Loving with Henry: Part Two

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Almost immediately after the publication of Party Going at the onset of WWII, Henry Green handed over to his publisher the manuscript to Pack My Bag, his ‘interim’ autobiography (at 35), that he had written at top speed in a matter of weeks. After the slow process and completion of Party Going, the gates must have opened. Other contributing factors was Green’s fear of imminent death in the war, hence the title which were the last words of the philosopher F.H Bradley, and the fact that Green was reportedly completely drunk the entire time of the writing process.

In Pack My Bag we find a passage that is as close as Green ever got to stating an artistic credo:

Prose is not to be read aloud but to oneself alone at night, and it is not quick as poetry but rather a gathering web of insinuations which go further than names however shared can ever go. Prose should be a long intimacy between strangers with no direct appeal to what both may have known. It should slowly appeal to feelings unexpressed, it should in the end draw tears out of the stone …

Green volunteered for the London Fire Service during the Blitz, the experience of which formed the basis of his next novel Caught. His wife Dig had moved away from London to the countryside and as the time was one of general ‘unmarriedness’, Green indulged in numerous extra-martial affairs. Dig would tolerant these liaisons, even befriending the women involved.

His next novel Loving was published in 1943 and is Green’s most well know and popular novel. In The Paris Review interview with Terry Southern he describes the genesis of the novel:

I got the idea of Loving from a manservant in the Fire Service during the war. He was serving with me in the ranks, and he told me he had once asked the elderly butler who was over him what the old boy most liked in the world. The reply was: “Lying in bed on a summer morning, with the window open, listening to the church bells, eating buttered toast with cunty fingers.” I saw the book in a flash.

Curiously enough Loving was published at the same time as his friend Evelyn Waugh’s novel Brideshead Revisited, which is also set in a large country house. But whereas Brideshead Revisited is a nostalgic paean to a rapidly vanishing way of life, wistfully conveying a time where everyone knew their place and was grateful for it, from the loyal servants to the obliging lords of the manor, Green was too clear-eyed to be having any of this self-serving sentimentality. His portrayal of down-stairs life resembles Jonathan Swift’s masterful satire Directions To Servants much more than the obsequious, incidental characters offered by Brideshead Revisited or indeed its present day variation that peddles the same insidious fantasy, DowntonAbbey.  

In a master stroke, Green’s country estate is set in neutral Ireland, a country he knew well and had great fondness for, owned by Anglo-Irish gentry and staffed entirely with English staff with the important exception of the symbolically incomprehensible Irish lamp-man Paddy O’Conor . This immediately places the narrative in the realm of absurdity. The owners of Kinalty are, appropriately enough, the Tennants. However the novel is much more concerned with life down-stairs, in particularly the over-promoted and unscrupulous butler Charley Raunce and his much younger girlfriend, the housemaid Edith  In his usual oblique, off-hand way Green introduces an ambiguous apocalyptic note regarding the future of Kinalty: The Blue Drawing Room is, we are told, ‘the most celebrated eighteenth-century folly in Eire that had still to be burned down.’ However this fear is only vaguely in the background, all the characters, whether up-stairs or down-stairs are too busy pursuing their respective love-interests or lining their pockets and stomachs to spare much thought to all that imperils their precarious paradise, whether it be the war raging back home, the IRA or indeed the intrinsic absurdity of Kinalty, where even the dovecotes are modelled on the Leaning Tower of Pisa.

In 1946 Green published Back, which concerns a wounded war veteran returning to civilian life. It is certainly his most sombre novel, however it contains one of his most sustained passages of lyricism:

…climbing around and up these trees of mourning, was rose after rose after rose, while, here and there, the spray overburdened by the mass of flowers, a live wreath lay fallen on a wreath of stone, or on a box in marble colder than this day, or onto frosted blooms which, under glass, marked each bed of earth wherein the dear departed encouraged life above in the green grass, the cypresses and in those roses gay and bright which, as still as this dark afternoon, stared at whosoever looked, or hung their heads to droop, to grow strained, to die when their turn came.

I will be concluding this series on Henry Green in part three with brief reviews of his last three novels and his later life.

The Myth of Light

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Toyen-The Myth of Light 1946
For most of the Second World War Toyen lived in a tiny apartment in Nazi-Occupied Prague where she sheltered her Jewish artistic partner, the poet, photographer and object maker Jindrich Heisler from the Gestapo. To distract any unwanted attention they lived in a perpetual semi-darkness and Heisler slept in the bath-tub. “Because we lived in the darkness, Jindrich loved light,”  as Toyen later remarked about this period.

Heisler was flattered when Toyen asked him to pose of a portrait. However in typical Toyen fashion the reality of a portrait was only a springboard for an unsettling enigmatic painting. The portrait is reduced to a silhouette presenting plants that are suspended in space to a pair of gloved hands whose shadow forms a wolfs head. Does the Mythe de la lumiere depict in an elusive and mythical fashion an attempted seduction?

 

 

I Have So Often Dreamed Of You

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Lee Miller-Man Ray 1929
Robert Desnos was in many ways the archetypal surrealist spirit. Involved in Paris Dada he was in the literary vanguard of Surrealism and possessed an extra-ordinary talent for automatic writing during the Trance Period, rivalled only by Rene Crevel. Desnos, like many others, fell out with Andre Breton and joined the group centred around Georges Bataille and his magazine Documents and he was one of the signers of the anti-Breton polemic Un Cadavre.

During WWII Desnos was an active member of the French Resistance and he was captured by the Gestapo in 1944. He was deported to Auschwitz, then Buchenwald and finally Theresienstadt where he would die a few weeks after the camp’s liberation from typhoid.

I Have So Often Dreamed Of You

I have so often dreamed of you that you become unreal.
Is it still time enough to reach that living body and to kiss
on that mouth the birth of the voice so dear to me?
I have so often dreamed of you that my arms used as they are
to meet on my breast in embracing your shadow would
perhaps not fit the contour of your body.
And, before the real appearance of what has haunted and ruled
me for days and years, I might become only a shadow.
Oh the weighing of sentiment,
I have so often dreamed of you that there is probably no time
now to waken. I sleep standing, my body exposed to all the
appearances of life and love and you, who alone still
matter to me, I could less easily touch your forehead and
your lips than the first lips and the first forehead I
might meet by chance.
I have so often dreamed of you, walked, spoken, slept with your
phantom that perhaps I can be nothing any longer than a
phantom among phantoms and a hundred times more shadow
than the shadow which walks and will walk joyously over
the sundial of your life.

Translation Mary Ann Caws

Paul Nash: War Artist, Seaside Surrealist

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Paul Nash-After the Battle 1918

Paul Nash is one of the foremost of British artists of the 20th Century as well as a major landscape painter. He was an official war artist in both World Wars, a leading exponent of Modernism in England , a founding member of the avant-garde group Unit One, whose members included Henry Moore, Barbara Hepworth, Ben Nicholson and the art critic, poet and writer Herbert Read, with whom he organised the International Surrealist Exhibition at the New Burlington Galleries, London in 1936.

Nash’s paintings and lithographs that he produced as official war artist during WWI are some of the most potent and visceral images of the devastated landscapes wrought by the infernal mechanised weapons of war. Justly famous are The Ypres Salient At Night and We Are Making A New World both of which are part of the Imperial War Museums permanent collection.

The war had left Paul Nash emotionally and artistically drained. In 1933 he formed the short-lived but important avant-garde group Unit One. He formed links across the

Swanage circa 1936 by Paul Nash 1889-1946
Paul Nash-Swanage 1936

Channel with the Surrealists, later commenting that he hadn’t found Surrealism, Surrealism had found him. Around this time he was based in the seaside town of Swanage on the Dorset coast, which led him to formulate his theory of ‘Seaside Surrealism’. He also began an affair with another exceptional Surrealist, Eileen Agar ( see Surrealist Women: Eileen Agar). Notable works of this period as the found objects collage Swanage and the painting Landscape In A Dream from 1936-1938.

At the start of WWII, Nash was again commissioned as a official war artist, this time with the Royal Air Force and the Air Ministry, which led to one of his most haunting paintings, Totes Meer (Dead Sea), (see below) based on Caspar David Friedrich’s The Sea of Ice, which was inspired by a field of crashed German aircraft in Cowley, Oxfordshire.

Paul Nash died in 1946 from heart failure resulting from his long-term asthma. He is currently the subject of a major retrospective at the Tate until March 2017. Recently there has been a critical re-evaluation of his work, especially the important paintings from WWI and WWII, and he is generally considered the most important British painter between J.M.W Turner and Francis Bacon.

Totes Meer (Dead Sea) 1940-1 by Paul Nash 1889-1946
Paul Nash-Totes Meer 1940-1941