Saint of the Mundane

Henry Green
Henry Green; drawing by David Levine

If I say that Henry Green taught me how to write it implies that I learned, and it is not a business one learns—unlearns, rather, the premature certainties and used ecstasies unraveling as one goes, with each day new blank paper to confront. Including this blank paper, where reverence gives me pause. For Green, to me, is so good a writer, such a revealer of what English prose fiction can do in this century, that I can launch myself upon this piece of homage and introduction only by falling into some sort of imitation of that liberatingly ingenuous voice, that voice so full of other voices, its own interpolations amid the matchless dialogue twisted and tremulous with a precision that kept the softness of groping, of sensation, of living.

Living is the title of the first novel he chose to keep in print and appraisal of his work must revert to this mysterious word. Elizabeth Bowen, one of the not many who while Green was practicing could see through his conspicuous mannerisms to his rare value, said that his novels “reproduce, as few English novels do, the actual sensations of living.” And one of Green’s few statements about his own intentions gives us not the gerund but noun, verb, and adjective: “to create ‘life’ which does not eat, procreate or drink, but which can live in people who are alive.” Again, in 1950, as his creative life was coming to its sadly early end, he spoke of fiction “as diffuse and variously interpretable as life itself,” and it is this surrender of self, this submersion of opinions and personality in the intensity of witnessing “life itself” with its weave of misapprehension, petty confusions, fitful and skewed communications, and passing but authentic revelations that strike us as momentous in Green’s example, as heroic even, in the way that great dogmatics are. He is a saint of the mundane, embracing it with all his being. In his last novel, Doting, in the course of a trivial conversation (but Green’s events are consistently trivial, and therein resides their great level beauty), two young women have this exchange:

“…D’you sometimes believe that nothing in the whole wide world matters?”

“Oh Ann, but surely simply everything has supreme importance, if it happens.”

From recognition of this supreme importance flow Green’s infinite subtlety and untiring tenderness. Unlike Waugh, whose set he shared, he never asks us to side with him against a character, and unlike Céline, for whom he surprisingly expressed “tremendous admiration,” he never dramatizes his own prodigious acceptance of human incorrigibility. His observations of the world appear as devoid of prejudice and preconception as a child’s, and it is as a child—an ideally attentive and unnoticed child—that we seem to be present during the belowstairs exchanges of Loving and the factory scenes of Living. These maidservants and workmen are seen with more than…

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