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 store—plot twists of dreamlike oddity are often part of Green’s non-plot-driven novels, and Pye’s complicated anxieties about his sister, his visit to her in a mental hospital, and his unfounded conviction that the hospital wants him to pay for her care form a countertheme to Richard’s boredom, loneliness, and undeniable excitement. It is part of Green’s genius to enter with equal understanding into the dream life and the intimate sexual memories of these two distinct men. He writes about sexual feelings, their urgency and ubiquity, better than any writer of his period, the compulsions heightened here by the aphrodisiac effects of the war, and of London during the Blitz in particular1; desire, intensified by abnormal conditions, fear of imminent death, and closeness to available strangers, runs through the book and gives rise to some of its most unforgettable flights of language:
The relief he experienced when their bodies met was like the crack, on a snow silent day, of a branch that breaks to fall under a weight of snow, as his hands went like two owls in daylight over the hills, moors, and wooded valleys, over the fat white winter of her body.
The whole novel, rich in unexpected metaphor, leaves a somehow incandescent impression of being miraculously both humdrum and visionary.
Henry Green, whose real name was Henry Yorke, had been through Eton and then Oxford, where he was part of its exhaustively written-about mid-1920s social scene, with Evelyn Waugh and Anthony Powell among his writer friends; he published his first novel, Blindness (1926), while still an undergraduate, but devoted much of his student life to playing billiards and going, addictively, to the cinema. Waugh and Powell would make their names as novelists of raffishly upper-class life, their social experience broadened, in their thirties, by their experience in the army. Green was quite different, in part no doubt because of what he did next. The Yorkes had a flourishing engineering business, H. Pontifex & Sons, in Birmingham, and after he went down from Oxford without a degree, Green worked for his father on the factory’s shop floor (he would rise eventually to be managing director).
He would show, for instance in the dashing and drawling dialogue of Party Going (1939), in which a group of fashionable people are trapped by fog in a train station hotel, that he could hit off his own social world perfectly; but what absorbs him, and it’s a significant part of his greatness, are the lives and the language of people quite unlike himself. In Living (1929), set in and around a Midlands engineering works not unlike Pontifex, he performs a marvelous reversal of the inherited social perspective of the novel, giving the Duprets, the factory owners, small parts, but focusing all the action on the lives, the routines, and the aspirations of the factory workers and their families. Not only that, but the prose of the book is itself radically adapted—much of the novel is dialogue, some twenty named characters introduced in the first few pages, some with very similar names, and exacting the closest attention from the reader. Starting the book is like the first day in a new job, the immersion in an alien world all set up and running. And the compressed and clipped language of the workers forms a template for Green’s own prose:
And then over all town sound of hooters broke out. Men and women quickly came from, now together mixed, and they went like tongues along licking the streets.
Then children went into houses from streets along with these men and girls. Women gave them to eat. Were only sparrows now in streets. But on roads ceaselessly cars came in from country, or they went out into it, in, out.
It’s a subtle traffic of artifice and actuality. There are parallels for Green’s Anglo-Saxon brevity in poems that Auden was writing at the same time, and precedents for it in the tortuous verse dramas of Charles Doughty, which Green at least found not only readable but exciting. The quick-fire editing and imagistic economy owe something to the cinema. But the overall effect is fresh and focused—not the benign redemption of working-class speech by a cultured novelist, but a revelatory account of a world in its own richly adequate language. Green never wrote in so fiercely stripped-down and compacted a manner again, but the sociolinguistic experiment of Living, carried off with beautiful certainty, sets the terms for everything he would do: writing without received ideas, either about people or about literary language, and thus making something new out of both in each successive book.
Green was a writer constitutionally unable to condescend to his characters or to his readers. His acutely heard working-class characters can be funny, but they’re never comic turns. In Caught, Mary Howells, an unskilled woman brought in to cook for the fire service, goes AWOL to visit her no-good son-in-law Ted in Doncaster; on getting there she finds herself unable to say any of the stern things that were the purpose of her visit, though on returning to London she delivers a vigorous account of how she gave him a piece of her mind. Her audience is Piper, a smelly, servile old veteran, derided when not overlooked, the kind of figure Richard would otherwise never have known, but who becomes an inescapable, almost an essential, thread of his wartime experience. Dickens might have done Mary and Piper, but they would have been “characters,” where Green’s creations are simply, complexly, people.
I’ve been speaking of this new edition of Caught, but readers already familiar with the novel will be scratching their heads after just a few pages, since it prints Green’s original version for the first time in the US (it was also published by Vintage in the UK last summer). This large editorial decision is glancingly mentioned on the back cover, but not enough, indeed nothing at all, is made of it in the book itself (there is no textual note): the changes in feeling, above all, brought about by superseding the only text available in the previous seventy-three years, are considerable.
There had been anxieties about the book before its original publication, partly to do with its candid depiction of the fire service, partly with its demotic language (Green’s change of “piss off” to “wee wee off,” an expression surely never used before or since, silently mocks the censor), and partly to do with Richard’s adulterous affair in London with a woman called Hilly, which the publisher’s lawyer, alert to the personal nature of the book, thought might lead to one of Green’s lovers suing them. (The novelist Rosamond Lehmann, a close friend, and possibly more, during the war, referred to his “rota of ridiculously young girls.”)
Surprisingly for so self-determined a writer, Green agreed to alter the narrative and swiftly rewrote it, killing off Richard’s wife, Dy, giving her name instead to a newly invented sister-in-law, and interpolating phrases such as “who was dead” after references to the wife. Only a stylist as unconventional as Green could have got away with these jolting and peculiar asides, or made something persuasive of the half-disguised traces of a character he had conceived of as perfectly fit and well. The marital love theme is thus abruptly turned into a haunting, effective in itself and feeding too into the curious scenario of Back, in which a soldier whose lover has died in his absence refuses to accept that she is not still alive.
But now Dy herself is back, and the strength and veracity of Green’s original conception show all the brighter. Adulterous sex has a keener charge and sense of helpless inevitability, and the scenes between Richard and Dy, weirdly remote when Dy was her sister, have new intensity. Things that had been spectrally remembered become real, and a two-page scene of husband and wife in bed is printed for the first time: Richard worried that she will smell Hilly on his skin, a striking detail about the “slightly dirty” hole in her earlobe made by a piercing signaling the whole world of their intimacy. Green’s original thoughts emerge, unsurprisingly, as his best ones.
Loving (1945) takes a look at wartime life from an angle both unexpected and in all ways the opposite of Waugh’s contemporaneous country-house novel, Brideshead Revisited. Green’s house, Kinalty, eccentric and run-down, is in neutral Ireland, and Loving, typically for him, is a downstairs-upstairs novel. Mrs. Tennant, the owner, and her daughter-in-law make occasional appearances in the drawing room when not absent in England, but the wealth of Green’s interest lies with the servants—all of whom, save Paddy O’Conor the illiterate lampman, are English, the younger ones evading the call-up back home. “What do we know about the servants?” asks Mrs. Tennant late in the book, a question the reader already has abundant answers to. The novel depicts a threatened world, the characters living in fear not only of the army but of “Jerry” and of the IRA. Yet it is about love, particularly the love of Edith the housemaid for Charley Raunce the young butler, who comes to his position after the death of old Mr. Eldon in the opening pages.
Loving is as sexy as Caught, but in a different way. Alongside the quandaries and rivalries of cook, housekeeper, and nanny, Green builds up an extraordinary atmosphere of deepening desire in the house, part of it unmistakably his own rapt feelings about Edith, with her eyes “which were warm and yet caught the light like plums dipped in cold water,” and the skin of her half-naked body “like the flower of white lilac under leaves.” To Waugh, who had earlier told Green, “I never tire of hearing you talk about women,” Loving was “obscene”; and it’s true that the dreamy scenes in the bedroom that Edith shares with the maid Kate, Kate undressing Edith and lying in bed with her, tense with longing and curiosity, to talk about men, verge on the pornographic. It’s true too that these passages are among the most entrancing in the book:
The sky was overcast so that the light was dark as though under water…. Kate began to stroke up and down the inside of Edith’s arm from the hollow of her elbow to the wrist. Edith lay still with closed eyes. The room was dark as long weed in the lake.
Feelings and sensations flower spontaneously into simile, into moments of rapt attentiveness with their own exploratory rhythms:
Her eyes left his face and with what seemed a quadrupling in depth came following his to rest on those rectangles of warmth alive like blood. From this peat light her great eyes became invested with rose incandescence that was soft and soft and soft.
This is when Charley has finally proposed to Edith. The rectangles of warmth are turf squares burning on the library fire, where the servants are spreading themselves in the absence of their employers; but they conspire, by verbal association, with the quadrupling depth of Edith’s eyes, light penetrating a space that expands to receive it.
A lot is going wrong in the world of this novel: Raunce is anxiously fiddling the books, Violet is involved in an adulterous affair, and her mother’s loss of a treasured ring hints at a larger loss of control; at the end Raunce and Edith prepare to return to England, and all the inevitable grimness it entails. Yet the mood of Loving is one of escape, irresponsibility, a weird, tatty, but beautiful fantasy of elsewhere written four years into a long war (between the autumns of 1943 and 1944). Kinalty is the kind of house Green himself had known well before the war, and he summons up the buildings, the peacocks, the dovecote designed like the Leaning Tower of Pisa, the lavish but eccentric country-house furniture, with a delicate mix of fondness and farce again quite unlike the heady nostalgia of Brideshead.
Back (1946) takes us on to the exhausted last phase of the war, an English world in whose shabbiness and depletion Green keeps finding his own poetry, like wildflowers on a bomb site. Part of the interest always lies in seeing how he exploits the constraints of his scenarios—he has a dramatic sense of the spaces, inner and outer, in which he is working. Back presents a severer challenge than most, shutting the reader for much of the time inside the helplessly misguided mind of wounded and grief-stricken Charley Summers, who has spent three years in a prisoner-of-war camp, lost a leg, and come home to grieve for Rose, the woman he loved, who died during the war.
Rose’s father puts him in touch with another young woman called Nancy, who we soon learn is Rose’s illegitimate half-sister, and who in Charley’s eyes so exactly resembles her that he believes Nancy is Rose. Likeness, as a source of mistaken identity, probably thrives better in Shakespearean comedy than in a novel of contemporary life, where realistic questions and objections are harder to suppress. The difficult triumph of Back is to persuade us that for a man disoriented by war and imprisonment, the mistaken belief that one person is another, and an intimately known one at that, is possible, while any helpful evidence to the contrary will be paranoiacally twisted to support the misbelief.
Halfway through the novel Green interpolates, as a story in a magazine, a twelve-page extract from the Souvenirs of the eighteenth-century Marquise de Créquy, which turns on just such a case of uncanny resemblance between a living person and a dead lover—an actual text, translated by Green himself. Waugh thought this a grave flaw in the book’s design—“a long & irrelevant & inelegant translation from the French. Very mad”—but Green is so intuitive a writer that the apparent irrelevancies and inconsistencies in his books tend always to serve some convincing purpose. The French account of a woman attached to two men “who were entirely different and yet at the same time exactly similar” provides a kind of real-life justification for the apparently bizarre invented narrative, while the montage-like dislocation of tone adds a further voice to the many in the book. The next chapter opens in a register comically different from the marquise’s—a business letter written in an idiom, thick with abbreviations and technical phrases, that the writer hasn’t entirely mastered, and that only obscurely conveys its intended complaints and threats.
Back has its medley of uncommunicating voices, written and spoken; the words are obstructions more often than clarifications, and no one can get through to Charley. Dialogues turn out to be monologues, brilliantly funny ones for the lecherous fellow amputee Arthur Middlewitch and for Charley’s mendacious landlady Mrs. Frazier, both given free rein by Charley’s virtual silence: he is usually “some sentences behind,” lost in his own thoughts, and often rendered speechless just when he most needs to explain himself: “Charley stayed silent. His day to day sense of being injured by everyone, by life itself, rose up and gagged him.” He only gains any articulateness when describing the elaborate filing system he has evolved at the engineering works where he’s employed: “like any silent man he talked technicalities freely, once he got started.” The filing is his barely comprehensible attempt to impose order, and proves to be disastrously flawed.
Charley is given an assistant called Dot, around whom his balked sexual feelings play in a strangely dissociated way: her breasts have a “covered creepiness,” “like two soft nests of white mice, in front,” her “fingers terribly white, pointed into painted nails like the sheaths of flowers which might at any minute, he once found himself feeling late at night, mushroom into tulips, such as when washing up, perhaps.” Charley’s inner life is glimpsed in obscurely proliferating images and word associations. The word “rose,” in its several meanings, creates the illusion of secret associations for the man who can’t bring himself to accept that he’s lost the Rose he loved. He takes Dot as his plus-one for a weekend visit, and she goes up to bed to wait for him, “spread out like butter on bread,” but Charley spends the night in another room. Sexual feelings thwarted by unhappiness and opportunities ignored have a special poignancy in Green, whose understanding of sexual instinct is always quick and sure.
It’s easy to speak of Green as a figure so sui generis as to have come from nowhere, and at most to coincide with other experimental writers of his time (there are, for instance, recurrent similarities with Eliot’s poetry, as in the transfigured rose garden scene at the end of Back, in which Charley and Nancy stand on the threshold of married love). But Adam Thirlwell, in his excellent new introduction to Living, takes care to situate Green in what he calls “a certain overlooked circuit of literary history” of dialogue novels starting with Thomas Love Peacock’s country-house satires in the early 1800s; passing through Henry James’s The Awkward Age, deliberately constructed like a stage play with no access by the author to the characters’ thoughts; and on through “the wackier experiments” of Ronald Firbank and Ivy Compton-Burnett to John Ashbery (who wrote his master’s dissertation on Green).
I wonder, though, if “wacky” justly describes what Firbank did. His short novels may give a superficial impression of daffiness and inconsequence, but they are underpinned by a steely discipline. His Vainglory (1915) was technically the most original English novel since Sterne, the book in which he showed himself a radical innovator, throwing away the conventions, social and moral, of the Victorian novel, and replacing its great consequential bulk with elliptical structures built up out of coruscating fragments. He worked, as Green later would, by simultaneous compression and aeration, leaving narrative to be glimpsed in jumps and flashes through the brilliant texture of speech and lapidary description. His dialogue takes James’s experiments in obliquity a stage further, while rendering it with more lifelike accuracy. As V.S. Pritchett said, “Firbank must have been the first disinterested, clinical listener to the lunacy of conversation.” Henry Green must have been the second.
Firbank can be thought of as a writer’s writer, a tired phrase for a type of vital transfer within and between generations. He showed new technical possibilities whose fascination lay deeper than technicalities—a means of revolt against received forms that caught the mood of the whole post–Great War generation, in its multifarious conceptions of modernism. Waugh was the first major writer to understand this: in an essay of 1929, three years after Firbank’s death, we catch exactly that transmitted excitement. He sees Firbank’s “progeny” all over the place, in Osbert Sitwell, Carl Van Vechten, Ernest Hemingway (we can now add to that list Henry Green, Anthony Powell, Noël Coward, W.H. Auden, yes, Ivy Compton-Burnett, and decidedly Waugh himself—he was writing Vile Bodies at the time).
That same year Waugh reviewed Living, claiming that technically it was “without exception the most interesting book I have read.” In a letter to Green he admits, “The thing I envied most was the way you managed the plot which is oddly enough almost exactly the way Firbank managed his.” In the essay on Firbank he might have been describing the novels his friend would go on to write—“his compositions built up, intricately and with a balanced alternation of the wildest extravagance and the most austere economy, with conversational nuances.”
In the common view of the Modernist novel in English it is Joyce and Woolf who are (very properly) extolled (as they are by Amit Chaudhuri in a fine new introduction to Party Going), while poor Firbank, quite as innovative and influential as either, is barely remembered at all. Another thing Green shares with him is a precarious hold on bookstore shelves—his books are periodically revived and reissued, urged on by fellow writers and critics and persuadable publishers; then drop, pretty quickly, out of print once more. The ongoing New York Review Books editions of his novels has the air of a more lasting ambition. It is a great thing to have.2