Henry Green remains the most elusive and neglected of modernist writers, even though he was among the top rank of prose stylists in English in the 20th century. However when you are not just a writer’s writer, but a writer’s-writer’s writer, as his friend the Beat novelist and screen-writer Terry Southern noted in his interview of Green for The Paris Review, then maybe a degree of obscurity and anonymity is to be expected.
Henry Green was the pseudonym of Henry Yorke, an aristocrat and industrialist, for most of his life he was managing director of the family firm of Pontifex. After a childhood spent in large and imposing country houses he attended Eton (at the same time as fellow novelists and friends Evelyn Waugh and Anthony Powell) and Oxford, though he dropped out of Oxford to work in the company’s Birmingham factory. By the time of his departure from Oxford he was already a published novelist, his astoundingly assured debut Blindness coming out when he was only 19. His time on the factory floor was the inspiration for his second novel Living, which is thoroughly modernist with its cinematic dissolves and dropped articles and displays a Chekhovian sympathy and understanding of his mainly working class characters. His friend Christopher Isherwood called it, “the best Proletarian novel ever written,” however as Green drily noted, Isherwood had never worked in a factory.
The thirties saw a hiatus in his literary career, after a glittering society wedding he was too busy being a Bright Young Thing and socializing with the Aga Khan in the South of France, (though he complained about travel being an inconvenience, as it interfered with his masturbation), and the Guinnesses (which included Diana nee Mitford and soon to be Mosley) at fancy dress balls, and there was a ten-year gap before his third novel Party Going, which is perhaps my favourite of all is works (though it is a hard choice), was published in September 1939, just before the onset of WWII.
In 1937 a somewhat depressed Green had written, “what pleasure or interest I ever took in anything, or what potential there was to take pleasure or interest, malicious or otherwise, is leaving me so that I have started writing again to try to make a world of my own.” The world he constructed in Party Going is one only Green could have created. On the surface Party Going is concerned with the anxieties and amorous manoeuvres of a group of privileged and incredibly vapid young people waiting for a train to take them to the Continent. The station is fog-bound and no trains are either arriving or leaving, so to while away the time they sequester themselves in the station’s hotel. Alliances form and dissolve, the characters get entangled in a muddle and confusion of their own-making. And that is basically it, yet it is hard not to conclude that there is a lot more going on underneath this deceptive surface. It has been remarked that the fog represents “a paradigm of life, life surrounded by a fog of death and threatened Departures,”. Maybe because of the long gestation of Party Going, the tone and style itself shifts, at the beginning the dropped articles recall his previous novel Living, however the novel becomes more expansive around a third of the way in, this change further disorients the reader, adding an extra dimension of uncertainty and unease. The novel, which had seemed to be merely a comedy of manners takes on a Kafkaesque turn while also anticipating Beckett.
The war was to prove to be a fruitful period for Henry Green, which will be the subject of Part Two. To end this post here is a short example from Party Going of Green’s effortlessly stylish prose:
“So now at last all of this party is in one place, and, even if they have not yet all of them come across each other, their baggage is collected in the Registration Hall. Where, earlier, hundreds had made their way to this station thousands were coming in now, it was the end of a day for them, the beginning of a time for our party.”