Working to create life in the reader

November 17, 2000

Not so long ago one did not have to explain who Henry Green (1905-73) was. In his heyday, the 1940s and 1950s, critics queued up to praise him. Fellow writers abandoned jealous rivalries and joined the chorus. To V. S. Pritchett he was "the most gifted prose writer of his generation". Olivia Manning, almost as generous, rated him "one of the two great creative novelists of this generation". The only constituency that remained unmoved was the public. Green once claimed to his publisher: "You can never popularise me." And sales figures during his lifetime - when none of his books sold more than 10,000 copies - bore him out. Since his death, various publishers have given him a well-intentioned punt, but much of his best work is now out of print.

One can understand why some readers might have a problem with Green. Except for a couple of works set during the war and its aftermath, his books do not take place against a backdrop of momentous historical events. Many events go unexplained, but nothing fantastical or mystical occurs: nobody flies or lives to be 150. There are tensions, but the books are hardly page turners. His characters do not utter fluent, well-crafted speeches in which their motives are clearly outlined, but rather grope, as people in life do, from one self-contradicting thought to the next. The books are full of subtle and oblique happenings that, as Jeremy Treglown says, defy "tidy explication". It is typical of Green to have admired the obscure Arabist C. M. Doughty, noting with approval of his Arabia Deserta :

"He was an untrained archaeologist. One of the merits of his book is that he finds almost nothing, certainly nothing of any value." Green's syntax and punctuation are a final stumbling block, frequently so enigmatic as to require sentences to be read more than once: a slap in the face for today's time-poor readers.

The support Green received from writers led to a famous and unfortunate classification of him as a "writer's writer's writer". Whatever that phrase means, as far as the ordinary reader goes, one may as well have put a government health warning on the covers. In fact, it was not Green's aim to be a "difficult" writer at all. His purpose was, he said, "to create life in the reader", and the technical experiments he attempted - notably in Living (1929) - were directed towards realising this goal. What those who like his work invariably draw attention to is not its flirtation with modernism, but its truthfulness, its unerring sensitivity to the nuances of human speech and behaviour, coupled with a gift for unusual and memorable imagery and a lyrical voice that few writers have matched. But, as Treglown comments, "it is a vulnerable kind of art, one which calls on the reader's understanding in more than the obvious ways and which has no ready answer to pedantry or plain, instinctive dislike". Or plain indifference.

Green's real name was Henry Yorke, which leads Treglown in this biography down the blind alley of attempting to describe a relationship between Yorke the director of the family business, as Green/Yorke was for 30 years, and Green the writer ("We know that such forebodings were felt by Henry Yorke as well as Henry Green"; "the office routines of Henry Yorke were useful, even essential, to the imaginative work of Henry Green"). That said, Treglown has performed an extremely useful service in writing this book. His interpretations of the novels are questionable at times, but so they should be in discussing an art as little didactic as Green's.

Green's life was a less tangled matter than his fiction. Born into a wealthy, well-connected family (as a child he used to play at Petworth, then still in private hands), he went to Eton, where he became secretary of the newly formed Society of Arts. At Oxford he became an aesthete, living in fear of the sports-loving "hearties", who would demolish the rooms of anyone they suspected of being tainted by culture (see Evelyn Waugh's Brideshead Revisited ). Green published his first novel, Blindness, while still an undergraduate and, after going down from university, took a path radically different from writing friends such as Anthony Powell and Waugh by working on the shopfloor of the family engineering firm in Birmingham.

There he absorbed the speech patterns of those around him and wrote Living , which his fellow workers "thought rotten". Green soon transferred to the London offices of the firm and spent the rest of his working life as a director, taking leave during the Blitz to work as a fireman. Throughout this time his writing was miraculously crammed into time not spent at the office or sitting in the pub after work. He was never much of a businessman, and after it was discovered that the water glass he used at board meetings contained neat gin, he took early retirement in 1959.

Green's novel-writing came to an early end in 1952 with Doting . Like all Green's fiction, it is concerned with the routine lying that goes on between people and their inability to communicate. After writing it Green steadily relinquished any attempt to communicate except with the gin bottle. He was always attracted to black humour and loved to hear about things going wrong in comical fashion. Perhaps it was his diminishing belief that things could ever go right that led to the reclusiveness of his last years. A string of extra-marital affairs came to an end and Green embarked on a rather terrifying decline. During the 1960s he rarely left the house, watching a lot of sport on the television and drinking a lot of gin. When he did venture out it was in "his now regular uniform of suit and bedroom slippers, long-haired, covered in cigarette ash, laughing at his own stories". He feared that he'd been forgotten, and by most people he has. But, as this welcome biography insists, there are still a few who care to remember.

Christopher Wood is a freelance writer on literature and the arts.

Romancing: The Life and Work of Henry Green

Author - Jeremy Treglown
ISBN - 0 571 16898 1
Publisher - Faber
Price - £25.00
Pages - 368

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