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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 Now Henry’s grandson has put together a volume of his uncollected (and in some cases previously unpublished) writings, with an appreciative introduction by John Updike.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 memoir by his son, Sebastian. Since there is as yet no proper biography of Green, and the autobiographical Park My Bag (1940) conceals as much as it charmingly reveals, this volume is particularly interesting for the light it throws upon his life and family background.

From the description “writer’s-writer’s writer” you might guess, if you knew nothing else about Henry Green, that he was a fastidious and innovative stylist rather than a great storyteller, that he was totally absorbed by the practice of his art, and that he led the literary life. Only the first of this inferences would be correct. For most of his adult life Green worked as managing director of the family engineering business, and he had little time or energy (and, it would seem, little enthusiasm) for literary parties and literary politics. He was not, by all accounts, a particularly effective or efficient man of business, but his experience of commerce and industry—unique, to my knowledge, among English literary novelists of the twentieth century—left its mark on his fiction and gave it a rare social range.

Henry Yorke was born (in 1905) into a family of landed gentry with an impressive pedigree but no great wealth. His father, Vincent, was a Cambridge classics don whose favorite bedtime reading was Homer. When Vincent married Maud Evelyn Wyndham, daughter of the second Baron Leconfeld, the family bought for him a semibankrupt engineering company, which included a foundry in Birmingham called H. Pontifex and Sons. Vincent built up the business with some success and used it as an entrée to the City of London, where he acquired several lucrative directorships. The pastoral and patrician life style of the family estate, Forthampton Court, Gloucestershire, where young Henry grew up and spent his vacations from Eton and Oxford, invisibly supported by the capitalist exploitation of industrial labor in gray and grimy Birmingham, might be seen by a Marxist historian as an epitome of the social and economic structure of Britain in the early twentieth century. A fragment of dialogue found among Henry’s papers, and probably written when he was nineteen, throws an amusing and sardonic light on family life at Forthampton Court, and incidentally demonstrates the future novelist’s precocious understanding of the conversational games people play.

After dinner, Vincent reads the paper:

Vincent, reading: In 1920 there were 4000 less dogs born in England than in 1924.

Silence

Vincent: I won’t speak again.

Maud: Henry, did I ring for coffee?

Vincent: You did dear, I’m sorry.

Maud: Ring again Henry will you? No, dear boy, not that bell, it doesn’t ring. I’m afraid something must have gone wrong with it.

Henry rings

Silence

Maud: Billy, did you write to Hepworth about the kitchen range?

Vincent: Yes dear. I sent the letter off directly you told me. I do my best.

Maud: The cook is in despair, Vincent. I do not know what to do about it, and this brute of a man Hepworth will not send anyone to mend the range. He can be up to no good in Birmingham, Vincent. What does he do all day? Playing about with the typists instead of doing the work?

Vincent, reading: In Somerset two boys were drowned in a river.

It reads like a collaboration between Noel Coward and Ivy Compton-Burnett, and is nearly as good as either.

Hepworth” was presumably the general manager of the Birmingham factory, and Henry soon had an opportunity to discover what he, and the rest of the employees, were “up to.” After reading English at Oxford for two years without much enthusiasm (he did not get on with his tutor, C. S. Lewis, or with the syllabus, which stopped at 1830 in those days and included a great deal of Anglo-Saxon), Henry left the university without a degree, and went to work at the Birmingham factory, starting as an apprentice, and living in workmen’s lodgings.

The idea was, of course, that he should learn about the business from the shop floor up, preparatory to eventually taking it over—a familiar pattern in family-owned companies. But perhaps few “boss’s sons” undergoing this initiation went so far as to live like their fellow workers outside the factory gates, and it would be interesting to know whether this was Henry’s own choice. Whatever his motivation, in these two years (between 1927 and 1929) he acquired a great respect and affection for the Birmingham factory workers, and a knowledge of their manners, speech habits, working practices, and domestic lives that enabled him to write Living, arguably the best British novel about the industrial working class published in the twentieth century.

Most fiction about industrial life recoils in horror from the dirt, danger, and dehumanizing monotony of factory work, and pities those condemned to it. Green did not glamorize or sentimentalize such work, but he understood how men can take a pride in it, how they use humor and comradeship to make its material conditions tolerable, and how they become in due course psychologically and metabolically dependent upon its rhythms and intervals. One of the most moving parts of Living is the portrait of Mr. Craigan, coming with difficulty to terms with retirement:

Mr. Craigan had gone to work when he was nine and every day he had worked through most of daylight till now, when he was going to get old age pension. So you will hear men who have worked like this talk of monotony of their lives, but when they grow to be old they are more glad to have work and this monotony has grown so great that they have forgotten it. Like on a train which goes through night smoothly and at an even pace—so monotony of noise made by the wheels bumping over joints between the rails becomes rhythm—so this monotony of hours grows to be the habit and regulation on which we grow old. And as women who have had nits in their hair over a long period collapse when these are killed, feeling so badly removal of that violent irritation which has become stimulus for them, so when men who have worked these regular hours are now deprived of work, so, often, their lives come to be like puddles on the beach where tide no longer reaches.

When the time came for Henry to take over the management of the company, he moved to London to work at its head office in George Street. Sebastian Yorke attributes the long interval between his second and third novels to the stresses and distractions of his new responsibilities, but perhaps Henry also missed the stimulus of the factory floor and the Birmingham back streets. Significantly, the most productive phase of Green’s literary career seems to have been started off by his joining the London Fire Service in World War II, an experience which had much the same impact on him as his two years in the Birmingham factory. The prose sketches from this period in Surviving are reminiscent of Living in the way they relish the demotic speech and manners of the fire station, and take pride in the hard, dangerous work of firefighting.

Although he was never political in the fashionable left-wing style of many of his contemporaries, Green was a natural democrat, who welcomed any opportunity to break down the rigidities of the British class system. As a writer he was equally committed to breaking down the rigidities of English literary prose; indeed, for him the two enterprises were inseparable. Writing in 1941 on C.M. Doughty, the author of Arabia Deserta (1888), whose idiosyncratic, deliberately difficult prose style he greatly admired, he asked rhetorically:

Now that we are at war, is not the advantage for writers, and for those who read them, that they will be forced, by the need they have to fight, to go out into territories, it may well be at home, which they would never otherwise have visited, and that they will be forced, by way of their own selves, toward a style which, by the impact of a life strange to them and by their honest acceptance of this, will be pure as Doughty’s was, so that they will reach each one his own style that shall be his monument? (Italics mine.)

The first public manifestation of this principle in Green’s fiction was the almost total elimination of articles from the narrative discourse in Living. For example, on the first page:

Two o’clock. Thousands came back from dinner along streets…

Thousands came back to factories they worked in from their dinners…

Noise of lathes working began again in this factory. Hundreds went along road outside, men and girls. Some turned in to Dupret factory.

Some had stayed in iron foundry shop in this factory for dinner. They sat round brazier in a circle.

When, many years later, Terry Southern asked Green why he had adopted this technique, the novelist replied: “I wanted to make that book as taut and spare as possible, to fit the proletarian life I was then leading. So I hit on leaving out the articles.” This comment is, however, a somewhat misleading over-simplification. We discover from Surviving that Green was experimenting with the omission of articles long before writing Living and to entirely different effect. The new volume includes a remarkable unpublished prose fantasy about a giant, called “Monsta Monstrous,” thought to have been written circa 1923, which begins as follows:

Giant fell from sky into the sea and made great splash and great wave went out on all sides from where he had fallen and damaged many towns where land met the sea. But he first swam then waded, and soon came to coast of Wales…

This suggests that Green’s experiments with prose are not to be explained simply in terms of expressive form, but as the result of a much more radical project to defamiliarize the world by defamiliarizing the literary medium in which it is conventionally represented. In his own, idiosyncratic, largely unassisted, and disarmingly amateurish way, Green was a theorist, who continued the modernist preoccupation with formal innovation in a period (the Thirties and Forties) generally unsympathetic to aesthetic experimentalism, and discovered for himself some of the fundamental principles of modern linguistics. This comes out particularly strikingly in two BBC radio talks, which he delivered in 1950 and 1951, entitled “A Novelist to His Readers, I & II,” which are among the most fascinating items in Surviving.

Artists, according to Green, “are all meaning to create a life which is not. That is to say, a life which does not eat, procreate, or drink, but which can live in people who are alive.” Art is “non-representational” in the sense that it is not identical with reality and cannot be mistaken for it.

But, if it exists to create life, of a kind, in the reader—as far as words are concerned, what is the best way in which this can be done? Of course, by dialogue. And why? Because we do not write letters any more, we ring up on the telephone instead. The communication between human beings has now come to be almost entirely conducted by conversation.

(This is a somewhat simplistic argument. In fact Green had another, more substantial reason for privileging dialogue over narrative which we shall come to in a moment.) But, he immediately points out, conversation in novels is still nonrepresentational, “not an exact record of the way people talk,” because meaning in actual conversations is dependent on context, that is to say on all kinds of unspoken information shared by the interlocutors concerning the world in general and their personal relationship in particular. In the terminology of Mikhail Bakhtin, all speech is dialogic in a double sense: an utterance may echo, allude to, anticipate, and engage with many other actual or virtual speech acts besides the one it is ostensibly responding to. Green gives an example almost certainly drawn from his own experience:

Supposing a husband and wife live opposite a pub: at nine-thirty any evening when both are at home, he may say, “I think I’ll go over now.” She will probably answer. “Oh,” and there may or may not be a wealth of meaning in that exclamation. And his reply to her will probably be, “Yes.” After twenty years of married life any couple will talk in a kind of telegraphese of their own which is useless to the novelist.

One solution to this problem, not approved by Henry Green, is for the novelist to gloss the enigmatic utterances of his characters in the narrative discourse. He parodies this technique as follows:

How soon d’you suppose they’ll chuck you out?”

Olga, as she asked her husband this question, wore the look of a wounded animal, her lips were curled back from her teeth in a grimace and the tone of voice she used betrayed all those years a woman can give by proxy to the sawdust, the mirrors and the stale smell of beer of public bars.

Green’s objection to this kind of thing is that the novelist is claiming a privileged insight into his characters’ motives to which he is not entitled:

Do we know, in life, what other people are really like? I very much doubt it. We certainly do not know what other people are thinking and feeling. How then can the novelist be so sure?

His own preferred solution is a stylized kind of dialogic fiction in which the speech of the characters is made slightly more explicit than in “real life” and presented with the minimum of authorial comment and interpretation. Green rewrites his own example as follows:

At last he looked at the clock, laid the newspaper aside, and getting out of his armchair, wandered to the door. “I think I’ll go over the way now for a drink,” he said, his finger on the handle.

Will you be long?” she asked, and put her book down.

He seemed to hesitate.

Why don’t you come too?” he suggested.

I don’t think I will. Not tonight. I’m not sure. I may,” and she gave him a small smile.

Well, which is it to be?” he insisted, and did not smile back.

I needn’t say now, need I? If I feel like it I’ll come over later,” she replied, picking her book up again.

This is the style of the late novels, like Nothing (1950) and Doting (1952). They are subtle, exquisite, and often very funny anatomies of human behavior, but inevitably court the description “slight.” One can’t help feeling that Henry Green had by this time painted himself into an aesthetic corner by his dogmatic limitation of the scope of narrative discourse in the novel. He was not of course alone in his preference for staying on the surface of human speech and behavior, eschewing both the authorial omniscience of the classic novel and the psychological subjectivism of the modernist novel: it is to be observed in the work of his contemporaries, Waugh, Powell, Isherwood, Ivy Compton-Burnett. But in Green’s case it entailed sacrificing one of his own great strengths as a writer, his power of lyrical description. Living and Party Going contain memorable prose epiphanies, and one of the fragments collected in Surviving shows that the gift had not deserted him much later in life. It is the opening section of a projected autobiographical work about Green’s wartime experiences in the fire service, published in the London Magazine in 1960. Green and his wife were on holiday in Connemarra at the time of the Munich crisis, staying in a hotel full of anxious British officers’ wives whose husbands had been recalled to duty.

My wife sea bathed, we sat about, but every night at nine there was the relentless wireless. Always, each day, news worse than the last…

We used to walk out with sandwiches to get away from the lounge where these women were already in wait for each evening and nine o’clock. And almost as soon as we were out of the grounds the coast was deserted, or so we thought. Enormous crescent beaches curved one after the other as wandering forward we shrimped in sea anemone garlanded, limpid emerald pools. Each one of these led to another and so in turn round the next jutted point of sand over which waves broke in shawl after shawl after shawl of whey-coloured lace, advancing, receding, hissing into a silence where no sea birds were.

It was at one of these divisions between one creamy beach and another that we saw a seal come out of the pewter sea as far as black shoulders, in its mouth a flapping sole so bright the fish was like a shaft of white light, violently vibrating.

This is descriptive writing of a high order, evoking the concrete details of the scene with piercing sensuousness but without obviously straining for effect. Evidently Green felt less constrained in using the authorial voice in autobiography than in fiction, but by this time he seemed to have lost the energy, or the will, to persevere with either form. The wartime memoir was never completed, and the last piece in Surviving is a pathetic fragment of self-description, dated 1963, which contains the poignant observation: “Green can write novels, but his present difficulty is to know quite how to do it.” This is the worst curse that can fall upon a writer, and the final impression left by this book is therefore a somewhat gloomy one. Nevertheless it contains many delightful reminders of what an exceptionally gifted and truly original writer Henry Green was.

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