For many, Henry Green (1905-1973) is either an unknown entity or an undervalued genius.
As an English modernist, he is dwarfed by bigger beasts such as Virginia Woolf and D.H. Lawrence. As a general novelist, he is regarded as a fringe figure, a pale sun whose weak glow is no match for the enduring dazzle of his more renowned contemporaries.
It doesn’t help that Green opted for a low profile. He was born Henry Vincent Yorke but hid behind his pseudonym and shied away from publicity. Fiction was for him a side project to a career in business. He wrote nine novels and then promptly stopped in 1952. No end-of-days autobiography appeared, only a short, sketchy midlife memoir, or so-called “self-portrait.” Unsurprisingly, after Green’s death his books went out of print and he languished in obscurity.
However, his idiosyncratic work has always found favor with fellow writers. Eudora Welty was in awe of his “most interesting and vital imagination.” W.H. Auden considered him “the best English novelist.” John Updike confessed: “Henry Green taught me how to write.”
Over the past 12 months, NYRB Classics has published eight of Green’s novels. The remaining one now comes care of New Directions.
Originally published in 1948, “Concluding” (Green is fond of his gerund titles) resembles in part Woolf’s “Mrs. Dalloway” insofar as it takes place on a single summer’s day and culminates with a party in the evening. In every other respect it is Green’s own work, a darkly comic romp of rare intensity that confounds as much as it astounds.
At the center of the book is Mr. Rock, a retired scientist, who lives with a pig, a goose, a cat and his overwrought granddaughter Elizabeth in a cottage on the grounds of a girls’ boarding school. This venerable institution is run by Miss Edge and Miss Baker — in Rock’s view “two dastardly trollops” — both of whom want to turn him off the land and reclaim his cottage.
Rock goes about his daily tasks and later gate-crashes the Founders’ Day Ball — with riotous consequences. He also mingles with people from upstairs and downstairs, discovers the depth of Elizabeth’s love affair, joins the search for two missing pupils and learns that the fiendish principals are prepared to go to extreme lengths to avoid scandal and purge their domain of “vile cross currents.”
Green thought this book his finest. “Loving” (1945) is probably his true masterpiece, but “Concluding” still contains many unearthly delights. The prose consists of sentences marked by smooth lyrical fluidity or jolting syntactic strangeness. There is bizarre imagery (“they moved like slow, suiciding moles in the half light”) and subtle manipulations (“in a sharp fresh of moonlight”), plus all manner of implication and obfuscation.
For those new to Green, this is as good a place to start as any. Forget the threadbare plot, accept the oddities and go with his intoxicating flow.
Malcolm Forbes has written for the Times Literary Supplement, the Economist and the Daily Beast. He lives in Edinburgh, Scotland.
By: Henry Green.
New Directions, 245 pages, $14.95.