The Curious Translucence of Henry Green’s Late-Career Novels
By Dustin IllingworthDecember 20, 2017
FOR ALL the imagistic compression and dizzy wonder of the prose, what the reader may find most remarkable about Henry Green’s work is its curious translucence. “His work does not represent life,” Eudora Welty wrote of the great modernist’s uncanny literary effect, “it presents life.” Indeed, it is as if these novels, adorned with their terse, gerundive titles (Living, Loving, Doting, Party Going, and so on), are simply too vital, too thrillingly vascular to countenance the presence of their author. They seem to spring into existence as we read them, fully formed, brimming with a vigorous oddity.
Of course, this invisibility is a consequence of the highest literary artistry. It is also symptomatic of Green’s inborn reticence. He wrote under a pseudonym (he was born Henry Vincent Yorke to a successful industrialist), and throughout his career he displayed an aversion to even the rudiments of publicity, even preferring to be photographed from behind, “like a surrealist clerk,” as James Wood has it. Significantly, his greatest works mimic a world quite unlike his own. Green was something of a rarity as a novelist, a patrician whose lasting fascination lay with working-class speech, the textures and burred rhythms of the Birmingham factory workers, Irish country manor servants, and Auxiliary Fire Service volunteers that animate his novels. In his 1940 memoir, Pack My Bag, Green claimed that when workers describe the world around them, “they are literally unsurpassed in the spoken word.” It is a strange thing indeed that an aristocratic novelist should reveal, with uncommon sensitivity and understanding, the natural poetry of England’s vibrant, earthy dialects.
There is, too, a tremendous sympathy in Green’s social inversions. His characters may be funny — often uproariously so — but their burbling humors and habits are always uniquely their own, and never there to serve the mercenary meanness of plot or expectation. They are alive as Shakespeare’s characters are; that is, they take their own existence for granted. They are bound up in the headlong rush of time, its froths and shallows, talking, dreaming, loving, betraying, ever shrouded in the mystery of human behavior and its attendant bewilderment. There are accidents, misapprehensions, flights, and lucky breaks. Green’s narratives comprise a kind of living music, a sweet confusion that is both deeply melancholy and reflective of the reader’s own daily condition.
Take this exchange from Loving (1945), in which a butler and a young servant exchange intimacies:
Lying back he squinted into the blushing rose of that huge turf fire as it glowed, his bluer eye azure on which was a crescent rose reflection. “Love,” he went on toneless, “what about you an’ me getting married? There I’ve said it.”
“That’ll want thinking over Charley,” she replied at once. 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.
It’s all there, in just a few words: enchantment, insecurity, perplexity, risk, embedded in the bashful, roseate ache of love. Green’s brief, pitch-perfect dialogue acts as a kind of golden spike, which holds his gossamer lyricism in place lest it float away entirely. He mastered and iterated this extraordinary balancing act in the writing of his first seven novels, composed between 1926 and 1946. Green would bring this technique to its apex — and then boldly reject it — over the course of writing his final three books, Concluding (1948), Nothing (1950), and Doting (1952).
Green believed life itself to be vastly more important than literature, which he referred to as “that overblown trumpet.” Part of the difficulty of interpreting Concluding — or, indeed, any Green novel — is this sense that meaning is almost beside the point, a meager shadow thrown by the vividness of ordinary existence. That there is a great deal more happening beneath these exquisitely rendered surfaces is part and parcel of Green’s genius. Recently reissued by New Directions, Concluding ostensibly tells the story of Mr. Rock, an elderly, once-famous scientist whose cottage is much desired by Miss Edge and Miss Baker, the scheming matrons of a girl’s school upon whose grounds the cottage rests. But as with so much of Green, the events in Concluding are largely incidental; they’re mere staging grounds for the vast, impartial, cresting spells of daily life. “If you live on a place you take part in the day to day affairs,” Mr. Rock says early on. Almost immediately, he corrects himself: “You come to feel part of it.” How Concluding’s strange and estranging characters “come to feel part of it” is Green’s lasting fascination and the novel’s true provenance.
There is a streak of the ominous that runs through Concluding, a sinister, flickering light whose source is never entirely disclosed; rather, it is sensed with the skin as when one is being watched. It arises, at least partially, from Green’s bewitching, lyrical prose. Here is Mr. Rock’s somewhat untethered granddaughter, Elizabeth, and her lover, Sebastian, a teacher at the girl’s school, as they come upon their trysting place in the forest beyond the campus grounds:
A world through which the young man and his girl had been meandering in dreaming shade through which sticks of sunlight slanted to spill upon the ground, had at this point been struck to a blaze, and where their way had been dim, on a sea bed past grave trunks, was now this dying, brilliant mass which lay exposed, a hidden world of spiders working on its gold, the webs these made a field of wheels and spokes of wet silver. The sudden sunlight on Elizabeth and Sebastian as, arms about one another’s waists, they halted to wonder and surmise, was a load, a great cloak to clothe them, like a depth of warm water that turned the man’s brown city outfit to a drowned man’s clothes, the sun was so heavy, so encompassing betimes.
This is extraordinary not only as a piece of writing but also in its inauguration of Concluding’s fabulist texture, the unlikely threads of which, like the spider’s “spokes of wet silver,” come to form an exquisitely embroidered web. There is, for instance, Mr. Rock’s charming trio of too-intelligent animals (a white cat, a white goose, and the book’s breakout star, a white pig named Daisy); the revelation that two girls have vanished (murder or mischief?) from campus overnight; the meeting of a secret, scandalizing club of kissing students; and a great hall of young women dancing in white. Across this whimsied skein, mysterious energies crackle and fade, schemes erode, affections flare. “In what way is any single person sure how a certain matter will turn out?” asks Elizabeth. In Concluding, Green has made of this uncertainty a kind of exaltation.
Mr. Rock’s foils, the delightfully shrewish Miss Edge and Miss Baker, keep the missing girls’ disappearance secret in the hope that the problem will resolve itself without the stain of Official Reports. (A vaguely dystopian socialist authority looms constantly, which suggests Green’s antipathy to the emerging British welfare state.) Indeed, administrative paranoia is operative throughout the novel, the result of a disintegration of order that is held in check — if only barely — by the ballast of love that steadies Green’s revolving pairs: Rock and Elizabeth, Elizabeth and Sebastian, Rock and his pig, and, perhaps especially, Miss Edge and Miss Baker. The recriminations and consolatory rhythms of these harpies are splendidly complex. They seem to want to be villains but fail to qualify because of their likable contrariness, their inexplicable pivots, their nerve and desire. We wish them well despite ourselves.
The book’s title is finally ironic, as nothing much concludes at its ending. One girl is still missing (we never discover where she is or why she departed in the first place); Elizabeth and Sebastian appear to be at a crossroads; and it is anyone’s guess whether the spinsters will be able to pry the cottage from Rock’s hands. “We can’t help ourselves, can we?” Sebastian asks in the trysting forest. “Things happen.” This very Greenian abridgment is perhaps the finest précis of the novel we are likely to receive.
Green would never again reach the lyrical heights achieved in Concluding. The offhand flourishes of its poetry are consistently stunning — girls dance “like horns of paper, across warm, rustling fields,” eyes are “jewels enclosed by flesh coloured anemones” — but stylistically it was something of a consummation. In his final two novels, each extraordinary in its own right, Green would abandon this virtuosity for the stark purity of dialogue, a ritualized dance of voices.
“Do we know, in life, what other people are really like?” Henry Green presented this question to a BBC audience in 1950 while discussing dialogue and the novel. “I very much doubt it,” he continued. “We certainly do not know what others are thinking and feeling. How then can the novelist be so sure?” Speech in Green’s novels is almost always animated by this suspicion: that the contours of oneself, let alone those of other people, are ultimately unknowable. His characters are puzzled by their lives and circumstances, and their conversation is an enactment of this confusion. They approach each other obliquely through the clumsy concealment of words, a language that the critic V. S. Pritchett memorably described as “beautifully inadequate to their condition.” Despite its humor, its exactness, its warmth of tone and expressive range, dialogue in Green’s novels remains a kind of measuring rod for the varieties of human deception. Rather than articulating what the characters themselves believe they are saying, these exchanges most often sound the chasm between social performance and what was once called the soul. It is a language of incomplete understanding.
In both Nothing and Doting, these endlessly speaking (but rarely listening) characters are the sole conveyances of story, such as it is; Green himself is conspicuously absent as a narrator. Gone are the gorgeous descriptions of streets and lights and buildings and clothes. Instead, the reader encounters an extraordinary act of mimicry, an upper-middle-class farce of geometric precision. Effortlessly elegant, sad and lightly mocking, minimalist, funny, strange, and with more than a passing interest in the sexual life of middle age, Green’s desperately underrated final novels have been given new life in two handsome reissues from NYRB Classics.
Nothing follows the plotting of two widowed former lovers, John Pomfret and Jane Weatherby, whose affair was carried out beneath the nose of John’s wife, at one time Jane’s best friend. Their intrigue is centered upon their two grown children from different unions, Philip and Mary, whom they attempt to dissuade from marrying each other, ostensibly out of fear for their economic prospects in the austerity of postwar London. Doting charts the yearnings and fumbling lusts of a married couple, Arthur and Diana Middleton, as they are preyed upon by age, disillusionment, and the surprising intensity of latent urges.
Green complicates what would be mere comedies of manners in lesser hands by implicating existential dread as a plausible motivation for the characters’ duplicities. Indeed, though they are no doubt legitimately concerned about the prospects of their children, the machinations of Nothing’s John and Jane are driven at least as much by the dawning realization that they have lost the optimism and expectation of their ever-receding youth. Aged and increasingly vulnerable, they obsess over their precarious financial position (“Oh my dear isn’t it too frightful about one’s money”), and are made anxious by the intimations of physical frailty all around them: “Too too disagreeable,” Jane moans after hearing of a friend’s illness. “And now that all one’s friends have reached middle age is there to be nothing but illness from now on, first Arthur then my dear you?” This reckoning with mortality lends pathos to their selfishness; as ever, Green will not countenance the reader’s self-righteousness. (It is classic Green when we find ourselves somehow happy that the schemers end up together in a blissful late-life domesticity, the children having been foiled.)
Despite its nimble humor, Doting, too, is suffused with the resigned, habitualized melancholy of aging. “[D]’you really think we are making the best of our lives?” Diana asks Arthur, who lacks a convincing answer. He is attempting to stave off the question’s implied crisis by conducting a brief, frazzled, and ultimately unconsummated affair with a young friend of the family. In a play at revenge, Diana begins seeing Arthur’s old friend, Charles Addinsell. These relationships bring neither comfort nor clarity, only the desperate, baffled knowledge of human separateness. “Nothing ever gets better,” Charles offers. “Not at our age.” But neither does it seem to get much worse. Doting’s final line — “The next day they all went on very much the same” — can be taken either as a jab at the comic banality of life or as an affirmation of the daily potentialities of an ungovernable universe (or, more likely, a bit of both).
Though he lived until 1973, Green would never write another novel after the publication of Doting in 1952. His descent into agoraphobia and alcoholism, perhaps precipitated by his wartime experiences, stymied one of the extraordinary literary outputs of the 20th century. Still, there is an undeniable satisfaction in witnessing his progression from modernist experimenter to virtuosic minimalist. One may wish for more books, of course, but there is nothing incomplete about his accomplishment.
Dustin Illingworth is a writer in Southern California. His work has appeared in The Atlantic, the Paris Review, and the Times Literary Supplement.
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