Henry Green Is As Good As His Word

Dean Cornwell, Options, 1917, oil on canvas.

Evelyn Waugh could push a joke to the outer edge of our ability to bear it, stopping just when laughter turns to tears, and he’s had his imitators for the better part of a century now. So has Graham Greene, who blanched despair into a weary disillusionment; the contemporary thriller is inconceivable without him. Each of them added to the novelist’s grab bag of tricks. Their contemporary Henry Green didn’t quite manage that. In such early novels as Living (1929) and Party Going (1939) he experimented with dropping out the definite articles in a way that gave his language a tense angularity, the nouns and prepositions grating on each other, uncushioned: “Water dripped from tap on wall into basin and into water there. Sun. Water drops made rings in clear coloured water.” Nobody followed him and he left no codifiable body of technique. But Green may have had something better—not followers but admirers, and admirers among all writers. Very little connects such disparate figures as Eudora Welty, John Ashbery, and John Updike, or indeed those who have introduced Green’s other books in this series: little beyond their fondness for this strange elusive figure, not a model but an inspiration. Welty probably put it best. His work was ever changing and yet always the same, his books “to an unusual degree unlike one another … yet there could be no mistaking the hand … [with its] power to feel both what can and what never can be said.” Green’s peers recognized his originality; that’s achievement enough.

For a long time, though, it seemed as if only other writers had spotted him. In the early fifties, he was often described as the most innovative novelist in England; by the eighties, he looked always in need of introduction. His American editions went in and out of print, and I had to order his 1940 autobiography, Pack My Bag, from abroad; those of us who read him got a lot of practice in explaining who he was, the Green without an e. Or maybe not Green at all. He was born Henry Yorke, and rich, the younger son of a Gloucestershire landowner turned industrialist; the family’s Birmingham foundry made both plumbing fixtures and equipment for the brewing industry. The boy’s parents sent him to Eton as a matter of course, and then Oxford. He left without a degree but had already finished his first novel, a Künstlerroman called Blindness (1926), and published it under the pen name of Henry Green when he was just twenty-one. 

The young man then became a laborer on the floor of the Birmingham shop. The workers thought his father was punishing him for some indiscretion, but what really drew him was the chance to step outside his own life. He had always been fascinated by speech, by idiolect and dialect alike, and the factory offered him the chance to listen, to catch at voices unlike his own. That experience gave him Living, with its lathe operators and metal casters, and the eighteen months he worked among them set the pattern for the rest of his professional life. Henry Yorke would pass his days in the London offices of the family firm; Henry Green wrote over lunch and at night. The next decade went slowly, but the war seemed to free him. He spent it as a fireman, putting out London’s bomb-lit flames, a job more dangerous than almost any combat position, and wrote about it in Caught (1943). After that the books came quickly, a novel every two years at least. Eventually there were nine of them, and then silence.

Green’s critics all stress the degree to which his books are unlike each other, and certainly the social milieux he describes do change from one to the next: a downstairs view of an Irish country house in Loving (1945), for example, and then Concluding’s (1948) state school and socialist future. Nevertheless, his fiction from Living on is all marked by two things. One is his reliance on irresolution, his refusal of narrative neatness. Two girls in Concluding disappear one morning; one of them never returns, and her absence remains forever unexplained. But her vanishing seems something more than a loose end—it’s elliptical and numinous, and close to a mystery in the theological sense of the term. The truth cannot be known, and this takes me to the other thing that links his books: his interest in the way people talk, in the texture and deceptions of human speech, its enormous variety even at its most clichéd. Green almost never enters his characters’ minds. He shows us what they do and say, not what they think, and yet what they say doesn’t always match up to what we’ve seen them do. Are they lying? Do they know it? His school friend Anthony Powell once wrote that in Britain, “understatement and irony—in which all classes of this island converse—upset the normal emphasis of reported speech.” Most novelists see that as a problem, Powell among them. For Green, it was a possibility, and one he exploited above all in Doting (1952) and its predecessor Nothing (1950), the dialogue-novels with which he ended his career.

His earlier books are marked by a great dazzlement of descriptive prose. So in Loving two housemaids dance in an empty ballroom, its chandeliers “reflecting in their hundred thousand drops the single sparkle 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.” “These” not those—the faint deliberate awkwardness is entirely characteristic. But in his last novels, Green does away with almost all of that. Faces, clothes, furniture, streets—they go unseen, pared back or trimmed out, and so are almost all indications of his characters’ tone of voice. Nearly every page in both Nothing and Doting seems a run of unadorned talk, one voice pinging off another, and something else gets pared back as well. His earlier books mixed characters of different classes and backgrounds, people brought together by the accidents of work or weather or war. In these, however, his characters all belong to the same class, belong indeed to his own, and these consciously narrow books share a thematic burden as well, a concern with the relation of middle age to the sexual life.

Doting in particular is constructed with the almost mathematical rigor of farce. There are six speaking parts—two men and a woman, a couple of girls and a boy—and almost every scene is a duet staged over a meal or a drink. Here’s a sample, a little moment between husband and wife:

“Now have you been all right in yourself, lately?”

“Thank you, Arthur, I’m fairly well, I suppose.”

“I mean you aren’t in the middle of your change of life without knowing, are you?”

She opened her eyes very wide, looked away from him, and drew herself apart.

“Arthur,” she said, in a low voice, “are you insane?”

“I only wondered, my dear.”

“Why do you do this to me?” she whispered.

“My dear darling, what am I doing?”

“You know I’m not!”

“Well, you’ve got to face things, Di. It will happen some day and I thought this may have started, that’s all.”

“But why, Arthur, is all I ask?”

“Because you’re so peculiar about this whole business.”

“How peculiar, when I’m naturally upset for you if your young mistress who has been trying to ensnare the one friend I still have, starts him off with another girl? What would you feel if you were me?”

Those last words make me laugh aloud—shouldn’t Diana Middleton be upset on her own behalf, and on more than one score? But they carry the illogical truth of many marital grievances, and Green has no intention of letting one know how Diana feels in herself, let alone how her husband would feel if he were her. The whole point is that Arthur can’t be his wife, he can’t know the inner shape of her experience, but only the way she acts and speaks and moves. Maybe she could tell him how she feels—but how, on such a subject, would he know whether or not to trust her?

Green wrote almost nothing outside of his novels, but he did attempt to explain his reliance on dialogue in a series of BBC broadcasts. “Do we know, in life, what other people are really like?” So he said in 1950, and then answered his own question. “I very much doubt it. We certainly do not know what other people are thinking and feeling. How then can the novelist be so sure?” I can imagine any number of skeptical replies to this, but let’s stick with Green’s terms and method. He wants us to encounter these characters as we do the people we meet in life, people about whom “we seldom learn directly.” Our knowledge comes from what they say, or from what’s said about them; it is at best oblique, and because we can’t be sure what other people think and feel, our understanding remains essentially flawed. Human meaning is ever uncertain, the moral and emotional bearing of any action unclear. The same sentence can mean a dozen different things, and we inevitably misapprehend the intentions that lie behind it. Sometimes we twist another person’s words into some more convenient meaning; sometimes we use the uncertainties of language itself to deny that our speech says what we meant it to say.

The written word is estranging, and Green liked it that way. He famously wrote that prose should offer “a gathering web of insinuations … a long intimacy between strangers,” but that intimacy should above all be silent. Green believed one should never read fiction aloud, and on the page his dialogue proves far more enigmatic than it would be if spoken, more elliptical than any actual human contact. He tried to remove all inflection from his characters’ speech, and yet in our actual lives the tone of one’s voice can establish meaning, so does context or physical posture, and we usually know how to read a spouse’s silence. Few people are as mysterious after twenty years as they are on a first meeting—except in the novels of Henry Green. Maybe they should be. His radio broadcasts have a touch of the manifesto about them, as if laying down a path for the novel of the future, a way to capture something we’ve lost, some sense of “what never can be said.” But Doting’s idiosyncrasies hardly need a theoretical justification, and its pleasures and rewards seem greater each time I read it.

Six characters, though at seventeen Peter Middleton is merely a catalyst, and two of the others only become important some pages on. When the novel opens in a London nightclub we have just three who count: Arthur and Diana, and Annabel Paynton, the slightly older girl they have invited “for” Peter. She’s the daughter of old friends, and it’s the family custom to take her along on the first, celebratory evening of the boy’s school holidays. So we start with a triangle. Arthur is “rising forty-five” and can’t stop himself from looking down Annabel’s dress. She catches him at it but doesn’t seem to mind—or not enough, anyway, to refuse an invitation to lunch a few days later. Lunch leads to lunch leads to dinner; Diana grows suspicious, and Arthur tries to divert her by asking the roguish widower Charles Addinsell to take her out in turn. Now there are two triangles, and then Arthur makes things worse by trying to pass Annabel along to Charles as well. Suddenly we have four, with each member of the quartet involved with every other. Which might seem stable enough, except that Annabel has a friend of conspicuous “roundnesses,” a girl called Claire …

Doors open upon the erring and unwary, laps are sat upon, and people get kissed in taxicabs. Arthur lies about Charles to Annabel; Diana lies about Annabel to Charles. Meanwhile, the girl herself has her eye on a couple of boys, and everybody proves willing to sacrifice everyone else for the sake of some temporary advantage; willing to say anything to get what they think they want. For that’s what doting is. Doting hovers greedily, spiderlike, a web in which you finally catch only yourself. Annabel claims to “dote” on Arthur’s invitations—or maybe she just gloats over them. They give her something to talk about, and so they do Arthur as well, who describes each frustrated lunge to Charles. It makes him feel young, and at the same time terribly old, a man in his gloatage. But Arthur also says that “doting, to me, is not loving.” That’s what he tells Annabel quite early in the novel, as he feeds her cocktails and tries to decide how far to push it all. “Loving goes deeper,” though it’s typical of the novel’s purposefully flat dialogue that he never manages to say just how.

Green himself could—only not here, not quite. Claire is “wordlessly contented” after Charles first carries her to bed, and Arthur and Diana make love “apologetically” after the extended foreplay of their mutual incomprehension. But doting isn’t loving and Doting isn’t Loving. Both words, both titles, suggest some action or process and not simply a state of being, but loving for Green involves the loss of self and carries a touch of the sublime. Loving ends with the butler Raunce “in pain with his great delight”; Annabel, in contrast, cannot see “how love and terror can run together.” Doting recognizes what it doesn’t have; still, it’s more than a pendant to its admittedly greater predecessor, and the older one gets the more one appreciates its resigned and worldly nonchalance. “There’s very little anyone can do about things,” Charles says to Annabel, while Diana tells her, “As you go on in life, I fear you’ll find people come more and more only to consult their own convenience.” Accept; relinquish; and try not to look like a fool.

At the nightclub in which the novel opens, a juggler takes the stage and soon has a dozen billiard balls “fountaining from out his … lazy seeming hands, each ball so precisely placed that it could be thought to follow grooves in violet air.” Nobody watches, nobody applauds, as he balances yet another ball on his chin, and a beer mug on top of that “at the exact angle needed to cheat gravity.” And so it is with Doting. Green tosses his voices around with an extraordinary but unobtrusive skill, keeping them all in the air even as his characters try to juggle their relations with each other. Everything hangs suspended, a spectacle that offers an almost tactile pleasure. Then the balls drop to the performer’s hands and the pint pot to the point of his shoe. The novel closes in another nightclub, with Green’s initial foursome now joined by Claire and Charles; this one promises that “whilst having dinner, you could watch all-in wrestling, dancing or a floor show.” But the wrestlers never show up, to Peter’s dismay, and at the very end, the first night’s “identical conjuror” appears once more. The ronde continues, and “the next day they all went on very much the same.”

Doting was Green’s last novel. He lived until 1973, but in all those years he didn’t finish anything more than a few short articles, and a central problem of his career is that of the books he did not write. For a long time he had been growing deaf, and complained that he had lost his ear for dialogue, that even in his head he couldn’t quite hear it anymore. He seems to have suffered as well from flashbacks to his war-time experiences, when during the blitz he was in nightly danger of being blown off a rooftop. And he drank, glasses of clear gin he hoped would pass for water. Henry Yorke was eased out of the family business at the end of the fifties, wore slippers whenever he went out, and for a few years didn’t even leave his Knightsbridge house. He did not go on the same; and yet in another sense he did, each faceless day indistinguishable from every other. Anyone who finishes Doting will wish that there had been more books. Nevertheless his oeuvre feels complete. It makes an arc, from the expansive modernism of Living to the curiously operatic minimalism of his last novels.

I began by invoking Evelyn Waugh and Graham Greene, contemporaries whose careers were in every objective sense more successful, and whose books remain far more readable. But are they as rereadable? When I go back to them now they rarely have anything new to say, nothing more than I saw at first; I turn their pages with pleasure and yet the pleasure is that of repetition, the resumption of the familiar. The menu never changes. Henry Green seems in contrast always different, and never what he was. The emphasis alters, and some parts of his work remain forever odd, anomalous and even disturbing. On Doting’s first page, he writes that Peter would “several weeks later … carry a white goose under one arm, its dead beak almost trailing the platform, to catch the last train back to yet another term.” That goose isn’t mentioned again. I don’t really want to know what the boy plans to do with it, or even how he got it, but I would like to know why Green put it there. I never will, and among the many reasons for reading this difficult genius is the way he keeps his secrets still.

Michael Gorra is the author of, among other books, The Bells in Their Silence: Travels Through Germany and Portrait of a Novel: Henry James and the Making of an American Masterpiece, a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. He teaches English at Smith College. 

This essay is excerpted from the New York Review Books’ forthcoming reissue of Doting.

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