I WAS HALFWAY through a biography of Patricia Highsmith that said her hero among her contemporaries was a novelist with the last name Green, and so the next time I was in Mercer Street Books I went right to the G's, stopping when I found a volume that must be what I was looking for, because it had the name Green on the mint spine of a Penguin Twentieth Century Classic and because the names of the three novels on it arrested me. After I had read Loving, Living, and Party Going, then everything else by the author, and then begun writing what you're reading, I realized that in the used bookstore I had conflated the name of Julien Green, the French American novelist who inspired Highsmith, with that of Henry James, whom she imitated, to arrive by surprise at one of the great writers in English: Henry Green, who made his work with these kinds of mishearings, and of whom I had never even heard.
This is a variation on the way things about Green usually start: with a complaint that other people don't know (of) him. Mostly they don't. At the midcentury end of his career, Green gave an interview to his friend Terry Southern and found himself introduced in the Paris Review as "a writer's writer's writer," which sealed his fate: He's always getting introduced where he should be reintroduced, as if we didn't catch his name the first time. Yet it's less that Green is forgotten than that he was never knowable. He was a bright young thing descended from blue bloods in a time of the yellow fog everywhere, a factory boss and womanizer who wrote best of workers and of women, a modernist who identified with Swann but idolized Céline. His selves were so at odds, it was as if he wanted to cancel himself out.
Green's oeuvre obviates with one hand the kind of major biographical treatment for which he has not once been famous enough; with the other hand it obfuscates biographical readings. His novels, which concern people of all classes engaging in games of deception to keep their bored hearts alive, or to win a thing as simple as happiness, have begged adjectives like difficult and even poetic—that backhanded writer's writer's compliment—because his realism is faithless, his characters forget their motivations, and his incredible syntax is neither definitive of one novel nor consistent from that to the next. Even from line to line he changes his mind about how to write. A passage from Living, where he leaves out most definite and some indefinite articles:
Standing in foundry shop son of Mr. Dupret thought in mind and it seemed to him that these iron castings were beautiful and he reached out fingers to them, he touched them; he thought and only in machinery it seemed to him was savagery left now for in the country, in summer, trees were like sheep while here men created what you could touch, wild shapes, soft like silk, which would last and would be working in great factories, they made them with their hands. . . . He thought, he declaimed to himself this was the life to lead, making useful things which were beautiful, and the gladness to make them, which you could touch; but when he was most sure he remembered, he remembered it had been said before and he said to himself, "Ruskin built a road which went nowhere with the help of undergraduates and in so doing said the last word on that." And then what had been so plain, stiff and bursting inside him like soda fountains, this died as a small wind goes out, and he felt embarrassed standing as he did in fine clothes.
John Ashbery, in his 1950 master's thesis on Green, has the best defense of him as a poet: "It is perhaps not irrelevant that the word 'maker' originally designated a poet as well as a manufacturer; at any rate, Green is a maker in both senses of the word." Words to Green were paint on a brush—that is, nothing without deliberate, repetitious application. He would put a word like "rose" or "grey" six times on one page, and then to see these tones all the better he would scrape away conventions, even connections, all the while mixing metaphors as if on a palette. This style is vagarious and maddening to some, but so is English grammar to begin with; the prose is odd, purposively so, but no less parsable than the prose in The Waves. When John Updike writes that Green's "prose is not easy; it must be read and read again, until the picture comes clear," I do not feel congratulated for rereading an unconventionally punctuated paragraph about the changing color of light, since I did it out of pleasure, not necessity.
Nor are the stories in Green's novels very hard or always necessary to understand. He sometimes makes fun of understanding, putting the key to the house inside the house: "People, in their relations with one another, are continually doing similar things but never for similar reasons." That's a paragraph by itself, appearing as all but a non sequitur, in Party Going. Spoiler: No one gets to the party. Green was an elegant refusenik, or confusenik. "Fiction's—and life's—bafflement at how many individuals there are to consider" is one of Green's themes, Jeremy Treglown says in Romancing: The Life and Work of Henry Green, written in 2000 amid a third wave of reintroductions to the author. (Treglown admits "that in the intensity of his responses to individual moments, characters, and situations, Green did sometimes find it difficult to control a whole narrative.")
There is one real difficulty, which is that his books are hard to talk about, even when that's all you want to do. "What is the point of paraphrasing The Waves, of trying for your own circles of ebb and flow to compete with hers?" wrote Elizabeth Hardwick of Woolf in Seduction and Betrayal. "You can merely say over and over that it is very good, very beautiful, that when you were reading it you were happy."
Were you happy? With Green it's likelier you were in love, attuned to the littlest differences, rapt at eventless descriptions that should be boring but aren't, in awe of the way a cut-rate bunch of flowers is described, interpreting each symbol as a sign, sickened when your interpretation failed. And had you written so breathlessly to Green's publisher, Leonard Woolf of the Hogarth Press, you would have gotten a letter without a photo or autograph, no face or hand to put to the name. It would have said, "The only piece of information we are able to divulge is that 'Henry Green' is a pseudonym concealing a double identity." You could almost suspect him of being female.
HENRY VINCENT YORKE was born in 1905 to an industrialist and the daughter of a baron. Following his two older brothers, he went to Eton with George Orwell and to Oxford with friends like Evelyn Waugh, but he returned to Birmingham to work in his father's engineering plant instead of graduating. He took his good years early. His first novel, Blindness, was published when he was twenty-one under "Henry Green," a pseudonym I imagine he chose for the same reason I found him, namely that it was easy to mix him up with others. Every village has a Green. "Like everyone else, I began to write a novel" is all he would say of this first effort, though if he was trying to write like everyone else, he didn't quite manage it. The first twenty pages of Blindness are diary entries from John Haye, a young man who bears a strong resemblance to Green, followed by the announcement that John has been blinded by a random violent act; the next two hundred pages are about John's being blind. Green would stick to nothing so much as he stuck to the themes of disability and confinement, a side effect, I feel, of the very practical difficulty in living with people.
Trends and even movements disagreed with him, as did adherence to forms. By the end of the Jazz Age, when Waugh, Christopher Isherwood, and Anthony Powell were being feted for their own romans à clef, their friend Henry was peddling a novel about an iron foundry, that is to say Living, after which he took a decade to reappear with Party Going, a waiting-room comedy filled with the rich and indisposed, at just the time that blue-collar picaresques were the rage. He produced his memoir, Pack My Bag, at age thirty-five under the impression that he would die in World War II, yet of course, being not a frontline soldier but an auxiliary fireman in London, he survived, and wrote six more novels in nine years, then none after 1952.
When he could not write his own books, he reviewed other people's for dailies and weeklies, though then he did seem to be talking in a roundabout way about his own. Reviewing Terry Southern's first novel in 1958, he wrote that "with novelists there is always a fast start and then, alas, before they are dead, very definitely a finish, perhaps even before they reach the post." From his 1954 review of A Writer's Diary, we hear that Woolf's "genius . . . isolated her in a limelight all her own," which "to her credit … she seem[ed] to despise." He sighs, "She can never get away from herself, but then who can?" He was a hopeless critic, but not for lack of breadth. At Oxford, he had escaped to the movies daily; after the war, he described himself as a novel-a-day man. He shunned both the urge to editorialize and the fast, blank objectivity of Hemingway's ilk. Journalists, he complained,
seem to think that a reader's mind is so confused, as it is, of course, that he can only follow a series of statements in the severest black or white. . . . this may be due to the incomprehensibility of the facts journalists have as their duty to relate, but my point is, they don't relate them rather they rattle their facts out in a stutter, as a machine gun does bullets, until we are dazed, alarmed and deafened every day, until we don't know what is to be feared, what item is more deadly than the next, in each day's news. The answer must be in the journalist's use of the longer sentence, whereby he can gain depth, or light and shade.
Green would have hated it in the present, where long sentences are considered stressful, the most insane trivialities make the headlines, and writing for a daily readership means explaining, list-making, fact-checking, annotating, and opining about nothing. "Inexplicable" appears in criticism as some kind of diss (an actor has an "inexplicable accent," a heroine "inexplicably falls in love" with a freak), but if a critic can't explain something, then either the critic is ultracrepidarian or the thing is best unexplained. "If you want to create life," Green said, "the one way not to set about it is by explanation."
There are, in Green's novels, two major ways of creating life, both of which run counter to explaining. One is symbolism. Green's biggest symbol is the common bird, which appears so frequently that, Ashbery says, "one [thinks] at first that it is insignificant, that for some reason this man automatically expresses himself in terms of birds when called on to make a metaphor." This is so funny it might be true. Birds are like a pun on high-flown prose. They're also top purveyors of drama. They carry the starkest difference between life and death, being alive way up in the sky and dead down on the ground. If the aim is to heighten our vulnerability to both sides of creation, a fine way to do it is by reminding us, constantly, of gulls and pigeons, which are a little more common in life than in Living, though more often found dead in Green's novels than on the street.
The other is listening. In World War I, the Yorkes made their home a hospital for officers, or in Green's words, they "entertained all sorts and conditions of men," from whom he, age ten, "began to learn the half-tones of class." He also caught echoes of the depravity that chases after suffering. One officer, wild with pneumonia, hallucinated piles of babies, which made sense when it turned out that he had four simultaneous wives. Another attempted suicide in the guest bath. These men were his heroes. Listening to tales of the Marne and the Somme, thought Green, was like being at university ahead of time, whereas Eton was like being "in a humane concentration camp." When he was eleven one of his older brothers died, and suddenly familiar voices sounded false, intoning sympathy for what he must—but why must he?—feel. He feared sentimentality, preferred indirectness.
Ditto in World War II, where Green did not want to get hurt. Caught and Back, published in 1943 and 1946, are his most autobiographical novels after Blindness, but they are not diaristic, nor are they war stories; they read like the dreamed continuations of stories heard drunk during wartime. Caught is about two firemen in London: Roe, like Green, is a posh volunteer with a wife, a son, a country estate, and a mistress in the city, whereas Pye is a prole and subaltern with a half-insane sister; the story, which has more firemen than fires, begins with Pye's sister kidnapping a child who happens to be Roe's son. Back is about a soldier named Charley who "lost his leg in France for not noticing the gun beneath a rose," and who now comes home to a dead lover, also a Rose, soon to be resurrected in the form of her illegitimate half sister. Gothically implausible plot points are revealed in so natural a manner, with such unconcern for the sum reliability of a narrative, that you feel gaslighted the other way around. You're crazy if you think you're only seeing things. You're hearing them too. Charley knows the half sister sounds different on the phone than the dead lover, but when she speaks he is listening to Rose. Roe, in the Blitz, maintains his relative sanity by hardly hearing: "Halfway through a bottle of claret [his mistress] began to tease him that he did not hear a fraction of what went on."
Loving, published in 1945,is more grounded in regularity than Caught or Back, despite the unheard-of premise whereby English servants serve in an Irish castle. There are fewer phantasmagorical sequences, but many matter-of-fact fables, as when the pantry boy, Albert, hides a ring belonging to the lady of the house under an eggshell:
"Rings don't walk," he said, "an' this shell's so them bird won't rout'm out," he explained. "They'd never think to turn an egg that's broken."
"Well you are clever," Miss Moira told him and meant it.
"I'm smart don't fear," he said, "only I didn't ought to let you girls in on this. You'd never keep a secret. So you'll 'ave to take an oath see."
"That's right. You're to swear you won't never tell. It'll be special. This is 'ow it goes. While I break a cock's egg over your mouth you say, 'My lips is sealed may I drop dead.'"
Born of the radio's golden age, when rumors flew, his postwar novels established Green as a voice full of voices, to paraphrase Updike. Dialogue took over the plot, a mélange of slang and ageless banality, so that his eighth and ninth novels, Nothing and Doting, are almost all talk, the spare prose amounting to stage directions. His seventh, Concluding, is riddled with enough homonymic twists ("our private beech" describes two lovers' favorite tree) and mix-ups (one man says "you and your sort," another hears "lose the fort") to put the Green in mondegreen. Who has been so gifted? None of his contemporaries. Maybe Elizabeth Bowen, who knew that "speech is what characters do to each other," and since then perhaps William Gaddis, a parabolic man who breathed the anecdotal, or Don DeLillo, America's best listener; and in the movies, John Cassavetes or Kelly Reichardt. It remains rare to read a book or see a movie and feel bad for eavesdropping.
The voices fade. There is still a voice left. In Caught one good-time girl looks at another, who is bent in half laughing, and asks, "What makes you split yourself, darling?" A triple entendre, a question of doubling—it's the perfect Green line about Green. One night in 1957, George Plimpton, the editor of the Paris Review, took the poet Christopher Logue to a party to meet Green, and
there was [a man] in a double-breasted black business suit going under the name Yorke talking like a businessman from Manchester, with an anecdote or two, terribly long—one, as I remember, about a seal two old ladies found on a beach near Brighton and nursed back to health in their bathtub, the point of the story being that in England alone could such a thing happen. Logue kept darting looks at the door, for Green, I guess, and making side remarks of incredible rudeness to Yorke. When we left, Logue asked: "Jesus, who the fuck was that guy on the sofa." "Henry Green," I said.
Good story, wrong answer. Technically, Henry Green did not sit on any sofas except in the lobbies of others' minds, did not exist at all outside his books. As I read the new editions of his first six novels, published by NYRB Classics, I identified him less with the protagonists and more with certain odd bit players: a shifty soi-disant detective in Party Going; an observant boss who says, "Sex is the whole trouble," in Back.
DO YOU BELIEVE that obsession is the first clue to fate? In Blindness, John Haye thinks that "only the deaf [are] really cut off" from the world. Art is "created in the looker-on," meaning perhaps that sight can be outsourced, but the artist "must not go deaf; one clung so to what senses were left." Green wrote Blindness when he had more senses than he knew what to do with, and the prose is sometimes mesmerizingly, but more often embarrassingly, sensual. He mixes misanthropy with anthropomorphization, making flowers brighter than people. When he's clear it's usually about dread. Before he went blind, thinks John, "when a blackbird fled screaming he had only been able to see it as a smudge darting along, and he had tried in vain to visualize it exactly. Now he was beginning to see it as a signal to the other birds that something was not right." Finally he thinks, "What was the use of his going blind if he did not write? People must hear of what he felt, of how he knew things differently."
Green did die in World War II, or began to die: He began to go deaf. Friends and critics wondered how hard he clung to his hearing, since he refused to wear a hearing aid, even to dinner parties; then again, anyone who has to go to dinner parties with friends who are critics probably wishes to be deaf as well as drunk. Green enjoyed dramatizing his ear trouble. His Paris Review interview is hilarious for its putative real-time mishearings—as when Southern accuses Green of being "subtle" and Green replies, "Suttee, as I understand it, is the suicide … of a Hindu wife on her husband's flaming pyre. I don't want my wife to do that when my time comes"—but in fact it took place by written correspondence, one more sleight of hand. If his deafness was a conceit or a joke, it stopped being funny. Green refused to write when he could no longer hear voices outside his head, which is also to say he refused to go outside, spending his last decade drinking and reading in bed and writing nothing, until in 1973 the body of Henry Vincent Yorke was buried under a stone without an epitaph.
Green didn't leave behind an unfinished masterpiece. He didn't write masterpieces, period. Some of the most unfairly gifted people are extraordinary self-saboteurs, as if driven by a leveling force. Some too are lazy. The strewn plots and loose diamantine air of Green's work and the indeterminacy of his or Yorke's life suggest a recalcitrance to mastery, to becoming a master in both a literary and a class sense. In Blindness, John ("Master John" to his nurse) loses his eyeballs with his sight. He falls in love with a maid named Joan (he calls her June) who is also disfigured—facially scarred—thanks to the time her father threw a bottle at her head. The bottle-throwing was "what a genius would have done," thinks the father, a defrocked vicar and bed-dwelling drunk who believes that with enough gin he can write a masterpiece, "the great book that was to link everything into a circle and that would bring him recognition at last." John's stepmother, afraid he will marry the poor girl, takes him away to London, where he goes temporarily insane. The last page of Blindness is his note to an old friend, ending with "Why am I so happy to-day? Yrs., John." To the reader this conclusion is absurd, surfacing as it does at the dead low tide of John's life to date, but to the writer it makes sense that happiness ends a story, since what is there to add once you're happy.
"I am not a genius," said Waugh to his first biographer. "Henry is a genius." (Waugh said this in the context of Green's indecency at parties, but if he didn't mean it facetiously, he said it too easily: Green was half as famous as Waugh.) His first pseudonym, used to write short stories at school, was indeed a bit genius-y: "Henry Michaelis," Michaelis being derived from a Hebrew name meaning "deiform," being also the surname of a German biochemist who discovered a vital stain for finding mitochrondria in cells, called Janus Green B. For Deborah Eisenberg, the eventual choice of "Green" telegraphs a lack of "distinctiveness and self-importance" but also "a faint, defiantly arrogant suggestion (or, if you prefer, a touching writerly hope) that a puffy pseudonym would be entirely beneath the dignity of his work, a demeaning appeal for popular recognition, as if Albert Einstein were to have worn little pink ribbons in his messy white genius hair."
Henry Green would have said that he was not a genius. Woolf was a genius. Green did however have a genius loci, and his locus was nothing less than the deep, the inexplicable void, which for him was the self. Thank God he didn't master this domain. There are enough good novels with relatable, memorable characters, characters who remind us of ourselves. It's uneasier reading Green, who does the same thing by reminding us of no one. I said you would fall in love with him, but I forgot to tell you how, in 1955, he described the act. "A man who falls in love is a sick man, he has a kind of what used to be called green sickness," he wrote. As for love, it is "a human misfortune cultivated by novelists. It is the horror we feel of ourselves, that is of being alone with ourselves, which draws us to love, but this love should happen only once, and never be repeated, if we have . . . learnt our lesson, which is that we are, all and each one of us, always and always alone."
Sarah Nicole Prickett is a writer in New York and the editor of Adult magazine.