Walter Allen, ‘Henry Green’, in The Penguin New Writing, ed. John Lehmann (London 1945), pp.144-55

‘The pink, decade’ the nineteen-thirties have been christened, but in spite of the sneer, for any writer of the ’thirties to have been non-political, to have aimed at pure art, is in a way itself suspect; and Henry Green is one of the very few pure artists among the novelists of the ’thirties. His second novel, Living, pre-dated Auden’s first book of verse by a year, and reading it when it appeared one was excited by it in much the same way as one was by Auden, one cannot say wrongly because it was impossible to foresee his next novel, Party Going, written between 1931 and 1938. The subject-matter of Living gave him, as it were, honorary membership of a movement in writing to which he never truly belonged; but in 1929 it was the subject-matter, life among Birmingham factory workers, that fascinated. In the novelty of the material, while one admired the style one saw it as little more than eccentricity, an attempt to express new subject-matter in a new way; for already emphasis had passed from technique to content. But with the publication of Party Going one could no longer see it that way; in it it became clear that Green stood apart from what had become the contemporary movement, that he was an artist in an older sense, in a way that Flaubert and George Moore and Joyce were artists, men whose main preoccupation was with style. For such writers. material was of course not unimportant: Flaubert has for so long been summed up in a single sweeping phrase le mot juste, that it is necessaryto remember that Bovary and L’Éducation Sentimentale are magnificent social documents just as Uysses is an excellent vade mecum to Dublin. But for the pure artist, with his preoccupation with methods of expression, subject is of secondary importance in that [144] he sees it as existing mainly as the vehicle for a method of expression; and as Flaubert followed up the study of provincial life that is Bovary with the archeological reconstruction of Salammbô, so Green could write first a novel of working class life in Birmingham and then a novel about wealthy irresponsibles which, considered in terms of content alone, should be trivial and is anything but that.

It is anything but that because of its style. In Pack My Bag, Green has stated his idea of the function of prose:

Prose is not, to be read aloud but to oneself at night, and it is not quick as poetry, but rather a gathering web of insinuations which - go further than names however shared can ever go. Prose should be a long intimacy between strangers with no direct appeal to what both may have known. It should slowly appeal to feelings unexpressed, it should in the end draw tears out of the stone.

That is obviously no description of prose as it is written by most of the best contemporary writers, by Isherwood and Orwell and Graham Greene. Prose has become colloquial and direct, has returned to Dryden and Defoe and Swift. We no longer object, with Johnson, that the ‘rogues never hazard a metaphor’; but Green hazards them continually, and to such an extent has the plain style conquered that, reading the Sunday reviewers, you might be pardoned for inferring that Party Going was the work of an illiterate. Beneath this apparent naïvety, the occasional superficial resemblance to the Stein stutter, his prose is a prose carefully wrought, highly sophisticated and highly mannered, the most distinctive prose in contemporary writing. Whereas the basis of most modern prose is the simple sentence (to take an extreme instance, there is only one relative clause in Halward’s story Arch Anderson), each paragraph of Green is planned and built up as carefully as the octave, of a sonnet. Take the following, from Pack My Bag: [145]

Later, when the accident I have described disrupted me, I felt, and, it is hard to explain, as though the feelings I though I ought to have were hurting me. I was as much alone as any hunted fox. Only as my feelings turned and doubled in their tracks to the loud blast of news each cable brought, as conscience the huntsman cast my feelingss forward’ and then back until the fox I was was caught, bowled over at last into genuine surrender, there was something desperate in the noise, the howling at my heels. At this distance the noise of the pack is stifled, their music as it is called comes from over the hill, the huntsman, now an older man, blows his horn gently, and the note, now so distant it is no louder than a breath to bring forgotten embers to a glow, is a shame remembered, a run across familiar country.

Green is, in, fact, to use Connolly’s word, a Mandarin of a new kind certainly, but none the less a Mandarin.

Or there is another way in which Green’s distance from his contemporaries may be measured. Compare, him, for instance, with Calder-Marshall, a writer of much the same social class and education, and one of the leading theorists of contemporary, fiction as well as a characteristic practitioner. His style, more violent than Isherwood’s and Orwell’s since it is based on Joyce and the shock-tactics of Wyndham Lewis, is akin to theirs in that it aims at direct expression. His progress, one may say, has been from psycho-analysis to social realism, from Freud to Marx; so that his books are the record of a personal development which has also been the typical development of a generation. His work, then, forms a continuum. Green’s does not in any such way; with the exception of his first novel, Blindness, written while he was still at school, it is not at all the record of a personal development. He is aloof from his material in a way that Calder-Marshall is not; and he is untouched, as a writer, by contemporary ideas whether political or psychological. Lawrence defines the novel somewhere as a ‘thought adventure,’ and for the majority [146] of writers this is true. But Green - and this is another sign of the pure artist - appears to be quite apart from his work, outside it; it is not a series of disguised chapters of autobiography.

His prose is, I think, a poetic prose. It was so conventionally in, Blindness, a first novel of no more than average promise, though the theme, a literary and Etonian adolescent going blind and adjusting himself to blindness, is ambitious. There, the writing, the descriptions of nature in which the book abounds, are Georgian: Rupert Brooke is just round the corner and John Drinkwater may drop in at any moment. But after Eton and Oxford Green went to work in his Birmingham foundry. He started his novelist’s career with one great advantage over his middle-class contemporaries: as the boss’s son, with an inherited interest in a foundry, he could move, as it were, up and down the social scale as he pleased. In order to write about working-class life, as in The Nowaks, Isherwood had to go to Berlin; but Green could go to Birmingham.

In his Bordesley foundry he worked on the floor for some months, writing Living in his spare time.,The difference between Blindness and Living is as startling as the difference, between Oxford and the Coventry Road must have been to the author. The title of the book is itself defiant, as though Green had discovered life for the first time. No working-class writer could have written the book; the author’s delighted sense of novelty is carried over to the reader, and it is significant that it has had no apparent influence on, other writers apart from James Hanley, who owes something to its style in his Stoker Bush. The theme is now a familiar one: the displacement of labour by reorganisation and the infatuation of a girl who wants marriage and children before anything else with a young man who finally, and comically, deserts her. But it remains, after twelve years, the best novel of factory life written by an Englishman.

But Living is not, as one interpreted it when it first [147] came out, primarily a realistic novel. Green escapes, sometimes through a poetry of incident, sometimes through a daring arrangement of words which may be called poetic, often through both at once, the bounds of narrow realism, that have confined most writers of working-class life in this country and trembles on the verge of symbolism. As an example of what I mean by poetry of incident the following passage may be quoted:

Then, one morning in iron foundry, Arthur Jones began singing. He did not often sing. When he began the men looked up from work and at each other and stayed quiet. In machine shop, which was next iron foundry, they said it was Arthur singing and stayed quiet also. He sang all morning.
 He was Welsh and sang in Welsh. His voice had a great soft yell in it. It rose and rose then fell again and, when the crane was quiet fora moment, then his voice came out from behind noise of the crane in passionate singing. Soon each one in this factory heard that Arthur had begun and, if he had two moments, came by iron iron foundry shop to listen. So all through that morning, as he went on, was a little group of men standng by door in the machine shop, always different men. His singing made them all sad. Everything in iron-foundries is black with the burnt sand, and here was his silver voice yelling like bells. The black grimed men bent over their black boxes.
 Everyone looked forward to Arthur’s singing, each one was glad when he sang, only, this morning, Jim Dale had bitterness inside like girders, and when Arthur began singing his music was like acid to that man and it was like that girder was being melted and bitterness and anger decrystallised, rising up in him till he was full and would have broken out - when he put on coat and walked off and went into town and drank.
 Still Arthur sang and it might be months before he sang again. And no one else sang that day, but all listened to his singing. And that night son had been born to him. [148]

That is a good sample of Green’s style in Living: bare, repetitive, harsh, angular, sometimes deliberately rately clumsy, an admirable medium for the expression of the blackness and din of a foundry. Green tells us in Pack My Bag that in the Oxford English School he failed to learn Anglo-Saxon; but whether by design or not, the prose of Living is an Anglo-Saxon prose, many of its devices, the omission of the definite article, the emphatic ‘that,’ are Anglo-Saxon devices, and one suspects that Sweet’s Old English Reader had a greater influence on Green than he knew.

As an example of the tendency towards symbolism I would quote the way in which the background of drab streets and public parks is dominated by the flights of homing pigeons, as though Green himself, writing at the window of an upper room, were endlessly fascinated by their flight. Any ’conscientious realist might have put in the pigeons as part of his detail. But Green makes much more out of them than this. They recur again and again throughout the book, sometimes in simple description, sometimes as images for the working of the character’s minds. They are symbolic at once of escape, of the life, beyond the labyrinths of brick, and the attachment to home and the familiar scene. This use of something approaching symbolism gives Living a unity underlying its formal structure; and such passages remain in the mind in ‘a gathering web of insinuations.’

In Party Going, as the subject-matter lessens in importance - it is the world of Evelyn Waugh, with a difference - so the style becomes more rotund and involved and the symbolism deepens. A party of what would once have been called bright young people are going to France as the guests of an absurdly rich young man; they meet at the station, fog holds up the train, and they are marooned in the upper rooms of the station hotel, while the hordes of workers waiting for trains below, singing community songs, thicken until they threaten to swamp the hotel itself. What Hollywood [149] calls the ‘plot-line’ is as simple, as that. Symbolism, concrete in its imagery, stirs the mind with the richness of its implications, and if it can be translated into definite terms, into a prose meaning, is symbolism no longer. A case in point is the incident- its repercussions run through the book - of the spinster aunt at whose feet a dead pigeon tumbles in the station entrance; she picks it up, takes it to the ladies’ lavatory and washes it, and makes it up into a brown paper parcel. The discovery, disturbs the party, as it disturbs the reader the incident is funny, but it is more than that, and its meaning cannot be paraphrased. To account for its effect one is forced back, as Forster was when discussing the nature of Lawrence’s genius in Aspects of the Novel, on some such word as prophetic.

Party Going is a comic novel; it can rest, I believe, on the same shelf as the best of Firbank. But it is on its symbolism that I have preferred to concentrate, since it seems to me, as a symbolic novel, so much more successful than anything the English disciples of Kafka have written. The difference between it and Upward’s Journey to the Border, for instance, seems to me the difference between symbolism and allegory. Journey to the Border can be paraphrased, it is ‘about’ something, a moral can be extracted as you can extract no moral from Kafka: in the little streets down by the docks there is a small newsagent’s where you can, buy the Daily Worker. Upward’s is one of the most exciting novels produced during the last decade ; yet in the end the book fails, the excitement fizzles out, the explanations begin, the reader is let down. The moral is not commensurate with the excitement that has been generated in the imagination. More than any book of the decade it shows the dangers that beset the imaginative writer who is also a political writer. Party Going may be much less worthy from a left, political view, and it is certainly less ambitious, but it succeeds as Upward’s does not, and is original in that it derives from the author [150] alone. You may see it as an exposure of futility and as a satire on people with wealth but without responsibility; or you may read it simply as a comic novel. It is all these and something more; obstinately itself and irreducible to a single moral. Again Green’s own phrase, ‘a gathering web of insinuations,’ best describes its effect.

Pack My Bag is a slighter work than the two which preceded it, though the style is richer and more consciously poetic. It is right, I think, to see it as a substitute for a novel; it is a crisis book written in 1938 and 1939. Green calls, it a ‘self-portrait,’ and though it is a book that nobody interested in modern writing must miss, one reads it primarily for the light it throws on Green as an artist. The content is ordinary enough: other people have described expensive prep schools and the pleasures and trials of hunting and fishing; and Eton is now familiar scene. But, like the novels, it is an original book. Autobiographies of childhood and adolescence, whether avowedly autobiographical or ostensibly fiction, fall generally into two kinds. There is the report on experience, the intellectual, analytical, almost clinical study, like Lions and Shadows or Connolly’s A Georgian Boyhood, in which the author attempts to answer the question, How did I come to be the man I am? and there is the attempt to recreate the past in itself, without reference to the author’s present state, as in Spender’s The Backward Son. In either case the writer looks as far as possible. at himself as though he were somebody else. Green makes no such attempt. ‘It is all wrong,’ he writes, ‘to try to recreate days that are gone. All one can do is search them out and put them down as close as possible to what they now seem.’

The result is a highly subjective, highly personal book. His Eton days cover, for instance, much the same period as A Georgian Boyhood, which may almost be read as a gloss on Blindness and Pack My Bag, but the pictures of Eton are so different as to be pictures of worlds that appear to have nothing in common. it is significant [151] that Eton is not even given its name. The book portrays one isolated human being as child, schoolboy and undergraduate,, and so strong is the sense of isolation that one feels the author’s withdrawal to be deliberate. There is no trace of any concern for ideas, any pro-occupation with society and the individual’s relation to it. During the war Green has been in the Fire Service and the theme of his novel Caught, published two years ago, is life in the A.F.S. before and during the early part of the blitz on London. It remains by far the best novel dealing with that period. Green has added to his equipment as a novelist by achieving a complete mastery of the eddies and convolutions of working class speech, seemingly endless, maddeningly repetitious, thick with qualifications and explanations, lit up with ‘swear words like roses in their talk.’ Out of a series of such conversations he made his surprising tour-de-force the short story called “The Lull,” which appeared in the Summer, 1943, New Writing and Daylight. In snatches of flat, often pointless conversation he expresses a whole range of characters and the boredom they feel. The result is a strange poetry; the kind of poetry achieved by an artist like Beaton in his blitz photographs or that a brilliant film director sometimes discovers iscovers in shots of the sordid and banal. Green’s ear and the camera’s eye are alike in making familiar things new, and that, for Dr. Johnson, was a definition of poetry.

This aspect of Green’s art is strongly brought out in Caught. But there is much more to Caught than that alone. Caught is an organic growth. Picasso has said of himself and his work, ‘I do not seek, I find,’ and that is applicable to much of Green’s work. Many of his most, characteristic achievements, what the eighteenth century would have called his beauties, have the air of objets trouvifs, things found, not contrived. With most novels, one knows pretty well what is going to happen, and why. One may be presented with a moral problem, and the interest depends upon the subtlety and fairness [152] with which it is worked out. Or if the life described in the novel is one familiar to the reader, the interest lies in the light which the author is able to throw on the already known; one seeks, in a way, a confirmation. With other novels, those of Huxley or Isherwood, for instance, what interests primarily is the personality of the writer, which unites the most diverse scenes and incidents of the story. With a novelist like Graham Greene, again, one is fascinated by the playing out of what one recognises as an extraordinarily compelling personal myth.

But in Caught, as in Green’s fiction as a whole, there is another quality, not easily defined. One is moved by obscurely, as by some kinds of poetry in which the meaning is never clear and can never be wholly clear. Which is to say that Green’s novels arise from a layer of consciousness deeper than that from, which fiction usually emanates; one is aware at one and the same time of several strata of meanings. Events are never simple or single in Green’s world; they have their symbolic meanings too.

This is apparent both in Caught and Loving, whose common theme has been described as ‘an emotional Black Hole of Calcutta’: For what exactly is Caught about? Life in the Fire Service. The lives of men and women held in unwelcome proximity for too long and with too little to do, gossip-ridden and corroded by suspicion. The mutual distrust of the working class man and the middle class man. The overwhelmingly disastrous effect of sudden authority and hero-worship combined on a man totally unprepared for them. In part, an account of the first night raids on London; in part, a father’s puzzled devotion to his son and a brother’s puzzled devotion to his sister. All these go to make Caught, but all these, as it were, simultaneously, fused together, so that no one strand can be isolated and drawn out without the whole fabric perishing. From one point of view Caught is a tragi-comedy of misunderstanding; everyone talks at length, but there is,no [153] communication. There is no communication between the middle class ‘’auxiliary’ Roe and his five-year-old son, as there is none between the principal antagonists Roe and his officer Pye, whose lunatic sister abducted Roe’s son. The title summarises the book; it is the incomprehension and incommunicability of Kafka played out in a naturalistic setting, and the tangle of thwarted understanding and frustrated urge to communicate can be resolved only by the death of Pye by suicide and the liberation of the auxiliaries from their ‘emotional Black Hole’ by enemy planes bombing the docks.

Green’s titles have a particularly organic relation to his novels: Blindness, Living, Party Going, Caught, Loving. When Jane Austen wrote a novel called Pride and Prejudice the theme of that novel was precisely pride and prejudice, just as Fielding’s, Tom Jones is about a young man named Tom Jones. The relation between contemporary titles and contents is more esoteric: Eyeless in Gaza, All the Conspirators, England Made Me, The Horse’s Mouth, all these are ironical comments rather than titles in the old sense. Isherwood called his autobiography Lions and Shadows, using the title of a novel he had planned but not written; in other words, the titles were interchangeable. One has heard that in Gaza an Arab bookseller had his window stocked with Mr. Huxley’s novel, thinking it a guidebook to the town. He had a literal mind, but not more so than our own eighteenth century novelists or, Henry Green. Thus Green’s latest novel, Loving, is summed up by the title; it is about loving; not love, but the condition expressed by the verbal noun. As almost every character in Caught is caught, so practically every character in Loving is in a state of loving. Again, as in Party Going and Caught, the characters are set in a confined space, marooned, as it were, on a desert island too small for them in the midst of the great world from which they are cut off. The desert island of Loving is a castle in Eire staffed almost entirely by English servants who do not venture [154] outside the grounds for fear of the neutral Irish. The period is that of the blitz; they are well out of it, glad of it, and guilty about it. The castle, like the fire station of Caught, and the hotel rooms of Party Going, is a web of gossip, intrigue, scandal and misunderstanding, though the novel throughout is written in terms of pure comedy. As in Caught, the whole book revolves round one nuclear incident Mrs. Jack, the daughter of the owner of the castle, is surprised one morning in bed with her lover by a housemaid. It is the beginning of the end; everything follows from that. From then on it is inevitable that Raunce, the butler, and Edith, the housemaid, should run away together to England.

Though on a smaller scale than Caught, it represents in some ways an advance on it. It is much more closely knit, and in many ways Raunce is a more subtle character than Pye, because Mr. Green is continually surprising us with new facets of his character. At first he seems to be nothing more than a petty fiddler, then a hypocrite, then a lecher. As facet after facet is revealed we realise that he is more complicated than our preconceived notion had allowed for, that he is that rare creation the character in the round, who surprises disconcertingly, as people do in life. But Green is the enemy of preconceived notions of character.

Green has now written five novels. They are all very different, not only from the works of any other novelist writing to-day, but from each other. Among the ranks of contemporary writers he is as much on his own as Miss Compton Burnett, but every novel he writes is unpredictable, which can scarcely be, said of Miss Burnett’s. He has, perhaps, the - most completely original vision of any writer of his, generation. That alone is not enough to make a good novelist, but when it is combined, as in Green, with technical mastery and the resources of a virtuoso, it is, enough to make him, if not the best, certainly the most exciting novelist writing in England to-day.


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