On Henry Green, Part 1
Henry Green is a truly remarkable literary figure, writing nine novels spanning the period after the First World War until the mid-1950s, despite living some twenty years past that. The Green fans I’ve encountered in my life have been staunch advocates of his work—for good reason—and yet those who had never heard of him remain the vast majority, sadly, especially among those who would be his most faithful readers, almost to the point of idolatry.
Thankfully, the New York Review of Books will begin publishing all nine of Green’s novels beginning in October 2016; this will be the first time most of these will be back in print in the US since their initial publication. Beginning with Caught, Loving, and Back, NYRB will then reissue the remaining six over the following two seasons, into 2017. For fans of British literature from the interwar period; for lovers of James Joyce and Virginia Woolf and the more working-class fiction by interwar writers like novelist Elizabeth Taylor; for readers who wonder which literary stylists helped to carry the torch of modernism into mid-twentieth-century Britain; and for those who enjoy equal parts realism with psychological exploration, equal parts pathos with deep, resounding joy—this is indeed a true literary event of the highest order.
I’m currently re-reading Caught, and, as it’s been numerous years—a decade, if not more—since my own acquaintance with Green’s work first made me realize what a genius he was, it’s been like meeting an old friend again. Caught deserves to be up there with the finest twentieth-century British novels dealing with war and its repercussions, alongside other giants like Rebecca West’s The Return of the Solider, Virginia Woolf’s Jacob’s Room (as well as her other works, the earlier which deal with a changing post-WWI British climate, and the latter which foreshadow and consider the rise of fascism in the lead-up to WWII), Elizabeth Bowen’s The Last September and The Heat of the Day, and even, spreading further outward into Europe, Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain and Hermann Hesse’s The Glass Bead Game. Finally, Green will be able to stand firmly and be considered in the context of the very tradition out of which his own work emerged, and into which he was always able to strike up a productive dialogue about individuals and society facing a changing, uncertain world together.
And Green’s prose is an utter joy to read, even when he is describing heartache, loss, melancholy, or the tensions that war engenders within family life: there are myriad revelations here about what it means to be human. Playful, evocative, and downright sensual at times, reading Green is something akin to reading Proust by way of Joyce, or Woolf by way of Conrad; his prose is at times so rich that one sometimes has to put his books down or else risk a kind of sensory overload.
As an example of what readers new to Green’s work have to look forward to, here’s an excerpt from Caught, wherein the protagonist Roe’s captain in the Fire Brigade, Pye, reflects on his memories of love and loss during the First while in the midst of the Blitz of the Second World War (something, it is worth noting, that Bowen herself does in her short story “The Demon Lover,” wherein the protagonist Mrs. Drover relives the trauma of the prior war—tinged with love, promise, and the threat of loss—while living through the bombings of the current war). In this passage, there’s such a singular rendering of the memory process, Pye’s thoughts running from past to present war, from love to pain, from sex to violence, all in Green’s wrenching use of color and odd syntax to mimic not only stream of consciousness, but the very act of reliving the memory of one war through the reality of another in the present:
[Pye] had been close to the earth then, and it led him back to the first girl he had known, not long before his father took them away from the village in which their childhood was passed, for that too was of the earth. In the grass lane, and Pye groaned as he lay on the floor, his head by a telephone, that winding lane between high banks, in moonlight, in colour blue, leaning back against the pale wild flowers whose names he had forgotten, her face, wildly cool to his touch, turned away from him and the underside of her jaw which went soft into her throat that was a colour of junket, oh my God he said to himself as he remembered how she panted through her dose and the feel of her true, roughened hands as they came to repel him and then, at the warmth of his skin, has stayed irresolute at the surface while, all lost, she mumured, “Will it hurt?” Oh God she has been so white and this bloody black-out brought you in mind of it with the moon, this blue colour, and with the creeping home. He had been out hunting that first night right enough as he came home, her tears still on the back of his hand, with the cries of an owl at his temples, like it might be the shrieks of that cat on the wall over there, bloody well yelling for her greens.
NYRB are to be applauded for their efforts bringing Green back into print, with introductions by top literary critics ranging from James Wood to Roxana Robinson. If you’re on the fence about what long-term reading plans 2017 might hold for you, I would strongly suggest that you make 2017 a year of Henry Green; I can guarantee you that you will not regret it—your intellect, your heart, your gut, and your sense of a shared humanity will all be whetted from the sensual gristle of a truly inimitable prose stylist who has, for too long, been existing on the margins of literary history.