Writer’s-Writer’s Writer

Surviving: The Uncollected Writings of Henry Green

edited by Matthew Yorke
Viking, 302 pp., $24.00

Henry Green occupies a special but somewhat puzzling place in the history of modern English fiction. That his real name was Henry Yorke is symbolic of the general elusiveness of his literary identity. He seems to stand to one side of his fictional oeuvre, smiling enigmatically and challenging us to put a label, and a value, on it. He has been called a “writer’s writer,” and even, according to Terry Southern, “a writer’s-writer’s writer.” W. H. Auden, Eudora Welty, V. S. Pritchett, Rebecca West, and John Updike have all described him, at various times, and in various ways, as the finest novelist of his generation, yet he never enjoyed either the commercial success or the literary fame of contemporaries such as Evelyn Waugh, Graham Greene, and Christopher Isherwood.

He was neither shrewd nor lucky in the development of his literary career. After a precocious and promising debut, Blindness (1926), begun while he was still at school, he wrote a brilliant novel about working-class life, Living (1929), several years before such subject matter became fashionable, and then took ten years to write his next, Party Going (1939)—a work whose concern with a group of narcissistic socialites setting off on a Continental holiday seemed rather frivolous in the encroaching shadows of World War II. In the 1940s he became more productive, and more widely read (Loving [1945] even appeared briefly on the US best-seller lists), but just as he was beginning to attract serious critical attention, interest was diverted by a new wave of British writers, the so-called Angry Young Men, with whose coarse, iconoclastic energies he had little affinity. Whether by coincidence or cause and effect, his creativity seemed to suddenly dry up at this time. The latter part of his life, from the publication of his last novel, Doting, in 1952, to his death in 1973, was a sad story of increasing reclusiveness, alcoholism, and melancholia. His novels went out of print, and his name virtually disappeared from the canon of modern British fiction.

In the last decade or so there has been a determined effort by Green’s admirers to remedy this state of affairs, by reissuing his novels and writing about them. Now Henry’s grandson has put together a volume of his uncollected (and in some cases previously unpublished) writings, with an appreciative introduction by John Updike. It is a curious, fascinating hotchpotch of gems and barrel-scrapings, which will be of intense interest to Henry Green’s fans, though it is unlikely to make any new ones, except by sending readers to the novels. It is chronologically arranged, and includes juvenilia, bits of autobiography, short stories, prose poems, fragments of unfinished novels and stories, book reviews, texts of radio broadcasts, the script of a television play commissioned in the 1950s but never produced, an interview with Terry Southern reprinted from The Paris Review, the first chapter of a projected autobiographical work about Green’s wartime experiences in the fire service, and a brief …

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