The Novelist of Human Unknowability

Green’s peculiar style arose from a keen sense of human unknowability.
Green’s peculiar style arose from a keen sense of human unknowability.

One night in the spring of 1955, the actress Elaine Dundy was leaving a party in New York when a sharp-nosed, floppy-haired young man came toward her and, without context or introduction, asked, “Do you know Henry Green?” Dundy replied that she did. The young man told her his name—she instantly forgot it. Dundy told him to contact her, but he didn’t call. Instead, he started appearing in the lobby of the Buckingham Hotel, in the West Fifties, where Dundy was staying. On one occasion, he had been waiting around so long that, by the time Dundy showed up, the tulips he was holding had gone droopy. Dundy apologized: could they speak another time? The young man returned the next day, and so did the tulips. But Dundy was running late. When, finally, he caught her at a good time, she invited him up to her room, and he helped her prepare for the arrival of guests while explaining that his name was Terry Southern, that he was a writer from Alvarado, Texas, and that he had waited a very long time to find someone who, on being presented with the question he had posed at their first meeting, was able to answer yes.

At the time, Green was in his late forties and the author of nine novels, including “Living,” “Party Going,” and “Loving,” and a memoir, “Pack My Bag.” His stock was high among fellow-writers. In a 1952 Life profile, W. H. Auden was quoted calling him “the best English novelist alive.” The following year, T. S. Eliot, talking to the Times, cited Green’s novels as proof that the “creative advance in our age is in prose fiction.” But Green had never been a popular success. In 1930, Evelyn Waugh had reviewed “Living,” Green’s novel about Birmingham factory life, under the headline “A Neglected Masterpiece.” It was the first of several dozen articles that bemoaned Green’s lack of acceptance and helped bind his name as closely to the epithet “neglected” as Pallas Athena is to “bright-eyed.”

Waugh blamed philistine book reviewers, but he knew that Green’s image hadn’t helped. “From motives inscrutable to his friends, the author of Living chooses to publish his work under a pseudonym of peculiar drabness,” he wrote. Green was born Henry Vincent Yorke, to a prominent Gloucestershire family, and he worked as the managing director of H Pontifex Sons Ltd., a manufacturing company purchased by his grandfather; he presented himself as a Sunday writer. (Where other novelists might serve as secretary of PEN, Green did a stint as chairman of the British Chemical Plant Manufacturers’ Association.) He claimed that he wrote under an assumed name in order to hide his writing from colleagues and associates. The Life profile, “The Double Life of Henry Green,” had the subtitle “The ‘secret’ vice of a top British industrialist is writing some of Britain’s best novels.” But Green’s first book, “Blindness,” was published in 1926, while he was at Oxford, and a desire for privacy characterized much of his behavior. After a certain point, he refused to have his portrait taken. Dundy had first recognized him from a Cecil Beaton photograph that showed only the back of his head.

The literary scholar Nick Shepley, in “Henry Green: Class, Style, and the Everyday” (Oxford), writes that “the search for an identifiable or classifiable Henry Green retreats into the shadowy distance as the layers accumulate.” But, as Shepley notes, and as NYRB Classics’ new reissues of Green’s novels illustrate, his fiction was autobiographical—at times consciously parasitic. He claimed that he disliked Oxford because “literature is not a subject to write essays about.” In reality, he had discovered that Oxford was not a subject to write novels about—at least, not his time there, which was mostly spent watching movies, playing billiards, poring over Proust with his Eton classmate Anthony Powell, and ignoring his tutor, C. S. Lewis. In a letter to his father, Green explained his decision to abandon his degree in favor of a stint working on the floor at the Pontifex iron foundry: “Of course I have another book in my mind’s eye. . . . I want badly to write a novel about working men.”

There may have been a similar impulse behind Green’s decision, in 1938, to volunteer for the Auxiliary Fire Service. Anyway, once he had joined, he assured a friend, “It will make a good book one day.” That day soon came. During the early years of the Second World War—the so-called Phoney or Bore War, then the Big Blitz—while his wife, Dig, and son, Sebastian, were living in the countryside, Green remained in London, responding to air raids, frequenting jazz clubs, falling serially in love, socializing with other firemen—and writing one of his best novels, the charged, ornate, and wrenching “Caught” (1943), which amounted to a virtual live feed of all that activity. (“At that period the Fire Service came next after pilots with the public. . . . Street cleaners called Richard ‘mate.’ ”)

To Elaine Dundy and Terry Southern, a pair of Americans in their early thirties, this odd upper-class Englishman embodied hope for self-fulfillment. Dundy had been introduced to Green at a party, and the two began meeting for lunch regularly. For Dundy, these lunches provided relief from the anguish of her marriage to Kenneth Tynan, the theatre critic. Green was, she later wrote, “an enheartener.” But the personal connection had literary consequences: the enheartener was also a muse. Green had a “gift for drawing you out and staying in step with you,” she wrote; in his company, she found herself adopting a comic persona “that was me but that wasn’t me.” On her return to England from New York, she started work on a novel—it became “The Dud Avocado”—which she chose to write in the first person, using “the voice I’d been polishing up on Henry.”

Until that point, Southern’s relationship with Green resembled Green’s definition of the ideal prose contract: “a long intimacy between strangers with no direct appeal to what both may have known.” Southern had first encountered Green not at a party but in the pages of Partisan Review. An essay titled “The Novels of Henry Green,” in the journal’s May, 1949, issue, might have been designed to snare the young rebel. It called Green “a terrorist of language.”

“And if the golf area of the brain was somehow destroyed, there might be a little something extra in it for you.”

Along the way, and to differing degrees, Green’s writing had omitted the definite article (a habit his mother lamented on his wedding day); avoided the relative pronoun (favoring “and this had” over “which had”); played havoc with the comma; fiddled with tense; taken a guillotine to the adverbial suffix “-ly” (“she said, more serious”). Green believed that well-groomed, well-behaved English was an obstacle to expression. But his style wasn’t a merely negative exercise, a winnowing or clearing out: he delivered a gorgeous, full-bodied alternative. The Henry Green novel—typically portraying failures of love and understanding, and noisy with the vernacular of industrialists and Cockneys, landowners and servants—was terse, intimate, full of accident and unnerving comedy, exquisite though still exuberant, sensual and whimsical, reflexively figurative yet always surprising, preoccupied with social nuance, generational discord, and sensory phenomena while maintaining an air of abstraction, as reflected in those flighty gerund titles. (The Oxford classicist Maurice Bowra, who knew the undergraduate Green, said that his mind “worked with a piercing insight, stripping men and ideas of their disguises and going straight to some central point.”)

“Blindness” was justly celebrated for its precocity, “Living” for its politics-free—and article-light—treatment of the working class. But Green made a terrific leap in his next novel, “Party Going” (1939), a discomfiting social comedy—think Buñuel meets Forster, or Beckett meets Mitford—that follows a group of daft and desiccated Bright Young Things for a four-hour period during which their trip to France is delayed by fog. As his characters hang around the train platforms and hotel rooms of Victoria Station, Green, showing a new appetite for the long sentence, assails the reader with hazy symbols and exotic metaphors. But his characters, for all the resources of their creator’s language, remain fumblers and muddleheads—strangers to one another and to themselves.

Much of “Party Going” is taken up with the saturated love life of the wealthy flibbertigibbet Max Adey, who, in going on a holiday that he has proposed, will be spending time with a girlfriend he’s lukewarm about, Julia Wray, at the expense of the society beauty Amabel, whom he thinks he may worship. He tells himself that he “could not leave Amabel,” but the news that his things are nearly packed engenders the feeling that “he might as well leave Amabel.” On arriving at Victoria, he takes Julia to a private room and hassles her for kisses. But when Amabel suddenly appears he realizes that she “still swayed him like water moves a trailing weed,” and the two get together:

She lay on his shoulder in this ugly room, folded up with almost imperceptible breathing like seagulls settled on the water cock over gentle waves. Looking at her head and body, richer far than her rare fur coat, holding as he did to these skins which enfolded what ruled him, her arms and shoulders, everything, looking down on her face which ever since he had first seen it had been his library, his gallery, his palace, and his wooded fields he began at last to feel content and almost that he owned her.

Lying in his arms, her long eyelashes down along her cheeks, her hair tumbled and waved, her hands drifted to rest like white doves drowned on peat water, he marvelled again he should ever dream of leaving her who seemed to him then his reason for living as he made himself breathe with her breathing as he always did when she was in his arms to try and be more with her.

It was so luxurious he nodded, perhaps it was also what she put on her hair, very likely it may have been her sleep reaching out over him, but anyway he felt so right he slipped into it too and dropped off on those outspread wings into her sleep with his, like two soft evenings meeting.

The tone could hardly be more rapturous; it may be the most beautiful passage in all of Green’s writing. But when Max wakes up—the crowd on the station concourse has given out “a huge wild roar”—he finds himself wondering “what it would be like to have Julia here in his arms to sleep on his shoulder for if he had only slept five minutes it was as though he had travelled miles.” He has already forgotten “the urgency of what Amabel had been.”

One of the things that appealed to Green’s admirers, such as Southern and the French writer Nathalie Sarraute—and, later, John Updike—was that he had thought deeply about what he was doing. In this, he resembled Henry James, whose preface to “What Maisie Knew” he had read carefully. Green was going for something that was not so different: fiction that was illuminating, yet disorderly enough to convey—in James’s words, “really to represent”—a sense of life. And, as with James, the desire led him in extreme directions.

In 1950, Green wrote a BBC radio talk, “A Novelist to His Readers,” which was subsequently published in The Listener. He said nothing about the things that his readers might have considered obvious topics—the use of symbolism in scene-setting, for instance, or the relationship between metaphor and muddle. Instead, he launched an assault on the very idea of the narrator, whom he branded a “know-all.” We cannot tell what people in life are thinking and feeling, he said. Writers should, therefore, restrict themselves to what their characters say out loud. Green accepted that he could not do without narration altogether—the reader “must at least be told who is speaking” and how a character behaves after speaking. But he had turned his back on what he called “very carefully arranged passages of description.” Now he offered the example “He seemed to hesitate” as suitably tentative, comparing it to “He hesitated,” which was “too direct a communication from the author.”

Green had just written a very talky novel about upper-class amatory intrigue, “Nothing” (1950), and was working on another, “Doting” (1952). He achieved the unintrusive effect—and sombre tone—he wanted, but, in seeking to correct what he perhaps considered the bossiness of his previous novel, “Concluding” (1948), which used interior monologue and précis, he overlooked the innovations of his earlier works, which had found their own ways of avoiding authorial omniscience.

It is true that in “Party Going” we learn a great deal, very directly, about what the characters are thinking, noticing, failing to realize, or neglecting to notice, but we are also given cause to mistrust what we are told; the narrator, far from being a know-all, has a shaky grasp on who is doing what, and how, and possibly why. (Waugh, on reading a draft, sent Green a list of bewildered questions about hotel etiquette and train-travel logistics; Green expressed his gratitude, and didn’t change a thing.) And in “Loving” (1945), probably his greatest novel, Green confined himself to a mixture of deduction and conjecture—“probably,” “you could safely say”—which worked in league not only with the characters’ chatter but also with the fevered notation of surfaces. (In all, he uses color words more than two hundred times.)

“Loving,” which takes place at an Irish castle in the early nineteen-forties, opens with the death of an old butler, Eldon, and portrays the gaffe-prone early days in the regime of his successor, Charley Raunce. A ring belonging to Mrs. Tennant, the lady of the house, goes missing; one of the castle’s peacocks is killed by a young evacuee from London; Edith, an underhousemaid whom Raunce adores, discovers Mrs. Jack, Mrs. Tennant’s daughter-in-law, in bed with a man who isn’t her husband. Green’s descriptions are lush and free—they do more than identify the speaker. But the emphasis is on dramatic presentation, the audible and the visible; “seemed” is given a thorough workout. In one scene, Raunce finds Edith standing in the pantry with his assistant Bert:

Raunce eyed her very sharp. He seemed to appraise the dark eyes she sported which were warm and yet caught the light like plums dipped in cold water. He stayed absolutely quiet. At last she said quite calm,

“Would the dinner bell have gone yet?”

“My dinner,” he cried obviously putting on an act, “holy smoke is it as late as that, and this lad of mine not taken up the nursery tray yet. Get going,” he said to Bert, “look sharp.”

Later in the novel, Raunce and Edith are in a library together:

“Love,” he went on toneless, “what about you an’ me getting married? There, I’ve said it.”

“That’ll want thinking over Charley,” she replied at once. Her eyes left his face and with what seemed a quadrupling in depth came following his to rest on those rectangles of warmth alive like blood. From this peat light her great eyes became invested with rose incandescence that was soft and soft and soft.

Green was an obsessive cinemagoer, and “Loving,” in its plot and setting, has strong resemblances to Jean Renoir’s “The Rules of the Game” (1939), which concerns upstairs-downstairs antics at a French villa over a shooting weekend. Between the Mozart waltz during the opening credits and the closing shot of symmetrical shrubbery, an atmosphere of chaos reigns: decorum and ceremony are continually undone by the overflow of human feeling. “Loving” begins with “Once upon a day” and ends with “happily ever after,” but along the way Green thwarts the reader’s desire to impose a sense of order on the action. (Those fairy-tale phrases are booby-trapped, too: “Once upon a day” is confounding, and it’s not clear that the ending will be happy in the least.) A game of blindman’s buff played by the servants in “Loving” is similar, in its position and its import, to a game of hide-and-seek in “The Rules of the Game.”

Renoir and Green also share the use of a perspective that is neither omniscient nor subjective—one that is partial and imperfect, but not obviously unreliable. In “The Rules of the Game,” the camera, rather than anticipating where its characters will go, can hardly keep up with their movements. The Green narrator sometimes knows a lot and at other times is likely to throw up his hands and say, “It may have been a few days later that . . .” Neither novel nor film tells us much of its characters’ histories.

Encoded in these habits is a wider aversion to authorial confidence and an embrace of human mystery. As Octave, the character played by Renoir in “The Rules of the Game,” says, “Everyone has their reasons,” so Raunce tells a housemaid, “Everyone has their feelings.” In “A Novelist to His Readers,” Green notes that he is talking about method and not theme: “We are all individuals and each writer has something of his own to communicate.” But in “Loving,” as in “Party Going,” the method is at one with the message: the difficulty of getting a proper hold on things. Toward the end of “Loving,” Mrs. Tennant says that she doesn’t like it when “there’s something unexplained.” Being out of one’s depth is an inevitable fate for a Henry Green character. Despite drawing on a repertoire far broader than speech plus tentative stage directions, “Loving” convincingly inhabits a world of the unexplained—a world in which, as an insurance man recovering from dental surgery puts it, “nobody theemth to know nothing.”

In November, 1955, after Dundy put Southern and Green in touch, Southern wrote Green a fan letter. He said that he had read his books “many times,” except for “Blindness” (which was out of print), and was familiar with one of his manifesto-essays, which he had tracked down in a French translation. Southern explained that he was working on a novel inspired by Green, called “Flash and Filigree.” (He later said that the title was an “apt description” of Green’s style.) Green read the manuscript, which he declared “amazingly good,” and after Southern moved to Geneva, where his wife had taken a teaching job, Green, whose conduct had become increasingly erratic, sent them a telegram claiming exhaustion and asking, “CAN YOU PUT ME UP SEVEN DAYS.” He was a welcome guest.

Excited by this new friendship, Green had told Dundy, “We’re going to resurrect me.” Southern and Green started work on a Paris Review interview, which appeared in 1958 and offers the best account of what it is like to read a novel by Green. You do not forget that there is an author, Southern says, but must remind yourself that there is one, owing to discrepancies in the storytelling, apparent failures to stress the significance of certain events, and a disquieting sense that the reader “sees more in the situation than the author does.” The effect, Southern decides, is that “the characters and story come alive in an almost incredible way, quite beyond anything achieved by conventional methods of writing.”

But Southern, despite his lucid conception of Green’s effects, was also eager to present him as eccentric. The printed interview opens with Southern’s suggestion that critics consider Green’s body of work “the most elusive and enigmatic in contemporary literature,” and Green himself, “professionally or as a personality, none the less so.” As we learn from the recently published “Yours in Haste and Adoration: Selected Letters of Terry Southern” (Antibookclub), he advised Green that “the appeal of these interviews is, so they suppose, based on the personality-cult phenomenon and the fascination (for the general reader) of temperaments which are ‘odd,’ ‘artistic,’ ‘individual,’ and so on.” He suggests that “instead of answering questions directly,” Green could reply “in hauntingly cryptic parables”—and Green is only too happy to oblige. Although the Paris Review exchange was conducted by letter, the final transcript pretended to describe an encounter in which Green’s partial deafness had been a recurring problem. (When Southern asks if Green’s work is “too subtle” for American readers, Green replies with a definition of “suttee,” the Hindu self-sacrifice ritual.)

In a letter devising the interview, Southern envisaged “a sharp boost in American demand; a burst of reprinting; stage, film, and video offers; dollars pouring in by the veritable barrelful!” But in the interview itself Southern appears to find Green’s neglect admirable, as if obscurity were a mark of integrity. He stresses the zany absurdism of Green’s writing. His one remark about “Loving” is a complaint that none of “the critical analyses” had wondered what all those English servants were doing in an Irish household. And in a short introduction he calls Green a “writer’s writer’s writer.”

Green’s conduct only became odder. He fell out of touch with Southern before his friend and fan co-wrote the films “Dr. Strangelove,” “The Cincinnati Kid,” and “Easy Rider.” In the decade before Green’s death, in 1973, he rarely went outdoors. Visiting interviewers, expecting an Old Etonian wit and raconteur, maybe even a theorist of the nonintrusive, unexplaining novel, found instead a dazed, haunted figure—or, in Michael Holroyd’s recollection, a body asleep on the staircase. Somehow he retained a muse-like quality: his daughter-in-law the novelist Emma Tennant, in her memoir “Girlitude,” recalled thinking, “In all his rumpled, ash-bestrewn state, drunk and frequently filled with bile, Henry Green will inspire me.” But Green’s own writing stopped. “Nothing” and “Doting”—the fruit of his campaign against narration—were his final books. He told people that he had forgotten how to write, though it seems just as likely that he had little to write about.

Green’s afterlife got going very quickly, and looked set to be a series of false dawns. Between 1977 and 1980, all his books were reissued in Britain, prompting adjectives like “great” and “major” alongside “neglected.” John Updike, introducing a compendium of “Living,” “Loving,” and “Party Going,” said that Green had revealed “what English prose fiction can do in this century.” V. S. Pritchett, in a review of “Blindness,” which was available for the first time since 1932, called Green “the most luminous novelist of the Thirties and Forties.” But the new volumes soon fell out of print.

After failing to be a reader’s writer, Green failed to become a teacher’s pet, his work stubbornly resisting every label. He was born too late to be a high modernist like Woolf and Joyce. But when the fiction of the nineteen-thirties became the subject of literary histories he was not really part of that story, either. In the years that Waugh published eleven books—and other contemporaries were similarly productive—Green had been busy running Pontifex, and managed only “Party Going.” And though the eminent scholar Frank Kermode, an expert on the workings of the canon, discussed “Party Going” alongside “Ulysses” and the Gospels in his Norton Lectures, at Harvard, he did not spur a fashion for exploring Green’s symbols and enigmas.

Help arrived in an unlikely form. In 1995, Adam Piette, a British literary scholar, published an agenda-setting book, “Imagination at War: British Fiction and Poetry, 1939-1945,” which argued that the subject had been ignored for half a century out of a sense of guilt that the real suffering had taken place in continental Europe. Green made an appearance as a Second World War novelist, which previously hadn’t really been a recognized category. Three years earlier, Green’s grandson, Matthew Yorke, compiled “Surviving: The Uncollected Writings of Henry Green” (1992), making available the wartime stories “The Lull,” “A Rescue,” “Mr. Jonas,” and “The Old Lady,” along with some pages from the manuscript “London and Fire 1939-1945,” a nonfiction version of “Caught” on which Green worked intermittently in the late nineteen-fifties.

All this lent support to a new way of approaching Green. Yorke’s collection also featured Southern’s strenuously oddball Paris Review interview, which, in this context, revealed various war-shaped traces. Responding to Southern’s bafflement about the Cockney cast of “Loving,” Green said that he wanted to show the “conflict,” for Raunce, of being in Ireland—a neutral country—while England was at war. (The novel’s setting is established with the sentence “For this was in Eire, where there was no blackout.”) And Green revealed that his time in the Auxiliary Fire Service, the subject of “Caught,” had also been an indirect source of inspiration. Asked about the origins of “Loving,” Green recalled the words of a volunteer who had been a manservant:

He was serving with me in the ranks, and he told me he had once asked the elderly butler who was over him what the old boy most liked in the world. The reply was: “Lying in bed on a summer morning, with the window open, listening to the church bells, eating buttered toast with cunty fingers.” I saw the book in a flash.

Nick Shepley, in his new study of Green, complains that the recent emphasis on what he terms “the 1940s fiction” has unfairly obscured Green’s other work, in particular the “dialogic novels.” For the time being, his resistance looks like a lost cause. The literary historians’ war-focussed version of Green has migrated to the public realm. Green’s influence is evident in novels set in the period, such as Sarah Waters’s “The Night Watch” and Shirley Hazzard’s National Book Award-winning “The Great Fire,” in which a character is reading “Back,” Green’s 1946 novel about a wounded soldier returning home. Three years ago, Lara Feigel gave Green a starring role in “The Love-Charm of Bombs,” her popular account of five writers in the Second World War. Last year, “The Lull” was included in “The Penguin Book of the British Short Story.” And NYRB Classics is starting its new uniform edition of Green’s books with “Caught,” “Loving,” and “Back.”

The Second World War has the advantage of giving Green’s writing a semblance of cohesion: more than half of his books either portray the war or signal its imminence (“Party Going,” “Pack My Bag”). And it makes him a more graspable writer. In “Caught,” a character thinks that war “is sex,” but the novel shows that to Green war was life, only more so: calamitous, ineffable. In the final pages, Richard Roe is relieved of duty after a breakdown—Green’s rebuke to the evolving myth of the stoical “Blitz spirit”—and becomes frustrated as he struggles to recapture the experience of firefighting:

We had been ordered to Rhodesia Wharf, Surrey Commercial Docks. I never felt so alone in all my life. Our taxi was like a pink beetle drawing a pepper corn. We were specks. Everything is always so different from what you expect, and this was fantastic. Of course, we couldn’t hear from the noise of the engine, and we had shut the windows so as to get more inside. There was only the driver, old Knocker, on the front. No one said a word. Yet I suppose it was not like that at all really. One changes everything after by going over it. . . . The point about a blitz is this, there’s always something you can’t describe, and it’s not the blitz alone that’s true of.

In a letter to the novelist Rosamond Lehmann written in 1945, Green reported a “frightful surge of power and ideas,” and called “these times . . . an absolute gift to the novelist.”

Could it be that war inspired him because war had helped to form him in the first place? Updike said that one “looks in vain” in “Pack My Bag,” Green’s memoir, to understand how he became such an original writer. There may be more clues than Updike realized. In 1917, when Green was a boy of eleven or twelve, Forthampton Court, his family home, was turned into a hospital for convalescent officers. Green wrote that he “began to learn the half-tones of class,” and then prevaricates: “or, if not to learn because I was too young, to see enough to recognize the echoes later when I came to hear them.” And he learned something even more valuable: how to listen, to surrender, to make himself a vehicle or channel. The soldiers, he recalled, “found in me a boy who looked on them as heroes every one and who enjoyed each story of blood and cruelty they had to tell.”

Green knew that these encounters had been formative: in “Caught” and in the “London and Fire” manuscript, he noted the effects of war on children. And in an essay on the Victorian writer C. M. Doughty, published in 1941, Green seems to be alluding to experiences both past and recent. After praising Doughty’s travelogue “Arabia Deserta” (the “words that exactly describe,” the sentences that “meander”), he reflects on the benefits of war for the writer: it sends him out into territory—though it “may well be at home”—that, by being strange and demanding the acceptance of strangeness, forces him to develop a pure, honest, singular style that “shall be his monument.” ♦

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