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In the Fine Print of Experience

Utility footwear worn on a wartime evening out, London, 1940
George Rodger/Magnum Photos
Utility footwear worn on a wartime evening out, London, 1940

All the books of the twentieth-century British novelist Henry Green are relatively short and unobtrusively but highly condensed. And anyone who has read several of them will almost certainly have observed not only how different they are from one another, and in how many ways, but also that one of their shared features is how stunningly different they are from anybody else’s.

Although Green (1905-1973) had read a lot when he was a student at Eton and Oxford, and in the later part of his life claimed to read a novel a day, it’s as if he was the first writer on the planet and had never learned what a novel is supposed to be like.

Nothing in his novels—including almost any sentence—proceeds as one might expect, and although nothing seems arbitrary, the books are surprise after surprise. Green seems to have been free, or to have made himself free, not only from literary conventions but also from conventions of thought, such as our unexamined assumptions of what a narrative is—what merits attention, how something comes to occur, and the language and constructions in which the elaborate workings of human behavior can be expressed.

The experience of reading Green, or so I find, is far more animating than the ordinary and extends far beyond the usual confines: it can be almost physical, as if the thought or sensation expressed on the page were being generated by one’s own, not the author’s, mind.

The freshness and force of the work is somewhat uncanny. Besides an extraordinary radiance, an accuracy of insight, an oblique approach to the material, an exquisite precision, a sheer unexpectedness of content, and a gleeful humor, the reader is likely to come across exposition so blunt as to be nearly perfunctory, bizarrely awkward transitions or passages, and syntax so convoluted and so personal that he or she is sometimes obliged to go thrashing through sheaves of clauses, only to be stranded when they simply combust rather than resolve grammatically, possibly owing to the large amount of alcohol Green was regularly pouring into himself.

Yet one is mesmerized, thrilled, transported, often by the very recklessness entailed by an underlying and urgent purity of vision. One feels that Green is simply pressing into service whatever means he can find or devise to accomplish what he needs to—to represent what it’s like to be alive at a given moment, in all its reverberant and perplexing depth.

He writes incomparably in the fine print of experience. No fiction writer whose work I’ve encountered is more adventurous or better able to squeeze into the fissures of consciousness. He renders on the page the intractable, ambiguous, and mutable plasma of reality, and he depicts the manifold oddness and confusions of human encounters with a very light and very sure hand. Other people write books, Green fits the entire, multidimensional universe onto flat surfaces.

From the outset Green was a wizard of talk—putting onto a page what talk really sounds and feels like. His second novel, Living, published in 1929 when he was twenty-four, is set largely in industrial Birmingham, a milieu he knew well from his father’s factory.

The speech of the men he worked with was an idiom and sound utterly alien to him, and he was enchanted by its vitality and expressiveness. The ringing language of these large, eloquent personalities, the metal and fire of the foundry, and the precariousness of the workers’ physical and financial security provide a sort of bass line to the book. In counterpoint that is pure joy to read is the noodling treble of its few characters from Green’s own class—wildly satirical gargoyles, primarily the rich factory owner’s light-minded wife and clueless son, who, like the author, is soon to assume complete power over the lives of his workers.

In addition to the voices of proletarians, plutocrats, and patricians, Green was fully conversant with the voices of servants. When he was not quite seven he was sent off to school, but until then he spent more time with his family’s servants than with his parents or two brothers, who were, themselves, away at school. And his novel Loving, published in 1945, is set during World War II in an extremely grand Anglo-Irish house peopled not by its owners, the Tennants, but almost entirely by its staff of English housemaids, scullery maids, cook, butler, butler’s assistant, and governess, as well as the Irish caretaker of the estate’s peacocks, who is seen by the others as a sort of grunting, hairy beast.

Green sent Back off to his editor in August 1945, a week before Hiroshima was bombed. It contains no aristocrats, no servants, no rich bosses, no working class. The characters are entirely middle class, a demographic with which Green was considerably less familiar, though he had sufficient acquaintance with it to reproduce its many voices to apparent perfection in the book. During World War I his parents had opened up their large country house, for as long as they could stand it, as a convalescent home for officers.

As these officers were badly needed back in France they did not stay for long. Each holiday from school there was a new outfit and better still we got the most marvellous food because we were feeding them up to go back to be killed….

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 effect of this on a child of my class was to open before his feet those narrow, deep and echoing gulfs which must be bridged, narrow because after all they were officers, deep because in most cases they had as civilians to come over that rope bridge over that gorge across which intercourse is had on the one side by saying “sir” and on the other “my good man.” That is to say I began to learn the half-tones of class, or, if not to learn because I was too young, to see enough to recognize the echoes later when I came to hear them.

The fact that Green was somewhat hard of hearing might have contributed to the acuity of his listening, and in any case, by the early 1940s, when he was writing Back, those echoes were resounding. Urgency, terror, shortages, and privations were dissolving Britain’s steely class demarcations, and the Labour Party victory, which was to inaugurate vast, equalizing reforms, was not far off.

Back, which reflects the fractured world in which Green wrote it, concerns what happens to a mind dislocated by violence—a subject that, frankly, ought to be of intense concern to us right now. The book opens as its protagonist, Charley Summers, having lost one leg to a German mine, returns from a POW camp in France to visit the grave of his beloved, Rose, who died at just the time he was interned.

No more than that is needed to activate the title. Back? Back to what? Blocked passage, annihilation, irretrievable loss—there can be no return to Rose of the spectacular red hair, no return to home, no restoration to a sound body; a wooden leg will have to do for all of it.

Charley is damaged mentally and emotionally as well as physically, but if health requires a grasp of reality, what happens when reality has become unrecognizable?

As Charley disembarks from the bus that has brought him to the graveyard, the scene appears to us as it does to him, saturated with familiar threat: Rain clouds are amassed, the church tower is built on high ground, and there are “slits, built for defence, in the blood coloured brick.” There is

a sudden upthrusting cackle of geese in panic, the sound of which brought home to him a stack of faggots he had seen blown high by a grenade, each stick separately stabbing the air in a frieze, and which he had watched fall back, as an opened fan closes. So, while the geese quietened, he felt what he had seen until the silence which followed, when he at once forgot.
      But there was left him an idea that he had been warned.

Henry Green, 1941
Cecil Beaton/Condé Nast via Getty Images
Henry Green, 1941

The shimmer of cataclysm about to erupt from cracks and fault lines and thin air is a recurrent motif, and the greatest danger is memory, with its ungovernable juxtapositions. Death, for better or worse, doesn’t expunge anyone from the record, and Rose, conjured up by a glimpse of something, a sound, a resemblance, a word, a random association, repeatedly overwhelms Charley, toppling him out of the present moment, pervading his mind and senses and causing him to misinterpret simple information. And Rose’s mother, Mrs. Grant, in a parallel state of extreme distress, now conflates Charley with her own younger brother, John, who was killed decades earlier during the previous war.

Delusion here is both a solace and a torment. And what is “delusion” when all orienting markings and indicators have been scrambled? Is memory loss a wound or a sealant? Is forgetting a betrayal or a portal, and what does it mean to “forget,” anyhow?

While he was working on Back, Green wrote to one of his amours, Rosamond Lehmann, whose brother Jonathan was to become his editor at Hogarth Press, that he had “been blessed or cursed by a frightful surge of power & ideas….The truth is that the present times are an absolute gift to the novelist. I see everything crumbling & growing all round me.”

That twining interdependence of life and death is right there on the book’s first page:

For, climbing around and up these trees of mourning, was rose after rose after rose, while, here and there, the spray overburdened by the mass of flower, a live wreath lay fallen on a wreath of stone, or on a box in marble colder than this day, or onto frosted paper blooms which, under glass, marked each bed of earth wherein the dear departed encouraged life above in the green grass, the cypresses and in those roses gay and bright which, as still as this dark afternoon, stared at whosoever looked, or hung their heads to droop, to grow stained, to die when their turn came.

This high, poetic rhetoric and elaborate, chivalric imagery is matched later by Rose’s voice when Charley eventually digs up his few, precious letters from her (which, following a perfect though insane line of reasoning, he cuts up so he can show pieces of them to a graphologist):

“Stinker darling. I’m writing this lain in bed. Old mother Gubbins just got me my breaky. I sniff for my Stinker but there’s not a trace. I bet you wish you were here you old smoothie. Jim won’t be home now till the end of the week….”

His eyes filled with tears. These letters were sacred.

Green has a firm grip on the root from which hilarity and grief diverge. To a great extent, our attitude toward events—whether we see something as devastating or ridiculous, as unbearably painful or as just another of history’s ludicrous exhibitions—is one of distance. Did the thing happen this morning or a thousand years ago? Did we read about it in the newspaper or The Iliad? Did it happen to you or to me?

And in Back, Green often conveys the queasy sensation of experiencing things from incompatible vantages—simultaneously at close range and at a remove. The planes of reality can’t be fitted together any more than the splintered facts of Charley’s world can be fitted together, and our minds have to rearrange themselves a bit to accommodate the jamming of perspectives.

Characters who seem harmless enough initially can take a sinister turn and then twist back into harmlessness. James—the Jim of Rose’s letter, who we’ve realized was her husband—is an obtuse sweetie. Or maybe he isn’t all that obtuse. Or all that sweet, either. Or, no, maybe he is. And Mr. Grant, Rose’s father, amplifies unpredictably and alarmingly from pathetic and wheedling to sanctimonious and bullying. He comes as close at times as any of Green’s characters to being intolerable, but it’s his death that is the most frankly and movingly anguished moment in Back:

It was Mrs. Grant calling, so loudly that he could only just recognize her voice. “Gerald.” “Gerald.” And much more urgent, “D’you hear me?” “Oh d’you hear me, do speak.” She was yelling now. “Gerald.” After which the most frightful sobbing. “Gerald darling, Father, where are you?”; then, in a sort of torn bellow, “Father,” then, finally, “Come back,”….

There are the characters who seem to emanate irrepressibly from mischievous potentialities of the universe. Mr. Middlewitch, for instance, whom Charley first meets at a place where they’re both having artificial limbs fitted—who is he, really, and why is he everywhere? Is he just the annoying clown he seems to be, or is he, as Charley suspects, something more troubling? How is it that everyone else just happens to know him? And is Charley’s landlady, Mrs. Frazier, a busybody, a specter, an oracle, or what?

The central puzzle is personified in Rose’s half sister, Nancy, whom Charley, against mounting evidence to the contrary, insists is Rose. Does she actually look just like Rose? There are indications that she is thought to by a number of people—but there are also indications that she does only in the light of Charley’s need for Rose.

Physical resemblances can be fugitive and treacherous, as we know, so Charley’s painful conflating of the two women, his painful process of distinguishing between them, feels closer to home than psychosis, though certainly gentle, prudent, compassionate Nancy could hardly be more different from frivolous, manipulative, delicious Rose.

The locus of uncertainty keeps changing, and the book’s frequent tone shifts intensify the destabilization. In addition to the sere atmosphere of Charley’s isolation, incomprehension, and despair, there are some of the most voluptuous and exquisite descriptive passages to be found even in Green’s work:

Autumn was the season, most roses were dead. Petals that had dropped some months back and rotted, traces of a summer now gone, were covered by the brown leaves which even in this still air rocked down to lie deep on the ground as they walked, so that their feet rustled. Where a flying bomb had dropped recently, the drift of leaves was still green underfoot, the trees bare as deep winter. Then, just as they were passing this spot, the syrens set up a broken wailing.

Interspersed is the deadpan comic banality of daily life at the office where Charley has been given an important position, with its impenetrable wartime bureaucratese of acronyms and his invention of a disastrous foolproof, double-indexed filing system, the undeserving casualty of which is his secretary—poor Dot, who has been entirely unequipped to deal with Charley’s murkiness.

After being tossed wildly about over the course of Back, we are put at ease on its last page, when Green tells us that Charley and Nancy will have “a happy married life.” But our ease doesn’t last long. Falling over it is the shadow, in the stunning meta-sex scene of the final paragraph, of the trials by which that happiness will have to be won.

It’s typical of Green to leave us with more than we realized he was giving us and to conclude with a concealed reminder that the end of a novel is a highly artificial conceit, that in life stories have no end at all. In fiction, the narration generally just furnishes a resting point and sounds a fanfare: The End, we are told, and content ourselves with that expedient.

But Green’s books tend to open up when you close them and come forth with whole new flowerings. Back is possibly the most eccentric of Green’s extremely eccentric novels—though the gorgeous, enigmatic Concluding, his next novel, is certainly a contender—and Back is probably his harshest. But it conveys potently and with great delicacy the fragility of our sense of wholeness. We put it down in a dazzle of refreshed gratitude for whatever good fortune we happen to have and also with a heightened awareness that we are only a hairsbreadth away from disaster.


Adapted from Deborah Eisenberg’s introduction to Back by Henry Green, published this week by New York Review Books