Henry Green, who died in 1973 at the age of sixty-eight, was one of the best English novelists of the twentieth century, and the hardest to classify. By some standards a modernist and an experimentalist (his style was so oblique that his American disciple Terry Southern was prompted to call him not merely a writer's writer but a writer's writer's writer), he was also defiantly anti-intellectual, always scorning literary conversation in favor of gossip. His prose tended toward high intensity, but it could be awkward, even bumbling. And he made a whole career of ignoring fashion, writing a proletarian novel during the heyday of the Bright Young Things and switching incongruously to brittle drawing-room comedy during the austerity-conscious era of the Angry Young Men.

By all rights Green's novels should be among the well-thumbed classics of twentieth-century literature. He has always been held in the highest esteem by his fellow writers: W. H. Auden considered him during his acme to be "the best English novelist alive"; Eudora Welty, writing in the 1960s, stated her opinion that Green's work had "an intensity greater than that of any other writer of imaginative fiction today." Philip Toynbee considered him one of the most important writers in the language. John Updike, writing two decades after Green's death, gave perhaps the highest praise of all: "Henry Green was a novelist of such rarity, such marvellous originality, intuition, sensuality, and finish, that every fragment of his work is precious."

Yet despite all the accolades Green's nine novels have remained the enthusiasm of a coterie, and a surprising number of well-read people draw a blank at his name. Green insisted on anonymity: he wrote under a bland pseudonym (his real name was Henry Yorke) and usually refused to be photographed except from the rear, or to provide any personal information to the press. The privacy he sought in life has obfuscated his posthumous reputation, and every decade or so, it seems, he has to be introduced afresh.

The process is playing itself out again with the appearance of Romancing: The Life and Work of Henry Green, by Jeremy Treglown, a former editor of the Times Literary Supplement and the biographer of Roald Dahl. Treglown's enterprise appears to have been fraught with problems from the beginning. Green's son, Sebastian Yorke, authorized the biography in 1991 and then changed his mind a year later, so Treglown had to battle on with many doors closed to him. The Yorke family has every reason to mistrust such a project, for a biographer in any way unsympathetic to the eccentric novelist could produce a damaging portrait: Green's countless sexual infidelities, his streak of emotional sadism, and his spectacular alcoholic decline during the twenty years between his last novel and his death do not make for very edifying reading. But to quote Harold Ross, "Talent doesn't care where it resides," and Treglown has managed to produce a fine biography that is profoundly appreciative of its odd subject, warts included.

Most first-rate British writers have come from the middle classes. Green was unique, as Treglown points out, in that he was both an aristocrat and an industrialist. His mother, a daughter of the second Baron Leconfield, was brought up at Petworth, one of the great houses of England. His father, Vincent Yorke, was a brilliant classicist who turned to business, taking over a failing coppersmith's and turning it into a profitable supplier of brewery equipment and plumbing supplies. H. Pontifex & Sons became a family concern, of which Henry would eventually assume rather incompetent control.

"If one side of Yorke found the silver spoon a handicap to respiration," the novelist Anthony Powell, his lifelong friend, commented,

another accepted it as understandably welcome; and coming to terms with opposed inner feelings about his family circumstances, his writing, his business activities, his social life, was something he never quite managed to achieve to his own satisfaction.

Powell's observation was, if anything, an understatement: Henry Yorke's ultra-conservative background combined with his subversive nature and sense of himself as an outsider to make for a life of irreconcilable values and longings, to such a point that, as one friend said, there was a real difference "between Henry Yorke, who could be very grand and rather sharp, surprising people by putting them in their place, and the sympathetic, unthreatening Henry Green."

Yorke was born in 1905 and had a conventional upper-class childhood at the family estate in Gloucestershire, though he preferred billiards to the more traditional hunting and shooting; unlike his two dashing elder brothers, he was a "plump, uncompetitive, and nervous" child. At Eton and Oxford his eccentric outlook and what was developing into a powerful personal charm began to make their mark on his contemporaries, a remarkable group that included Anthony Powell, Robert Byron, Harold Acton, Brian Howard, Cyril Connolly, and Evelyn Waugh. He made no attempt to shine academically, though: he attended the cinema twice every day at Oxford; scorned his tutor, the bluff, hearty C. S. Lewis; and resented being compelled to study, he said, "when I have my own work always running in my mind."

That work was his precocious first novel, Blindness (1926), published under the pen name Henry Green by J. M. Dent when the author was only twenty-one. Although in many ways autobiographical, it is not the solipsistic exercise one would expect from an undergraduate but a mature effort bearing all the hallmarks of his later work: the awkward yet uniquely descriptive prose, the quick observation, and the deep vein of black comedy that anticipated the "sick humor" of the 1950s and 1960s.

At the end of 1926 Green left Oxford without a degree and at his own request joined the family firm at the bottom, as a factory laborer; he wanted, he said, to write a novel about workingmen. He spent two years toiling at Pontifex's Birmingham factory and living in a boardinghouse that was, he gleefully wrote to a friend, right out of Balzac. But apart from his Birmingham idyll, Green's life was unexceptionally class-bound and conventional. One of his brothers died of leukemia in 1917, and the other proved too eccentric for a business career, so it was he who became his father's partner in Pontifex's London office. In 1929 he married a distant cousin, Adelaide ("Dig") Biddulph, and the couple embarked on an active social life. (Waugh teasingly referred to them as "Mr H. Yorke the lavatory king and his pretty wife.") Like others of their class, they occasionally visited the Continent during the interwar years, but Green didn't like traveling: "It interferes with my masturbation," he complained. In 1939 he published Party Going, an apparently slight but haunting, almost Beckettesque novel about the insignificant doings of a vacuous group of socialites.

Party Going proved too uncommercial for even the tolerant Dent, and Green moved to the Hogarth Press, under John Lehmann and Leonard Woolf. Upon the outbreak of war, under the impression that he would soon be killed, he wrote a hasty memoir, Pack My Bag; sent Dig and their small son, Sebastian, to safety in the country; and joined the Auxiliary Fire Service in London, where he spent several not unenjoyable years fighting incendiary bombs and tomcatting around with various smart and what one friend called "high-octane" ladies. Green was a notorious charmer with a streak of cruelty: "Hurting—that should be the title of your next novel," complained one of his girlfriends. What spare time remained to him was spent on Caught (1943), a novel about the London blitz and his fire-service experiences, a brilliantly truthful portrait of wartime London—so truthful, in fact, that Green was afraid to give permission for a German translation, lest it bolster enemy morale. Leonard Woolf had complained that it represented the fire station "as completely inefficient and corrupt from top to bottom without a single redeeming feature or even averagely competent and honest person in it."

Loving (1945) is widely thought to be Green's masterpiece. Sensual, amoral, absurd, it depicts a group of English servants living it up in a great Irish house in wartime, tippling, fornicating, fiddling the books, and generally enjoying themselves. It is—oddly, after five years of war—the least dark of Green's books, full of joy and pleasure and beauty, and its popularity is easy to understand. Yet to settle on this, or any other, as Green's "best" book is difficult, for each of the novels is entirely original and unlike the others. And although Loving constitutes an apex of sorts, it is hard to see the subsequent books as marking a decline.

There have been repeated attempts to place Green within the left-wing movement of the 1930s, but this project is hopeless: what really interested him was humanity as a whole, rather than as an arrangement of classes, and the human animals he was to depict throughout his career were recognizably of the same species whether they were to be found on the factory floor, in the butler's pantry, or dining at the Ritz.

Green's dialogue, whoever utters it, is peerless. In one of his very few artistic pronouncements he claimed that the writer's duty is "to meet as many pedestrian people as possible and to listen to the most pedestrian conversation." He raised the pedestrian to the sublime. His fine ear registered all the inconsequentialities, the non sequiturs, and the brainless repetitions of ordinary discourse. In a short story by Green, from the posthumously published collection Surviving (1992), some men from the wartime Auxiliary Fire Service chat desultorily in a pub.

''Ow much a week, now, is this job you've got behind that bar worth to you?' the fourth man went on.

The barman ignored it. Instead he remarked: 'I seen Sam Race this morning.'

'Well, I think I'll risk a brown, Joe. Out of the large bottle.'

'Pronto. Yes, 'e looked very queer, did old Sambo.'

'Sam who?'

'Sam Race. Why you must remember him, Ted.'

'Wally Race you mean.'

This sort of conversation can go on for two or three pages at a time, but instead of getting tedious it becomes poetic. Here is another example, from Doting (1952):

'But, d'you know, three people died in my ward, while I was there?'

'Don't, darling' said his mother.

'I really think you might have put me in a private room.'

'Where was the money to come from?' his father asked.

'There you go again, Arthur' Mrs Middleton complained. 'When Peter's all we have!' Then, in a sinister voice, she added 'Now!'

'Thirty guineas a week?' the husband queried.

'Three days' she answered. 'And how much in that time do you spend on gin?'

'Oh come, Diana darling, you like your glass as well.'

'I need it' she replied, emphatically.

'Yes, at least three people died' Peter interjected.

The fidelity to heard speech is striking, and is one of the reasons that many people have been tempted to call Green a naturalist. But the term is not really satisfactory, because Green's writing can also seem harshly labored: he never, over the course of his thirty-year career, stopped experimenting. Living (1929) dealt with workingmen, and it evokes the stark life of the workers with a strenuous, pared-down prose in which all definite articles are omitted; the resulting style is mannered to the point of affectation. Still, Living contains some passages of extraordinary beauty. In later and more skillful books, such as Loving and Caught, the prose can be exquisite, and quite unlike that of anyone else. Here, for instance, from Loving, are Raunce the butler and the maid he adores:

'Oh Edie,' he gasped, moving forward. The room had grown immeasurably dark from the storm massed outside. Their two bodies flowed into one as he put his arms about her. The shape they made was crowned with his head, on top of a white sharp curved neck, dominating and cruel over the blur that was her mass of hair through which her lips sucked at him warm and heady.

'Edie,' he muttered, breaking away only to drive his face down into hers once more. But he was pressing her back into a bow shape. 'Edie,' he called again.

Green's aversion to "good English," which he felt tended to fall into clichés or unthinking, regular rhythms, often led him into knotty structures and abortive thoughts. What he wrote about one of his literary idols, C. M. Doughty, the author of Travels in Arabia Deserta (1888), applied equally to himself, for better or worse: "He has no elegance, that is, no ease with which to treat of a universal theme ... His style is mannered but he is too great a man to be hidden beneath it ... He is often obscure. He is always magnificent."

Green eventually turned his back on descriptive prose and composed his last two novels, Nothing (1950) and Doting, almost entirely in dialogue. Some have considered these books superficial, dealing, as they do, entirely with spoiled, jaded, upper-middle-class drones; others have found them sublime. Green, as Treglown puts it, succeeded brilliantly in plumbing the "aching shallows" of middle age, and he was clearly as fond of his lustful, feebly conniving middle-aged men, vapid girlfriends, and controlling wives as he was of earlier characters that might by conventional standards be deemed more worthwhile. And in their sheer absurdity Nothing and Doting are two of the funniest novels ever written, bringing to an almost abstract essence the humor that had always been woven through Green's work. A contemporary critic wrote of Party Going, "We were continually held up because it was so funny: almost every page sent us into fits of laughter. Yet an hour afterwards none of us remembered the book as comic." Green's readers will instantly recognize the effect: although one doesn't think of him as a primarily comic author, he seldom wrote a page that wasn't tinged with dark humor.

Doting was published when Green was forty-six. It is easy to blame the silence of his last twenty years on his drinking, but it is also probable that he simply had nothing more to write: the nine novels compose an oddly complete oeuvre. Green might be called the master of the anticlimax. No one in his novels is transformed or improved by experience, and no one is rewarded or punished. Every one of his books expresses, as Treglown writes, "the sense that most of the dramas in most people's lives fail to transform anything"—or, as Doting's wonderful last line has it, "The next day they all went on very much the same." None of Green's characters is what most of us would call an interesting person, and they are all, without exception, selfish and unregenerate from beginning to end. But they are presented to us with a cheerful lack of judgment that amounts, in the end, to filial love.

Henry Green was one of the most lyrically gifted writers in our language. What reader can forget Amabel in her bath in Party Going, or Edith feeding the peacocks in Loving? What the scholar George Painter wrote of Concluding (1948) could just as easily apply to any of Green's other novels (Back, published in 1946, completes the group): it is "unforgettable; and not the least of its ambiguous charms is that the reader will never know just what it is he is unable to forget." Green got as close as anyone can get to being a pure artist. None of his books, thankfully, illustrates a philosophy, promotes a theme, or delivers a message. With him it is the richness of the felt, heard, and seen moment, often garnished with low comedy, that is the sole point—if, indeed, there is any point at all.

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