Alan Hollinghurst

The New York Review of Books - - Contents - Alan Hollinghurst

Henry Green’s nov­els, with their oneword ti­tles and uni­form di­men­sions, can cre­ate an im­pres­sion of same­ness, but any­one who reads just two of his books will find them to be won­der­fully dif­fer­ent. Dot­ing (set in post–World War II Lon­don) is as un­like Lov­ing (set in an Ir­ish coun­try house) as Lov­ing is un­like Liv­ing (set in a Birm­ing­ham fac­tory). Any gen­er­al­iza­tion about Green, be­yond his be­ing one of the most en­gross­ing and orig­i­nal English nov­el­ists of the twentieth cen­tury, is li­able to con­tra­dic­tion. Each book is an ad­ven­ture in sub­ject, and in lan­guage. Caught is psy­cho­log­i­cal, in­volved with the thoughts and un­ex­pressed feel­ings of dis­ori­ented char­ac­ters lost or freed by war; Lov­ing, the novel Green wrote im­me­di­ately af­ter it, hov­ers in en­tranced ob­ser­va­tion in front of its char­ac­ters and never en­ters their heads at all; Back, pub­lished a year later, traps the reader in the de­luded mind of a wounded ex-POW, in one of the great verbal de­pic­tions of inar­tic­u­lacy.

There are pro­ce­dures and char­ac­ter­is­tics of phras­ing that tell you you’re read­ing Green: di­a­logue life­like in its cir­clings and eva­sions; the omis­sion of ar­ti­cles and hy­phens throw­ing words into new live con­tact with one another; a sim­ple, even curt ex­act­ness of state­ment pass­ing with­out warn­ing into as­ton­ish­ing elab­o­ra­tions of syn­tax: leaps above leaps made from a stand­ing start and cap­tur­ing the shape and move­ment of a thought or a sen­sa­tion. But ev­ery­thing is fresh, un­en­cum­bered by habit or for­mula. For the last twenty years of his life (he died in 1973) Green wrote noth­ing more, and one rea­son for this si­lence, along with drink and de­pres­sion, was surely a re­fusal to re­peat him­self.

Caught, Lov­ing, and Back make a typ­i­cally con­trast­ing trio, all writ­ten dur­ing World War II, and all about the war, seen in three dis­tinct phases and in un­ex­pected lights. Caught (1943) is per­haps Green’s most au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cal novel, draw­ing di­rectly on his ex­pe­ri­ence as a mem­ber of the Aux­il­iary Fire Ser­vice, the large vol­un­tary force that sup­ported the Lon­don Fire Brigade dur­ing the Blitz. It cul­mi­nates in a long spo­ken ac­count of a night of bom­bard­ment from an aux­il­iary fire­man’s point of view, a de­scrip­tion of the mud­dled par­tic­i­pant’s merely frac­tional sense of the larger catas­tro­phe, in the tra­di­tion of Shake­speare’s or Tol­stoy’s bat­tle scenes. But the bulk of the book is taken up with the pe­riod of rest­less wait­ing for ac­tion, with the pro­tag­o­nist Richard Roe, like Green from a landed up­per-class fam­ily in the west of Eng­land, sep­a­rated from his wife, Dy, and son, Christo­pher, and thrown into the com­pany of the men and women of the fire sta­tion, all of them from very dif­fer­ent back­grounds.

It turns out that Pye, the reg­u­lar fire­man in charge of the sta­tion, has a sis­ter who some time be­fore had ab­ducted young Christo­pher from a depart­ment store—plot twists of dream­like odd­ity are of­ten part of Green’s non-plot­driven nov­els, and Pye’s com­pli­cated anx­i­eties about his sis­ter, his visit to her in a men­tal hospi­tal, and his un­founded con­vic­tion that the hospi­tal wants him to pay for her care form a coun­tertheme to Richard’s bore­dom, lone­li­ness, and un­de­ni­able ex­cite­ment. It is part of Green’s ge­nius to en­ter with equal un­der­stand­ing into the dream life and the in­ti­mate sex­ual mem­o­ries of th­ese two dis­tinct men. He writes about sex­ual feel­ings, their ur­gency and ubiq­uity, better than any writer of his pe­riod, the com­pul­sions height­ened here by the aphro­disiac ef­fects of the war, and of Lon­don dur­ing the Blitz in par­tic­u­lar1; de­sire, in­ten­si­fied by ab­nor­mal con­di­tions, fear of im­mi­nent death, and close­ness to avail­able strangers, runs through the book and gives rise to some of its most un­for­get­table flights of lan­guage:

The re­lief he ex­pe­ri­enced when their bod­ies met was like the crack, on a snow silent day, of a branch that breaks to fall un­der a weight of snow, as his hands went like two owls in day­light over the hills, moors, and wooded val­leys, over the fat white winter of her body.

The whole novel, rich in un­ex­pected metaphor, leaves a some­how in­can­des­cent im­pres­sion of be­ing mirac­u­lously both hum­drum and vi­sion­ary.

Henry

Green, whose real name was Henry Yorke, had been through Eton and then Ox­ford, where he was part of its ex­haus­tively writ­ten-about mid1920s so­cial scene, with Eve­lyn Waugh and An­thony Pow­ell among his writer friends; he pub­lished his first novel,

Blind­ness (1926), while still an un­der­grad­u­ate, but de­voted much of his stu­dent life to play­ing bil­liards and go­ing, ad­dic­tively, to the cin­ema. Waugh and Pow­ell would make their names as nov­el­ists of raff­ishly up­per-class life, their so­cial ex­pe­ri­ence broad­ened, in their thir­ties, by their ex­pe­ri­ence in the army. Green was quite dif­fer­ent, in part no doubt be­cause of what he did next. The Yorkes had a flour­ish­ing engi­neer­ing busi­ness, H. Pon­tifex & Sons, in Birm­ing­ham, and af­ter he went down from Ox­ford with­out a de­gree, Green worked for his fa­ther on the fac­tory’s shop floor (he would rise even­tu­ally to be manag­ing di­rec­tor).

He would show, for in­stance in the dash­ing and drawl­ing di­a­logue of Party Go­ing (1939), in which a group of fash­ion­able peo­ple are trapped by fog in a train sta­tion ho­tel, that he could hit off his own so­cial world per­fectly; but what ab­sorbs him, and it’s a sig­nif­i­cant part of his great­ness, are the lives and the lan­guage of peo­ple quite un­like him­self. In Liv­ing (1929), set in and around a Mid­lands engi­neer­ing works not un­like Pon­tifex, he per­forms a mar­velous re­ver­sal of the in­her­ited so­cial per­spec­tive of the novel, giv­ing the Duprets, the fac­tory own­ers, small parts, but fo­cus­ing all the ac­tion on the lives, the rou­tines, and the as­pi­ra­tions of the fac­tory work­ers and their fam­i­lies. Not only that, but the prose of the book is it­self rad­i­cally adapted—much of the novel is di­a­logue, some twenty named char­ac­ters in­tro­duced in the first few pages, some with very sim­i­lar names, and ex­act­ing the clos­est at­ten­tion from the reader. Start­ing the book is like the first day in a new job, the im­mer­sion in an alien world all set up and run­ning. And the com­pressed and clipped lan­guage of the work­ers forms a tem­plate for Green’s own prose:

And then over all town sound of hoot­ers broke out. Men and women quickly came from, now to­gether mixed, and they went like tongues along lick­ing the streets. Then chil­dren went into houses from streets along with th­ese men and girls. Women gave them to eat. Were only spar­rows now in streets. But on roads cease­lessly cars came in from coun­try, or they went out into it, in, out.

It’s a sub­tle traf­fic of ar­ti­fice and ac­tu­al­ity. There are par­al­lels for Green’s An­glo-Saxon brevity in po­ems that Au­den was writ­ing at the same time, and prece­dents for it in the tor­tu­ous verse dra­mas of Charles Doughty, which Green at least found not only read­able but ex­cit­ing. The quick-fire edit­ing and imag­is­tic econ­omy owe some­thing to the cin­ema. But the over­all ef­fect is fresh and fo­cused—not the be­nign re­demp­tion of work­ing-class speech by a cul­tured novelist, but a rev­e­la­tory ac­count of a world in its own richly ad­e­quate lan­guage. Green never wrote in so fiercely stripped-down and com­pacted a man­ner again, but the so­ci­olin­guis­tic ex­per­i­ment of Liv­ing, car­ried off with beau­ti­ful cer­tainty, sets the terms for ev­ery­thing he would do: writ­ing with­out re­ceived ideas, ei­ther about peo­ple or about lit­er­ary lan­guage, and thus mak­ing some­thing new out of both in each suc­ces­sive book. Green was a writer con­sti­tu­tion­ally un­able to con­de­scend to his char­ac­ters or to his read­ers. His acutely heard work­ing-class char­ac­ters can be funny, but they’re never comic turns. In Caught, Mary How­ells, an un­skilled woman brought in to cook for the fire ser­vice, goes AWOL to visit her no­good son-in-law Ted in Don­caster; on get­ting there she finds her­self un­able to say any of the stern things that were the pur­pose of her visit, though on re­turn­ing to Lon­don she de­liv­ers a vig­or­ous ac­count of how she gave him a piece of her mind. Her au­di­ence is Piper, a smelly, servile old vet­eran, de­rided when not over­looked, the kind of fig­ure Richard would other­wise never have known, but who be­comes an in­escapable, al­most an es­sen­tial, thread of his wartime ex­pe­ri­ence. Dick­ens might have done Mary and Piper, but they would have been “char­ac­ters,” where Green’s creations are sim­ply, com­plexly, peo­ple.

I’ve been speak­ing of this new edi­tion of Caught, but read­ers al­ready fa­mil­iar with the novel will be scratch­ing their heads af­ter just a few pages, since it prints Green’s orig­i­nal ver­sion for the first time in the US (it was also pub­lished by Vin­tage in the UK last sum­mer). This large editorial de­ci­sion is glanc­ingly men­tioned on the back cover, but not enough, in­deed noth­ing at all, is made of it in the book it­self (there is no tex­tual note): the changes in feeling, above all, brought about by su­per­sed­ing the only text avail­able in the pre­vi­ous sev­enty-three years, are con­sid­er­able.

There had been anx­i­eties about the book be­fore its orig­i­nal pub­li­ca­tion, partly to do with its candid de­pic­tion of the fire ser­vice, partly with its de­motic lan­guage (Green’s change of “piss off” to “wee wee off,” an ex­pres­sion surely never used be­fore or since, silently mocks the cen­sor), and partly to do with Richard’s adul­ter­ous af­fair in Lon­don with a woman called Hilly, which the pub­lisher’s lawyer, alert to the per­sonal na­ture of the book, thought might lead to one of Green’s lovers su­ing them. (The novelist Rosa­mond Lehmann, a close friend, and pos­si­bly more, dur­ing the war, re­ferred to his “rota of ridicu­lously young girls.”)

Sur­pris­ingly for so self-de­ter­mined a writer, Green agreed to al­ter the nar­ra­tive and swiftly rewrote it, killing off Richard’s wife, Dy, giv­ing her name in­stead to a newly in­vented sis­ter-in­law, and in­ter­po­lat­ing phrases such as “who was dead” af­ter ref­er­ences to the wife. Only a stylist as un­con­ven­tional as Green could have got away with th­ese jolt­ing and pe­cu­liar asides, or made some­thing per­sua­sive of the halfdis­guised traces of a char­ac­ter he had con­ceived of as per­fectly fit and well. The mar­i­tal love theme is thus abruptly turned into a haunt­ing, ef­fec­tive in it­self and feed­ing too into the cu­ri­ous sce­nario of Back, in which a sol­dier whose lover has died in his ab­sence re­fuses to ac­cept that she is not still alive. But now Dy her­self is back, and the strength and ve­rac­ity of Green’s orig­i­nal con­cep­tion show all the brighter. Adul­ter­ous sex has a keener charge and sense of help­less in­evitabil­ity, and the scenes be­tween Richard and Dy, weirdly re­mote when Dy was her sis­ter, have new in­ten­sity. Things that had been spec­trally re­mem­bered be­come real, and a two-page scene of hus­band and wife in bed is printed for the first time: Richard wor­ried that she will smell Hilly on his skin, a strik­ing de­tail about the “slightly dirty” hole in her ear­lobe made by a pierc­ing sig­nal­ing the whole world of their in­ti­macy. Green’s orig­i­nal thoughts emerge, un­sur­pris­ingly, as his best ones.

Lov­ing

(1945) takes a look at wartime life from an an­gle both un­ex­pected and in all ways the op­po­site of Waugh’s con­tem­po­ra­ne­ous coun­try-house novel, Brideshead Re­vis­ited. Green’s house, Kinalty, ec­cen­tric and run-down, is in neu­tral Ire­land, and Lov­ing, typ­i­cally for him, is a down­stairs-up­stairs novel. Mrs. Ten­nant, the owner, and her daugh­ter-in-law make oc­ca­sional ap­pear­ances in the draw­ing room when not ab­sent in Eng­land, but the wealth of Green’s in­ter­est lies with the ser­vants—all of whom, save Paddy O’Conor the il­lit­er­ate lamp­man, are English, the younger ones evad­ing the call-up back home. “What do we know about the ser­vants?” asks Mrs. Ten­nant late in the book, a ques­tion the reader al­ready has abun­dant an­swers to. The novel de­picts a threat­ened world, the char­ac­ters liv­ing in fear not only of the army but of “Jerry” and of the IRA. Yet it is about love, par­tic­u­larly the love of Edith the house­maid for Charley Raunce the young but­ler, who comes to his po­si­tion af­ter the death of old Mr. Eldon in the open­ing pages.

Lov­ing is as sexy as Caught, but in a dif­fer­ent way. Along­side the quan­daries and ri­val­ries of cook, house­keeper, and nanny, Green builds up an ex­tra­or­di­nary at­mos­phere of deep­en­ing de­sire in the house, part of it un­mis­tak­ably his own rapt feel­ings about Edith, with her eyes “which were warm and yet caught the light like plums dipped in cold water,” and the skin of her half­naked body “like the flower of white li­lac un­der leaves.” To Waugh, who had ear­lier told Green, “I never tire of hear­ing you talk about women,” Lov­ing was “ob­scene”; and it’s true that the dreamy scenes in the bed­room that Edith shares with the maid Kate, Kate un­dress­ing Edith and ly­ing in bed with her, tense with long­ing and cu­rios­ity, to talk about men, verge on the porno­graphic. It’s true too that th­ese pas­sages are among the most en­tranc­ing in the book:

The sky was over­cast so that the light was dark as though un­der water.... Kate be­gan to stroke up and down the inside of Edith’s arm from the hol­low of her el­bow to the wrist. Edith lay still with closed eyes. The room was dark as long weed in the lake.

Feel­ings and sen­sa­tions flower spon­ta­neously into sim­ile, into mo­ments of rapt at­ten­tive­ness with their own ex­ploratory rhythms:

Her eyes left his face and with what seemed a qua­dru­pling in depth came fol­low­ing his to rest on those rec­tan­gles of warmth alive like blood. From this peat light her great eyes be­came in­vested with rose in­can­des­cence that was soft and soft and soft.

This is when Charley has fi­nally pro­posed to Edith. The rec­tan­gles of warmth are turf squares burn­ing on

the li­brary fire, where the ser­vants are spread­ing them­selves in the ab­sence of their em­ploy­ers; but they con­spire, by verbal as­so­ci­a­tion, with the qua­dru­pling depth of Edith’s eyes, light pen­e­trat­ing a space that ex­pands to re­ceive it.

A lot is go­ing wrong in the world of this novel: Raunce is anx­iously fid­dling the books, Violet is in­volved in an adul­ter­ous af­fair, and her mother’s loss of a trea­sured ring hints at a larger loss of con­trol; at the end Raunce and Edith pre­pare to re­turn to Eng­land, and all the in­evitable grim­ness it en­tails. Yet the mood of Lov­ing is one of es­cape, ir­re­spon­si­bil­ity, a weird, tatty, but beau­ti­ful fan­tasy of else­where writ­ten four years into a long war (be­tween the au­tumns of 1943 and 1944). Kinalty is the kind of house Green him­self had known well be­fore the war, and he sum­mons up the build­ings, the pea­cocks, the dove­cote de­signed like the Lean­ing Tower of Pisa, the lav­ish but ec­cen­tric coun­try-house fur­ni­ture, with a del­i­cate mix of fond­ness and farce again quite un­like the heady nos­tal­gia of Brideshead.

Back

(1946) takes us on to the ex­hausted last phase of the war, an English world in whose shab­bi­ness and de­ple­tion Green keeps find­ing his own po­etry, like wild­flow­ers on a bomb site. Part of the in­ter­est al­ways lies in see­ing how he ex­ploits the con­straints of his sce­nar­ios—he has a dra­matic sense of the spa­ces, in­ner and outer, in which he is work­ing. Back presents a sev­erer chal­lenge than most, shut­ting the reader for much of the time inside the help­lessly mis­guided mind of wounded and grief-stricken Charley Sum­mers, who has spent three years in a pris­onerof-war camp, lost a leg, and come home to grieve for Rose, the woman he loved, who died dur­ing the war.

Rose’s fa­ther puts him in touch with another young woman called Nancy, who we soon learn is Rose’s il­le­git­i­mate half-sis­ter, and who in Charley’s eyes so ex­actly re­sem­bles her that he be­lieves Nancy is Rose. Like­ness, as a source of mis­taken iden­tity, prob­a­bly thrives better in Shake­spearean com­edy than in a novel of con­tem­po­rary life, where re­al­is­tic ques­tions and ob­jec­tions are harder to sup­press. The dif­fi­cult tri­umph of Back is to per­suade us that for a man dis­ori­ented by war and im­pris­on­ment, the mis­taken be­lief that one per­son is another, and an in­ti­mately known one at that, is pos­si­ble, while any help­ful ev­i­dence to the con­trary will be para­noia­cally twisted to sup­port the mis­be­lief.

Half­way through the novel Green in­ter­po­lates, as a story in a mag­a­zine, a twelve-page ex­tract from the Sou­venirs of the eigh­teenth-cen­tury Mar­quise de Créquy, which turns on just such a case of un­canny re­sem­blance be­tween a liv­ing per­son and a dead lover—an ac­tual text, trans­lated by Green him­self. Waugh thought this a grave flaw in the book’s de­sign—“a long & ir­rel­e­vant & in­el­e­gant trans­la­tion from the French. Very mad”—but Green is so in­tu­itive a writer that the ap­par­ent ir­rel­e­van­cies and in­con­sis­ten­cies in his books tend al­ways to serve some con­vinc­ing pur­pose. The French ac­count of a woman at­tached to two men “who were en­tirely dif­fer­ent and yet at the same time ex­actly sim­i­lar” pro­vides a kind of real-life jus­ti­fi­ca­tion for the ap­par­ently bizarre in­vented nar­ra­tive, while the mon­tage-like dis­lo­ca­tion of tone adds a fur­ther voice to the many in the book. The next chapter opens in a reg­is­ter com­i­cally dif­fer­ent from the mar­quise’s—a busi­ness let­ter writ­ten in an id­iom, thick with ab­bre­vi­a­tions and tech­ni­cal phrases, that the writer hasn’t en­tirely mas­tered, and that only ob­scurely con­veys its in­tended com­plaints and threats.

Back has its med­ley of un­com­mu­ni­cat­ing voices, writ­ten and spo­ken; the words are ob­struc­tions more of­ten than clar­i­fi­ca­tions, and no one can get through to Charley. Di­a­logues turn out to be mono­logues, bril­liantly funny ones for the lech­er­ous fel­low am­putee Arthur Mid­dle­witch and for Charley’s men­da­cious land­lady Mrs. Fra­zier, both given free rein by Charley’s vir­tual si­lence: he is usu­ally “some sen­tences be­hind,” lost in his own thoughts, and of­ten ren­dered speech­less just when he most needs to ex­plain him­self: “Charley stayed silent. His day to day sense of be­ing in­jured by ev­ery­one, by life it­self, rose up and gagged him.” He only gains any ar­tic­u­late­ness when de­scrib­ing the elab­o­rate fil­ing sys­tem he has evolved at the engi­neer­ing works where he’s em­ployed: “like any silent man he talked tech­ni­cal­i­ties freely, once he got started.” The fil­ing is his barely com­pre­hen­si­ble at­tempt to im­pose order, and proves to be dis­as­trously flawed. Charley is given an as­sis­tant called Dot, around whom his balked sex­ual feel­ings play in a strangely dis­so­ci­ated way: her breasts have a “cov­ered creepi­ness,” “like two soft nests of white mice, in front,” her “fingers ter­ri­bly white, pointed into painted nails like the sheaths of flow­ers which might at any minute, he once found him­self feeling late at night, mush­room into tulips, such as when wash­ing up, per­haps.” Charley’s in­ner life is glimpsed in ob­scurely pro­lif­er­at­ing im­ages and word as­so­ci­a­tions. The word “rose,” in its sev­eral mean­ings, cre­ates the il­lu­sion of se­cret as­so­ci­a­tions for the man who can’t bring him­self to ac­cept that he’s lost the Rose he loved. He takes Dot as his plus-one for a week­end visit, and she goes up to bed to wait for him, “spread out like but­ter on bread,” but Charley spends the night in another room. Sex­ual feel­ings thwarted by un­hap­pi­ness and op­por­tu­ni­ties ig­nored have a spe­cial poignancy in Green, whose un­der­stand­ing of sex­ual in­stinct is al­ways quick and sure.

It’s easy to speak of Green as a fig­ure so sui generis as to have come from nowhere, and at most to co­in­cide with other ex­per­i­men­tal writ­ers of his time (there are, for in­stance, re­cur­rent sim­i­lar­i­ties with Eliot’s po­etry, as in the trans­fig­ured rose gar­den scene at the end of Back, in which Charley and Nancy stand on the thresh­old of mar­ried love). But Adam Thirl­well, in his ex­cel­lent new in­tro­duc­tion to Liv­ing, takes care to sit­u­ate Green in what he calls “a cer­tain over­looked cir­cuit of lit­er­ary his­tory” of di­a­logue nov­els start­ing with Thomas Love Pea­cock’s coun­try-house satires in the early 1800s; pass­ing through Henry James’s The Awk­ward Age, de­lib­er­ately con­structed like a stage play with no ac­cess by the author to the char­ac­ters’ thoughts; and on through “the wack­ier ex­per­i­ments” of Ron­ald Fir­bank and Ivy Comp­tonBur­nett to John Ash­bery (who wrote his master’s dis­ser­ta­tion on Green). I won­der, though, if “wacky” justly de­scribes what Fir­bank did. His short nov­els may give a su­per­fi­cial im­pres­sion of daffi­ness and in­con­se­quence, but they are un­der­pinned by a steely dis­ci­pline. His Vain­glory (1915) was tech­ni­cally the most orig­i­nal English novel since Sterne, the book in which he showed him­self a rad­i­cal in­no­va­tor, throw­ing away the con­ven­tions, so­cial and moral, of the Vic­to­rian novel, and re­plac­ing its great con­se­quen­tial bulk with el­lip­ti­cal struc­tures built up out of cor­us­cat­ing frag­ments. He worked, as Green later would, by si­mul­ta­ne­ous com­pres­sion and aer­a­tion, leav­ing nar­ra­tive to be glimpsed in jumps and flashes through the bril­liant tex­ture of speech and lap­idary de­scrip­tion. His di­a­logue takes James’s ex­per­i­ments in obliq­uity a stage fur­ther, while ren­der­ing it with more life­like ac­cu­racy. As V. S. Pritch­ett said, “Fir­bank must have been the first dis­in­ter­ested, clin­i­cal lis­tener to the lu­nacy of con­ver­sa­tion.” Henry Green must have been the sec­ond.

Fir­bank can be thought of as a writer’s writer, a tired phrase for a type of vi­tal trans­fer within and be­tween gen­er­a­tions. He showed new tech­ni­cal pos­si­bil­i­ties whose fas­ci­na­tion lay deeper than tech­ni­cal­i­ties—a means of revolt against re­ceived forms that caught the mood of the whole post–Great War gen­er­a­tion, in its mul­ti­far­i­ous con­cep­tions of modernism. Waugh was the first ma­jor writer to un­der­stand this: in an es­say of 1929, three years af­ter Fir­bank’s death, we catch ex­actly that trans­mit­ted ex­cite­ment. He sees Fir­bank’s “prog­eny” all over the place, in Os­bert Sitwell, Carl Van Vechten, Ernest Hem­ing­way (we can now add to that list Henry Green, An­thony Pow­ell, Noël Coward, W. H. Au­den, yes, Ivy Compton-Bur­nett, and de­cid­edly Waugh him­self—he was writ­ing Vile Bod­ies at the time).

That same year Waugh re­viewed Liv­ing, claim­ing that tech­ni­cally it was “with­out ex­cep­tion the most in­ter­est­ing book I have read.” In a let­ter to Green he ad­mits, “The thing I en­vied most was the way you man­aged the plot which is oddly enough al­most ex­actly the way Fir­bank man­aged his.” In the es­say on Fir­bank he might have been de­scrib­ing the nov­els his friend would go on to write—“his com­po­si­tions built up, in­tri­cately and with a bal­anced al­ter­na­tion of the wildest ex­trav­a­gance and the most aus­tere econ­omy, with con­ver­sa­tional nu­ances.”

In the com­mon view of the Mod­ernist novel in English it is Joyce and Woolf who are (very prop­erly) ex­tolled (as they are by Amit Chaud­huri in a fine new in­tro­duc­tion to Party Go­ing), while poor Fir­bank, quite as in­no­va­tive and in­flu­en­tial as ei­ther, is barely re­mem­bered at all. Another thing Green shares with him is a pre­car­i­ous hold on book­store shelves—his books are pe­ri­od­i­cally re­vived and reis­sued, urged on by fel­low writ­ers and crit­ics and per­suad­able pub­lish­ers; then drop, pretty quickly, out of print once more. The on­go­ing New York Re­view Books edi­tions of his nov­els has the air of a more last­ing am­bi­tion. It is a great thing to have.2

Henry Green; pho­to­graph by Ce­cil Beaton

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