Admiring

Stephen Wall

  • Surviving: The Uncollected Writings of Henry Green edited by Matthew Yorke
    Chatto, 302 pp, £18.00, February 1992, ISBN 0 7011 3900 5
  • Pack my bag by Henry Green
    Hogarth, 242 pp, £9.99, February 1992, ISBN 0 7012 0988 7
  • Loving by Henry Green
    Harvill, 225 pp, £6.99, February 1992, ISBN 0 00 271185 0

Henry Green’s literary career began precociously and ended prematurely. According to his son Sebastian Yorke, the future novelist was already ‘writing hard’ at eleven or twelve, under a different pseudonym from the one he later adopted. At Eton he was a founder member of a Society of Arts, and his adolescent pose as an aesthete fostered some paragraphs which are subjected to a withering critique in his remarkable self-portrait Pack My Bag, written in 1938-9 under the threat of war and now reissued. He began his first novel Blindness while still at school; it came out while he was at Oxford. His account of undergraduate life there in Pack My Bag is a little rushed, but it wonderfully evokes the euphoria of licensed idleness in beautiful surroundings (he was at Magdalen) while remaining beady-eyed about its snobbery and self-absorption. He went down without a degree, failing to get on both with Anglo-Saxon and with his tutor C.S. Lewis, and understandably preferring to spend every afternoon at the cinema.

After Oxford, Henry Yorke (to use his proper name) spent two years on the shop floor in the family engineering firm H. Pontifex and Sons. This led to the appearance of Living, his novel of factory life, in 1929. Marriage to a distant cousin followed, and their smart social life is reflected in Party Going (1939). During the war he served in the London Fire Service, but continued to manage Pontifex’s London office on his days off. Even so, the Forties were his most productive time, during which he published Caught, Loving, Back and Concluding. Nothing and Doting appeared in 1950 and 1952, after which Green, still under fifty, appeared to have ground to a halt. He retired from business, became increasingly reclusive and died in 1973, aged 68.

The disconcerting emptiness of his last twenty years is now to some extent filled in by Surviving, a book of Green’s uncollected writings edited by his grandson Matthew Yorke, and rounded off with a touching if too brief memoir by Sebastian Yorke. John Updike contributes a gracefully enthusiastic introduction. For Green, writing fiction was so demanding – partly because he could only work at it in the evenings and at weekends, and partly because he rewrote so much – that it’s not surprising that he had little time left over for occasional pieces. Those that do exist are more interesting for the light they throw on already published work than for themselves. Living, for example, is noted for its frequent omission of the definite article (rather as Russians do when speaking English). In a Paris Review interview in 1958 Green explained that this was to keep the novel ‘as taut and spare as possible, to fit the proletarian life I was then leading’, but it’s anticipated in two earlier stories. One is a playful fantasy about a giant living in Wales; the other, ‘Saturday’, is close in subject-matter to Living, but – as in the novel – the defamiliarising effect seems essentially lyrical in intention:

And water dripped from tap on wall into basin and into water there. Sun. Water drops made rings in clear-coloured water. Sun in these shook on the walls and ceiling. As rings went out round trembling over the water shadows of light from sun in these trembled on walls.

The phrasing of the last sentence is an early example of the manner which became characteristic. It appears only fitfully in the abandoned novel ‘Mood’, which dates from 1926 but which Green may have gone on struggling with after Living.

Both the fragment and Green’s rueful discussion of it in 1960 are included in Surviving. He deplores ‘Mood’s technical shortcomings and his inability to profit from the kindly advice of Edward Garnett (affectionately recalled in another piece), but finally puts its unfinishableness down to the death of the girl who had inspired it. There’s certainly something uneasy about its tone from the start: ‘Constance was utterly charming. This book is about Constance. When you have read it you too will say how charming Constance is.’ Green was right to realise that the reader is not going to be taken in or along by such arch appeals. The extreme directness and simplicity of Green’s achieved style only works because rhetoric is swallowed up by a detachment that leaves the reader free and unpressured.

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