to Parnell's non-replaceability: the ex-Parnellites gather, the curiously low-key spats develop among them, with the dialogue rendered so sparely that the reader needs to reassure himself as to which of the arrivals is now speaking. The committee room remains the scene, and the story ends elegiacally as the trying last days of the Chief are recalled.
So also does "The Lull" begin (and so also will it end). The dialogue participants, all firemen, filter in one by one to their station-house bar. Each is given a name: Joe (the barman), Gerald, Gus, Ted. But "Joe" as such almost never speaks, nor do the others by name—it is within the dialogue that we hear their names—while as interlocutors Green makes them be "the man in the check shirt," "the fourth man," and so on. This is the "limbo-secret" of the story's construction. It will extend to govern later scenes, in which, in a populated barroom now, a "fifth man" and then "a sixth" hold forth. (We will hear them called "Charley" and "Alfred.")
Little shards of contention come up between barman and first customer because this "Gerald" is excused from all drills while doing carpenter work for the station chief; the barman, for his part, always being let off "fatigues." So, on Gerald's exit:
"What's 'e making now?" the third man asked.
"Yes. The Boy Marvel."
Thus the instant collusion, showing how factions will form against the absent when, among comrades, time lies heavy.
Only once, in the transition to his central scene, does Green break his "Ivy-Day" pattern (though I am not suggesting he was remembering Joyce's story). Part 3 of "The Lull" moves things along by way of these thematic paragraphs:
But it was noticeable that, whenever a stranger came into the bar, these firemen, who had not been on a blitz for eighteen months, would start talking back to what they had seen of the attack on London in 1940. They were seeking to justify the waiting life they lived at present, without fires.
A stranger did not have to join in, his presence alone was enough to stimulate them who felt they no longer had their lives now that they were living again, if life in a fire-station can be called living.
Where the earlier dialogue scenes had battened on tall stories, these were about on a par with arm-wrestling: things done to induce contention. (The barman had aggressively changed the name of a man known remotely to them all—chiefly to gloat when the others wouldn't bet money he was wrong.) But the presence of a stranger would in turn, as Green says, induce cohesion among the men.
And so a newcomer in their bar causes a bygone raid to be rehashed. The tellers are accurate and given their names now—they "have their lives again" in effect—though the tale is about only a stricken balloon, the weird sound of which terrifies seasoned men.
Alfred answered himself…. "The shrapnel had got at it. The blubbering noise is occasioned by the fabric rubbin' together as it comes down, or the gas escapin' out of the envelope, one or the other. I couldn't rightly say. But it didn't half put the wind up me."
"And me," said Joe.
Note the meticulous observation—it is the kind Sansom tried for, hoping to contain phenomena, and for the moment, in this centerpiece of "The Lull," cohesion reigns.
But that is due to the lure of the past, and it fades; there now occurs a dilution within the vaster one, as the ground shifts to a "fireman in mufti" called Henry, talking to a girl in a park. In this moody modulation, carried on mainly through the girl's quotations from French poetry, the wane of something else is understood. Verlaine's "Chanson des Ingénues" provides lines which tell how sharp clandestine memories only foretell the advent of sets of future lovers: "des pensers clandestins, / En nous sachant les amantes / Futures des libertins." Consequently "this man Henry" is "caught out," in a related way, in the lull, once lassitude is admitted to be sliding in where passion was.
The cohesive and the clandestine are related (Joe and Alfred remembering the barrage balloon are not vastly different from the nostalgic couple in the park); they depend on strangers (and estrangement), which make it possible for trials to be undergone together. They also involve a kind of shared fore-knowledge. In Party Going (1939) the party-goers expected a train and a boat would take them to where sharing could occur. In the war that came to their generation instead, physical embattlement would take the place of those traditional vehicles; and fire trucks would be the ones by which some broke out of limbo, but only if other vehicles, files of warplanes overhead, caused the fire trucks to be called. That kind of foreknowledge has built-in resistance in it. Subjectively, Henry Green wanted a "party-going" night of it on the evening he had to make the rescue. There was not much cohesion during action then, though there was some (when he talked to the injured man, telling him it would hurt when they hauled him up, and then saw him drawn up soundless). On the strange night of "Mr. Jonas" there was a more drug-like entry into the destructive element, and a blind shift to other-involvement: "Some living things turn to the light, we went by instinct into the deepest dark."
By the time of "The Lull," the difficulty of cohesion, once a man is on the safe side of the destructive element, becomes objectively understood. (The author, if he is the one in the park, participates only in an analogous way.) A stranger makes men go back in imagination to what it was that bonded them. But they have foreknowledge too. They know their bouts of one-upmanship are stale, and in the very first scene, the barman's words are backed up when he says, "We want another blitz." By the seventh and last scene, two firemen are discussing a mate who was found atop a roofpeak, lowering a long rope and garbling out the words that he'd "saved five" but was surrounded. "Surrounded by fire he meant." Thus even the last Henry Green story is preoccupied with rescue, the need to be delivered from this maddening lull. Right here the tenth fireman says to his companion:
"Wal, d'you think there'll ever be another blitz?"
"Well, mate, if he doesn't put one on soon we shall all be crackers."
Andrew Gibson (essay date Summer 1984)
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8088
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 minimize the differences between him and some of his predecessors or contemporaries. He has been readily grouped with Faulkner and—by Toynbee and Cosman, for instance—with Joyce and Virginia Woolf. In certain respects, however, it is the differences between his work and theirs that need insisting on. His uniqueness has sometimes been described primarily in terms of certain eccentricities in style which are among the least felicitous aspects of his work. Much should be made of the acclaim Green has won from other writers (Waugh and Graham Greene, Nabokov, Sarraute, Updike, Elizabeth Bowen, Rebecca West and Angus Wilson, Rosamond Lehmann and Eudora Welty). Yet it has misled commentators into thinking of him as a novelist's novelist, a "pure artist" (as Harold Acton dubs him), a master of a limited range of techniques. There is more than that to be said for Green.
Yet it is not to be said in the customary terms. Criticism that has looked for the usual kinds of human interest in Green's novels has, in general, been trivial criticism. Ryf has written of the element of "psychological verisimilitude" in Green's work, and Stokes of his powers of "psychological insight." Weatherhead has used Freudian apparatus to demonstrate Green's concern with "self-creation," and Hall has detected analogies between Green and Freud, and Green's and Joyce's "use of modern psychology." The trouble is that this kind of approach to Green begs us to compare him with a Joyce or a Woolf and, as an exponent of psychological fiction, he must quickly be found wanting. His motto, in fact, might come from the Céline he so much admired: "Je n'ai pas la grande idée humaine, moi." Characteristically, Green plays down the significance of individuals and their predicaments. He attributes little importance to private emotions or psychological events. To examine, for instance, Max Adey's deliberations, in Party Going, on whether to take Amabel to France or not, is to find consciousness reduced to almost absurdly simple terms, as it so often is in Green's novels.
Indeed, so long as our criteria remain those of a certain kind of "depth," Green will probably seem an inconsiderable novelist. They are criteria, of course, that must play a part in any evaluation of his work, and they offer us an exact sense of his limitations. He is not, in the end, a truly major figure. But they can themselves be limiting, and they continue to lie behind most views of Green. They inform, for instance, the preoccupation with Green and his novels as "enigmatic." They lurk there in Kermode's account of Party Going as a novel which has to "mean more, or other" that it manifestly says. Kermode's view of the novel is attractive in its subtlety. But it is also an invitation to appreciate another kind of concealed depth: an invitation less crude than those of critics concerned with psychology, but nonetheless similar in its appeal to a certain kind of value. In general, we shall not really understand Green's art unless we recognize it for what it is: an art, above all, of surfaces, surfaces that are suggestive and yet, in the end, blandly impenetrable.
To say so is not ipso facto to demean that art. Much the same might be said, and with as much justice, of Kafka. Nor, if we call Green's art an art of surfaces, do we necessarily convict him of sterile formalism. Melchiori has seen Green's later novels as sacrificing content to form, eschewing humanism in favor of aestheticism. But the qualities he detects in the later fiction are quite clearly evident, too, in earlier work. More importantly, Melchiori's reading of Green involves a narrow conception of Green's kind of formal experiment as mere artiness, extravaganza. The obvious point need to be made: that worthwhile experiments with the form of the novel make possible new ways of seeing, of knowing or—perhaps most accurately—of constructing the world. Green's experiments are of this kind.
We should remind ourselves here that Green saw his fiction as specifically opposed to traditional fiction—not, simply, as a deviation from its norms, but as an attack on them. He called it "an advanced attempt to break up the old-fashioned type of novel." The most interesting transgressions in his novels are transgressions, I think, of norms of uniformity and diversity that partly govern traditional fiction. Green's novels are full of the unexpected, and, above all, of unexpected similarities and conformities, and unexpected variations or incongruities. His work continually imperils the frontiers commonly established by narrative codes. It disturbs or fractures the narrative conventions that make for certain kinds of differentiation. In the end, it subverts the very modes of individuation which the novel tends to confirm and even promote.
It is worth pausing here to remark on some of Green's preoccupations. His autobiography, Pack My Bag, reveals a man peculiarly aware of and sensitive to "gulfs," gulfs between individuals, classes, walks of life, school and home, business and home, the old and the young, "officers and cadets," "apprentices and artisans," different kinds of speech, and so on. The book sometimes argues the need for such gulfs to be "bridged," and it is clear that, in some respects at least, fiction, for Green, served precisely that purpose. Yet this is true in no simple sense, and it would be rash to translate the point into straightforward political terms. Politics, Green wrote, was none of his business. The disclaimer inevitably looks disingenuous. But to say that does not really help, since the political attitudes revealed in Green's work are complex, in fact, and uncertain. Green's desire to "bridge gulfs" doubtless had its origin in obscure emotional needs of his own, and I am principally concerned, in any case, with its consequences for the form his writing took. Yet it is worth observing that much of his work, and the pattern of much of his life, suggest a man turning away from his social character—that of an industrialist educated at Eton and Oxford, and with aristocratic connections—toward something he felt might be richer and ampler. We should remember, too, that, on his own admission, his inspiration came from the working class, and that, when he lost a sense of connection with working people, his art went into decline.
To appreciate Green's work, we must recognize that it is full of precarious distinctions, distinctions that are established only to be obscured. He strikes us as a writer who is disinclined to abide by the clarity of the oppositions he has created or perceived. The characters in Doting, for instance, pair off in opposition to each other, only to pair off, again, with different partners, in opposition to other couples. In Concluding, Rock and Edge abruptly lose their hatred for one another and suddenly grow close. In Back, the Grants exchange roles, Grant becoming passive and stricken, Mrs. Grant the tender. To dwell on a detail: in Party Going, the very fact that Claire lies means that she subsequently begins "to speak out genuinely for once what she did really feel." Green is constantly inclined to perceive a connection or kinship between opposites. Reversals and transformations of the kind just instanced abound in his novels, and they are symptomatic, evidence of an imaginative habit which never leaves him. The dividing line between contraries is blurred: the different constantly threatens to become the same.
Green was obsessed with sameness. Mirrors, for instance, were always a source of fascination. One thinks, in particular, of the mirrors in the "private room" reserved by Mrs. Weatherby, in Nothing, to "entertain old friends in honour of Philip's twenty firster." "Mirror" and "echo" were favorite words. Anthony Powell remarks, in his Memoirs, that certain repetitive routines were a distinctive feature of Green's life at Oxford. The novels reveal a corresponding desire to repeat and duplicate. Phrases and scraps of conversation recur throughout certain novels and often from one character to another. The characters in Loving and Living imitate, quote, mimic, and copy one another. In Nothing and Doting, elements of certain scenes are repeated in other scenes involving different characters. Scenes are frequently constructed along similar lines and around similar concerns.
Images and techniques that involve duplication are legion in Green's work. Critics have seized, in particular, on the abundance of "structural parallels" in Green's work, and eagerly sought to squeeze meaning from them. Thus, for example, with the introduction of the passage "from the Souvenirs of Madame de Crequy" in Back. Apparently, it bears an important thematic relation to the main plot, and the question of its significance has sparked off disagreement among the commentators. Yet attempts to demonstrate that it makes a particular point have not been convincing. The parallel, in fact, is surely best read simply as an example of that compulsion to double things that is so characteristic of Green. It is one of those curious, unnatural, carefully arranged symmetries that are so common in his novels. In Back, again, the hero is obsessed with his dead love, Rose, and the novel begins in a churchyard thick with roses and ends in a rose garden. Green's passion for duplication is often evident in the smallest details. At one point in Living, thoughts settle "3 by 3" in young Dupret's mind. In Party Going, there is a surrealistic generality to some of the images evoked: the women, for instance, disturbed by a sudden noise, who are left holding cups "half-way to their lips," with the "little fingers of their right hands stuck out pointing towards where that crash had come from." Such images are eerily disconcerting, in a way that reminds us of Magritte or Kafka.
Green, then, was uncommonly inclined to imagine the world in terms of the similar or the identical, rather than to create a world that was wholly discrete, amply and incessantly particularized. It could lead him, on occasions, into absurdity, but it has an important effect on the way his narratives work. We have a sense, for example, of a limitation placed upon the kind of variety conventionally so crucial in the novel: the distribution, through the narrative, of different and clearly distinct identities. This is particularly relevant to any consideration of Green's characters. He sometimes seems less inclined to distinguish between them than to confuse them and to encourage us to confuse them. This can be one consequence of the duplication of names in his novels. There are two Alberts in Loving and, in Back, Rose and John are both the names of two people. The similarity of some of the names in Party Going has a like effect. Max and Alex, Angela and Amabel, Robert and Robin—the names seem to have been chosen because they resemble one another. The techniques Green adopts (and, in particular, the frequent shifts from one character or group of characters to another) mean that, at the beginning of the novel at least, it is difficult to tell the characters apart. We have the impression that we ourselves are peering through the fog. The characters in Party Going are granted few peculiarities and are easily mistaken for one another. As a result, words and actions tend to gain in importance over those who are talking and acting.
In comparison, then, with most novelists, Green is little intent on firm and precise differentiations between his characters. In some of the novels, at least, differentiations seem, in large measure, to be there so that they can be blurred, so that similarities can be emphasized. The end of Party Going is a case in point. It involves a delayed and unexpected variant of a procedure that has been followed throughout the novel. A character is introduced (or reintroduced) in terms, primarily, that stress his likeness to others. As "Mr. Richard Cumberland" appears on the stage, Green tells us that he "was not unlike Alex and when he spoke his manner was much the same." There is an almost comic sense of anomaly, here, of deviation from a norm. At this point in the novel, it is bound to be particularly marked. For this is Embassy Richard. Other characters (and the novel itself) have attributed a quite unwarranted importance to him, and he has gained in importance, too, since he is, apparently, an outsider to the group. Once again, Green blurs the terms of what has previously been formulated as an opposition. That he does so at the end of the novel is a point that needs to be stressed. For it happens at a moment when there is a conspicuous potential for drama in the intrusion of an outsider, someone alien, someone of a different kind.
To some extent, the traditional novel depends for its effect (for its appeal) on its diversity. Encouraging and catering to an appetite for the new, it is committed to producing the unanticipated and unfamiliar, to contrasts. If iteration has a function in the novel, it is, as Genette notes in another context, a subordinate function. Anything else is heterodox, a transgression of the norms of variation which allow a novelist to hold attention and to retain his audience. In the work of certain modern writers, however, iteration has been given a more significant role. This is self-evidently the case with Proust and Proust's concern with the recurrent. Genette provides a useful account of the importance of "iterative narrative" in Proust, of Proust's "intoxication with the iterative." One thinks, too, of all the repetitions and duplications in Kafka's fiction; of Kafka's protagonists, doomed perpetually to try to comprehend the incomprehensible; of the very nature of Kafka's world, with its identical offices and corridors, its almost identical officials. Green knew and was devoted to the work of both Proust and Kafka, and to relate his fiction to theirs is to begin to put his habit of duplication, his mirror-techniques and structural parallels into the correct perspective. They are part of an important development in modern fiction, a movement away from the novel's traditional concern with singularity toward a fiction with consciously limited resources. In certain respects, Green, like Proust and Kafka, turns away from myths of uniqueness and presents the particular as instance.
To say, then, as Weatherhead does, that Green's novels show a "fidelity to entity," that they champion the individual and the "private living law," is to put the emphasis in precisely the wrong place. Green often seems to individualize only to obscure distinctions between individuals. As a result, what comes to the fore is not so much personalities as what they have in common: manners, impulses, habits, patterns of behavior and—above all, perhaps—language. Green, of course, was intensely conscious of language and, in particular, of speech, or—to use a word that recurs in his writing—of idiom. It is surely significant that his first novel is about a boy who goes blind and for whom, as a result, "voices" become of "great interest." Green was unusually aware of the different ways in which different people talk and the barriers that different ways of using language erect between people. So much is clear, for instance, from his account in Pack My Bag of his (failed) attempt to chat to a working girl at a dance in Blackpool.
He was particularly sensitive to what he calls the "half-tones of class," to sociolects as both exclusive and imprisoning. In the novels, however, the boundaries between sociolects are frequently crossed. Green understood that the language people use to some extent depends on the social context in which they use it, and many of his characters change their accent or their idiom during the course of a given novel. Richard Roe, for example, frequently lapses into the cockney slang of his fellow fireman in Caught. Young Dupret, in conversation with Tarver in Living, uses what he assumes to be "Tarver's language." In Loving, Edith, as she falls in love with Raunce, begins to "speak like him." Most strikingly of all, we have those two extraordinary characters, Sebastian Birt in Concluding and the "false detective" in Party Going, Birt successively adopts "the manner of a State executive," "eighteenth century speech," the shrill tones of Edge, "the manner of his colleague Dakers," "Mr. Rock's party manner," "the voice of the sort of lecturer" he is not, and so on. The curious eccentric in Party Going shifts, within a few lines, from a "Yorkshire accent," to "Brummagem," to "an educated voice." Both are extreme examples of a constant concern of Green's: the relativity of idiom.
As such, both characters are examples, in miniature, of what happens in the novels themselves. For the most characteristic idiom in Green's novels is itself a mixed one. It blends the tones of different social groups, the literary and the colloquial, the vernacular and good novelese. Russell is surely right to argue that there is, in fact, no single prose style that we can recognize as Green's. The idiom of most of the novels is various, "unpredictable," to adopt a world Harold Acton uses to describe both the man and his work. There is, for instance, an odd ornateness to some of Green's prose, what Melchiori calls "unexpected flourishes of feeling, fanciful word-pictures" developed in passages of "florid diction" which have "the syntactic freedom and the sensuous imagery of poetry." There are extravagances like the lengthy description of the fallen beech in Concluding and the description of Raunce cutting and punting the daffodil head in Loving. There are Green's extended similes, so protracted that the point of resemblance at which they start is forgotten, and—like Milton's—they take on a life of their own, a life, indeed, that is sometimes more vivid than that of the narrative context from which they spring.
But if, on the one hand, one of Green's most conspicuous styles is highly embellished, decorative, consciously literary, the other is flat, spare, sometimes awkward, colloquial in tone. Green shifts, not only between different idioms, but idioms that are opposed extremes. He interrupts a colloquial with an ostentatiously literary tone and contaminates literary language with the vernacular. There is thus a disconcerting sense of the heterogeneous yoked by violence in much of Green's writing. Take, as a single instance, the description, in Loving, of Edith and her charges running "along a path round by the back past the dovecote and any number of doors set in the Castle's long high walls pierced with tall Gothic windows. Running," we are told, "they flashed along like in the reflection of a river on a grey day, and smashed through white puddles which spurted." Green is blending a highly wrought style with a casual idiom that might be Edith's own ("any number of doors," "like in the reflection"). We are left with the sense of a voice, in the narrative, that is both chatty and refined, careful and careless, stylish and crude.
Green's prose is constantly disrupted by the unexpected word or phrase. There are lapses into colloquialism that, in context, are incongruous. As Edge in Concluding tires, for instance, of the press around her and yields to the desire to dance, we are told that "when that moment came, she simply opened her eyes, from which long years had filched the brilliants." But, as in some of Beckett's novels, there are equally incongruous lapses into formality and stiltedness (one notes, for instance, how often the characters in Concluding "propound"). Again and again, the blends in style imply an apparent indeterminacy as to the kind of reader addressed, or—perhaps better—the novelist seems to be addressing a reader who is both simple and sophisticated. This single sentence from Loving will serve as another example: "Then all three huddled round as if over a live bird sat between his palms till their fags were lit." It slips from Faulknerian elaboration, from modernist self-consciousness into plain slang. Arguably, of course, the use of the slang word is merely another aspect of the same self-consciousness. But the effect, nonetheless, is of a shift in the level of address, as if the narrator were changing his conception of the reader to whom he is communicating. It is difficult for the reader of most of Green's novels to feel a comfortable sense of collusion with the novelist. If he feels that Green is colluding with him in what he takes to be an appropriate manner, he is likely to feel, soon afterwards, that the collusion is with someone else, on different terms.
The narrative idiom Green adopts, then, is commonly a mixed or carefully suspended one. To recognize that is to understand better what is going on in Living. Critics have argued over the nature of the style that is most characteristic of the novel and the success with which it is used. Toynbee finds it simply "irritating," a mere striving for effect. Bassoff sees it as a rejection of ordinary prose, an indication that Green is groping his way toward a more conspicuous style. But an observation of Weatherhead's is more to the point. The omission of articles, says Weatherhead, is a way of bringing the tone of the novel close to "the Warwickshire dialect prevalent in Birmingham in which the becomes the frequently inaudible apocopate, t'." We might be reminded, here, that Green himself said that the style in Living was intended to make the book "as taut and spare as possible" to fit "the proletarian life" he was then leading.
The point, in fact, is that the style in the book is a simulation of a native (and primarily working-class) idiom which, by virtue of its very incompleteness, is seen to be a simulation. It is a style that closes the gap between us and the novel's working-class characters, but also holds us at a distance from them, conveys a sense of Green's (and our) remoteness from them. The novel, in any case, is written in more than one style. Stokes apparently believes that the differences in style correspond to the differences in class and background between the characters. But this will not do. Colloquialisms creep into the sections of the novel concerned with the Duprets and their social milieu. Equally, an ostentatiously literary word or phrase is always likely to intrude into passages describing the novel's humbler folk. Lily Gates and Jim Dale, walking down a leafy lover's lane, kiss "in boskage." Displacements like this are manifold in most of the novel. Styles, for example, are adopted when they are singularly inappropriate to the character who is the subject of attention. So, too, Party Going is strewn with scraps of proletarian idiom, though the novel contains no proletarian characters of any importance. There is thus a peculiar relation between the various characters in Green's world and Green's narrative idiom. To some extent, at least, it traverses them all impartially, absorbing, mingling and redistributing their tones.
This has marked effects on the relationship between narrator and character in Green's novels, and, in particular, that relationship as it is defined through differences in idiom. In the traditional novel, the linguistic aberrations or peculiarities of any given character are seldom likely to be incorporated into the narrative itself, unless by means of style indirecte libre. They are often comic, the comedy being enhanced by the contrast between the character's tones and the suaver and more correct tones of a more articulate narrator. (One has only to think, here, of the humor Jane Austen or Dickens extracts from characters' odd tricks of speech). Modern narrative, on the other hand, has tended to absorb the tones and idioms of characters, but into prose, nonetheless, that—as in Joyce, or Faulkner—is set apart from them by its complexities or involutions.
But in much of Green's work, the narrator's idiom is sometimes scarcely distinct from the idioms of certain characters. Green himself wrote that he wished to avoid the roles of the conventional narrator, the "demi-god" or "know-all." Critics have pounced on his words and eagerly adduced examples of his refusal to assume a position of omniscience. But Green's abdication of authority goes further than that and has more far-reaching consequences. It involves a willingness to surrender the conventional supremacy of the narrative voice, a reluctance to privilege the language of the narrator over the language of characters. Green's narrators assimilate the linguistic habits of others. But they do so only sporadically, and not consistently, and it is partly this that distinguishes Green's narratives from the linguistic hubbub of a Ulysses or a Finnegans Wake. The shifts and transitions are perceptible as violations of norms that the novels also abide by. For the most part, Green's narrative idiom is not so much a new one as a familiar one that is constantly foundering, losing its power, being taken over.
Stokes points out that the idioms of the working-class characters in Caught and Loving carry over into the narrative itself, but argues that it is true only in these two novels, and only with respect to working-class idiom. In fact, in most of the novels, the language of any given character is likely to affect the narrative context. When Liz is introduced in Concluding, we are told she is "distracted," a woman who can scarcely manage "a connected sentence." So, too, at this point, her grandfather's conversation and the narrator's prose both become more disconnected. Green's characters frequently have this kind of effect on the narratives in which they are located. When, for instance, Green deals with his idle rich in Party Going, he slips into precisely the kind of sly innuendo which is one of their (few) fortes. Amabel, for instance, is once described as "like some beauty spot in Wales. Whether it was pretty," Green writes, "or suited to all tastes people would come distances to see it and be satisfied when it lay before them."
Certain passages in Caught deserve to be remarked on here. They appear, at first, to be instances of style indirecte libre, but cannot, in fact, be read as such. The description of Pye's arrival at the hospital is a case in point. The first paragraph begins like this: "The porter kept an occurrence book, same as they have in the Brigade. Then there was the paper he was made to sign, in which he undertook not to give anything to the patient. He read this carefully." The second paragraph ends thus: "In a week's time, if he had had anyone to talk over his trouble, and there was no one, he would have insisted that she spoke no different from another." The first excerpt can plausibly be read as an account of Pye's thoughts and perceptions, relayed in Pye's language. But the second cannot, since it speculates on what Pye might have said. The tone, however, remains the same. We are left with the perplexing impression of a comment passed on Pye by a Pye-like narrator who cannot be Pye. There is a hint of Flaubertian mockery in the offing, but its terms are also reversed. (To appreciate this fully, however, one has to be reading the novel and aware of how often the Pye-like tones are the narrator's, irrespective of whether Pye is his subject or not.) The character's manner has become the narrator's, in a way that goes beyond Flaubert's kind of ironic mimicry. Indeed, the point to be made here is that Green is playing with one of the conventions of Flaubertian narrative itself.
Yet, if the characters' tones tend to invade Green's narratives, the tone of a narrator may also be taken up by a character. During a bus ride back to the substation in Caught, Pye begins to watch a girl:
She was fair, that was all he could see for some time…. But, as this double-decker swayed and banked … he caught sight of one protuberant, half-transparent eye, sideways, blue, hedged with long lashes that might have been scythes to mow his upstanding corn. And a straight grave nose, curved like a goose neck at the nostril.
This is not Green at his best, but the passage is nonetheless of interest. The point of view, here, can only be Pye's. But the manner of the passage, its vocabulary and imagery are clearly remote from his. They are those we identify as the narrator's. There is a sense of irreducible discrepancy, of the narrative as problematic, its mode of address an insoluble paradox. A character has usurped the tones of the narrator who controls him.
This is seldom the case with Back. Yet Back is a novel which exhibits tendencies that are similar to those I have just remarked on. I am thinking in particular, here, of the relationship between protagonist and his world, the world the narrative provides and vouches for. Charley Summers, of course, goes mad, and goes mad in confusing identities. He is thus a familiar kind of figure, kin to Don Quixote and to Benjy in The Sound and the Fury. Conventionally, this kind of madness is likely to be firmly placed as madness, in the novel, contrasted with a world (as established by the narrative) in which the distinctions the character blurs are clearly maintained. This, for instance, is the case with Don Quixote. Alternatively, his madness may be presented from within and contextualized only indirectly. We know that Benjy is mad because we have Jason to set against him, but we do not know precisely what he is confusing or misrepresenting in his section of the novel. What is rare—and perplexing—is the narrative in which an "unbalanced" character faces a world that is other than his, at odds with his, but in some ways as bizarre as his. This is the case, however, in much of Kafka's fiction, and it is also the case in Back. The world represented in these novels is both an analogue for the character and entirely irreducible to his terms. It is a world that sometimes matches him in lunacy and yet turns him into a laughing stock.
The numerous coincidences in Back are particularly relevant here. They are coincidences that—unlike those, say, in Hardy—not only tax our credulity, but are, like coincidences in The Trial, quite blatantly implausible. Charley's friend Middlewitch turns out to be a friend of the Grants, a former lodger of Mrs. Frazier's, and Nancy's neighbor. When Charley and Dot visit James, Middlewitch appears in the same village, in which his friend Mandrew happens to own a house. Nancy, it transpires, is also a friend of Mandrew. Though much of the novel is set in London, the world of Back is as confined as that of Pride and Prejudice. In this version of the modern metropolis, most of the characters Charley meets separately turn out to know each other, and incidental characters sometimes have the same names as more important ones. There is an almost comical reluctance to diversify the novel, to provide the kind of diversity we conventionally expect.
We cannot simply reconcile ourselves to these coincidences by briefly relaxing our criteria, as a Hardy or a Dickens requires us to. Yet they are no mere trivial exercises in "anti-realism." Nor, as Stokes suggests—rather oddly—are they ways of universalizing the particular. They shrink the gap between Charley's view of the world and that world itself. Yet it is a difference the novel nonetheless insists on. Charley wrongly assumes the improbable to be the case, in a world where it sometimes is. He mistakes the different for the same, in a world which seems likely to encourage him in his error. The distinction, conventionally established in novels, between norms and the abnormal, between reality and distortions of reality, is constantly on the point of giving way.
I have so far dwelt chiefly on the way in which Green closes gaps between what are often polarities in more conventional fiction. But he also varies what more conventional novelists tend to keep constant, and this is particularly true of his narrative methods. The world represented in his novels, as we have said, tends to lack diversity. But the ways in which he represents it are uncommonly diverse. We expect novels to be varied, but chiefly in incident, in the events they record and the characters they depict. In Green's novels, it is the narrative itself that is varied. This is not to say, with Melchiori, that Green attends to form at the expense of content, but that he tends to subvert some of the conventional relations between the two.
Green's narratives often lack the smooth progressions, the efficiently articulated flow of information provided by more orthodox fiction. They are full of pockets of disturbance, awkwardnesses, idle digressions and troubling disruptions, anomalies and incongruities. Fragments of narrative discourse often seem oddly detached from their context, sometimes as self-conscious performances, arabesques or tours de force. Green's baroque excursions, for instance, and his lyrical flights, though characteristic features of the novels, are commonly isolated excrescences. They are marked by a care, by a finesse or a quality of feeling which sets them at odds with the context in which they are located. Take, for example, the passage concerning the music of the "famous coloured lady" in Caught. We are bound to be struck by the almost grotesque—but not, in fact, ironic—disparity between the richly toned account of the singer, her music and its effects, and the slightness of the situation it interrupts (the beginnings of Roe's rather tawdry affair with Hilly already seem tainted by half-heartedness and petty falsehood). The passage is resonant, rich in connotations. But they are connotations we will seek in vain to relate to its context, or (other than abstractly) to the novel as a whole. We are given a fleeting glimpse of different possibilities. But they are possibilities quite remote from the novel and entirely beyond the imagination of the characters in question. The passage moves us abruptly beyond the limits of this particular tired little world and adumbrates something quite different. It affords a brief intimation of a kind of experience—a manner of experiencing—that is markedly out of key with the tenor of the rest of the novel. The narrative shifts in Green's novels are sometimes there to perform precisely this function: to sweep us suddenly beyond fixed horizons; to demonstrate the relativity of horizons.
In this context, Nothing is a novel that is worth some comment. It has been rightly assessed as the novel of Green's that (with the exception of Doting) is most consistent in style and most uniform in its technique. But there are anomalies even in Nothing, and anomalies, moreover, of a peculiarly conspicuous kind. The tone of the novel is generally hard, dry, detached, essentially inexpressive. It communicates an attitude toward the characters that seems to be either neutral or faintly contemptuous. Yet we come upon occasional passages where the reverse seems true, where the narrator's manner is meticulous and sensitive, his attitude one of sympathy and some warmth. Take, for example, the description of Pomfret and Mrs. Weatherby sitting together by the fireside, toward the end of the novel:
as he could outline her heavy head laid next his only in a soft blur with darker hair over her great eye above the gentle firewavering profile of her nose, and because he was nearest to this living pile of coals in the grate, he could see into this eye, into the two transparencies which veiled it, down to that last surface which at three separate points glowed with the fire's same rose; as he sat at her lazy side it must have seemed to him he was looking right into Jane, relaxed inert and warm, a being open to himself the fire and the comfort of indoors….
A soupcon of irony and grotesqueness does not invalidate the point (though, in a more extensive commentary, it would complicate it). We can hardly feel that Jane Weatherby or Pomfret deserves this kind of attention, or this kind of prose, or, in Pomfret's case, this kind of lavish fidelity to his impressions. Green briefly exchanges a tone and a method for very different ones. Positive emotion, for instance, touches a novel that has largely been empty of it. The very temper of the narrative changes, and Green seems briefly to recast his world. The novel bears the traces of something else—a novel, perhaps, that it might have been.
So, too, with other of Green's novels, and in other ways. Some of the conventional gambits, for instance, of more orthodox fiction are from time to time deployed in Green's work. But they appear irregularly, as scraps of narrative systems that have otherwise been set in abeyance. There are the moments when an omniscient narrator intrudes in Living, and other occasions, too, in that novel in particular, when Green seems to be performing some of the more conventional tasks but, in context, incongruously. Green claimed that he wished, in Dedalite fashion, to refine himself out of his novels. "The writer," he asserted, "has no business with the story he is writing." His presence, however, is likely to be felt, but infrequently and at unpredictable moments. This is the case with Living: "Mr. Gibbon said after he had done the Holy Roman Empire he felt great relief and then sadness at old companion done with. Mr. Dale wanted to feel relief but felt only as if part of him was not with him…." The (rather crass) irony here is perceptible almost nowhere else in the novel, which leaves us unsure as to how to respond to such crassness.
An authorial attitude, then, like contempt, neither pervades nor governs any of the novels. Instead, it becomes one of a number of elements (including very different attitudes) which surface periodically and almost incidentally in them. So, too, with the unaccustomed care, for instance, with which Green will ostentatiously seek to capture the motions of consciousness: "Hannah … did not even long for Tom to be pushed over her, nor did she even think of it, it was all—how shall I say,—all was like the clearness of an empty glass, with the transparency of light. Yet not transparent." Green is possibly calling Virginia Woolf to mind here. The passage reads like a resort to Woolfian tones, but in a novel where they are patently alien. It shows a delicacy and precision in matters to which, for the most part, the novelist pays scant attention. The care can only seem intrusive, foreign. But this is merely one instance of the way in which Green varies his delivery in his novels. Others include his ventures into Jamesian speculation about a character's motives and displays of practical or bureaucratic knowledge. His novels are essentially heterogeneous, catholic in their methods.
There is thus an unevenness, a patchwork quality to them. But Green was clearly conscious of his motley. It cannot be explained away in terms of consonance, the particular relevance of a given technique in context. When the narrator in Living slips, for instance, into the present tense, we search in vain for any convincing justification for it. Green mixes narrative modes, constantly shifts focus and perspective, frequently changes the voice in the narrative. His novels are not "psychological novels." But, at moments, they register consciousness with the care and subtlety of a psychological novel. They are not "proletarian novels" (as some of them have been dubbed) unless, with our notion of the "proletarian novel," we can reconcile passages, for instance, of fulsomely decorative prose, of a kind we more likely to associate with Oscar Wilde. Rather, they keep a wide variety of conventional elements of different kinds of fiction in circulation—but in a way, we should note, that allows those elements to remain functional.
This last point is worth emphasizing. Like most modern novelists, Green, on occasions, will make his narratives self-referential. But he is not a writer, in the end, who is really concerned to renounce the business of representation. We should not take his statements to the contrary very seriously. What Green means when he says that art "remains non-representational" is just (banally enough) that it cannot be life. He was not a very clever theoretician, and we should not be misled by his attempts, late in his career, to provide a theoretical basis for his art. Though his novels are hybrids, blend disparates and confound different terms, he remains committed to representation.
The same, of course, is true of Ulysses. Like Green's work, but on a much larger scale, it is a hybrid, a melting pot. Yet Green's novels are not mere minor instances of the Joycean mode. Green made no attempt to achieve the encylopaedic inclusiveness of a Ulysses. If there are unconventional variations in Green's novels, of the kind we have discussed, they take place within an art whose limits, in other respects, are clearly fixed. If the characteristic mode of the novels is offbeat, syncretic, venturesome, their areas of concern are for the most part mundane, unmomentous, tranches de vie, and precisely circumscribed. They fuse some of the extravagances we associate with modernist experiment with the narrowness of focus, the ordinariness we know as that of some of the more exemplary forms of realism. In Green and Joyce, to quote Finnegans Wake, "contraries reamalgamerge." But in Green's fiction—unlike Joyce's later work—the diverse is usually the familiar: literary styles that are largely familiar (or easily "placed"); familiar narrative techniques, familiar idioms and tones. Green has none of Joyce's sense of the cleavages and connections between different historical moments, different cultures and nations. But to criticize him for this is no more relevant than to criticize a Jane Austen or a Kafka for a similar failure in scope. The distinctions he breaks down are commonly familiar distinctions between familiar things. The point is that he breaks them down in a way that often makes them seem unfamiliar and even inessential.
This takes place in novels that are otherwise far closer to orthodox representational fiction than Ulysses is. Elements of conventional plotting, for instance, are much more evident in Green's work than in Ulysses. The kind of commutation I have described becomes a habitual procedure in what is, in certain other respects, a traditional sort of fiction. By retaining certain conventions, in fact, Green makes the transgression of others more perceptible. In reading Green's narratives, we are constantly torn between a sense of recognition and surprise. We are aware, for instance, that conventional differentiations are not being made, precisely because the context is one that makes them possible, that encourages us to expect them. Thus, too, with Green's characters. A use of detail that seems charged with significance (in passages of ostensibly "symbolic" writing) seems to hint at depths and intensities. But it finds no correlative in a depth or intensity granted to any particular person.
Here, of course, we return to Green's lack of interest in consciousness. Unlike Joyce, or Woolf or Faulkner, he seldom endows his characters with much inwardness. He is reluctant, too, as we have said, to adopt certain modes of individualizing characters conventional in the novel. Both Ulysses and The Waves are novels which, like Green's, absorb the idioms of characters into a more impersonal narrative idiom, constantly effacing the borders between the two. But a Dedalus, a Poldy or a Bernard remains clearly distinct, for all that—manifestly distinct, in fact, by virtue of the minuteness with which his peculiarities are itemized. Joyce and the Woolf of The Waves move in two opposed but related directions. The individual is realized in all his uniqueness, but he is also merged into something larger. Green, by contrast, is not much inclined to give prominence to individuals. In Green's novels, individuality sometimes seems incidental, something almost casually recorded in the midst of what is shared.
To compare Green thus with Joyce is inevitably to put his achievement into the proper perspective. But it also gives an exact sense of his peculiar position in the history of the novel (and, in particular, the English novel). He is a writer who breaks with some of the conventions of the traditional novel, but one who does not participate in modernist attempts at a new (psychological) realism. The limitations he so consciously imposes on the world of his fiction suggest parallels with Beckett and some of the practitioners of the nouveau roman, but he seldom shares their skeptical distrust of representation itself. In the end, his name seems best linked with Kafka's. The resemblance must necessarily be presented in somewhat abstract terms, and there are large and obvious differences. But the comparison, nonetheless, is worth making.
Both novelists create a world that is analogous to and yet remote from ours. In the novels of both, the very bases of a given conception of personality founder, and the fictional conventions which sustain them are undermined or dispensed with. Both novelists disturb the relations between the different and the same which pertain in more traditional narrative. In doing so, both begin to dismantle a stable order of thought. They do it obliquely, however. The breakdown of certain assumptions, the collapse of particular norms, the clouding of specific distinctions—all these are implicit in the form of their novels and have their full effect only as we read the texts themselves. In his essay on Flaubert's style, Proust argues that Flaubert's use of certain verb forms, of certain pronouns and prepositions, has perhaps "renewed our vision of things" as much as Kant, "with his Categories," has renewed "our theories of knowledge and of the reality of the external world." The potential effectiveness of a novelist's style and sense of form has seldom been so well expressed. In the long run, Green, like Kafka, may possibly come to be seen as having "renewed vision" more strikingly than other novelists who have been more vociferously or explicitly challenging.
Yet it may seem, from what I have said, that Green's novels, after all, are "poor." Some of the terms of approval, here, can doubtless be turned into terms of condemnation. But some of our current terms of approval could themselves do with scrutiny. We might reflect, for instance, on the contradictions to a criticism that so readily enshrines Beckett and George Eliot together in its pantheon and so seldom reflects on the contradictions in doing so. If Green's novels are "poor," they are poor as Kafka's are, as the Balzac in Kafka thought his own novels to be. Adorno remarks of Kafka that he has been "assimilated into an established trend of thought while little attention is paid to those aspects of his work which resist such assimilation." We might add, specifically, that the extent to which Kafka's fiction lies outside the mainstream of modernist experiment has still to be recognized. Kafka has yet to be widely understood. Green has yet to be widely appreciated. To end on a polemical note: neither novelist, perhaps, will be adequately assessed in a culture which continues, for instance, so unquestioningly to allot such pride of place in the modern canon to the novels of Hardy or Lawrence.
Monroe Engel (essay date Autumn 1989)
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5648
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 possible that he was, as his biographer P. N. Furbank suggests, "one of those who have 'only one novel to write,'" and that Passage to India was so full and telling a dramatization of his social vision that any novel that followed it would have been anticlimactic or redundant. And that he knew this. Fortunately too, he wasn't silent during these many succeeding years, but was able to turn successfully to other forms of writing to remain an influential presence in the world. The truncated career of Henry Green though—a lesser but nonetheless considerable novelist—offers no such comforts. In the couple of decades between the appearance of his last novel, Doting, in 1952, and his death in 1973, Green was effectively mute.
John Updike, in a tribute that is admiring, discerning, and graceful, acknowledges Green as the writer he would say had "taught [him] to write" if that didn't imply either that he had learned or that writing was "a business one learns." In spite of this disclaimer though, he says he "can launch [himself] upon this piece of homage and introduction only by falling into some sort of imitation of that liberatingly ingenious voice." Updike is predictably illuminating when he talks about the identifying characteristics of Green's fiction, and the lucid complexities of his brief essay also establish his earned right to offer an appreciation of this brilliant and sometimes elusive stylist. He hazards no guesses however about the silence in the last two decades of Green's life, which he is content to call a puzzle. That's respectful, but it also closes a door I'd choose to keep somewhat ajar, open at least to speculation. For thinking about what might have caused Green's ultimate silence is a way to think too about why he wrote a body of distinctive novels before he fell silent, about what was at stake for him in that repeated voluntary act. And a couple of Updike's perceptions about Green that strike me as at odds with each other, offer a useful approach to these related questions.
Updike attaches little value to what he calls the "pugnacious piety" with which Green denigrates the wealthy class to which he was born relative to the working class; but then having said that, he also notes without any suggestion that this might work against the judgment he's just made, that in his second novel, Living, Green "escaped into" the working class, "finding there a purpose and gaiety hitherto lacking from his life." That's an instructive understanding to which Updike doesn't attach the importance it may deserve. For in addition to purpose and gaiety, Green must have found in the working class what he represented in several of his novels as a very different, more life-sustaining eroticism than he encountered among men and women of his own class. That has to be an important discrimination for a writer most of whose novels can reasonably be called love stories.
Rereading is a destabilizing activity. When I read Green's novels again now, the distribution of their weight seems to have altered since I read them last. The view of life they project is far more traditional than it once seemed, and I'm aware of an unexpected, persistent, earnest sense of possibility that informs them even as they achieve their greatest ebullience in the years during and just after World War II. A hope for transformation, for a life that is other and better, is palpable in all but Green's late novels, where what is felt instead is the extinction of that hope. Love, and its relationship to work and class, figure critically in that hope. Eros was Green's subject, but it was also I think the force that energized his writing, kept him going. Following the related themes of class and love as they persist and develop in his novels suggests something about the mystery of his ultimate retreat into silence that isn't indicated by attending only to their continuing textual brilliance.
In Pack My Bag (1940), Green's mid-life autobiography, the hope for transformation is both explicit and achieved. The book ends with his discovery some time after leaving Oxford (where, he says, he "had been an idler") to learn a range of largely manual skills in a foundry in Birmingham owned by his father, a wealthy manufacturer, that though "being tired in the head was to be the brilliant fruit of my labours in the day to sour the evenings … there were advantages … I found the life satisfying and I had never before been satisfied … the life was happy." Though aware that some part of this happiness was probably attributable to the novelty of what he was doing, he was nonetheless confident of the value of work and of "the new standard which I had never met, that of costs and prices." His tempered, qualified recollection of what this time meant to him ends then (as does the book) with a remarkably unqualified avowal that what he had found "was life itself at last in loneliness certainly at first, but, in that long exchange of letters then beginning, and for the ten years now we have not had to write because we are man and wife, there was love."
The novels however, some preceding and some following Pack My Bag, describe a trajectory on themes of love and class—a need for, then discovered optimism about, but then also apparent loss of belief in some possibility more generous and life-sustaining than what passes for love in the novels in the moneyed world to which Green was born. I have no idea how much this curve does or does not reflect the immediate circumstances of Green's own life; but though the saving love imagined or enacted in the novels is individual, it has social implications, and sometimes suggests a basis for community of a kind Green can only have observed or imagined.
Green's early writing was determinedly literary. His first novel, Blindness, published in 1926 when he was only twenty-one, trumpets literary ambition, and its systematic shifts in point of view particularly lend it something of the character of a sequence of literary exercises. Demanding exercises however, and of formative importance for a writer the originality of whose most accomplished work depends consistently on constraint.
Blindness records the dissatisfaction of its protagonist John Haye, who loses his sight in the course of the story, with the trivialities of his effete well-to-do life, particularly at his school, Noat (presumably Eton, which Green attended and with which, as with Oxford too, he expresses very similar dissatisfaction in Pack My Bag). Hemmed in by pretentious inconsequence, at one point he remarks to a friend that "poor people are always much happier than rich people on the cinema." It's hard to know how much irony "on the cinema" introduces here when he also confesses a little later that "the cinema used to be the only way I had to see life." Everything in the novel that followed Blindness, however, Living, suggests conviction that poor people's lives, whether or not they are happy, are more genuine than are the lives of the rich. Living has to do chiefly with men employed in an iron foundry in Birmingham (presumably similar at least to the foundry in which Green went to work on leaving Oxford), and with a young woman, Lily Gates, who keeps house for three of these men: her widowed and worthless father Joe Gates, her timid but dependable suitor Jim Dale, and the patriarch Craigan whose house it is. Tempted by the possibility of some more romantic life, Lily gives up Dale for Bert Jones, a bolder suitor with whom she actually goes to the cinema. The household slides into disarray as this happens, but when Lily's elopement with Bert to his native Liverpool becomes a disaster and he deserts her, she returns to Birmingham and it is reconstituted. Craigan's continuing tenderness toward Lily, and Jim Dale's steadfastness, are presented as of greater value and more enduring than either romance or sex—about neither of which Lily discovers very much even with Bert.
Extreme contrast to Craigan's odd but endorsed working class household is afforded by the wealthy Dupret family who own the works in Birmingham and are figures of a kind that turns up regularly in Green's novels as representatives of his own class. Ned Dupret, the feckless son, falls in love repeatedly and sadly with pretty, whimsically named, and consistently undependable girls of his own class; and when his father is ailing and invalided, his mother, "though she had never been very fond of [her husband], was now thinking how very fond of him she was," and hires a "well known courtesan" to revive his interest in life when the pretty young nurses hired previously to do that have failed.
There are no factory workers in Green's later novels, but the major characters of Party Going, which follows Living, could all be members of Ned Dupret's circle. Ten years elapsed between the publication of Living and of Party Going, the end of which is inscribed "London, 1931–1938." That might seem a long time in progress for a rather slight novel, but the apparent slightness of Party Going is intentional and deceptive. Though constructed largely of somewhat tainted gossamer, it's a very strenuous achievement, and its narrative voice is continuously and arrestingly distinctive.
The story however is simple. A number of well-to-do young idlers off together to a house party in the south of France are delayed by deep fog in a London station and ultimately in the station hotel where they take rooms in order to avoid the moiling mob of less privileged travelers similarly delayed. ("This is what it is to be rich, he thought, if you are held up, if you have to wait then you can do it after a bath in your dressing gown.") The matter of the novel is chiefly banal conversation, flirtation, sexual maneuvering and sexual teasing. At one memorable point Amabel, the most flagrantly desirable of the young women, does take a bath, but leaves the bathroom door partially open to allow her to converse with one of the male guests so placed outside the door that he can hear but presumably not see her. It's unclear to the other guests that he cannot see her however, and the object of Amabel's careful arrangement is to excite the jealousy of her fickle lover Max, the wealthy host of the party—to win him away from one of the other young women guests in whom he is also interested. No direct authorial judgment is made on these activities, but the empty conversations and the erotic posturing are self-judging. There is also however dramatic judgment. An eccentric aunt of one of the guests, who has turned up to see her niece off, collapses after a visit to the bar. The immediate cause of her collapse is alcohol, but it seems possible that she's dying, and because that possibility constitutes an inadmissible threat to the party, her niece contrives to hide her away in a distant room in the hotel where she can have her cared for discreetly. This reminder of human mortality serves here for Green much as similar reminders do for Dickens (whose novels the patriarch Mr. Craigan in Living reads perpetually), to disclose the unreality of social existence.
Green's persistent engagement with the possibility of transformation lends poignancy to his depiction of the trivializing eroticism of the rich and idle. The love antics of his own class are his enduring subject, but he also recurrently creates working class characters capable of a more generous, more life-sustaining kind of love. Contrast to the sexual teasing and withholding ubiquitous in Party Going is provided by an incident in which the man-servant of one of the party guests, left to guard baggage in the mobbed station, sees a girl with "lovely blue eyes" at the other side of his pile of baggage, and asks her for a kiss.
"I like your cheek," she said scornfully. "Here," she said, "if you want one," and crept around and kissed him on his mouth. Not believing his luck he put his arms around her and the porter said, "God bless me … God bless 'er little 'eart…. Come up out of the ground and gave him a great bloody kiss when he asked her."
A moment only, and nothing more is made of it. But in a novel in which judgments of human value can only be implicit, this slight episode earns attention because of its sharp contrast to what is otherwise happening. The contrast moreover is consonant with the judgmental associations of eros and class in both Green's earlier and his later novels.
Typically, the love that is accorded worth in Green's novels is in part compassionate. It implies an understanding of the pain and the limits of human existence. The casual kiss bestowed by the girl in the station has something of the quality of a glass of water given to a thirsty man. The most telling moments of tenderness in Living occur not between Lily and Bert, but in a scene just saved from the maudlin by being (perhaps incestuously) eroticized, in which old Craigan, whom Lily calls "granddad," sits by the bed into which she has collapsed on her return from her failed elopement. "Dear heart … don't grieve so," he says, and puts his hand over her eyes from which tears can flow only when his own tears have released them.
The world to which Green was born is the object of a lot of heady ambivalence both in his early novels and in his autobiography. Near the beginning of Pack My Bag, he reports his childhood fascination with his family's gardener Poole who "could never forgive my mother … [who] made him bowl mangel wurzels across one lawn for her to shoot at." He then adds however that he "adored" his mother, and describes listening to Poole's disparagement of her as his "first disloyalty": "it was as though someone were bringing out mean things about adoration to another full of his first love, what was said came as laughter in the face of creation and this and my love for my mother is what I first remember." The four novels Green wrote during and right after World War II—Caught, Loving, Back, and Concluding—are those on which any large claims for him must I think be founded, and Caught and Loving are also the novels in which this ambivalence is most strongly felt. Even here though, social hierarchy and moral hierarchy are pretty consistently in inverse order.
The war had a powerfully vivifying effect on Green's imagination. The threat to his world seems to have intensified his attachment to it, even to have caused a rediscovery of attachment to much that had previously felt devalued. Caught follows Party Going by four years, and the immediately apparent stylistic difference between them is the absence in the later novel of conspicuous innovation, such as absence of articles and decisive shifts in point of view. But Caught is also in complex service to an extraordinary time and set of historical circumstances. The story takes place in 1940, and a prefatory note declares it to be "about the Auxiliary Fire Service which saved London in her night blitzes."
In Caught too, and for the first time, Green creates a relatively intricate plot to bring into significant connection the lives of two men unlikely because of class difference to meet significantly except in time of war. Richard Roe, a well-to-do widower who (like Green) is deaf, joins the fire service as an Auxiliary (as did Green), where he receives instruction from a regular fireman named Pye. By unfortunate coincidence however, Pye's insane sister had once kidnapped Roe's son Christopher, presumably as a proxy for the child she has not had herself, and taken him to a room where Pye found and rescued him only after the boy was already in a state of terror. This unhappy event, which makes for continuing discomfort between Roe and Pye, serves also to bind them uncomfortably to each other. And these two very different men also have something psychically in common. The causal erotic adventures of wartime London weigh little for either of them against his most tenacious erotic memories. Roe falls recurrently under the spell of an imagined life with his dead wife whose "companionship" he "had taken … for granted" when she was alive, but whom now "he could not leave … alone when in an empty room, but stroked her wrists, pinched, kissed her eyes, nibbled her lips while, for her part, she smiled, joked, and took him up to bed at all hours of the day, and lay all night murmuring to him in empty memory." However melancholy, this is a relatively simple and even happy state of recalled life compared to Pye's obsessive memories of the first girl he'd made love to when he was a boy. Pye's is actually a double set of memories—of making love to a girl whose face he couldn't see in the dark, and then, later that same night, of watching his sister emerge out of the dark, returning home in the disheveled state of a defeated animal. The two memories inexorably take on causal connection. He comes to believe that his sister was the unidentified girl with whom he'd lain, and that this incestuous act was the cause of her derangement. The compassionate-erotic attachment to his sister that has evolved over the years from these joined memories leads Pye finally, by an intricate but persuasive set of associations, to an almost ritualized act, that destroys him. On a blacked-out street one night, goaded by his erotic memories and looking for a prostitute, he encounters instead a destitute boy who reminds him at once of Roe's son Christopher, and he takes the boy to the fire station where he feeds him and shelters him. However kindly, this is against regulations, and when it is discovered, Pye is suspected also of having molested the boy. The suspicion is unfounded, but imaginatively and psychologically, Pye's behavior does have murky associations. It's the sexual need incited by his thoughts about his sister that sends him into the streets; and there is strong similarity then between the way he shelters and sequesters the boy and the way his sister had kidnapped and sequestered Christopher. When the charge of moral turpitude brought against him coincides with the discovery of some relatively minor infractions of duty of which he is actually guilty, he feels disgraced and puts his head in a gas oven. He is found dead there by Roe who, "face to face" he says, pulls him out.
Green's view of the relationship of class to feeling, muted earlier in the novel, sounds strongly at the end. Having given his sister-in-law Dy a remarkable account of what the firemen had done during the first great raids on London, and gone on then to tell her what he knows about the events leading to Pye's suicide, Roe, stirred up, is appalled by her failure to respond in a way he considers appropriate to the compassion he has voiced for Pye, and to his pained sense of the injustice of the dead man's fate.
"I can't help it," she said. "I shall always hate him and his beastly sister."
This was too much for the state he was in. He let go. "God damn you," he shouted, releasing everything, "you get on my bloody nerves, all you bloody women with all your talk."
Stressing these thematic continuities, I of course scant the brilliance of the dialogue, sensual registration, and description that makes Caught so compelling. Roe's account of London under blitz, for example, is unequaled by any other account of this I know. But these virtues have been much remarked on, whereas the thematic elements that I think were probably crucial to Green's inventive energy, and an essential part of his personal stake in the act of invention, have been relatively ignored. His work diminishes in range and intensity, and he is then finally silent, as the interest invested in these thematic continuities is relinquished. I believe there's not just simultaneity, but causal connection as well, between these two lines of development.
Green's fiction is always artful, and after Living, he shows no interest again in simple verisimilitude. Nonetheless, the novels continue to press on experience, and some of the felt weight of that pressure depends on the value invested in a capacity for compassionate love that distinguishes to their advantage working people and servants who possess it from the wealthy who do not. By implication, that's an idea also about community. Green's view of his art however guarantees that these ideas will not have programmatic expression, and they may well not even have existed for him as ideas except as they animate character. But the variants of compassionate love developed in Caught—Pye's love for his sister, his misunderstood compassion for the stray boy, Roe's eventual commitment to Pye, the way Roe imagines his love for his dead wife and hers for him, even perhaps Pye's sister's abduction of Christopher—begin to be generalizing.
Compassionate love comes closest to communal realization though in Loving, the novel that follows Caught. Set in a wealthy household in rural Ireland during the war, it is an upstairs-downstairs story in which far more space and interest are accorded to the servants (mostly English) than to their masters about whom (as about the Duprets in Living) we learn only enough to make them effective contrast to the real principals. An adulterous affair upstairs between Mrs. Jack and Captain Davenport serves as foil to a couple of romances among the servants: between the beautiful maid Edith and the somewhat older and dyspeptic butler Raunce; and between the other, only less flagrantly comely maid Kate, Edith's friend and confidante, and the uncouth Irish lampman Paddy. For each of the maids, ordinary enough young women except for the luminous loveliness with which Green invests them, compassion for the men they are to marry is an integral component of the love that leads them to marriage. Mrs. Jack's more simply lustful doings with Captain Davenport however sexualize the entire household. The headiness of this is exacerbated too by the isolation of the household, in neutral Ireland, from England at war. The suffering imposed on the servants but not on their masters by this isolation—the concern of two of the servants particularly about distant parents—is presented with a moral earnestness unexpected in so brilliant a context. Green sets Loving though within formal boundary signs that suggest a fairy tale. "Once upon a day," the novel begins, and the last sentence is: "Over in England they were married and lived happily ever after."
Versions of compassionate love figure prominently also in the two other novels of Green's richest period, Back and Concluding. Back tells the story of Charley Summers who is repatriated from a German prisoner-of-war camp with a leg lost, and obsessed with a still greater loss, the death while he was gone of the married woman Rose whose lover he had been and whose son he may have fathered. In no other Green novel is an extreme artifice that doesn't distance employed quite so boldly and memorably. When we learn of Charley at the outset that he "had lost his leg in France for not noticing the gun beneath a rose," this is a first indication of his obsession with everything rosy—the name, the flower, the color. And Green's fictive world feeds this obsession abundantly. Soon after his return Charley meets and is drawn to a woman named Nancy whom he takes to be Rose resurrected, and who is indeed Rose's half-sister, her father's illegitimate daughter. When at the very end of the novel Nancy finally accepts Charley—she actually proposes marriage to him, realizing that despite his persistent muddled attention to her, he is incapable of proposing to her—she allows him to see her naked for the first time in the radiance of a lamp with a pink shade that.
seemed to spill a light of roses all over her in all their summer colours … but it was too much, for he burst into tears again, he buried his face in her side just below the ribs, and bawled like a child. "Rose," he called out, not knowing he did so, "Rose."
"There," Nancy said, "there," pressed his head with her hands. His tears wetted her. The salt water ran down between her legs. And she knew what she had taken on. It was no more or less, really, than she had expected.
Again, honored love flourishes not despite but because of the beloved's disabilities and vulnerabilities, and the way they find place in a realistic view of the fragility of human existence. The class bias that has previously informed the depiction of compassionate love in Green's novels however—that it is a virtue of the working class unattainable by the wealthy—is modulated in Back. The chief characters in this novel all belong to a relatively undifferentiated middle-class. I can only speculate that Green may have been infected for a time with a kind of social optimism that was touchingly common in England during the war, and that this took some of the edge off his views of class difference.
I assume however that the distinction between the capacity for love attributed in these earlier novels to the wealthy and to the working class is drawn in the interest or hope of transformation, and if the absence of that dynamic of difference from Back can be taken as a hopeful sign, its continuing absence from the later novels cannot be. The version of state socialism enacted in Britain shortly after the war by the Labour Party all but instantly elicited from Green in Concluding, which followed Back in 1948, a vision of a dystopia set in a pervasively aberrant near future in which not just the economy but all aspects of personal life as well are subject to oppressive centralized control. Compassionate love as a basis for marriage has no discernible place in this straitened society, but the anarchic sexuality of the sequestered pubescent girls at the state boarding school that is its chief scene, figures as a last force of resistance to state control of private life in something of the way sexuality figures in 1984, Orwell's otherwise very different version of the aberrational near future. Green accords biology far more qualified honor in Concluding however than Orwell accords it in 1984. The only human potential fully endorsed in Concluding is the nonsexual, compassionate, protective and patriarchal love of Mr. Rock—an old man who was formerly a distinguished scientist, and who survives as the exemplar of the best aspects of an earlier, better time—for his unstable granddaughter Elizabeth who has had a "breakdown at work." Vulnerable to the questionable mercies of the state she is now unfit to serve, Elizabeth's sexual needs do little for her but make her vulnerable as well to the uncertain loyalty of her lover Sebastian. His attachment to her is founded chiefly on his belief that Rock will be able to get the state to grant her assured possession of a house, something hard to come by in this starkly regulated society.
The poetic radiance that illuminates Caught, Loving, and Back recurrently, is found less frequently in Concluding. Green's imagination finds less to illuminate in a socially devalued world than it found in a war-time world the value of which was heightened by the possibility of its destruction. That distinctive light is all but extinguished then in Green's last two novels, Nothing (1950) and Doting (1952). Neither of these is of an interest comparable to that of each of the preceding several novels, but the difference can't be attributed to any diminution of Green's literary powers as such. The inventive skill he brings to the exhaustion of intentionally limited and essentially desolating possibilities in these final works is astonishing. James's achievement in What Maisie Knew could serve as a reasonable analogy if in either Nothing or Doting there was a Maisie to lend freshness to the otherwise pervasively sordid. No such contrasting figures exist however in a society Green pictures as motivated chiefly by enfeebled instinct. These two sadly comic novels return to the ambiance of Party Going, a version of the ambiance to which Green had readiest access. Now however the principals are no longer young, and though age has done little to change their interests or their characters, their flesh—and this is true of the young too when they appear as relatively minor characters—has lost all radiance. In Party Going, Amabel, however shallow or calculating she may be, is imagined in her bath by one of her admirers as pink with warmth and wrapped round with aromatic steam, "and her hands with rings still on her fingers were water-lilies done in rubies." In Loving, even Mrs. Jack, discovered in bed with the Captain, crosses "her lovely arms over the great brilliant upper part of her on which, wayward, were two dark upraised dry wounds." And when Albert gets the chance to hold Edith in his arms "for the first time" in a game of blind man's buff, and then to kiss her, he finds her head in this "short contact … in spite of being so short more brilliant more soft and warm perhaps than his thousand dreams." In Back, which follows Loving, the rosy aura of Nancy's nude body may be partly delusory, but it is nonetheless compelling. Female flesh in Nothing and Doting however is consistently, even formulaically, "fat" or "white" or both.
John Updike, as I mentioned at the start of this essay, finds that "the wit and poetry, the comedy and truth of [Nothing and Doting] show so little slackening of powers (though perhaps a more restricted channeling of them) that Green's lasting silence [following them] comes as a puzzle." Of course. But is it a puzzle to which Green's work offers no clues? Updike's claim for Green's neutrality as a creator and observer is I think excessive, and I take this as important to his finding so little falling-off in these last two novels. He writes, for example, that Green "never asks us to side with him against a character." Well, he may not ask us to do this, but he certainly causes us to do it, and apparently by intention. In an interview with Terry Southern published in the Paris Review in the summer of 1958, Green does say that "the author must keep completely out of the picture" if the fiction is to have "a life of its own"; but then he also says that the attitude toward the war of the English servants in Loving is "meant to torpedo the woman and her daughter-in-law, the employers." That's not neutrality, and here as elsewhere Green gives moral weight to those characters whose lives are conditioned by the exigencies of ordinary work, and who are capable as their social betters are not of what I've called compassionate love. If Updike sees such comparative weighings as aberrations rather than characteristic practice, that may account for his startling judgment that Caught is the "least enchanting of [Green's] novels."
The comic mode or modes of Green's novels, and their idiosyncratic brilliance, can easily disguise their earnestness. But the novels enforce a consistent moral judgment more evident when they are looked at collectively and chronologically than when taken singly, and that judgment is remarkably traditional. Green is not the first middle-class or upper-class English novelist in whose fictive world the working class poor are seen as more generous and more loving than their social and financial betters. And his ability to imagine and represent an alternative to the world he knew best seems to have been essential to the richest workings of his creative powers. When this alternative falls away, he finds nothing to take its place as a standard of the desirable, an energizing idea of another and better life. In Nothing and Doting, I detect some authorial admiration, even some limited relish, for the persistent scheming and contrivances by which his aging and jaded rakes of both sexes cling to the excitements of erotic life even when they are little more than vestigial. But the limited vitality available to them from this source isn't a basis for large hope.
Green belongs most nearly I think to a period of the English novel's development that had peaked shortly before he produced his major work. He is a less innovative stylist than Virginia Woolf and his moral earnestness never achieves the radical force of E. M. Forster's, but invoking those names suggests without denigration the identifying characteristics of his accomplishment, its formal daring and its commitment to amelioration of the human condition. Not immediately very much like either Woolf or Forster, Green was nonetheless close to them in spirit of literary ambition—the how and to what end that keeps the enterprise going—and the abrupt conclusion of his writing career suggests that he may have seen himself as a terminal figure in a lost quest.
Peter Parker (review date 7 February 1992)
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2520
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 documentary, produced by BBC's Bookmark…. This flurry of activity might have surprised Henry Vincent Yorke (1905–73), the Old Etonian businessman who hid behind the pen-name of Henry Green. Between 1926 and 1952, he published nine novels, several short stories and a premature autobiography; then stopped. "I find it so exhausting now I simply can't do it any more", he confessed in 1960. Bookmark's rather dispiriting film makes it clear that in later life Yorke felt that Green was unappreciated, if indeed he was still read at all. Few people meeting Henry Yorke imagined that he was an author, let alone the author of the sort of books Henry Green wrote, and the relationship between the man and his work is likely to remain an enigma until we have a proper biography. In the meantime, clues are to be found in Surviving, which gathers together about 75 per cent of Green's uncollected writings, sandwiching them between an appreciative introduction by John Updike and a lively memoir by Green's son, Sebastian Yorke.
Arranged chronologically, the volume starts with a slight but pleasingly odd piece of juvenilia from 1923 and ends with a brief but rambling statement about Green's present circumstances written for The Spectator forty years later, when (in the words of his friend Alan Ross) he had become "a tottering, unshaven recluse, hard of hearing, short of breath and teeth", who measured his days in large tots of gin. By this time, so grateful were his admirers for any scrap that one fan wrote to the magazine describing this sad morsel as "a document in the history of modern literature". Surviving is inevitably something of a bran-tub, but those prepared to delve in will be rewarded with the odds and ends of genius. It contains unpublished material, including stray chapters from abandoned novels, stories and dramatic sketches; and reprints previously published stories, reviews, broadcasts and articles along with a splendidly inventive (and instructive) "interview" cooked up by Green and Terry Southern for the Paris Review. Admirers will find the book fascinating; those who do not know Green's work should perhaps read the novels before entering this intriguing workshop.
Henry Green, who made his reputation with a novel described by Christopher Isherwood as "the best proletarian novel ever written", came from an aristocratic family and was sent to Eton, where he became founding secretary of the Society of Arts—a group which included Brian Howard, Robert Byron, the Actons and Anthony Powell. A rather unadventurous talk he gave on Dutch Art (not included here) can scarcely have impressed so determinedly avant-garde a gathering, but the Society itself proved "a watershed" for him: "after this there was no turning back. I was determined to be a writer." Undeterred by a discouraging professional opinion of his work solicited by his parents from John Buchan, Green embarked on an impressionistic novel about a boy blinded in a senseless accident. Completed at Oxford, Blindness was published in 1926. "How did you come to write anything so good?" asked Edward Garnett, when presented with the manuscript. It seems through practice. By the time he was twenty, Yorke was writing prose that is recognizably, and inimitably, that of Henry Green:
We were in the car swinging through the traffic, & the air inside drooped with folded wings at the shut windows & the scent she used, sweeping through the streets that swirled in eddies of changing light, talking nervously she & I of what was coming.
The germ of Blindness is contained in another piece collected in Surviving, "Adventure in a Room", a surreal short story written in about 1923. "One would like to know what incident gave Green, a painterly writer of great visual intensity, his fantasy of blindness", Updike writes, "and what frustration 'exasperated' him, an advantaged youth of seemingly callow character, 'into desperate striving after the beautiful'." The answer, surely, is that Green's early aestheticism was in some way a youthful reaction against his family background, which was dominated by field sports and horse racing, and that his "fantasy" was inspired by an idea rather than an incident. The loss of one sense sharpens the others, and "Adventure in a Room" contains a scene in which the blind boy sits on the lawn, listening to a blackbird singing: "He lost all sense of personality, he was just a pair of ears and a brain, absorbent as a sponge." This describes what Green set out to do in order to write.
He first submerged his personality by leaving Oxford and entering the family business on the shop-floor of a Birmingham factory. He lived in working-men's digs, and put in an eight-and-a-half-hour day in the heavy engineering workshop. In contemporary company photographs, it is not easy to pick him out from his workmates, and his desire for anonymity persisted throughout his life, enabling him to pass unseen among people of differing backgrounds, his finely tuned antennae picking up material for his books wherever he went. His second novel, Living (1929), is a boldly experimental evocation of working-class life in Birmingham. "I wanted to make that book as taut and spare as possible, to fit the proletarian life I was then leading", he explained in 1958. "So I hit on leaving out the articles." He also dispensed, on occasion, with nouns and even verbs, and these omissions serve to high-light what remains, just as the loss of sight in Blindness heightens the protagonist's other senses. The result is prose of remarkable power and beauty, rendering—as the book's resonant title suggests—the very texture of life. Treglown rightly questions the label "proletarian novel", in that, unlike other writers who crossed the class divide at this period, Green was not motivated by political ideology. Eddy Sackville-West once pointed up the difference by remarking that Green had lived among the working classes and knew them, whereas members of Auden's group had merely slept with them and so romanticized them. Green was interested in the gradations of class; he never set out to challenge them. He had a genuine empathy with working-class characters, however, which started early. Among the "large amount of juvenilia" left out of Surviving are "The Wood", a fairy-tale in which the protagonists are a pair of parlour-maids, and "Their Son", a savagely funny tale (which perhaps should have found a place here) about a butcher's son who goes to a public school and finds a social gulf opening up between him and his parents.
In Party Going, which took some seven years to write, Green sets the action largely among members of his own class and shows that his ear was as acute for the laconic patois of the upper classes as it was for the colourful idiom of factory workers. A group of Bright Young Things about to go on holiday find themselves marooned by fog at a railway station, while outside a large mass of third-class ticket holders become restless. "Fog was so dense, bird that had been disturbed went flat into a balustrade and slowly fell, dead, at her feet", runs the eerie first paragraph, and Green's style remains elliptical, perfectly complementing the clipped exchanges between his characters. The novel was published in 1939 and, as with Evelyn Waugh's earlier Vile Bodies, there is a sense that these amusing, frivolous people are dancing on the edge of an abyss.
Pack My Bag (1940), which Green described as "A Self-Portrait", opens characteristically: "I was born a mouth-breather with a silver spoon in 1905, three years after one war and nine before another, too late for both. But not too late for the war that seems to be coming upon us now and that is the reason to put down what comes to mind before one is killed, and surely it would be asking much to pretend one had a chance to live." It is one of the few autobiographies in which facts and names are suppressed for aesthetic rather than legal reasons: "Names distract, nicknames are too easy and if leaving both out as it often does makes a book look blind then that to my mind is no disadvantage." While he writes entertainingly about his eccentric family, therefore, he makes no mention of his famous contemporaries and even suppresses the name of Eton ("The public school I went to was down by a river in a deadly stretch …"); instead, he describes what made him as a writer, and what being a writer means. The style is quite as challenging as that of the novels, and bemused critics expressed astonishment that someone who seemed unable to grasp the rudiments of syntax and punctuation should be published at all.
The book's melodramatic opening sentence was to some extent justified, since Green served with the Auxiliary Fire Service during the war, as hazardous a calling as that of any soldier. Once again, he was plunged into proletarian life, although his immersion was not as complete as it had been at Birmingham, since at the end of a shift, he returned to his house in Knightsbridge, and on his days off he continued to run the family firm. Out of this experience came several short pieces, most of which were published in John Lehmann's magazines, and Caught, perhaps the best novel ever written about the London Blitz. A former colleague interviewed on Bookmark recalls that the other firemen found Green rather stand-offish, and referred to him as "The Honourable", and this is reflected in the uncomfortable circumstances of Roe, the novel's upperclass protagonist. This remarkable book once again characterizes Green's oblique dealings with a story, what he referred to as his "crabwise approach". Green saw the writer's task was "to create life in the reader", and at this point in his career believed that the reader's imagination was "best lit by very carefully arranged passages of description". The dramatic landscape of London in flames afforded many opportunities for creating such passages. In Caught, however, Green concentrates upon the tedious quotidian life at the sub-station, as firemen wait to be summoned, plot against each other, and pursue romance. All this is described in electrifying prose and with a marvellously sly wit, vividly recreating the sense of carpe diem engendered by war, but he witholds any description of the firemen in action until the end of the novel, and then filters it through the recollections of the shell-shocked Roe, who is attempting to describe his experiences to a bored female relative. For the reader, however, this final description of a vast dockyard fire reflects back on, and gathers together, all the carefully placed images of light—stained glass, firelight, moonlight, nightclub spotlights and table-lamps—in which the characters are "caught" at crucial moments of the narrative. Updike's lack of enthusiasm for this novel is a mystery.
The crabwise approach also characterizes Loving (1945), which takes place during the war (not, as the publishers seem to think, during the First World War), but is set largely below stairs in Kinalty Castle, a country house in Ireland. The war appears scarcely to touch the characters, but we gradually realize that even at this distance, in a neutral country, it will affect them all. Inaccurately castigated by Evelyn Waugh as "an obscene book … about domestic servants", it is concerned with loving in its many forms, and swirling about the events is a vast flock of doves, emblems of the novel's various amours, just as the homing pigeons in Living suggest domesticity. Green claimed never to plan the narrative of his books in advance, preferring to "let it come page by page", but Loving is at once characteristic and straightforward, with a clear plot and many comic scenes. It is probably where readers new to Green should start.
"Does any modern novel have more roses in it?" Treglown asks of Caught. Well, possibly Back (1946), Green's other "war novel", which opens with a shell-shocked, one-legged veteran returning to an English village in search of his lost love, Rose, who lies in a churchyard overrun with the flowers from which she took her name. When asked in 1960 to "define the compulsion behind your writing", Green replied succinctly: "Sex", and there can be few novelists who have written about women with such celebratory delight. Although he was obliged to revise Caught in order to expunge an adulterous relationship (which he did by summarily widowing his protagonist), there is a sort of innocence about Green. Happily married, he nevertheless was unable to resist attractive women and pursued numerous romances, which, his son suggests on Bookmark, were probably not consummated. Something of this is surely present in his last novel, Doting, an extremely funny and much underrated comedy of manners about amorous entanglements. "Doting, to me, is not loving", the middle-aged protagonist remarks to a young woman with whom he has become involved; "loving must include adoration of course, but if you just dote on a girl you don't necessarily go so far as to love her. Loving goes deeper."
It may be significant that Green's own favourite among his novels was Concluding (1948), in which a deaf old man lives in the grounds of a Firbankian institution entirely populated by jeunes filles en fleur. Just as the protagonist of Blindness finds that his disability can enhance as well as limit, so Green used his increasing deafness to good effect in Concluding, which contains numerous comic misunderstandings. His last two novels, Nothing (1950) and Doting (1952) disappointed the critics, who no doubt expected "experimental" novels to be less obviously enjoyable. "I think nothing of Nothing", commented Waugh, and others agreed with him. This seems remarkably obtuse. The tone of the books may be insouciant, but Green was wholly serious in his attempt to write "abstract novels" in dialogue. His aims are set out very clearly in "A Novelist to His Readers" (reprinted in Surviving).
"Prose is not to be read aloud but to oneself alone at night", Green insisted. The novelist "has the typesetter to put down his symbols exactly for him, so to communicate direct with the imagination of his readers". This interplay of imagination is what makes reading Henry Green so rewarding; there can be few novelists who give such line-by-line pleasure as he does. "We have inherited the greatest orchestra, the English language, to conduct", he wrote. "The means are there; things are going on in life all the time around us." At the fag-end of a century, when a large number of our most highly praised contemporary novelists seem to do little more than bring the first violins in on cue, we need Henry Green to remind us what prose can do.