Monday, October 19, 2009

Back, by Henry Green

I’ve only read a few books in my life with awe: Anna Karenina was one, when I was 19, and Party Going was another, a few years later, read at a single sitting in a dark corner of the college library. I’d discovered an ugly paperback in a used bookstore a few days earlier containing three of Henry Green’s novels: Loving, Living, and Party Going. The cover was filled with praise – extravagant praise, not the polite bookjacket variety – from people like W.H. Auden and Rebecca West, and I bought the book because I was curious why I’d never heard anything about the author.

Within three pages of Party Going I couldn’t stop. Not because of plot, because there was almost none, and not because of fine writing, because Green’s sentences were often baffling, and certainly not because I liked the characters, because they were virtually interchangeable, not particularly bright, and had few apparent concerns other than sleeping with each other. But I knew almost immediately that this was one of the great reading experiences of my life. Like Tolstoy – and this is the only similarity – ordinary life seemed to be taking on an intensity and strangeness that it had never possessed before on a page.

In Anna Karenina, though, I had some sense of how Tolstoy was doing it. There were insights to admire, huge passages where you could see how the spell was being cast phrase by phrase. With Green I had no idea, and still don’t. I’ve never even recommended Party Going to anyone because I’m at a loss to explain why I think it’s such a great book, and I’m not sure who else it would appeal to.

Over the years, Green has accumulated an odd coterie of admirers – Updike, Eudora Welty, Tim Parks, Terry Southern – and, as far as I can tell, very few readers. Each admirer also tends to connect with a different set of Green’s books because they are extraordinarily dissimilar. Despite some obvious stylistic similarities – the preponderance of dialogue, the occasional dropping of articles, strange word orders – each novel takes on a different method of storytelling and an entirely new set of narrative problems. And unlike, say, D.H. Lawrence, Green doesn’t have a stable set of moral concerns, and occasionally appears to have no concerns at all: his books don’t seem to be making points or pushing any view of the world on the reader. At first, it’s hard to see what drove Green to write them, and indeed Green wasn’t too sure himself. He had plenty of money and a job available to him running his family’s factory, and he apparently wrote novels because he couldn’t help it. He once said that he was no more proud of producing his books than growing fingernails.

Green's books are the work of a genuine savant. He never seems to have struggled through a derivative phrase, and his earlier books (the first was published when he was 19) are just as singular, in different ways, as his later ones. All of his novels, plus one extraordinary memoir, seem to casually shrug off the entire history of the art form – every familiar narrative device, every piece of emotional shorthand that we’ve come to expect as readers – and cut closer to the truth of lived experience than any writer I’ve come across.

Which is not to say that everything he wrote is a masterpiece. None of the four other Green novels I’ve read has given me the same sense of finished perfection as Party Going, but each has its wonders. Loving is probably the most charming of Green’s books, the most filled with characterization and plot and the sort of satisfactions one expects from novels, but it’s also a little sentimental, too broadly comic, the tiniest bit predictable.

It’s still a great book, though, and so are the others. Slowly, people are bringing them back into print (the Penguin edition with the three novels, and a fantastic introduction from Updike, was the only one available for a long time). Dalkey Archive Press has just re-issued Back, one of Green’s least-known novels, with the ugliest, most dashed-off cover I’ve ever seen on a modern book. Oh well. What’s inside is wonderful. I picked it up after reading Philip Hensher’s review of Jeremy Treglown’s dull biography of Green, which I slogged through several years ago (Hensher’s review is also a fine appreciation of Green’s work).

Back is about Charley Summers, a veteran returning from a German prison camp, and now using a wooden leg. The war is almost over and the streets are still filled with bombed out ruins. The woman Charley loved – who married someone else before he even left – died while he was in the camp, but not before having a child that Charley thinks might be his. Then Charley runs across a woman who looks exactly like his dead lover, a resemblance which is eventually explained, and he begins to lose his already disordered grasp on reality.

Already, this is like no other Green novel I’ve read: the focus on a single protagonist, the exploration of irregular mental states, and also the huge amount of plot covered in the first fifty pages. The book gets a little bogged down in the beginning, because Green dislikes narrative summary, and has to provide all of this information through conversations and little wisps of thought and suggestion. So there are some rickety scenes that seem to exist only to give us plot cues. But one survives on the touches. Here is a fairly ordinary passage, early in the book when Charley goes to visit his lover’s graveyard:
His felt thoughts began to wander. Of course he was lucky to have a job, his seat kept warm. There were plenty still over on the other side would give the cool moon to stand in his shoes. And they would get on with it if they were here, not spend as he was doing a deal of money on travelling to old places.
Start reading any of Green’s books and some long dormant faculty in the brain becomes alert. The words are simple enough but the phrases never seem to slide into their usual slots, to be skimmed and forgotten – you have to read slowly, but it feels like an engrossing conversation rather than work. Why is “as he was doing” tucked into the middle of that sentence, comma free? And what in the world does he mean by “felt thoughts”? (I’m still not sure about the latter.) In this heightened state of attention, awake but slightly disoriented, strange bits of poetry come floating to us down the sentences – “would give the cool moon to stand in his shoes.” Not showy lyricism, but ordinary speech at its most expressive.

Those words aren’t Charley’s, but society’s voice echoing in his head – “the cool moon,” a folk phrase – telling him how lucky he is to be back from the camps with a job to support him. Even when Green’s characters are alone, they are always talking to each other, as we all do, imagining what some person or group will think of us. This is why, despite the small casts of Green’s novels, their slim length, and the virtual absence of historical detail, they feel as dense and comprehensive as the great Victorian triple-deckers; society is still present in these books, talking to and through the characters.

Back, in particular, strikes me as having the literary sensibility of an earlier time. What other writer of Green’s era would feel comfortable taking a step back from a character and saying, simply, “She was a good-hearted girl”? And in the conversations that make up the majority of Green’s later novels, a narrative presence will suddenly leap up after a “he said” to mention that the previous remark was a lie. Green cannot entirely abandon the prerogatives of the 19th century novelist, and he hovers over his books and gestures now and then towards a world of stable truth that most other modernist writers became uncomfortable with and finally abandoned.

The book, for a time, shifts back in tone further even than the Victorians. Green introduces a long extract from an 18th century French court memoir, a parallel narrative about a woman becoming obsessed with a man who looks like a long dead lover. This interpolation, only thinly integrated into the narrative, wrecks the world of the book a little, but it is interesting enough for me to forgive its presence, especially since it sets up the second half of the novel, which is masterful.

Green has gotten the plot setup out of the way, and what follows is one of the most moving and strangely convincing love stories I’ve ever read, alive with pain and sex and a little dementia. The two people don’t come to gradually appreciate each other's fine qualities in the usual manner; the process is much more mysterious and true to life, with feints and turns and sudden irrational changes in mood and then the final coming to terms – and through it all the charge of sexual energy that drives all of Green’s best work.

Here is another passage. Charley’s secretary at the office, Miss Pitter, has been invited to a house in the country. She is sure Charley will come visit her at night, and she is waiting in bed, listening for him:
So they came back to the house with her, and she’d slipped upstairs, got into a smashing pyjama suit bought specially the day before, put out the light and, quaking with wonder, she’d lain there. She could hear them talk in the kitchen. And how they’d talked. Then they came up. And she’d wondered some more. Her own worst enemy would not have laughed at her that half hour. Even if it wasn’t the first time, of course. But nothing. She was all ready, pretending to be asleep, spread out like butter on bread. But nothing. She knew it was Charley when he went to the bathroom. For just that minute it was delicious to wait. But what all this added up to, she felt at the time, was that these repatriated men came back very queer from those camps. So in the end she’d gone to sleep alone, unvisited.
This is all done effortlessly, but so many voices have swooped in and out, taking us inside the character’s mind in her own words ("smashing pyjama suit") and the narrator's ("quaking with wonder"), and then moving us into the world of larger truth – where we learn that Miss Pitter has done this before – and then that marvelous phrase, “spread out like butter on bread,” where we get her thought, the warmth of the bed, and sexual anticipation all at once. And look at how the rhythms of her heartbeat have been embedded in the prose.

Then there is the oddest line of all: “Her own worst enemy would not have laughed at her that half hour.” I think much of Green’s spirit, his generosity, is in that line. He is deeply truthful writer, often a dark one, but he never enjoys inflicting disaster on his characters and makes allowances for every human weakness. His dialogue is filled with such affection for people and their peculiarities - "We're not talking of me, this instant minute, thanks" - as well as the peculiarities of class and region and profession, all of which may blur but will never disappear.

I'm not sure why Green stopped writing. He died in the early 70s, without publishing a word after 1952. Apparently he spent much of that time drunk. I don't want to pretend that I have any explanation for this, but I wonder if part of his dryness came from the loss of the vernacular culture from which he drew so much of his inspiration. Synge wrote that "All art is a collaboration; and there is little doubt that in the happy ages of literature, striking and beautiful phrases were as ready to the story-teller's or the playwright's hand, as the rich cloaks and dresses of his time. It is probable that the Elizabethan dramatist took his ink-horn and sat down to his work he used many phrases that he had just heard, as he sat at dinner, from his mother or his children." In Pack My Bag, Green has wonderful samples of working class British talk: "When they describe," he writes, "as everyone knows, they are literally unsurpassed in the spoken word." And one can imagine him listening to maids and workers and the office typing pool, all of their words mixing with his imagination and becoming art.

Much of that world was already going after the war, and maybe Green was himself withdrawing from what was left of it. In any case, it survives in the books - nine novels and a memoir - and it is among the great fictional universes left by any writer this century, a happy age of literature all by itself. The Penguin volume is probably the place to start, but this is another great one for those that fall under the spell.

1 comment:

Catanduva said...

Thank you for this wonderful review and analysis of Henry Green's work.It is quite wonderful. I just came across his name through an interview I read on Shirley Hazzard, another extraordinary writer of words. I am very much looking forward to reading my first Green novel shortly.

Please keep writing and I feel so lucky to have come across someone who obviously loves language and reading as much as I do-I love the detail of reading the entire Green book at your college library.Fantastic!