Book Review

Tones of Green

Once hailed by W. H. Auden as “the best English novelist alive,” Henry Green—who is having a moment thanks to a series of reissues from NYRB Classics and others—may have also been the greatest listener in the history of British letters, and an unlikely one at that. Born Henry Vincent Yorke, he assumed a nom de plume that thinly concealed his aristocratic upbringing as a self-proclaimed “mouthbreather with a silver spoon.” He wrote his precocious and largely autobiographical debut novel, Blindness (1926), while attending Eton. At Oxford his contemporaries included Evelyn Waugh and Anthony Powell, and he repeatedly blew off his tutor C. S. Lewis either to catch movies or go out drinking. Yet Green shunted this life of privilege after a few semesters, heading off to work on the floor of his father’s iron foundry in Birmingham. One academic novel was enough. It was time “to meet as many pedestrian people as possible and to listen to the most pedestrian conversation.”

While this fascination with what Wordsworth called “language really used by men” could have veered into the fetishistic, instead it fueled Green’s propensity for reinvention and helped him continually reflect the texture of lived experience in his thoroughly disparate novels. Living (1929), which drew from his two-year foundry stint, was unique as an ideologically unencumbered portrait of the working class. The style it employed—spare, completely free of definite articles, replete with dropped nouns and cinematic scene-cuts—was even more inventive, meant to defy the typical tidiness of “literary” writing and evoke the drab nature of factory life. But the experiment might have felt overwrought if not for the multifarious tonic of the characters’ speech: “Deceitful old bleeder,” one worker says of another. “Enough to make you go bald’eaded just seeing ’im go up the street.”

Green continued to make a career out of defying classification, refusing to repeat himself stylistically, formally, or topically. His third novel, Party Going (1939), which follows a group of vapid twenty-somethings hiding out in a hotel during a four-hour train delay, displayed a Modernist affinity for metaphor, symbol, and allusions to mythology. Caught (1943) was another exercise in experiential writing, drawn from Green’s time in the Auxiliary Fire Service during World War II. No matter how distinct Green’s novels feel from one another, they are all full of dialogue that bounds from the page. In the reflexively masculine universe of Caught, the war becomes “this bit of trouble” and an attractive woman “a smashing lump of stuff.” “It’s terrifying,” a well-heeled young woman from Party Going declares as she looks at the crowded train concourse below her hotel window. “I didn’t know there were so many people in the world.”

Green was able to reproduce the voices of so many of these people largely because of his aptitude for self-negation. Unlike his school friend Waugh, he “never asks us to side with him against a character,” as John Updike aptly asserted. In addition to avoiding trends and insisting on nothing less than outright originality, Green refused to propound any sort of authorial dogma, wholly replicating life’s trivialities in order to reconfigure them as high art. Any reader of Green will derive flashes of recognition, as well as an entirely unexpected sense of wonder, from his characters’ arguments, miscommunications, and soon-to-be-forgot­ten epiphanies.

Loving (1945), which is perhaps Green’s most mesmeric work and his most cherished, gracefully exploits his proclivities for class collision and folly. Set during the war in an Irish castle almost entirely staffed by British servants, the novel depicts life “downstairs” spilling into ballrooms, bedrooms, and out onto the sprawling grounds where a flock of peacocks roams freely. Abandoned by their masters, the Tennants, for long swaths of time, the servants are free to gossip, filch, flirt, and fight for authority, unconsciously echoing the discord in Europe from neutral territory. Along with its array of speech patterns and accents, Loving advanced Green’s capacity for other sorts of presentation: his descriptions, emotions, and colors were never more vivid. At one point, a housemaid named Edith, already falling in love with the loquacious head butler Charley Raunce, takes Mrs. Tennant’s grandchildren on a walk:

Under this great Gothic pile lay the complete copy of a Greek temple roofed, windowed and with two green bronze doors for entrance. The children dashed through an iron turnstile, which clicked into another darker daylight, into a vast hall lit by rain and dark skylights and which was filled with marble bronze and plaster statuary in rows . . . Their sharp voices echoed, echoed. The place was damp . . . Edith took off her scarf. She was brilliant, she glowed as she rang her curls like bells without a note.

The focus on surface and physicality establishes a visual immediacy without sacrificing any depth of character—indeed, as we reach this passage, the confessions Edith and Raunce have made in the scene prior are still reverberating in our minds like the voices of the frolicking children. It is hard to think of a young woman in love more enchanting than Edith, and her radiant authenticity causes us to forget that she is from an entirely different milieu than the amorous leads in most novels. Her formidable substance, mixed with the astonishing emotional range of the novel’s confined universe, makes Loving the greatest example of Green’s gift for negative capability.

If Loving displayed Green’s incomparable ear while also enhancing the descriptive passages that bound his bursts of dialogue together, then Nothing (1950)[1] and Doting (1952)[2]—the most recent of his novels to be reissued by NYRB Classics—will forever be remembered for their ruthless abolition of this exquisite earlier style. “I am beginning to have my doubts about the uses of description,” Green confessed during a series of talks he gave for the BBC around the time that Nothing was published. Concerned with what he called the “know-all” assumptions made by typical authorial narration, he insisted that dialogue stripped of embellishments would best “create life in the reader,” largely because of its uncertainty. “It will be necessary for the dialogue to mean different things to different readers at one and the same time,” he noted.

Perhaps this should have come as no surprise. As James Wood put it in his introduction to last year’s edition of Caught: “Green’s novels want to turn themselves into plays.” With Nothing he had never come closer. Structured around a series of tête-à-têtes between revolving pairs of primary characters—a majority of the conversations take place in the same upscale restaurant in central London—the novel primarily details the mischievous schemes of Jane Weatherby and John Pomfret, a widow and widower of upper-class standing. Having conducted an affair decades earlier, the two “old friends” banter, flirt circuitously, and grumble about their respective children, Philip and Mary, who are much too serious and have expressed interest in marrying each other (despite their legitimate concern that they may be half-siblings). Chafing against the austerity of postwar existence, Jane and John desperately try to replicate the extravagance of their youth, throwing lavish parties but blanching when the bills arrive. “Since my tailor lost his cutter to a bomb in the war I haven’t been able to sit down to meals in comfort, it’s frightful,” John confesses.

Given the distasteful solipsism of these characters and their espe­cially limited socioeconomic range compared to the cast list of Green’s prior works, it is not all that surprising that critics regarded Nothing as stale. Though Green had previously been lauded for his obliquity, a relentless stream of meandering conversations apparently took things too far. Curiously, many reviews rushed past any discussion of Nothing’s dialogical framework, instead focusing on how its abbreviated narrative passages felt like “a rather painful piece of self-imitation,” as Green’s biographer Edward Stokes put it. Dialogue had not created “life in the reader,” or at least in the readers whose opinions “mattered.”

The critical disappointment surrounding Nothing is largely retrospective and is certainly colored by the reductive consensus that Doting was its stylistic and thematic facsimile. Yet while there are obvious overlaps of subject matter and milieu—both books document the sexual crises of upper-class adults—the latter novel furthers Green’s rejection of authorial omniscience and pares down his dramatis personae, allowing him to rotate through conversations in a more elaborate and well-plotted manner. To many, it seemed that Green was merely trying to corroborate the pronouncements of his BBC broadcasts, which indeed relied too heavily on esthetic doctrine. But more likely it was his unprecedented run of originality—all of his previous books exist on their own terms and explore entirely different universes—that made a formal revolution look like a failure. It certainly didn’t help that after Doting, Green’s output consisted of a scant few articles. Twenty-one years of near silence did nothing to curtail the far-too-simplistic notion that his final two novels were indistinguishable and pompous failures.

Part of Green’s experiment in writing both Nothing and Doting was to expand the reader’s patience and to modify what it meant to be invested in a work of fiction. He had always been what Updike called “a saint of the mundane,” deriving profundity from the most unlikely of sources. But he had never challenged the assumption of narrative importance more directly than in these conversation-heavy novels. While readers of both books are repeatedly asked to process the muddled consequences of everyday disagreements, urges, and misunderstandings, they are also privy to lifelike periods of tedium that languish in between, left to wonder, like Roland Barthes, “what is . . . the significance of this insignificance?”

Green is best able to emulate the sensations of human experience by yoking these two poles together, juxtaposing the lulls with moments that are unassuming yet indisputably thrilling. Doting opens in a dreary nightclub, with middle-aged Arthur and Diana Middleton treating their seventeen-year-old son Peter to an evening on the town in honor of his return home for the winter holiday. They’ve also brought along Annabel Paynton, the daughter of “a now disliked old friend,” who is only two years older than Peter but out of school and occupying a different orbit. While the group watches a salacious stage routine, Arthur cannot keep his attention away from the “lush” Annabel, directing several barbs her way before glancing down her dress. The moment in which he chances “a quick return to the girl’s eyes” while “in this half dark . . . she steadily regarded him,” is both petty and momentous, a brief moment of squalor that sets the events of the novel in motion.

Soon enough Arthur is treating Annabel to expensive lunches and calling her up at work. Eventually, he invites her over for a somewhat romantic dinner. (“‘Why didn’t you say when you asked me?’ ‘Tell you what Ann?’ ‘That this was going to be like a Victorian melodrama. Me, all alone, with you, here!’”) The very structure Green utilizes in Doting—an archetypal love triangle—underscores his experiment with all things commonplace, though he makes it more lifelike by adding other players and subplots: with Diana breathing down Arthur’s neck, he implores her to have dinner with his charismatic friend Charles Addinsell, for whom she has long harbored feelings. Eventually, Arthur sets Annabel up with Charles as well. (The novel occasionally feels like a carnal precursor to Luis Buñuel’s The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie—none of the characters can quite make it to bed together.)

Both Nothing and Doting focus on the paradox of marriage as a simultaneous one-off spectacle and a state of day-to-day continuity. While planning—and actively thwarting—their children’s proposed wedding, Jane Weatherby and John Pomfret seem unable to remember the actual consistency of their respective marriages. Arthur Middleton, on the other hand, courts Annabel Paynton less out of desire than in an effort to rupture his numbing routine. By employing modified iterations of clichéd plot points—Arthur and Annabel’s peculiar “meet-cute,” the Middletons’ bouts of domestic bickering that occasionally descend into flirtation—Green draws attention to the spoken clichés his characters use to suppress the dreary horrors of their daily lives. “What’s over’s over, enough’s enough,” John Pomfret tells his daughter Mary after she presses him about whether she and Philip are half-siblings. Meanwhile, Annabel glibly informs Arthur that, “with two wars and everything in between, your generation’s had quite a pasting.”

This proliferation of linguistic distancing ensures that Green’s dialogue indeed means “different things to different readers”—as per his BBC manifesto—while simultaneously exposing the postwar denial of the British upper class. The abundant euphemisms, understatements, and acts of outright self-suppression are enough to make an attuned reader queasy. “Try and see if you can do with perhaps a little bit less of Ann,” Diana counsels Arthur in the midst of a particularly uncomfortable performance of spousal affection. Jane Weatherby, entirely immersed in a discussion of her personal finances, can only refer to a friend’s recent amputation as “too too disagreeable.” In his critical biography The Idiom of the Time: The Writings of Henry Green (1982),[3] Rod Mengham blames this “string of clichés” on Green’s “nostalgia” for his earlier work, going so far as to accuse him of “textual parasitism.” Amidst his apparent repulsion at the sordid behavior demonstrated in these novels, Mengham overlooks the simple fact that Green was deploying clichés and other conversational tics on purpose, mimicking the way his characters would actually speak in order to fashion a rather damning portrait of bourgeois society.

Throughout his career, Green was drawn to the surface of things, striving to display reality exactly as it appears. With Nothing and Doting he had advanced his gift for portraiture, presenting only what could be seen or heard, which involved staging, but not being overtaken by, the insipid flatness of a specific social set. For John Pomfret and Jane Weatherby, or the Middletons, life is just one turn of phrase after another, at best a clichéd state of “unthinking happiness.” But beyond its obvious biliousness, Green’s two-part portrait of London’s tattered nobility possesses an effortless comedy and an evident empathy for its often-desperate characters. “Dammit, she’s been out with Charles three times in five whole days,” Arthur says of Diana during a particularly desultory date with Annabel; the reader is left to smother laughter beneath a blanket of pity.

An episode from Green’s childhood offers some clues about the esthetic and stylistic developments of his late career. During the First World War, when Green was twelve years old, his family’s country manor was used as a convalescent home for injured Army officers. “The effect of this on a child of my class was to open before his feet those narrow, deep and echoing gulfs which must be bridged,” the novelist noted in his memoir Pack My Bag (1940), which he wrote during the Blitz, under the assumption that he’d soon be killed. From the recovering soldiers, he “began to learn the half-tones of class, or, if not to learn because I was too young, to see enough to recognize the echoes later when I came to hear them.”

Compared to the varied “half-tones” of novels like Living, Loving, and Caught, both Nothing and Doting—aside from their comfortingly familiar gerund titles—seemed to be complete aberrations, even outright rejections of Green’s all-embracing ear. But amidst the shock of surviving both wars, Green had subtly set out to map the consequences these atrocities had wrought upon his generation. This endeavor is evident in Back (1946), which details the maladies of Charley Summers, a repatriated British soldier. But while Green’s dialogic late phase feels less obviously urgent, its focus on the public’s nostalgia for the innocent past undoubt­edly bolsters his project. Never before has the upper class felt so present, so available, so doubtful of itself, completely stripped of pretense as Green-the-author recedes into “nothing.” Despite the ensuing nothing­ness of Green’s productivity, these final two works seem to complete a sequence, a career-long act of devoted listening that left him unafraid to turn, in the end, upon himself and the world he occupied.
[1] NOTHING, by Henry Green. New York Review Books. $14.00p.
[2] DOTING, by Henry Green. New York Review Books. $14.00p.
[3] Rod Mengham, The Idiom of the Time: The Writings of Henry Green (Cambridge, 1982).