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They Came To Tree

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Surviving: Stories, Essays, Interviews

Henry Green (edited by Matthew Yorke)

New York Review Books, pp.308, $18.95

Among readers in the English-speaking world, I cannot imagine that I am the only one who was entranced with the idea of the novelist Henry Green long before I became an admirer of his actual work.

Henry Green: Especially for those who have some reserves of Anglophilia, the name itself conjures such striking images! “Henry” brings to mind, oh, Henry Fielding — with whom he had nothing else in common save the fact that both were Englishmen — while “Green” brings its own set of connotations. We think of green as in green grass or the green and pleasant land of his native country, evoked in that fine line in his debut novel, Blindness (1926): “The sun began throwing splashes of gold on to the trees, even the house caught some and was proud to be under the same spell.” But we might think, too, of the color green as it is represented in, say, the upper half of Mark Rothko’s painting Green and Maroon or George Balanchine’s ballet Emeralds, both modernist masterpieces very much in the same spare mode as Green’s writing.

To me, after I had first learned about him in appreciative essays by his foremost American proponent, John Updike, but before I had actually read him, the act of contemplating Henry Green was utterly bewitching — as much as learning for the first time, as each of us must have at one point or another, that the first syllable in the Christian name of his contemporary Evelyn Waugh, was pronounced “Eve,” as in the companion to Adam, rather than “Evv,” as in the once-common girls’ name. Like knowing the proper way to say “Evelyn” in “Evelyn Waugh,” to be aware of Henry Green’s mere existence was a sign of sophistication.

I could go on and on, but the appeal of Henry Green — the name, that is — should not surprise us. Its stark allusive qualities are unlikely to have been lost on the man who selected it as his pseudonym. Born in Gloucestershire in 1905, Henry Vincent Yorke attended Eton before going up to Magdalen College, Oxford, which he left without earning a degree. He then joined his family’s manufacturing firm, H. Pontifex & Sons. In the manner of Charles Ives before him and Louis Auchincloss after him, Yorke balanced a mundane day job with adventuresome creative work, but, bifurcating his life even more dramatically than did Ives or Auchincloss, he chose to adopt a pen name. He died in 1973.

“I didn’t want my business associates to know I wrote novels,” Green told Terry Southern in an interview for The Paris Review included in this miscellany from New York Review Books. “Most of them do now though . . . know I mean, not write, thank goodness.”

Well—thank goodness—he wrote. In his best novels, Green conjured whole universes: the people who make a factory run in Living, fog-delayed revelers in Party Going, and the “downstairs” people on an Irish estate in Loving. His methods were stark and at times obfuscatory, an attempt to convey as much as possible by means of what he referred to as “a gathering web of insinuations.” In conversation with Southern, Green compared himself to Chinese classical painters who omitted “the middle distance.” “Until Nothing and Doting I tried to establish the mood of any scene by a few but highly pointed descriptions,” he said. “Since then I’ve tried to keep everything down to bare dialogue and found it very difficult.”

Green’s literary career was deliberate to a degree unusual even among English modernist writers. He not only chose the name under which he published but seemed to conceive of his nine novels as a kind of loose cycle, with short vague titles that seemed to announce his intention of describing states of being rather than telling stories or even evoking settings. John Updike, who once introduced a volume that gathered together Living, Party Going, and Loving, described the books as “gerundive.” Green’s, he wrote, are “among the most contemplated novels of an age, not long ago, when novel-writing came easy.”

Surviving, an anthology of uncollected writings first assembled by the author’s grandson Matthew Yorke in 1992, confirms this impression, showing us how Green was patient with both his experiments and his material. “Excursion” seems to be an antecedent of Party Going, and the imagery of “An Old Lady” — one of several short stories reflecting his time in the Auxiliary Fire Service during the Second World War — is later repurposed in Caught (1945).

These pieces are of more than archaeological interest. Green’s talent is obvious even in a story that appeared in an Etonian magazine in 1923 (published using an earlier nom de plume, the less distinctive “Henry Michaels”). In “Bees,” Green describes Wheatley, an Anglican clergyman weary of parishioners who grudgingly fill the pews on Sunday but whose temporal concerns require a great deal of his attention. He is drawn instead to the bees in his garden, who “did not sting him, as they did the rest of his family.” In this short piece, which occupies a mere three pages in the present volume, Green suggests, without ever quite saying so directly, that by taking a few steps outdoors, Wheatley enters some kind of alternate dimension.

Meanwhile, the author’s odd approach to narrative emerges in the unpublished “Arcady or A Night Out,” a so-called “lyrical titbit” that the burgeoning author submitted to his mentor Nevill Coghill in 1925. “We were in the car swinging through the traffic, & the air inside drooped with folded wings at the shut windows & the scent she used, sweeping through the streets that swirled in eddies of changing light, talking nervously she & I of what was coming,” says the narrator, one half of a couple in the midst of a night out on the town. In his fine appreciative introduction to this book, Updike rightly highlights this passage: “The style is full at work, its cunningly limp convolutions searching for a simultaneous precision of emotion and sensation.”

Even in unpublished fragments, Green was already toying with dropping articles from his prose, a tic for which he would become much noted. Around 1927, he wrote to Coghill that he was “busy experimenting with the definite article — this sort of thing ‘lights of town danced on water as gnats do’ — and I don’t know what it will come to,” but, on the strength of a sketch called “Saturday,” he was well on his way. Consider this passage: “Line of trees with bare branches, dead, were across it. Stream went between town and this. She stood on bridge where road leading to factory crossed the stream. Leaves. Leaves floated. Leave floated down it. Yellow.” What intrigues here is not merely the holding back of “the” before “stream” or “leaves,” but the modification of “leaves” not to the singular “leaf” but to “leave,” which seems to occupy the liminal space between noun and verb.

Yet Surviving is more than a collection of a major writer’s amateur efforts rendered intriguing with the benefit of hindsight. There are also mature pieces, including later stories, talks given on the B.B.C., an unproduced play, and “Before the Great Fire,” the first section of a never-completed nonfiction book, again drawing on his firewatching experience, which Green attempted after his novel writing days were behind him. Occasional reviews reveal surprising enthusiasms (see his appreciative notice of Terry Southern’s debut novel Flash and Filigree). A certain waspishness is evident in his frustration with the diaries of Virginia Woolf, which he judged to be too narrowly focused on the act of literary creation:

For what we are given is a long chronicle of one book after another written in longhand, then the fair copy typed, then her husband’s entirely just praise, the real agony of proofs next, and at last publishing day with, after a few hours, at the astonished delight and admiration of her friends and relations and finally of the reviewers.

Even more fascinating is a talk from 1954 in which Green explains his aforementioned late-career interest in dialogue unaccompanied by description, boldly attempted in the masterpieces Nothing (1950) and Doting (1952). He speaks of his wish to write “a novel with an absolute minimum of descriptive passages in it, or even of directions to the reader.” Green suggests that the intrusion of prose on dialogue is a kind of authorial hubris. “It is as if a husband and wife were alone in the living room, and a voice came out of a corner of the ceiling to tell them what both were like, or what the other felt,” Green said. “And do we know, in life, what other people are really like? I very much doubt it.”

This insight is explored in “Impenetrability,” a story from 1954 in which Green’s narrator recounts journeying on a bus while seated in front of a woman who appears to be experiencing some sort of fit. The author vacillates between wishing for her to be deposited at a hospital — thus freeing him from worrying about her — and feeling relieved that she isn’t, since, of course, he can’t really be certain what it is that ails her. “But thinking it over through the years I do now consider that the conductor I so blamed at the time was quite correct not to take this girl into hospital,” he writes. “Why, they might have done almost anything to her there. Even a stomach pump! While now she is still all right. Or is she?”

Collections of this sort can fatally demystify a writer. (Does Flannery O’Connor’s reputation really benefit from our seeing her youthful cartoons, much less every last bit of her correspondence?) Not so with Green, whose qualities — above all, his ability to reduce perceptions to a series of bare, discrete images — are as evident in his novels as they are in fragments such as “Evening in Autumn” (circa 1927-28), in which starlings in the sky are evoked with minimal resources: “Another flock, black against grey sky. They came to tree and some went to the left.”

It remains pleasing to contemplate this body of work as a whole, courtesy of New York Review Books, which has now brought out virtually the entire Green corpus. I take a certain satisfaction, too, in the beautifully appropriate design, their spines and back covers in — what else? — a shade of heather green. The mystique persists.

Peter Tonguette writes for many publications, including the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Examiner, and National Review.

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