I would argue that we should understand Green as a writer who suspends the literary categories of his time.—Dorian Stuber
New York Review of Books, 2016
224 pages; $14.00
The English novelist Henry Green wrote nine beautiful and elliptical novels, all worth reading, but Loving (1945) is the best of them, indeed, one of the best English novels of the 20th century. This new edition—part of a welcome plan to reissue his works in the US—is cause for celebration.
Loving is set during WWII at a sprawling estate in Ireland called Kinalty Castle. Kinalty is owned by the ironically named Tennant family; fittingly, the Tennants are newcomers who have purchased rather than inherited the property. Mr. Tennant is dead; his son is fighting in the war. Mrs. Tennant lives with her daughter-in-law, Violet, Violet’s two small children, and a large group of servants.
In classic upstairs-downstairs fashion, the masters are not particularly important in the book (indeed, they are off in England for much of the time). Instead the servants are front and center, and we follow their sometimes rancorous, sometimes affectionate relationships. There’s Charley Raunce, recently ascended from the position of footman to butler, full of bluster and fear and the occasional kindness who finds himself out of his depth when a flirtation becomes something more. There’s Agatha Burch, the much put upon head housemaid, who oversees Edith and Kate, the two lovelorn under-housemaids. There’s Mrs. Welch, the alcoholic and suspicious cook. There’s old Nanny Swift, who took care of Violet as a girl and now looks after her girls. There’s Albert, the pantry boy, naïve, kind, and touchy. And there’s Paddy, the Irish lampman (the house has no electricity), who only Kate troubles herself to understand.
Much of the material for Loving came from Green’s childhood; servants had always been part of his life. Born Henry Vincent Yorke in 1905—he took his deliberately banal pseudonym as a way to separate his writing and business lives—Green grew up at Forthampton, the family seat in Gloucestershire.
In his memoir Pack my Bag, Green claims, “Most things boil down to people, or at least most houses to those who live in them, so Forthampton boils down to Poole, who did not live in but was gardener about the place for years.” Young Henry was fascinated by Poole, even though the man did not like Green’s mother and spoke badly about her to the boy. (The family legend is that he never forgave her for making him bowl sugar beets across the lawn for her to shoot at.) Green, who adored his mother though he seldom saw her, was torn apart by these calumnies yet unwilling to repudiate the one who made them.
It seems that Green knew already at a young age what he would explore in this novel in particular: that loving is a messy business, bound to lead to hurt feelings. In his life and writing alike Green was at home with complexity, especially in terms of social class. Green, who memorably described himself as “a mouthbreather with a silver spoon,” at one stroke both acknowledging and ironizing privilege, said that his childhood taught him “the half-tones of class”. It’s fair to say that Green knew the family servants, to whom he devotes the first pages of his memoir, better than either his mother, whose primary interests were shooting and riding and with whom the boy spent only one precious hour a day, or his father, a formidable Victorian polymath who pursued an interest in archaeology while running a company that cleverly manufactured both beer-bottling equipment and bathroom plumbing.
Young Henry was sent to Eton, where his contemporaries included Eric Arthur Blair, who would himself take a pseudonym and publish under the name George Orwell. Later he went up to Oxford, where he befriended Evelyn Waugh and shared rooms with Anthony Powell. He hated both schools. At Oxford he drank a lot, went to the movies twice a day, and wrote his first novel, Blindness, before leaving without a degree. He went to work the floor of the family factory in Birmingham, an experience he fictionalized in his second novel, Living. Later Green moved from the factory floor to the office, rising to become managing director.
Green published his memoir in 1940, when he was only thirty-five, because he was convinced he would be killed in the coming war: “surely it would be asking much to pretend one had a chance to live.” Happily he did live, and even thrived. He published five books during the war years and during the Blitz served courageously and happily in the Auxiliary Fire Service. But Green’s production slowed markedly after the war. He wrote three more, increasingly laconic books (the last two composed almost entirely in dialogue). Then, after 1952, silence, even though he lived for another twenty-one years. Jeremy Treglown, Green’s excellent biographer, vividly describes him in his last years as a vagrant in his own home, drinking because he couldn’t write and unable to write because of his drinking.
The downward trajectory of Green’s life is at odds with the sly pleasures and enlivening strangeness of his prose. The first thing readers of Loving will notice is its vivid dialogue. Here’s Edith revealing to Kate her feelings for Raunce:
‘All right then I’ll learn you something, Edith said and she panted and panted. ‘I love Charley Raunce I love ‘im I love ‘im I love ‘im so there. I could open the veins of my right arm for that man.
And here’s Miss Burch responding to Kate’s half-fearful, half-longing speculation about what would happen to them should the Germans invade:
‘Mercy on us you don’t want to talk like that,’ Miss Burch said. ‘You think of nothing but men, there’s the trouble. Though if it did happen it would naturally be the same for the older women. They’re famished like a lion out in the desert them fighting men,’ she announced.
These examples are moving and funny and a little alarming—characteristic of the emotional roller coaster the book puts us through. The absence of punctuation paradoxically makes the pauses and emphases clearer. Green delights in the clichés and hackneyed images (“I could open the veins,” “They’re famished like a lion out in the desert”) of speech without looking down on the speakers.
But the novel’s narrative voice is even more memorable than its representation of speech. To be sure, narration is simply opposed to speech in the novel. Sometimes narration apes the agrammatical or idiomatic qualities of speech, such as when it uses adjectives as adverbs: “He picked it up off the floor quick”; “He stood face averted then hurried smooth and his quietest to the roll-top desk.” Sometimes it takes on the rhythms of speech, its unpunctuated flow: “Bert stood motionless his right hand stiff with wet knives.”
But sometimes the narration is stranger than anything we find in its speech. Whereas the latter aims at clarity, the former finds meaning in obscurity. Such uncertainty is especially true of its unsettling of traditional English-language syntax. In this example from early in the book, Kate and Edith come across Paddy asleep in the old stables. The windows of this room are covered in cobwebs. As, it seems, is Paddy himself:
Over a corn bin on which he had packed last autumn’s ferns lay Paddy snoring between these windows, a web strung from one lock of hair back onto the sill above and which rose and fell as he breathed.
Note the excess of qualifiers in the first half of the sentence: Paddy snores “over a corn bin” and “between these windows”; the placement of that last modifier emphasizes the phrase “snoring between these windows,” which highlights in a peculiar, excessive way the specificity of an action. “Snoring,” after all, is hardly dependent on place. (In fact, the verb here is not “snoring” but “lies snoring”: the inversion of subject and verb—“Over a corn bin… lay Paddy snoring” is odd, almost archaic.) Also typical, and related to this ambivalent specificity, is the demonstrative “these” rather than the definite article “the,” a tendency the critic Frank Kermode once described as Green’s way of hinting that the text is singular, not easily reducible to something else.
Certainly the most singular quality here—though it is in fact typical of Green’s style—is the sentence’s unstable grammar. The sentence pivots (or collapses, as the case may be) on the comma after “windows.” What comes after it—“a web strung from one lock of hair back onto the sill above and which rose and fell as he breathed”—seems at first to be a subordinate clause, but on re-reading proves to be something else, something agrammatical. Adding that ungainly phrase “and which” turns this subordinate clause into the dominant clause for the sentence’s final bit of information. Bewilderingly, “web” is both a predicate referring to Paddy (it is strung from a lock of his hair to the sill above) and a subject in its own right (it rises and falls as he breathes). On a first reading we expect the final “and” to connect “above” to another preposition (so that it would read something like: “the sill above and beyond him”). When this expectation is foiled, we stumble over what comes next, the adjective clause “which rose and fell as he breathed.”
Green’s prose disguises its strangeness as ordinariness. He’s not an overtly ostentatious writer. Yet his ostensibly straightforward prose is profoundly unsettling and unusually hard to parse. The longer we pause over a sentence like this one the weirder it seems. In this way, he reveals himself to be one of the most genuinely experimental writers in the English tradition, writing prose that both demands and resists interpretation. (Webs being a conventional figure for interpretation, we could read the spider webs in this scene as a joke about our felt need to make sense even of things that resist sense.)
What is true of Loving’s syntax is true of its use of plot and character as well. Neither of these attributes is as straightforward as it seems. In general, Loving is not much concerned with plot. Even the question of whether Raunce will get together with Edith—the event that most approximates a conventional plot arc—is supplanted by the more intriguing but more difficult to answer question of what the two even want from each other. Several subplots are braided around the Raunce-Edith relationship, each of which rises to a crescendo of antic complexity that would be more at home in a P. G. Wodehouse novel but each of which fizzles out before coming to any resolution.
Take, for example, the business with the peacocks. The castle’s extensive grounds are ornamented by some two hundred of the birds. When they suddenly disappear, Mrs. Tennant summons Raunce for an explanation. Raunce, new at his job and insecure, as well as constitutionally shifty, does not want to tell her what has really happened: namely, that the nephew of the cook, a belligerent nine-year-old recently evacuated to Kinalty from London to escape the bombing, has strangled a peacock that had the temerity to peck at him, and that Paddy, the Irish lampman, has locked the rest of the birds up for safekeeping.
In his interview with Mrs. Tennant, Raunce equivocates about the convoluted, variously incriminating event. Unsatisfied, Mrs. Tennant continues to mull over the matter. She confides to her daughter-in-law that Raunce seemed afraid of something, adding:
“Frightened of what I’d like to know? I put it to Raunce. But he couldn’t or wouldn’t say.”
“Which is just like the man,” the younger woman interrupted. “Always hinting.”
Violet’s insistence here reflects her unshakable belief that everyone is always talking in code about her affair with a neighbouring landowner. The exchange between Mrs. Tennant and Violet is typical: Loving’s characters repeatedly talk at cross-purposes. But the passage is unusual in that by explicitly referencing hinting it talks openly what is otherwise hidden: that Loving challenges our interpretive abilities. Everything is a hint, nothing is a clue.
The novel’s distinctive narrative voice is particularly vexing. Unlike many writers of the period, Green doesn’t have much use for free indirect discourse: his third-person narration doesn’t slip into and out of the perspective of particular characters. We rarely have access to what characters are thinking or feeling. Consider a passage in which Raunce studies the notebooks left behind by the previous butler, Eldon, and learns that Eldon has been systematically cheating his employer, for example about her whisky:
Not only had Mr. Eldon never credited her with the empties, that was straightforward enough, but he had left whole pages of calculations on the probable loss of the volatile spirit arising from evaporation in a confined space from which the outside atmosphere was excluded. He had gone into it thoroughly, had probably been prepared for almost any query. Charley appeared to find it suggestive because he whistled.
Admittedly, we could read this material as coming from Raunce’s perspective: the aside “that was straightforward enough” could certainly be his. Yet the passage’s use of names is puzzling: we might expect Raunce to call Eldon “Mr.” but he in fact is anything but deferential to his predecessor’s memory. Something like “the old man” would have fit better. And why Charley, rather than Raunce, which is what the text usually uses? Moreover, the description of the evaporation—“the probable loss of volatile spirits”—doesn’t sound like Raunce at all, he’s nowhere near that articulate. Are we supposed to think Eldon has written something like this in the notebooks that Raunce is parroting, as if reading aloud? Impossible to say: we know almost nothing about Eldon.
But the strangest thing here is the passage’s final sentence. Just when we would expect the prose to inhabit Raunce’s consciousness most clearly so as to tell us what he makes of the situation, we’re left with nothing but uncertainty: Raunce “appeared to find it suggestive.” Why doesn’t the text know?
Green answered this question in a radio interview from the 1950s:
And do we know, in life, what other people are really like? I very much doubt it. We certainly do not know what other people are thinking and feeling. How then can the novelist be so sure? … We get experience, which is as much knowledge as we shall ever have, by watching the way people around us behave after they have spoken.
For Green, art follows life. All a narrator can do is to observe what people say and how they behave and then make guesses about the relationship between them. Loving is littered with such expressions of narrative uncertainty:
“Well now if it isn’t Arthur,” this man said hearty and also it appeared with distaste.
“And that reminds me,” he went on seeming to forget he had just given another reason for his presence.
Then she added as though unable to help herself, “It should do you a mort of good.”
Miss Burch fixed a stern eye on Kate so much as to say a minute or so ago just now you were about to be actually coarse.
“Ah Mrs Jack,” Miss Burch put in as though sorrowing,
“It was Edith,” he answered at random and probably forgot at once whom he had named.
On the one hand, these narrative amplifications tell us much more than a simple “he said” or she replied.” Moving down our list of examples, we learn that one man dislikes someone called Arthur, though he pretends he doesn’t; another man can’t keep his stories straight; a woman is at the mercy of her (at least ostensible) concern for another person; and so on down the list.
And yet on the other hand they tell us much less. We learn only that characters seem to say things in a particular way, with particular consequences or implications. “Seems” and its variants “Seeming” and “seemingly” appear regularly; they are accompanied by similar expressions of doubt: “it appeared,” “so much as to say,” “as though,” “probably.” We always have to choose between the specificity of these descriptions and the hesitant manner in which they’re offered. Whenever the narrative tells us something it casts doubt on that telling.
This is, to say the least, disorienting for the reader. When Edith and Raunce argue over whether to give back a missing ring they’ve stumbled upon, Edith throws the ring into the fire before hastily rescuing it:
“Ouch it’s hot,” she said, dropping the thing on the rug. They stood looking down and from the droop of her shoulders it could be assumed that her rage had subsided.
Are we able to ignore the suggestion that Edith is no longer angry? Once the hint’s been made, aren’t we forced to take it? But hints can’t be hints if they’re really just disguised orders. We have to hear the “it could be assumed” as much as the “her rage had subsided.” Loving doesn’t let us naturalize its repeated qualifications. We have to take them seriously, for the book’s aim is to force us not just to read about but also to experience the uncertainty that its characters feel towards each other and in relation to their historical moment, in which it is by no means clear how the war will end.
This uncertainty is mirrored in Green’s title. Whether we take it as a gerund or as a progressive verb, “loving” is hard to pinpoint. The noun would refer to an abstraction that doesn’t just apply in a single case. The verb would describe a continuous action nullified or completed were it ever to stop and therefore without beginning or end. Words like “loving”—Green titled several of his novels in similar fashion: Living, Party Going, Concluding—suspend meaning. Like Raunce in Violet’s description, they are “always hinting” but never resolving.
I would argue in similar fashion that we should understand Green as a writer who suspends the literary categories of his time. True, he was published by Leonard and Virginia Woolf’s Hogarth Press and possessed like many modernist writers a brilliant, inimitable style. And yes, he had gone to school with or traveled in the same social circles as many of the leading writers of the 1930s and wrote social comedies that sympathize with the working class. Yet Green is neither a modernist nor a social realist. He wriggles free of categories, the true strangeness of his prose not always evident until we slow down to see it has been hiding in plain sight.
Yet it wouldn’t be right to say, as earlier readers have done, that Green is like no one else. (The American novelist and screenwriter Terry Southern, for example, famously called him not a writer’s writer but a writer’s-writer’s writer.) Instead, Green is like a handful of other English writers from the middle part of the century who don’t fit into prevailing narratives of twentieth century literature, writers who subtly distort realism without abandoning it, writers like Ivy Compton-Burnett, Elizabeth Bowen, and Barbara Comyns. Like them, Green hints that there is still much to be discovered in a literary tradition too often thought of as timid and unadventurous.
Dorian Stuber teaches at Hendrix College. He has written for Open Letters Monthly, The Scofield, and Words without Borders. He blogs about books at www.eigermonchjungfrau.wordpress.com.