Henry Green’s novels, with their one-word titles and uniform dimensions, can create an impression of sameness, but anyone who reads just two of his books will find them to be wonderfully different. Doting (set in post–World War II London) is as unlike Loving (set in an Irish country house) as Loving is unlike Living (set in a Birmingham factory). Any generalization about Green, beyond his being one of the most engrossing and original English novelists of the twentieth century, is liable to contradiction. Each book is an adventure in subject, and in language. Caught is psychological, involved with the thoughts and unexpressed feelings of disoriented characters lost or freed by war; Loving, the novel Green wrote immediately after it, hovers in entranced observation in front of its characters and never enters their heads at all; Back, published a year later, traps the reader in the deluded mind of a wounded ex-POW, in one of the great verbal depictions of inarticulacy.
There are procedures and characteristics of phrasing that tell you you’re reading Green: dialogue lifelike in its circlings and evasions; the omission of articles and hyphens throwing words into new live contact with one another; a simple, even curt exactness of statement passing without warning into astonishing elaborations of syntax: leaps above leaps made from a standing start and capturing the shape and movement of a thought or a sensation. But everything is fresh, unencumbered by habit or formula. For the last twenty years of his life (he died in 1973) Green wrote nothing more, and one reason for this silence, along with drink and depression, was surely a refusal to repeat himself.
Caught, Loving, and Back make a typically contrasting trio, all written during World War II, and all about the war, seen in three distinct phases and in unexpected lights. Caught (1943) is perhaps Green’s most autobiographical novel, drawing directly on his experience as a member of the Auxiliary Fire Service, the large voluntary force that supported the London Fire Brigade during the Blitz. It culminates in a long spoken account of a night of bombardment from an auxiliary fireman’s point of view, a description of the muddled participant’s merely fractional sense of the larger catastrophe, in the tradition of Shakespeare’s or Tolstoy’s battle scenes. But the bulk of the book is taken up with the period of restless waiting for action, with the protagonist Richard Roe, like Green from a landed upper-class family in the west of England, separated from his wife, Dy, and son, Christopher, and thrown into the company of the men and women of the fire station, all of them from very different backgrounds.
It turns out that Pye, the regular fireman in charge of the station, has a sister who some time before had abducted young Christopher from a department…
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