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Saint of the Mundane

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 egalitarian generosity; they loom as figures of a luminous, simplifying grandeur:

She folded the shutters back into the wall. And Edith looked out on the morning, the soft bright morning that struck her dazzled dazzling eyes.

He walked over nearer to where Craigan worked. This man scooped gently at great shape cut down in black sand in great iron box. He was grimed with the black sand.

Of the child Green was we learn a great deal in his cunningly relaxed “interim autobiography,” Pack My Bag, written in 1938-1939, under the shadow of the coming war, in which he expected to be killed. “That is my excuse, that we who may not have time to write anything else must do what we now can. If we have no time to chew another book over we must turn to what comes first to mind and that must be how one changed from boy to man, how one lived, things and people and one’s attitude.” His first sentence tells us he “was born a mouthbreather with a silver spoon in 1905.” He does not in this memoir give his true name, Henry Vincent Yorke. Kinsmen of the earls of Hardwick, the Yorkes owned a Birmingham company, H. Pontifex & Sons, which manufactured distillery equipment. The family home was within hearing of the bells of Tewkesbury Abbey, “in soft lands and climate influenced by the Severn.” Henry, the third son, grew up among servants, whom he describes much more vividly than his parents. “We were well brought up and saw our parents twice a day, that is to say my father worked in London through the week and we only saw him at weekends.” He was sent away to school before he was seven; in an interview with the New York Herald Tribune he put it, “Children in my circumstances are sent away to boarding school. I went at six and three-quarters and did not stop until I was twenty-two, by which time I was at Oxford, but the holidays were all fishing. And then there was billiards.”

His account of his schooldays is as harrowing as anything in Orwell: “Home seemed a heaven and that we were cast out….” “A private school is a fascist state and so are public schools. Their corporate doctrines teach one ugly sides and it is when one has forgotten to be as they taught that the experience begins to be worthwhile.” Green as a boy was fat, “so fat my parents had had the doctor in and the headmaster did the same as soon as he saw me. I became an advertisement for their cooking and would be beckoned up to be examined by inspecting parents, to be thumped and fingered like fat stock at a show.” And precocious, though not so satisfactorily so as his brother: “But they had great hopes and took me to see my brother’s name in large gold letters on the scholarship board. Everything was lovely until they found I was not even up to the standard of these days, and then the old tyrant the headmaster did not speak to me for seven months as though I had stolen from him.”

During World War I his family took wounded officers into their manor house, and young Green took this opportunity “to learn the half-tones of class,” to feel at his feet “those narrow, deep and echoing gulfs which must be bridged.” All the propaganda and paradox of that era’s social reality are dismissed in a few sentences, too calm to be cruel:

In the war people in our walk of life entertained all sorts and conditions of men with a view to self-preservation, to keep the privileges we set such store by, and which are illusory, after those to whom we were kind had won the war for us. That is not to say the privileged did not fight, we did, but there were too few of us to win.

The second sentence, so equably and comically giving the privileged minority its due, is more remarkable, and more characteristic, than the first thought, which any passably enlightened social conscience could have framed if not phrased with such odd melody—the pietistic “and which are illusory” leaping in like another voice. Green in his childhood had imbibed the pugnacious piety of the public schools but by the time of his older brother Philip’s death, still during the war, he could observe that the burial service was “the best the Church can do, the Church which seeks to share in all those few moments when we stand alone, at birth, in marriage, and at death.”

One looks in vain for very much in Pack My Bag to explain how Green early became such an intensely original writer. In his last year at Eton he and some friends were allowed to form a Society of Arts. “This point is a watershed, after this there is no turning back. I determined to be a writer, the diary I began to keep with this in view was full of loud shouts about it, and a nom de plume was chosen, of all names Henry Michaelis.” He cites three examples of youthful prose: he admits that the “second shows command of words in the way these are quite successfully repeated” (like Hemingway, Green had no fear of repeated words and indeed was an addict of their music), but condemns the first and third as “yells about self” and goes on to observe, “Any account of adolescence is necessarily a study of the fatuous.” Of the Society of Arts. “All I know is it gave me confidence even if there was nothing in it so that, like everyone else, I began to write a novel.” Unlike almost everyone else, he finished his while still at Oxford and had it accepted, by Dent. This first novel, Blindness, is just now being reprinted a half-century after its appearance in 1926. Green does not name it in his memoir, or describe it, or describe the gratification of having it published. He does, acridly, describe the mode of life in which the novel was pushed through to completion:

I was usually put to bed about two in the morning to be called at midday with an orange and a brandy and soda…. I felt extremely ill and every day went alone to a cinema after which I tried to write. The novel was almost finished and it became the last foothold to write just one more page a day, the last line of defence because I was miserable in fits and starts and felt insane.

With that same dogged dedication he was to compose the other of his novels, while fully employed in the factory of which he was to become managing director. “Going home it would be dark again and I would be tired. But after no more than thirty minutes in a chair I was ready for hard work again.” He tells us, “I write books but I am not proud of this any more than anyone is of their nails growing.” Literature is an “over-blown trumpet” and the literary influences upon him are scarcely mentioned. Before Oxford he was sent to France for a summer to perfect his French, and the only major writer he describes himself reading is Proust:

the last volumes of A la Recherche du Temps Perdu were coming out and anyone who knew French knew his Proust. Though I am not a Jew a don compared me to Swann. This gave me great pleasure….

Green’s father had been an amateur connoisseur of country dialect and it is the spoken words of the Birmingham factory workers that excite Green to quotation. Common speech, “unadulterated by literature as it is,” “simple words so well chosen and arranged, so direct a communication they made one silly with laughing,” became the aesthetic standard for this Swann turned foundryman: “I had been an idler who had at last found something to occupy his mind and hands.” Here, amid working men and women, the memoirist, “changed from boy to man,” found the mighty subject of Living.

Living was published in 1929 when Green was only twenty-four It is of his books the most redolent of ambition. Its canvas is wide, its cast large, its design intricate, its tone epic and celebrative. The author’s love for his proletarian characters brims in these pages and might cloy but for the tart comedy of their talk, heard with the startling fidelity that mistakenly is taken as a mere passive gift—for to write how people talk one must know how they think, and a definite psychology and sociology inform Green’s articulations on behalf of others.

In this novel his mature style is invented and employed with a vengeance. Never again will there be so many dropped articles and nounless sentences. His attempt is the customary avantgarde one, to “make it new,” in Pound’s phrase, to redeem language from the unfelt smoothness of usage. John Russell, in his fine book Henry Green (1960), speaks of “the almost cumbersome effect of forcing things, already concrete, onto the page more concretely.” This is good but does not prepare us for the flowing effortless effect of Green’s individual syntax, once we are attuned. His style’s source, strange to say, or at least the source of its innovative courage, is Arabic, as transmuted to English by Charles M. Doughty in his Travels in Arabia Deserta (1888). Doughty’s style originated, he wrote to his biographer, in “my dislike of the Victorian English; and I wished to show, and I thought I might be able to show, that there was something else.” Arabic, as it was absorbed by Doughty on his travels, was a language of the ear, spoken by illiterates, and it is the alogical linkages of spoken language, with its constantly refreshed concreteness, that inform such sentences from Arabia Deserta as:

Never combed by her rude master, but all shining beautiful and gentle of herself, she seemed a darling life upon that savage soil not worthy of her gracious pasterns.

No sweet chittering of birds greets the coming of the desert light, besides man there is no voice in this waste drought.

Similar sentences by Green, their bold phrases roped together by a slack and flexible grammar, can be found everywhere in his work.

Of course many writers of the generation preceding Green’s, Joyce and Virginia Woolf foremost, also loosened grammar to tighten subjective connections; but the popular formula, “stream of consciousness,” does not fit Green’s style, with its mix of perception and reflection, and its increasingly minor component of interior monologue. Amid his human scenes he hovers more than dives, yet conveys quite well a sense of depth and spaces, and dares bursts of poetic exclaiming that, far from quaint, deliver us exactly into the rub of things. His style in Living well suits, and has been adjusted to, his craggy, sullen, yet lyrical industrial milieu. His terrain here is close to D.H. Lawrence’s, with the difference that whereas Lawrence escaped from the working class, Green escaped into it, finding there a purpose and gaiety hitherto lacking from his life. His feat of equilibrium in Living was to show lives whose impoverishment he fully recognized as nevertheless sites of comedy, excitement, complex feeling, and beauty.

Party Going, though it takes place in less time—four hours—than any other novel, took him the longest time to write, from 1931 to 1938. It in a sense reverses the social proportions of Living: the Duprets and well-to-do move into the foreground, and the working people become a choral mass, a background crowd in the fog. Yet the same human grasping after illusions and love is drawn, with the same tolerant omniscience. Perhaps because of its extended period of composition, the style changes, beginning with the dropped articles and enigmatic blunt motions of Living and becoming, after the entrance at midpoint of Amabel, rather luxuriant, even Faulknerian in some hymning moods. The neurotic anxieties and erotic maneuvering of a few conspicuously spoiled, silly young rich waiting for a train to take them away would not seem a momentous topic, or an urgent one, but Green, so long meditating these tiny events, magnifies and patterns them into a paradigm of life, life surrounded by a fog of death and threatened Departures. In the inflamed scale of those transitory hotel rooms a woman’s taking a bath becomes a divine event, which we, unlike Actaeon, may witness without being torn to pieces.

As she went over herself with her towel it was plain that she loved her own shape and skin. When she dried her breasts she wiped them with as much care as she would puppies after she had given them their bath, smiling all the time. But her stomach she wiped unsmiling upwards to make it thin. When she came to dry her legs she hissed like grooms do. And as she got herself dry that steam began to go off the mirror walls so that as she got white again more and more of herself began to be reflected.

A year after Party Going, Green published Pack My Bag. During World War II he joined the Auxiliary Fire Service, as it were descending into that struggling crowd the party-goers see from their hotel windows. This, his second immersion into the proletariat, immediately produced the, for me, least enchanting of his novels, Caught, written between 1940 and 1942. But Caught was followed, in 1945, by Green’s best-known and possibly best novel, Loving. This master of the implied here implies the vast reality of war a small ocean away; the scene of Loving is an Irish castle staffed by mostly British servants, who, in echo of the rumored conflict raging in Europe, conduct their own raids upon one another’s provinces of authority, and in the absence of the castle’s owners, the Tennants, create a cozy anarchy of pilfering, gossip, giddiness, and love. The novel is opulent in its display of accents, imagery, and emotions; the resplendent peacock has replaced as dominant symbol the dingy sparrows of Living and the fogbound pigeons of Party Going. Loving shares with these two others not only a gerundive title and ambiguous ending but a distinctly double stage: upper-class and lower-class characters perform separately, though, in this anachronistic bastion in sullen neutral Ireland, below-stairs overflows and fills the castle from library to ballroom.

In Green’s next two novels, Back and Concluding, the social gap has been lost sight of, and in his last two, Nothing and Doting, the author remains entirely on one side of it, with the Party Going class of people, now grown middle-aged. Yet the wit and poetry, the comedy and truth of these final two novels show so little slackening of powers (though perhaps a more restricted channeling of them) that Green’s abrupt and lasting silence comes as a puzzle: he published nothing after 1952, though he lived until 1973, to the age of sixty-eight. These twenty-two mute years mark perhaps a consummate artist’s demand of perfection or nothing from himself, or perhaps mark a more personal withdrawal into the despair that always fringed his pellucid world. A vision so clear can be withering; it takes great natural health to sustain a life without illusions. In any case, his precocious career is framed by this refusal or inability so that his nine novels seem a given light, like the poems of Rilke, that flooded through a momentarily open lens.

I have seen a reader of Loving cry at the end, not understanding why, for the book had been so funny, she had kept reading parts of it aloud. She fulfilled thereby the contract that Green elsewhere sets between author and reader: “Prose should be a long intimacy between strangers with no direct appeal to what both may have known. It should slowly appeal to feelings unexpressed, it should in the end draw tears out of the stone….” The intimacy is my one connection with Green. He was famously shy of publicity, and his Paris Review interview with Terry Southern in 1958 gives away little beyond a feigned or real hardness of hearing.

He was a successful businessman who wrote, and in this he resembled Wallace Stevens; they did no business on Grub Street, and whatever sellouts they found necessary were outside the realm of art. They wrote from the purest of motives: to make something. In equability of temperament and what Elizabeth Bowen called “straight, humanistic touch,” Green suggests Defoe, Queneau, and the John O’Hara of the short stories. W.H. Auden once called him the finest living English novelist. But no need exists to set up a competition; his writing generation—but for Graham Greene and V.S. Pritchett—has passed on, and his novels are sufficiently unlike any others, sufficiently assured in their perilous, luminous fullness, to warrant the epithet incomparable.

Their substantive content, in what can be seen and heard by a man alive in a place and time, is as rich as their formal design is intricate, rounded, and pleasing. They are among the most contemplated novels of an age, not long ago, when novel-writing came easy, because “simply everything has importance, if it happens.”

Green’s human qualities—his love of work and laughter; his absolute empathy; his sense of splendor amid loss, of vitality within weakness—make him a precious witness to any age. No stranger to the macabre and the vicious, he glorifies the petty virtues bred of human interdependence. With upper-class obliquity he champions the demotic in language and in everything. His novels, as Horace prescribed, give pleasure and instruct; moreover they give that impression, of an irreducible density and a self-possessed rhythm, that belongs to reality and its most ardent imitations in art. They live, in short, and like all living feed on air, on the invisible; the spaces between the words are warm, and the strangeness is mysteriously exact, the strangeness of the vital.

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