John Updike, I beg to differ. While we have you to thank, at least in part, for returning Henry Green to print in those handsome omnibus paperbacks from Penguin ("Green's writing brings the rectangle of the printed page alive like little else in English fiction in this century," reads your blurb on one back cover), the novelist whom you describe in your introduction as a "saint of the mundane, embracing it with all his being" and a champion of "the demotic in language and in everything" sounds less like the incomparable and resolutely mandarin author of Living (1929), Loving (1945), and Party Going (1939) (along with six other novels, each with an arresting one-word title) and more like a prodigious chronicler of sensual life in mainstream America named John Updike. One can hardly find fault with your lifetime's admiration for Green's workˇin particular his middle-period masterpiece, Lovingˇor with your elegant admission that Green taught you how to write, even if writing "is not a business one learnsˇunlearns, rather." Sounds like Green, that last reversalˇdoesn't it? (But you know this.) Where you go wrong, if I may speak frankly, from one devotee of Green to another, is in your description of the twenty-one-year silence between his last novel, Doting, and his death in 1973 (you speak of his "withdrawal into the despair that always fringed his pellucid world," the kind of luxuriant writing that would have sent Green to the bottle). Neither am I convinced by your optimist's insistence that "the spaces between his words are warm"; the spaces between his words are silentˇwhite, literallyˇand silence cannot be measured on the scales of Celsius or Fahrenheit.

Like death, right?

It's tempting to look for consolation in the warmth of Green's characters, their live qualities, the sparrowlike beating of their fictional hearts. But how can you reduce his silence to a fringe? The writer who falls silent is no longer alive, in a way; there is no sweetness seeping in from beyond the margins, no milky British sunlight (if only it were so, Mr. Updike). Writing is a temporary spell to counteract the silenceˇa kind of bargain with the wordless beyondˇand Henry Green, more than any other writer I can think of, had no illusions about what lies on the other side of writing. From his memoir Pack My Bag, written in 1938, on the eve of World War II: "We who must die soon, or so it seems to me, should chase our memories back, standing, when they are found, enough apart not to be too near what they once meant. Like the huntsman, on a hill and when he blows his horn, like him some way away from us." As usual with Green it's hard to tell, from the ambiguous syntax, whether the writer is calling to his memories on a hilltop or being hunted by them (it would seem to be both). In any case there is the war, a hilltop, a huntsman, and a mournful reveille to lifeˇdescribed in sentences so off-kilter and beautiful you don't know whether to cry out for help or just start crying.

Pack My Bag is a conventional coming-of-age memoir penned by a deeply unconventional writerˇall of the reader's usual talismans and touchstones are illusory in Green's work, from the author's name (actually Henry Yorke) to the names of his characters (in the novel Back both of its heroines are named Rose, and one is dead) to his fondness for dropping definite articles from descriptive passages, especially in Living, which must be the finest proletarian novel ever written by an aristocrat. Here's a typical moment: "Dale kicked fender and upset poker which clattered and crashed to the floor." Then there are the lines of dialogue so vague and sharp at once they might have been transcribed directly from life, like this from Party Going: "Well, after all, Julia, why should he be called Embassy Richard if he wasn't?" Green had already published his first three novels when he undertook to write his memoir at the age of thirty-three; he was married and had settled into his routine at the family engineering firm, H. Pontifex & Sons. He wrote Pack My Bag on his lunch hour and on weekends, convinced that another war was imminent (he was training to be an auxiliary fireman at the same time). Thus childhood and death intermingle in a way not usually rendered, enlivening both on the page, and nowhere more vividly than in the book's opening: "I was born a mouthbreather with a silver spoon in 1905, three years after one war and nine before another, too late for both. But not too late for the war which seems to be coming upon us now and that is a reason to put down what comes to mind before one is killed."

Death haunts the nursery, thenˇand the lawn of Forthampton Cottage, the family's country estate in the "soft lands" of the Severn River valley; and the playing fields of the boarding school (unnamed) where Green was sent at the age of six; and the footmen and maids, prefects and headmasters, who populate Green's childhood and never quite substitute for family. There is drama built into every sentence as the author takes pains to recall a vanished world in whatever time he has left. All writing is a race against the clock, of course, but rarely is the urgency to write demonstrated so openly in sentences and paragraphs.

The reason for Green's anxiety becomes clear as he describes a childhood of privilege and privation during the Great War, when antiaircraft batteries ringed his boarding school and the soft sound of gunfire from France drifted in the windows "so that we looked out and thought of death in the sound and this was sweeter to us than rollers tumbling on a beach." The students went home to their families like "escaped prisoners" and marked off the days between holidays on calendars. The surprise in Green's descriptions of his top-shelf education (he later attended Eton and Oxford) is his sociological dissection of the brutality and snobbishness of the system and the moral indignity of his responseˇrivaling Orwell at his most acid. "A private school is a fascist state," Green writes, "and so are public schools. Their corporate doctrines teach one ugly sides and it is when one has forgotten to be as they taught that the experience begins to be worthwhile." Similarly, when his family estate is converted into a hospital for wounded officers, he recalls the culture clash that foretold the end of the Edwardian era and the birth of the modern. "So we let in life as it was to be after the war was over together with its slang and put into their heads an idea of how it must have been before the war came." Green the novelist hovers in the wings, watching: In one episode a patient borrows his father's shotgun and favorite hunting dog to bag pheasants out of season, and the family is horrified, most of all, that their animal would "lend itself to such practices."

The mood in Pack My Bag lightens considerably with the introduction of beauty: first long days of fishing for bream on school holidays, then the sisters who visited Eton every Saturday, and then finally, at Oxford, serious writing, romance, and the pleasurable oblivion of alcohol. (Keep in mind this is the same writer who listed as his recreation in Who's Who, "Romancing over a bottle, to a good band.") Green rose at noon to breakfast and a brandy and soda, caught a movie, then worked on his first novel, Blindnessˇits publication while he was still in school led to the first social success of his life. He loved the bells at Oxford and going to the cinema (both are given lavish descriptions in Pack My Bag), though Green was happy, in the end, to graduate from "orgies like Bump suppers for the rowing men" to the more subdued social cruelty of weekend Hunt Balls. By this time Green was at work in the family foundry and discovering "the deep, the real satisfaction" of manual labor while keeping his eyes and ears open, as they had always been, to the society around him.

Living might be Green's most elaborate testament to the foundry workers, but in Pack My Bag he pays themˇand their language, their "beyond imagination magnificent" obscenityˇan even higher compliment. "If one should come to think of it at the end," Green writes casually, "they would be worth dying for by those heroic comparisons in simple words so well chosen and arranged, so direct a communication they made one silly with laughing."

It's a startling confession, even for the devoted reader of Henry Green (are you still listening, Mr. Updike?). Green would have died for a well-turned phrase, the perfect obscenity shouted across a foundry floor. He would have died for the love of languageˇand he did, falling into the white space at the bottom of every page. Falling silent instead of living the compromise of merely writing.

 

Benjamin Anastas is the author of two novels, An Underachiever's Diary (Dial, 2001) and The Faithful Narrative of a Pastor's Disappearance (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2001).

 
     
     
 
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PACK MY BAG: A SELF-PORTRAIT BY HENRY GREEN, INTRODUCTION BY SEBASTIAN YORKE. NEW YORK: NEW DIRECTIONS. 264 PAGES. $15. BUY NOW