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Unlikely Hero


by Henry Green
Dalkey Archive, 214 pp., $12.50 (paper)


by Henry Green
Harvill/Panther, 198 pp., £6.99 (paper)


by Henry Green
Dalkey Archive, 214 pp., $11.95 (paper)


by Henry Green
Dalkey Archive, 203 pp., $11.95 (paper)


by Henry Green
Dalkey Archive, 226 pp., $12.50 (paper)

The daily grind of the average literary wife—pouring drinks, looking nice at parties, managing multiple selves, and talking the loved one down off ledges—has opened up a whole new seam in the publishing industry. If Lady Macbeth were around today she’d surely be ready to launch Is This a Life I See Before Me?: The Girl I Was in the Bonnie Before and angling for a spot on Oprah’s Book Club. I say this is new but of course in some respects it’s pretty old. Who could forget Jane Welsh Carlyle’s dazzlingly tortured letters about being Mrs. Minimus next to Master Sage, or indeed Double Drink Story: My Life With Dylan Thomas, in which Caitlin Thomas looks through the empty glasses darkly, to find her Welsh wizard, only much more and much less than she had expected?

Being married to the man who took first prize is evidently a hazardous fandango, but in the newer memoirs, at least, there is a wonderful sense of liberty born of survival. One after another these books turn out to be tales of how the clearer morals of the smaller life, distilled by hard experience, can come first to shame and then to haunt the pronouncements of the moralist.

To call them revenge narratives won’t cover it: they are clever, self-conscious books proclaiming the human wonders and terrors to be illuminated by sidelight. If memoirs by the likes of Adele Mailer and Claire Bloom were propelled by anger, hurt, and a sense of defeat, then many of the newer books by ex–literary wives are, to some larger and more striking extent, nurtured in self-confidence and pity for the Man Who Wasn’t Quite. Let it be known: somewhere in the stratosphere of literary affairs, adjacent to every unwritten novel by Cyril Connolly, there is a small, scintillating volume of published memoirs by Barbara Skelton, the last of them containing a photograph of the smiling authoress, captioned “Today.”

Elaine Dundy, who was married to Kenneth Tynan, started her own battle against invisibility rather fabulously and rather early, and she did so in a way that involved the novelist Henry Green.1 In June 1954, Marlene Dietrich, in spangled dresses and with lines fine-tuned by Tynan and Noel Coward, enjoyed a brilliant opening at the Café de Paris in London. After the performance, Tynan, along with Coward and his entourage, gathered in Dietrich’s suite at the Dorchester to toast her success. “As it was getting late, Noel and his contingent said their goodnights and left,” reports Dundy:

Significantly, they noted, Ken had stayed behind with Dietrich. In the hall they found themselves waiting for the elevator for some time.

Poor little Mrs. Tynan,” said Noel, “she must be putting her head in the oven by now.” No sooner had he uttered this than Ken appeared. The elevator arrived and they all descended together. “There was a most embarrassed silence,” said Cole [Cole Lesley, Coward’s friend and biographer], because of the discovery that Dietrich and Tynan were not having an affair after all.

Poor little Mrs. Tynan,” I corrected, “was—at that very moment—on the town with Henry Green. The great English novelist,” I added for dramatic effect.

Dundy often went to the pub with Henry Green. “Henry laughed easily,” she recounts, “he was someone with the highest gift for drawing you out and staying in step with you…. I told him about some of my misadventures in Paris…. I began to recognise that I was hearing a voice that was me but that wasn’t me. It was a voice Henry gave me, yet I’d heard it before…. Henry was just what I needed: an enheartener magically capable of cheering up a lonely, distraught and rudely awakened wife.”

One can only be grateful that Elaine Dundy never compared notes with—or indeed rudely awakened—Mrs. Henry Green, the famous Dig, whose forbearance when it came to Henry’s enheartening nights in the pub might have contributed to a blazing new-style memoir all of her own. Jeremy Treglown does not include Dundy’s reminiscences in his elegant biography Romancing: The Life and Work of Henry Green, and it must be assumed that the cheerful Tynan-survivor was keeping quiet as Treglown researched, saving it all up for herself. But in many enjoyable respects he devotes his book to understanding Green’s tribulations with young women fascinated with brilliant men, and this proves to have been a wise move, for it is hard to think of a modern novelist, besides Joyce or Fitzgerald, who was more devoted to bending his romantic affections into new kinds of sentences.

For some time now a whole new audience has been due to Henry Green. He is generally not part of the syllabus in English Studies at British universities, his books have been in and out of print, and there have been very few films made of his works. He is not discussed in the way Virginia Woolf or Evelyn Waugh are, though his best novels are more sonorous and more unexpected than the best of either, giving a far deeper account of the modes and manners of English expression at that time, and taking risks with matters of color and structure in ways that would have Evelyn Waugh running for his Arnold Bennett. Treglown’s biography comes in on a fresh wave of interest in Green, as do the Dalkey Archive’s new editions of some of the less well known works. In Britain at the moment, and more so in the United States, there is an element of disaffection with the mannered simplicity of creative writers and their schools of pristine thoughtlessness2; and Green, an unlikely hero with his aristocratic, Old Etonian orderliness, has gained a following because of the commitment his novels show to a level of everyday difficulty and precise mindfulness, to the high style, and to a kind of sentence-writing at once less charming and more penetrating.

His novels made more of a stylistic impact upon me than those of any writer living or dead,” wrote John Updike. “A certain abstract shimmer,” he adds, “a veil as it were of transcendent intention, adds luster to all his pictures, and piquancy to his prose. Each paragraph has something of a poem’s interest and strangeness.”3 Elizabeth Bowen read him, met him, and was smitten: “Green’s novels reproduce as few do the actual sensations of living,” she wrote. This is the story of Henry Green’s career: largely praised and smally published (none of his novels sold more than ten thousand copies in his lifetime), his work has always been surrounded by a sense of its being almost-but-not-quite great. He has been blamed for being too experimental and not experimental enough; some have called him too self-conscious and writerly and others have thought the work too sparse. Mainly he has been called lyrical and mannered—the greatest of his similarities to F. Scott Fitzgerald—as if being those things put him out of control, and made him the opposite of an artist. If Green is mannered he is mannered in the way of the late Henry James: the narrative and stylistic locks turn with the same key, and the prose, as Green himself observed, is “a gathering web of insinuations which go further than names however shared can ever go.”4

Green’s entry in Who’s Who for 1973 mentions, under recreation: “romancing over the bottle, to a good band.” Mary Keene, one of his lovers, wrote in a letter of having “a great hangover, and a huge grazed bruise on my forehead and a little black eye all because of a great dramatic meeting with beloved Henry. It was so madly gay.” There is always something sore about the gaiety in Green’s novels, something pricey and uncertain about his characters’ enjoyments, as well as something enlivened about the boredom. He was truly a student of the English hours, and he often got them by the collar as they passed. Treglown writes of a “fluent density of suggestion,” and he quotes from Green’s first novel, Blindness, written while he was still a student, a book that sets past beauties against the incoming newness of the world:

The boat floated gently too, a bird sang and then was silent, and he would watch the jaunty fly, watch for the white, greedy mouth that would come up, for the swirl when he would flick lightly, and the fight, with another panting, gleaming fish to be mired in struggles on the muddy floor of the boat…. The day would draw away as if sucked down in the east…. A kingfisher might shoot out to dart down the river, a guilty thing in colours.

There is innocence in all this—the innocence of bee-drowsy school days and fresh, youthful imaginings, of sudden distances from the family home—but Green was soon to embrace all dislocations. Birmingham and London, with all their machinery, all their motor vehicles, all their modern noise, were to become like kinds of a Cubist adventure park to Henry Green.

City pubs and assignations with young girls, disappointed wives in the country, fading brilliance all around, familial disturbances to the fore and aft, and wonderful bohemian parties going on elsewhere. Green’s world was all work and all talk, everything to the strains of a depleted grandeur, and every last grain of that life would be planed and rubbed, stained and painted, in the course of writing his ten books. Yet Green is the poet of misapplication: he invented a kind of sentence to carry confusion, mishearings, blindness, boredom, habit, uncertainty, and being in the wrong place at the wrong time, or, more often, being with the right person in the wrong circumstances. From Caught:

But there was nothing in what he had spoken to catch her imagination. She went along at his side, by this path she hated, and looked up at his face in what he took to be the attention she was paying to the account he gave….

Excuse me a minute, dar-ling,” she said. “Christopher,” she shouted, “come here. Do be careful. You’ll only be getting wet through. That last lot of snow went all over you.”…

Look,” his father interrupted, “haven’t you knocked those branches about enough? There’s hardly a bird left in the garden since you’ve been out. You’d do better to put food for them. They starve in this weather you know.”

It is an England caught in the wars and a life between the acts, and Jeremy Treglown’s achievement has been to gather intelligence at the intersections of a life where happiness was somewhat deferred and where a beautiful, strange literary style was somewhat unleashed. It is a biography of a way of writing—and to Green, everything, romancing, accounting, drinking, remembering, came down in the end to a way of writing, a way of living, a part of work.

Green was once thought of as the toffee-nosed English novelist who worked in his father’s Birmingham engineering factory. When he went to work there, in January 1927, the workers on the shop floor assumed he was being punished by his father, and although such punishments were not beyond the old man, Green was actually there by choice, mugging up on modern life. Even at Oxford, as Maurice Bowra recalled, Green liked to “walk along the tow-path, not where it goes by the fields, but where it passes through the gas works to the railway station, and the bleak, black scene gave him much satisfaction.” Green was expected to write high-society comedies, but after he published Blindness, his Birmingham experience was germane: he shared the Auden interest in crowds and electricity pylons, the new Britain of mass mobility, night trains, and mechanization. Green’s prose is foggy, modernly so, and there are long wisps of demotic, and there is much greasy gab, mingling in a new way with the orders and expectations of a dying class.

  1. 1

    Elaine Dundy, Life Itself! (London: Virago, 2001), p. 155.

  2. 2

    This mostly applies to the followers of Raymond Carver. However, the opposing gang, the enemies of prolixity, are still fighting a rearguard action. See “A Reader’s Manifesto: An Attack on the Growing Pretentiousness of American Literary Prose” by B.R. Myers, a feeble-minded broadside currently proving extremely popular with readers who look back with longing at the “straightforward” novels of Budd Schulberg, in The Atlantic Monthly, July/August 2001. The piece sets it-self against “writers who are deliberately obscure, or who chant in strange cadences,” and asks the question “where would Notable New Fiction be without the willing suspension of cultural literacy?” In short, The Atlantic Monthly has run a 13,000-word article in which E. Annie Proulx, Cormac McCarthy, Don DeLillo, Paul Auster, David Guterson, and Rick Moody get it in the neck for not being Stephen King.

  3. 3

    John Updike, Introduction to Surviving: The Uncollected Writings of Henry Green, edited by Matthew Yorke (London: Chatto and Windus, 1992).

  4. 4

    Terry Southern, interview with Henry Green, The Paris Review, 1958.

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