The Green Child is a triptych of allegories…
The little book is part Arthurian legend, part Candide, part Plato,
strung together with the expertise of Barthelme.
The Green Child
New Directions, October 2013
208 pages, $15.95
What do you do when the stream of time—which has always, in your memory, flowed forward, or at least in a certain, unwavering direction—one day appears to have taken upon itself to reverse course and headed in the opposite direction? Do you follow the current as it traces its way back to its source?
This is just one of the various mythopoetic—not semantic—possibilities that puzzle the Quixotic hero of Herbert Read’s The Green Child, an entrancing fairy tale of the highest order. The British critic’s only novel, it was originally published in 1935 by Heinemann, then introduced to the American public by New Directions in 1948, with a lovely afterword by Kenneth Rexroth. Now New Directions has reissued it with an introduction by Eliot Weinberger.
Once a renowned Marxist-cum-anarchist literary critic, Read has faded out of the fickle canonizing history books—but those he influenced have not. A Bunny Wilson of his time, Read counted T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, Stravinsky, and Picasso as friends. He died in 1968 remembered as a knighted anarchist and mediocre poet, but he was first and foremost a prolific critic who celebrated (and in some cases, helped launch) Eliot, Barbara Hepworth, the British Romantics, the early Surrealists, Carl Jung, and Jean-Paul Sartre in equal measure.
The Green Child is a triptych of allegories. After faking his own assassination, General Olivero—a.k.a. Schoolmaster Oliver, in his native England—returns to his homeland out of existential angst and curious boredom. While walking along a favorite path of his, he notices that the stream no longer runs from, but rather towards, the old church. Heraclitus knew that one can not step into the same river twice and Olivero does dip his hand into the stream, perplexed as he is into a dualist examination of his own senses, his memory, his existence.
“For something like an hour Olivero remained as if transfixed to the white railing; for the whole structure of his memory was challenged.” A few pages later the small quest continues: “He was now quite certain that his memory had not deceived him, and that the direciton of the current had actually changed. The reason was still to seek. He recrossed the culvert and took the path which led round to the back of the mill, to the dam and the weir.”
In this first of three parts, he follows the stream until he discovers the green child, a waif-like woman of verdant tint, held captive and forced to drink lamb’s blood by what turns out to be her husband, Kneeshaw—who, as a boy, wound his teacher Mr. Oliver’s model train too tight and broke its spring, leading to the schoolmaster’s early-life crisis and departure. When he sees this tortured woman, Olivero’s revolutionary instincts kick in and he frees her.
The little book is part Arthurian legend, part Candide, part Plato, strung together with the expertise of Barthelme. Though the largest section of the book (Part II) tells the story of how Olivero became, rather passively, the president of a Latin American colony, The Green Child is not strictly speaking a satire, but rather more celebratory—like an ode to form and tradition. That middle section, which switches to Olivero’s point of view, plays with the inspiring ideas and military improvisations of a good revolution. The narrative is complete with its own hybrid Declaration of Independence and Constitution, geared toward the Marxist language of Historical Materialism. We see here Read’s skepticism of bourgeois liberal revolutions, of the ease with which the “display of intellectual arrogance” of one leader can quell the spirit and judgment of a people. In his introduction Weinberger notes Read’s cynicism about American democracy:
One of the most curious characteristics of this people is their complete misunderstanding of democracy. They do not believe in equality, but in “equality of opportunity.” They confess that again and again, with pride, without realizing that “equality of opportunity” is merely the law of the jungle, that they are not egalitarians, but opportunists…
Olivero’s conquest of the fictitious Roncador colony comes down to a matter of necessity. Self-assured, European, he is mistaken for a revolutionary when he steps off the boat from Cadiz: “Though oppression had engendered the spirit of rebellion, yet the agents necessary to organise and lead such a popular movement were completely lacking.” After twenty-five years of rule, Olivero has his little republic running like a well-oiled machine. Bored and devoid of existential meaning, he plans his escape—because, indeed, he must escape, cannot simply walk away from the machine he has helped erect.
But this political adventure is sandwiched between a myth—a reimagined story of the green children of Woolpit, which Read had praised as “ideal fantasy” in his 1931 English Prose Style. And just who is this green child?
Feeling infinitely tender towards such a helpless victim of man’s malice, Olivero lifted one arm and began to chafe the bruised wrist. It was then that he noticed a peculiarity in her flesh which explained her strange pallor. The skin was not white, but a faint green shade, the color of a duck’s egg. It was, moreover, an unusually transparent tegument, and through its pallor the branches of her veins and arteries spread, not blue and scarlet, but vivid green and golden.
In one margin I noted, “she’s a fucking mood ring.” At another I marked, “E.T.?” She is passive—like Olivero in his rise to dictatorship—and turning yellow, dying in the domestic prison her husband has created. She only lights up when she can spend time by the stream, in the woods. Kneeshaw had found her so compelling in part because of her lack of sexuality: “He could not conceive that anything so feminine (and therefore so strongly attractive to his masculinity) could be without what we in the learned world call sexual characteristics, and the blind motive of all the attention he devoted to the Green Child had no other origin. It was a research into the mystery of the Green Child’s heart. But pursued in a dumb instinctive fashion.”
The story begins and ends with Olivero and his perplexed existence in a vacuum of time. The book is thoroughly existential, every sentence infused with Olivero’s psyche, the story resembling a dreamlike escape from Plato’s cave, in which Olivero accompanies the green child back to her home under the water basin from which his stream originates (and now ends), his eventual Socratic mausoleum. When Olivero rescues her, he first becomes maître to her sauvage, until she leads him to the end of this stream. Once they descend, in Part III, under the water, they do not die but instead enter a new world, the one the green children came from (an ideal). The green child has returned to her people, indicating that Olivero would like to live among them. Then Olivero separates from his alien guide and moves deeper into the grotto-like world, alone, in search of the highest of existential meaning.
Can a critic, well, create? It’s a fallacious question that The Green Child will fail to answer. Without a doubt the first part is superior to the later ones—scholars suspect he might have penned it in a single sitting. The novel is at least an exquisite illustration of what one can do with a mastery of language. As Rexroth wrote, “certainly the book is one of the most sustained products of conscious rapture in our literature.” The writing is economical yet expansive, imbued with a diction that cannot but purposely invoke other writers’ narratives. Perhaps it takes the mind of a critic to craft such different textures as:
He sat listening to intimate sounds—voices in the soft dialect he had spoken, the click of a raised latch, the rattle of a milk-pail, the chiming of clocks in the houses; and underneath all these occasional sounds, the persistent lapping of the stream in its pebbly bed. A white railing opposite him ran along the edge of the stream, and presently he got up and went across to this railing, and leant against it as he gazed down into the rippling water.
Kneeshaw had lived a life of isolation. He was unread and almost inarticulate, facing the problems of life with direct instincts, acting from day to day as these instincts dictated. He was now faced by a man who obviously belonged to another world—a world of easy speech, of ideas and sentiments, of complicated experience. There was no natural impulse to communicate with such a man. But tragedy drives us beyond natural behaviour, on to a level where imagination and phantasy rule.
I answered blindly, at first with the desire to be complaisant. But I had not taken these three steps before I perceived that I had entered on a strange path, which led I knew not whither. Never had I been more conscious of my destiny, that obscure force which drives us to impersonal action, to the surrender of the self to the event.
The heavy presence of Read’s influences and interests lends the allegory an openness to very different interpretations—Freudian, Platonic, anarchist—that bear the mark of either quiet genius or a lack of control. I cannot presume to know. What I know is that Read’s writing and the world he creates carry such crystalline purity that the story, in its own fabulous way, works. I’ve certainly never read anything like it. They don’t make them like they used to, I guess. Here’s one for the lovers of nature, myth, and the finally solitary individual’s quiet, fatal search for wisdom.
Tom Faure is an MFA in Fiction student at Vermont College of Fine Arts. His work has appeared in Zocalo Public Square, Splash of Red, Chattanooga Times Free Press, The Journal News, and undergraduate magazines at Columbia University. He lives in New York, teaching English and Philosophy at the French-American School of New York.
- My favorite passage of the novel, a brutal and not uncaring articulation of the teacher’s despair: “‘It was a little thing, but it broke a tension in me. My mother was dead; I disliked my father. I had never planned to spend my life as a village schoolmaster, a calling for which I had neither the physical nor the mental aptitude. I thought I might become a poet, but my poetry was gloomy and obscure, and nobody would publish it. I felt impotent and defeated, and longed for external circumstances to force action upon me. I struggled feebly with the ignorance and stupidity of you and your companions, but as I had no faith in knowledge, my only desire was to leave you in possession of innocence and happiness.”↵
- Then why ask it? As Weinberger’s introduction explains, the question of whether Read could or should write fiction is a pertinent one. Ford Madox Ford had recommended he become a novelist so “as to avoid turning your soul into a squirrel in a revolving cage.” Read went literally to the woodshed (in his garden) and turned out the retooled myth in about six weeks. The book was very well received by some, deemed inscrutable or boring by others.↵
- Rexroth writes: “The sheer perfection of the writing is very rare in English since the loosening of standards in nineteenth-century fiction […] Landor wrote this way, and Bagehot, and Mill, and Clerk Maxwell, and various explorers and scientists, but the novelists mostly have forgotten how.” Later, Rexroth throws down the gauntlet: “I am not going to tell you the meaning of Read’s allegory—the secret of his myth. […] All myth, all deep insight, means the same as and no more than the falling of the solar system on its long parabola through space.”↵
Tom, great review! I’ll definitely pick up the book. Really enjoy your writing.
Thank you Laura! I can send it to you.
The Green Child has been one of my favorite books for forty years. With A High Wind in Jamaica, Riddley Walker, The Iguana and three or four more, it deserves a place on the short shelf of visionary fictions written in the 20th century that will forever alter the fictional landscape for discerning readers.
I just came across your interesting piece about “The Green Child” in Numero Cinq.
I did my Ph.D. thesis about this novel, later condensed into the chapter about it in David Goodway’s “Herbert Read Reassessed”. Have you read it?
Later still I read the Wikipedia entry on it, and at first thought “Right. I couldn’t have put it better myself”. Then I realised that much of it WAS what I had written myself, rather plagiarised.
I had written my thesis largely thanks to the late Ben Read who had allowed me access to his father’s manuscript, which confirmed that much of the novel, in all three parts was… strongly influenced by?… recycled from?… other writers. I didn’t use the word word “plagiarised”.
Would it have been unfair? Was I too respectful? Of course it’s still a great novel.