Worlds Undone

Caught, Loving, and Back
By Henry Green
New York Review Books, 2016

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A pseudonym, though it obscures, is not always successful as a bid for obscurity. Witness Elena Ferrante: while her work stands on its own, the added mystery of authorial absence has no doubt contributed to the years-long international firestorm of publicity and speculation.

Nevertheless, a pen name may still give personal shelter to the author who chooses it. Even Ferrante can live quietly (presumably) in Italy (presumably). Much less dramatically, a pen name also allowed a certain British industrialist to publish haunting, poetic novels without detracting from his business interests. But Henry Vincent Yorke (1905-1973) wrote his ten books under the name Henry Green, a strikingly banal, even obvious substitution, so it wasn’t long before non-literary associates guessed at the author’s identity. Reading accounts of how Green responded to this, you begin to wonder if this wasn’t his intention: if he didn’t want to get by unnoticed, after all.

But it turns out to be a moot point: it’s hard to imagine an example in English literature more elusive, enigmatic, and potentially polarizing than that of Henry Green. Though possessed of what Martin Amis (in reference to Elmore Leonard) called “perfect pitch”—you can go cover-to-cover with Green and never hit a misfired sentence—not to mention uncanny precision in charting human psychology, the novels are undeniably strange. They are spare, mysterious exercises in formal experimentation, shifting between a stark realism that places dialogue above all else and a lush, lyrical expressiveness. They are, in short, difficult books.

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But like many difficult books, they reward those who wrestle with them, and followers of Green are among the most zealous in the ranks of author-cults. Included in their slight numbers are writers like John Updike, Rebecca West, and VS Pritchett, each of whom has noted that he is perhaps the greatest writer of his generation (which includes Powell, Waugh, and Isherwood, all friends of Green). Critical praise is naturally not synonymous with commercial success, and even his sole “best-seller” did little to supplement his healthy earnings as directing manager of his inherited factory. Green wrote at night, after work, before giving it up completely following the publication of Doting in 1952. He grew increasingly reclusive and subject to hearing loss, focusing his attention instead on studying the Ottoman Empire and drinking.

Part of the reason for this early retirement may be, as David Lodge pointed out in the New York Review of Books, that Green seemed to have limited himself through his uncompromising aesthetic principles, such that by the time he got to Doting, he scarcely had room to breathe. Add to this the mounting discouragement of lifelong public indifference, at least relative to his famous friends and rivals. Green’s oeuvre is a fascinating if eventually thwarted artistic journey, nearly the full range of which is being made available again by New York Review Books, beginning with the keystone texts of Caught, Loving, and Back.

These novels are situated at the center of his most productive period: the 1940s, during which he produced five books, as opposed to the five wrote in the 20s, 30s, and 50s combined. They have occasionally been reprinted, often in single-volume groupings, notably from Penguin in 1993 and Vintage in 2005. The current run from NYRB will include eight of Green’s novels, while New Directions finishes the list with Concluding(1948) and his 1940 memoir, Pack My Bag, which is currently in print.

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Caught, published in 1943, is an anxiety-ridden story of a volunteer firefighter during the Phony War, the period between Chamberlain’s 1939 ultimatum speech and the Blitz. Richard Roe, the protagonist, is an affluent widower and like all of those who remained “home,” finds himself stuck(caught, even) between two vastly different sets of circumstances. He is close enough to his country house to visit, yet due to his schedule must live among the other volunteers in the city.

Roe is preoccupied, understandably, with the wellbeing of his young son, who turns out to have been kidnapped some years earlier by the “disturbed” sister of Pye, Roe’s present training officer. The two men become friends, and the novel charts their attempts to reconcile the ostensibly tranquil past with a radically uncertain future. A clear enough story, but it is marked by Green’s insistence on the innate story-telling ability of dialogue. As V.S. Pritchett wrote of Green’s approach, “He saw that the human rigmarole is a mosaic of repetitions and that it is a sort of unconscious poetry…Talk is a part of human mystery, an attempt to lift the corner of the veil.”

This can bring to mind the drunken exchanges of Eliot’s Wasteland, with its frank-yet-unspoken insinuations of infidelity, impotence, and deep, culture-wide angst. Caught will go pages in dialogue alone and, while occasionally opaque (especially to a 21st century American), even grotesque, the poetry begins to shine through:

‘I know things ain’t been easy,’ I says, and she said to me, ‘Not one word against Ted, mum,’ and I said, ‘I’m not speaking of ‘im, God forbid, me girl, I’m not one to come between husband and wife, no,’ I says, I was meaning the dreadful pangs of labour what every woman is ‘eir to, and what can follow it,’ I says. ‘Illness,’ I says, ‘weakness,’ I says, ‘loss of blood,’ I says, ‘blood to the ‘head,’ I says to ‘er, Arthur, and that there is what I’m a’scared of for ‘er. She writes ever such funny letters to me, really.

This effectively conveys a theme that turns out to be central, not just to Caught, but to all of Green’s novels: the world as he portrays it is really not a world at all, but rather a kind of limbo between peacetime and wartime. More drastically, it is a midpoint between one civilization—for which the deathblow is the reiteration of a war a decade earlier that was meant to end all wars—and another one, which would be formed in the wake of all this destruction.

Loving(1945) tells a lighter story, but the method and concerns are much the same. It is a more or less classic upstairs-downstairs novel, but departs from the convention in a rather obvious way: it is an Irish country house, populated by English country servants. Green can introduce and fully flesh out a character in a matter of lines, and the cavalcade of guile, pettiness, and malice (along with, of course, puppy love, questions of duty) begins to form an edifice of interweaving schemes and interests that is equal parts Downton Abbey and Anna Karenina(OK—a bit more the former than the latter).

“We’ve been with Albert.”
“That’s no secret.”
“It was.”
“What’s dark about that, then?” Edith wanted to know.
“He’s got my grandmas’s ring. The one she lost.”
“Has he so? And what’s he done with it?” Edith enquired casual.
“I don’t know,” the little girl lied, on account of dropping dead perhaps.
“Which Albert, yours or mine?” Edith asked soft
“Mine,” Miss Moira answered. “Oh I do love him.”

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And so on. In Loving, Green continues along with his aesthetic endurance test of developing plot almost entirely out of dialogue. As Pritchett pointed out, he wrote novels almost as if they were plays. Yet this is perhaps the weakest of the three novels, though it briefly hit the U.S. bestseller list, and is also regarded by some as his masterpiece. To my mind the book is a bit too interested in itself, leading to a kind of imbalance. Someone once noticed that Jane Austen spent a great deal of time on unimportant details and passed quickly over important ones. In the case of Austen, such a claim is almost criminally wrong, but had they said it about Loving, they may have had a point. Whatever the difference of opinion about the book’s merit, it provides even more insight into the complex and demanding world out of which Green drew his work.

Back(1946), by contrast, is the strongest of the three, and also the most focused in narrative scope. Charley Summers is a middle-class soldier, just recently returned from a German POW camp, before which he sustained an injury that cost him his leg. He returns home in the awareness that his pre-War love, Rose, has died, leaving behind a husband and son (who may, in fact, be Charley’s). The husband knows nothing of the affair, or, with typically English good manners, never mentions it during the uncomfortable time they spend together. Rose’s father, meanwhile, sends Charley up to see a lonely widower who, he is shocked to discover, bears a striking resemblance to Rose. Once again, a simple premise unfolds to reveal the dark, complex foundations of Charley and his contemporaries, each of them, veterans or not, survivors of a terrible experience who are forced to live in a world they do not recognize.

In his Paris Review interview, undertaken by an obviously frustrated (if enthralled) Terry Southern, Green said that he found criticism of his work to be “invariably useless and uninteresting.” Bad luck for me, then. But perhaps not, since he then goes on to list three variants, which seem to approach use and interest. This apparently minor comment can, I think, be taken as an indication of Green’s orientation to both art and life: rigid distinctions are set up and solidified for the exact purpose of seeing and often embracing what can get past them. It’s a strange, almost paradoxical outlook, which indicates a complex inner life that is reflected by the more obvious split between business and literature, but which escapes that simple dichotomy, maybe even transcends it.

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But this does not, for Green, diminish the importance of those distinctions, even should they be arbitrary or unjust. To the contrary. By portraying in Charley Summers a character who desperately tries and fails to maintain his role in society, Back also reveals, perhaps ironically, the dangers of trying to do the opposite. In the world so depicted, the overwhelming forces of history—war, the passing of cultures—as well as mere human folly and malice, will destroy any veneer of respectability, all pretense to an established public presence. But if you were to try to unburden yourself of propriety, either preemptively or in the embrace of the inevitable, like Charley does when he decides to love Nancy, you discover that the world continues to bear the mark of what has been tossed away. You pull back the mask to find the features beneath are exactly the same, as if molded by the facade you were so sure was inauthentic. Whether because conventional life was so strong for so long, or because those conventions, stultifying as they may be, arise out of some perennial human trait, you now find yourself trapped.

Charley Summers cannot live without the mask—in his case the mask of Rose, which he imagines Nancy to wear—but neither can he forget that it is a mask, and so, when she finally embraces him completely, he collapses into tears, broken by profound disappointment. Nancy, the illegitimate daughter who so often wears masks for the sake of broken men, is similarly trapped, even when her surroundings so often scorn her. That she expects nothing else of Charley is a credit to her vision, but not her freedom. Knowledge, in Green’s world, is no blessing.

And yet, Green himself seemed to know something. By walling himself off with his pen name and his reclusiveness, Green reflected in his life the same alchemical procedure we see in his books. He never, it seems, strayed from the life of the practical industrialist, except for the occasional meeting with a literary type and, much more importantly, the hour or two each night, during which the world faded away and, by pencil, he formed new ones. Perhaps this accounts for the dreamlike quality of his books. They are, like dreams, often obscure, occasionally frustrating, even frightening. And if they don’t contain truth about the world as it is, then they recast the world in their image, and you emerge from them altered.

Jack Hanson is a doctoral student in Religious Studies at Yale University and the author of the poetry chapbook Monica Moody and Other Poems (Pen & Anvil, 2017). His poetry, essays, and reviews appear or are forthcoming in Berfrois, Full Stop, Kenyon Review Online, The New Criterion, PN Review, Salamander, The Scofield, The Quarterly Conversation, and elsewhere.