Critical Context

(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

Among the giants of literary modernism, Henry Green is still (and will probably continue to be) considered a minor novelist. While his novels are exemplars of a lucid realistic style that is, finally, far more interesting than Ernest Hemingway’s attempts at minimalization, and while Green’s experiments with syntax successfully represent and counter the repetitiveness and communicative breakdowns of modern life, for many his work is too mannered or schematic. On the large scale, one can observe repeatedly in most of his novels the same class dichotomies and ironic parallels that characterize his early effort in Living. Yet in looking for the more grandiose experiments and epic vision of a James Joyce in Henry Green (though Green’s combined lyricism and transparency derive from Dubliners and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, 1916), readers may miss Green’s subtlety, his construction of a world in which a turn of phrase or a sudden gesture can mean much, though it may change little. There are strong political overtones in Green’s work, yet he is not a polemicist. Rather, he sees the world divided along arbitrary class lines, and he is interested in portraying the similarities of human nature which cross these lines. One of these similarities is desire, which is repressed or made routine in Green’s novels but which manifests itself at odd moments of projection or longing. Living is parablelike at such moments, for Green perceives behind the facade of everyday life, or between class lines, a largely unattainable transcendence. If the characters of his novels are only able to “see” these instances obliquely, for his readers, Green provides sudden and subtle insights into another nature disguised by “modern life.”