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.

Green told his interviewer that ‘the writer must be disengaged’, and enjoyed pointing out that Christopher Isherwood, who called Living ‘the best proletarian novel ever written’, had never worked in a factory himself. Pontifex’s own employees, having rumbled the fact that Yorke and Green were the same, weren’t so impressed. ‘I read your book, Henry,’ said a loam-moulder. ‘I didn’t think much of it.’ Green tells the story to explain why he tried to keep his working and literary lives apart. What he learned at the foundry was ‘how little literature counts’. As he says in Pack My Bag, ‘I write books but I am not proud of it any more than anyone is of their nails growing.’ It’s revealing that the loam-moulder uses Yorke’s Christian name: obviously his upper-class provenance wasn’t held against him. There was a similar familiarity from other members of the firm in the recent BBC 2 Bookmark programme on Green. Green’s time at Birmingham was clearly the basis of his lifelong loyalty to common life. This was nothing to do with any ideological commitment to classlessness. In a clip from an old black-and-white tape, Green firmly corrects the interviewer’s attempt to place him in the middle class: ‘You mustn’t say that, my mother would never forgive you. I am an aristocrat.’ It’s said laughingly, however, without any suggestion of hauteur. His early days in the Yorke home on the banks of the Severn are memorably recalled in Pack My Bag, but Green doesn’t dwell on the fact that it had been in the family for a hundred years, and dates from 1392. He’s more interested in the gardener’s resentment at being made to bowl mangle wurzels across the lawn for his sporting mother to shoot at.

The strong sense of class in Green’s fiction doesn’t come from his having any views about it, creatively speaking. It may provide a structure, but it’s hardly an issue. For a writer of his time this shows a striking degree of independence; Green became his own man by simply evading or eliding what wasn’t important to his art. In Living, the scenes involving the Duprets, who own the factory, yield in space and interest to those portraying the lives of the craftsmen who work in it. This isn’t because of any romantic alignment with the working class but because ‘I just wrote what I heard and saw.’

Party Going was written between 1931 and 1938, but the story ‘Excursion’, printed in Surviving for the first time, obviously relates to it; the basic idea of the novel may have been in Green’s mind since the mid-Twenties. It reverses the social balance of its predecessor, being mainly concerned with the rich – Max, Amabel, Alex and their smart friends, driven to take refuge in a station hotel when the trains stop because of fog. Outside, the waiting crowds sit patiently on the platforms; in the warmth of the hotel drinks are sent for and Amabel has a lingering bath. Alex comforts himself with the idea that ‘an English crowd is the best behaved in the world.’ ‘Dear good English people,’ thinks Julia, ‘who never make trouble no matter how bad it is.’ It’s clear that such thoughts are complacent and self-centred, and the basic situation of Party Going brilliantly illustrates money’s power to insulate the few from the hardships of the many. But the novel owes more to the kind of social life that Green and his wife were living (their friends included Aly Khan) than to any thoughts about revolution. Party Going may be a symbolist work, but not an allegorical one.

Caught derives from Green’s experiences as a London fireman during the Blitz. Surviving includes several pieces from this period, and they must have looked quite at home among the wartime reportage in New Writing. He remained fiercely devoted to his colleagues in the service, and one of his last projects was a book on ‘London and Fire 1939-1945’. Only the first section was completed; it contains some marvellous descriptions of the Irish coast, where the Yorkes were on holiday as war loomed. Typically, the character in Caught who is close to Green himself is not done any fictional favours. The Cockney idioms of the firemen seem as fresh and plausible to the ear as the Brummagem accents in Living.

Caught was followed in 1945 by Loving, Green’s most successful – in popular terms his only successful – novel. In his introduction to the new and excellently produced paperback edition (part of a projected reissue of all Green’s fiction), Jeremy Treglown reminds us that Loving is contemporary with Brideshead Revisited. Green and Waugh exchanged grudging letters on the two books; Waugh’s strictures on Green’s ungentlemanly usages are richly absurd, given their respective social origins. What would Waugh have given for the ancestral house which, in later life, Green never went near? Any comparison between the two novels must surely be entirely in Loving’s favour: Waugh’s social pretension looks insufferable beside Green’s fellow-feeling. As Treglown points out, both stories are about the country house in decline, but in Green the fact is taken as given, not as in Waugh made the occasion for maudlin threnody. The 18th-century ‘castle’ in Loving is set in Ireland but almost entirely cut off from it. Its owners push off to England when the problems of keeping it up get too much, leaving their children and the house in the care of the servants, who are all English, except for an indigenous lampman whose speech can’t be understood. Their world is so enclosed as to be almost magical, and their only relationships are with each other. There are rumblings of war, and the question of going back home is kept in view, but for the time being their neutral status gives Green the leisure to explore their situation with a wonderful concentration on both its lyric and comic possibilities.

When Green was asked whether character or situation came first, he replied: ‘Situation every time.’ In practice, the former seems to be inferred from the latter, and that may be why the fit between personality and environment is so good. Green’s characters have all the life they need – partly a function of the naturalness of their speech – but they never threaten to walk off with the book. They are constrained by their situation even as their situation realises them, although it is often fairly static. In Green’s novels most of the time is taken up with relatively trivial things. As his titles indicate, he deals with states rather than plots. E.M. Forster once complained that most of life is so dull that nothing can be said about it, but for Green that is never the case. Some of the pieces in Surviving deal with tiny incidents, on the bus or in the pub, that other writers would never bother with. Long stretches of his novels, as of life itself, particularly at work, are filled with steady if subdued grumbling. The craftsmen in Living complain about their supervisors, who in turn complain about them to their bosses; the firemen in Caught, waiting for the big fire which only comes at the end of the book, constantly gossip about each other out of malice, boredom, or indifference; the servants in Loving bicker over hierarchies and spheres of influence below stairs. But as presented by Green all this appears so quintessentially normal as to seem almost Shakespearean, like the carters in Henry IV fed up with the fleas in the inn which breed because a jordan isn’t provided and they have to leak in the chimney.

In his memoirs Anthony Powell – Henry Yorke’s friend both at school and Oxford – comments on his ‘deep interest in the eternal contrast between everyday life’s flatness and its intensity’. Like all his best work, Loving shows his extraordinary gift for combining the two. When Raunce the butler hears the gramophone playing in the ballroom which the servant girls Edith and Kate are supposed to air once a week, he is at first irritated:

‘The little bitches I’ll show ‘em,’ he said and suddenly opened.

  They were wheeling wheeling in each other’s arms heedless at the far end where they had drawn up one of the white blinds. Above from rather a low ceiling five great chandeliers swept one after the other almost to the waxed parquet floor reflecting in their hundred thousand drops the single spark of distant day, again and again red velvet panelled walls, and two girls, minute in purple, dancing multiplied to eternity in these trembling pears of glass.

It’s a typically Green moment of irradiation and transformation. It might just as well happen in a Birmingham street or a London railway terminus, although it may seem more acceptable in Loving because of the fairy-tale nature of the castle, with its doves and peacocks, its Gothick decor, and its lost ring.

It’s a breathtaking moment for Raunce as well as us because he’s in love with Edith, who – like Lily Gates in Living – is at one moment a perfectly ordinary girl and in the next fathomlessly beautiful. Green loves women; his fiction celebrates them, and surrounds them with imagery that is sensuous and exotic. Alex imagines Amabel in her bath, in Party Going, ‘pink with warmth, and wrapped round with steam ... aromatic steam as well from her bath salts so that if her maid had been a negress then Amabel’s eyes might have shone like two hummingbirds in the tropic airs she glistened in.’ Such sights of female nakedness – whether imagined or real, as on the moving and perfectly phrased last page of Back – are never lubricious; there’s no sound of the voyeur’s heavy breathing. The Keatsian shyness of Green’s adolescent thoughts about women, as recorded in Pack My Bag, always in some sense remained, even though, as he also says there, ‘bodies should be objects of curiosity.’ In a piece written for a Tate Gallery retrospective of his friend Matthew Smith, it is the ‘beauty pure and simple’ of Smith’s nudes than he particularly admires.

Concluding (1948) is also a country house novel, but the property has passed into the hands of the state, and the ominously elderly protagonist has been relegated to a cottage in the grounds. Flights of birds were always important in Green, and the beautiful description of starlings at sunset here marks their last appearance. With them disappear those lyrical effects which he decided to shelve in favour of the almost continuous dialogue of his last two books. Green’s defence of this policy in broadcast talks and elsewhere features largely in the last section of Surviving, and often has a querulous and even obsessive air. It is almost as if he felt that he had to justify abandoning what he had to give up anyway. His argument that dialogue is the best way to create life in fiction is hardly convincing in general terms, and is contradicted by his own previous practice. The ‘life’ of Nothing, a novel of the upper classes, has its interest and its brittle chat is well sustained, but the lack of physicality makes it feel thin. An ‘Invocation to Venice’, written for Vogue in 1952, shows in a series of virtuoso paragraphs that the gift of celebrating place had not been altogether lost.

By 1960 Green was confessing to Alan Ross that he found composition ‘so exhausting now I simply can’t do it any more’. He was not in good shape physically, was troubled by his increasing deafness, and the steady intake of gin can’t have helped. Even so, he continued to read a novel a day (from the hard-pressed Harrods library), struggled with a stage play that never came off, and wrote a script for television (included in Surviving) which wasn’t accepted. His infrequent book reviews are not those of the practised literary man. His tastes were unpredictable: Powell records that at Oxford he admired Carlyle, and the new collection includes a tribute to the dateless prose of C.M. Doughty, author of Arabia Deserta. He admired Céline, Faulkner and Hemingway, and had been a Jamesian. A review of Virginia Woolf’s Diary finds him rather aghast at her ‘endless, excruciating and exhausting labour’. Modern authors he read on his own terms, feeling no obligation to approve. More seriously frustrating is his inability to take his thinking about his own methods very far. When asked to say something about the use of symbolism, Green’s reply, in toto, was this:

You can’t escape it can you? What after all is one to do with oneself in print? Does the reader feel a dread of anything? Do they all feel a dread for different things? Do they all love differently? Surely the only way to cover all these readers is to use what is called symbolism.

It’s hard to imagine anything more unsatisfactorily incomplete from a writer who himself uses symbolism more subtly than most.

A passage in Pack My Bag, written twenty years earlier, provides a more suggestive description of what Green aimed at, and helps to indicate, to some degree, why he now seems to have more to offer us than any of his novelist contemporaries. He’s discussing the difficulty – for the mid-life autobiographer – of naming names, and why he is happy to leave them out. ‘Prose is not to be read aloud but to oneself alone at night, and it is not quick as poetry but rather a gathering web of insinuations which go further than names however shared can go. Prose should be a long intimacy between strangers with no direct appeal to what both may have known. It should slowly appeal to feelings unexpressed, it should in the end draw tears out of the stone ... ’ For ‘names’ here one can understand all those areas of public concern, moral judgment and social journalism with which Green’s novels have little or nothing to do. He shows us how far lyric perception and fidelity to common speech will go, how much can be left out, provided you can write sentences which are like nobody else’s.