“This is, I think, a two-pipe problem,” Holmes tells Watson in The Hound of the Baskervilles. Not in the novel of 1902, but in the 1939 film, with Basil Rathbone as the quintessence of Holmes and Nigel Bruce as a splendidly bumbling Watson. That famous line does not appear in Conan Doyle’s novel. The scriptwriter, Ernest Pascal, abbreviated it when he lifted it from a Conan Doyle short story of 1891, “The Red-Headed League,” in which Watson asks why Holmes has sat down at a pivotal moment in the plot.“ ‘To smoke,’ he answered. ‘It is quite a three-pipe problem, and I beg that you won’t speak to me for fifty minutes.’ ”
The case of Henry Green is what Holmes—also not a real person—might also have called a three-pipe problem. Like Conan Doyle, who turned out as a goalkeeper for Portsmouth as “A. C. Smith,” Henry Yorke adopted the persona of “Henry Green” for public performances. As with Yorke’s Eton contemporary “George Orwell,” the motives and circumstantial evidence are tangled, and the slipperiness of the pseudonym is inseparable from the problems of resolution, of fixing Green’s novels in their time and our canon. Eyewitness statements place Green at the center of English modernism, but Yorke claimed not to have been at the scene of the crime. Later, Green recanted part of his evidence, possibly because of Yorke’s financial troubles. In 1973, Yorke drank Green to death in a murder-suicide.
The Green file was already open. In a 1958 interview for The Paris Review, the erratic private investigator Terry Southern called Green “the writer’s writer’s writer.” The testimony was fixed. Southern had already stitched himself up as Green’s literary heir. According to Green’s biographer, Jeremy Treglown, Southern had “approached Green in 1955 to ask if he would be willing to look at a book that he was writing, in part as an homage to him.” Green had advised Southern on revising what became Southern’s first novel, Flash and Filigree. This happened to come out in the same year as the Paris Review interview: a clear case of rigging the market in literary reputations.
Green was always more of a critic’s writer than a reader’s writer.
Green was also always more of a critic’s writer than a reader’s writer. Though the critics have not always agreed over which of Green’s novels are the ones to read, writers have cherished Green as they have exploited him. In 1993, reviewing the reissue of six Green novels in these pages, Brooke Allen noted the “oddly assorted” nature of Green’s admirers: “W. H. Auden, Elizabeth Bowen, Terry Southern, Eudora Welty, and John Updike.” The variety of sensibilities among the Chlorophiles, as Updike called them, suggests Green’s value as a technical resource.
“Technically, Living is without exception the most interesting book I have read,” Evelyn Waugh wrote in 1929, reviewing Green’s second novel for Vogue. Green’s technical “effects” and “information,” Waugh thought, made it “necessary to take language one step further than its grammatical limits allow,” as Joyce had done when “re-echoing” and “remodifying” the information of fiction with the effects of poetry. “I see in Living very much the same technical apparatus at work as in many of Mr. T. S. Eliot’s poems—particularly in the narrative passages of The Waste Land and the two Fragments of an Agon.”
Waugh capitalized upon Green’s conversational effects, and nodded to Eliot too, in A Handful of Dust (1934). But the conversational fireworks were only one weapon in the Waugh arsenal, and the resemblance does not run deep. Green has wit and can be sexually knowing, but he lacks the eighteenth-century ebullience that drove Waugh to name a character Polly Cockpurse, to tack “The Man Who Liked Dickens” onto the manuscript, and then to cook up an alternative ending to accommodate serialization in an American magazine.
New York Review Books has reopened the case yet again by reissuing seven of Green’s novels and the 1993 collection Surviving. So it is still a scandal, at least in Bohemia, that Green is not better known. He seems to have become the Walter Scott of English modernism, but without the burden of Scott’s sales figures. Readers know him more than they read him, and writers read him in order to rob him. To solve the case, we must go back to the scene of the crime.
“The hardest task in modern criticism,” Cyril Connolly wrote in Enemies of Promise, “is to find out who were the true innovators.”
The technical case for Henry Green is that he had an ear for vernacular speech akin to Sherlock Holmes’s eye for material detail; that he extended modernist technique by cutting between voices and perspectives, and by experimenting with syntax and register; and that, by substituting dialogue for free indirect discourse, he freed modern fiction from the apron strings of the nineteenth-century novel.
The most notable tic in Green’s fiction was his attempt to dispense with the definite article. This was not a new idea, and Green himself came to regret it as “affected.” Yet in Living (1929), it created a rare overlap between literary experiment, the streams of consciousness in Joyce, Stein, and Woolf, and the truncated speech patterns of working-class Birmingham:
Mr. Gates went back to foundry with chaplets he had fetched from stores shouting against storekeeper’s dirty mind, and laughing, but noise of lathes working made it so what he said could not be heard.
Anthony Burgess, his ear attuned both to the Joycean torrent and to the stopped glottals and factory slang of Manchester, called Living “the best brief novel about factory life that we possess.” The rhythms are sharp and metallic, and the repetitions and linguistic compressions push the reader inside the story. Like the protagonist Lily Bates, who comes close to emigrating but hears the “factory buzzer” in the hoot of the emigrant’s steamer and returns to her lodgings, the reader is trapped in the intimate dullness of working-class life.
Green explained his excisions in realist terms: “I wanted to make it as taut and spare as possible, to fit the proletarian life I was then leading.” Yet Green was not living the proletarian life. The workers at Pontifex, his father’s Birmingham factory, belonged to the skilled working class, the “aristocracy of labour.” When Waugh visited Green at the factory, he praised the “manual dexterity” of the workers: “Nothing in the least like mass labour or mechanization—pure arts and crafts. The brass casting particularly beautiful: green molten metal from a red cauldron.”
In Living, the proprietor’s son also views the workshop in aesthetic terms. His categories, though, are more topical. His eye has been trained by Vorticism and the Grosvenor School:
Standing in foundry shop son of Mr. Dupret thought in mind and it seemed to him that these iron castings were beautiful and he reached out fingers to them, he touched them; he thought and only in machinery it seemed to him was savagery left now for in the country, in summer, trees were like sheep while here men created what you could touch, wild shapes, soft like silk, which would last and would be working in great factories, they made them with their hands.
The contrast between heroic industry and trees “like sheep” summarizes how Vorticism, in Britain’s softer climate, sheared Futurism of its menace. In Cyril Power’s color linocuts, the faceless commuters on the Tube escalator terrify not because they are a mob, but because they are so orderly. “Dear good English people,” Julia thinks as she looks down on the station concourse in Party Going (1939), “who never make trouble no matter how bad it is, come what may no matter.”
Green wanted the narrative effect to resemble that of a “very disconnected cinema film.”
The workers, Green recalled, thought Living “rotten,” but they were not his intended audience, only his raw material. Working on the novel, Green told Nevill Coghill, the Oxford medievalist who had encouraged his literary ambitions, that he was writing the novel in “a very condensed kind of way in short paragraphs.” Though he wanted to bring the realist eye of Balzac and Zola to the foundry, he wanted the narrative effect to resemble that of a “very disconnected cinema film.”
Henry Yorke was born in 1905. This places him very much A.D. (After Dickens), but just a little B.C. (Before Cinema). In 1907, when Yorke was two, Eugene Lauste, a London-based inventor who had worked in Edison’s laboratory, patented the first technology for recording sound on celluloid film. In 1919, when the fourteen-year-old Yorke was in his first year at Eton, an American inventor, Lee de Forest, patented the commercial application of sound on celluloid, by creating a “married” print which carried a strip of sound as well as a sequence of images. In 1923, when Yorke was the secretary of the Eton Arts Society, New Yorkers saw the first commercial sound-on-film screenings. In 1927, a year after the publication of Blindness, Yorke’s first novel as “Henry Green,” the success of The Jazz Singer confirmed the triumph of the speaking, and sometimes singing, image over the written word.
Cinema’s conquest of popular narrative occurred in the years of Green’s childhood and youth, when mimed sequences were cut by cards of dialogue. These were also the years in which Pound and Eliot broke the epigrammatic sequences of Symbolist poetry into fragmentary narratives. Eliot in particular showed how light entertainment—music hall lyrics and jazz vocalization—could do the heavy lifting of disconnection and alienation.
In Party Going, a group of Bright Young Things are trapped by fog in Victoria Station, along with two nannies, crowds of commuters and workers, and a dead pigeon.
Fog was so dense, bird that had been disturbed went flat into a balustrade, and slowly fell, dead, at her feet.
There it lay, and Miss Fellowes looked up to where that pall of fog was twenty foot above and out of which it had fallen, turning over once. She bent down and took a wing then entered a tunnel in front of her, and this had departures lit up over it, carrying her dead pigeon.
No one paid attention, all were intent and everyone hurried, nobody looked back. Her dead pigeon then lay sideways, wings outspread as she held it, its dead head down towards the ground. She turned and she went back to where it had fallen and again looked up to where it must have died for it was still warm and, everything unexplained, she turned once more into the tunnel back to the station.
Here, the absence of the definite article in the opening sentence seems crude, like a title sequence—“A Henry Green Production”—that disrupts the rapid and subtle images that will set the scene. When the pigeon hits the ground, it also lands in the consciousness of Miss Fellowes. Her eye and ours zoom in on the same close-up—the pinching of her fingers on the bird’s wing—and then the frame zooms out as we watch her merge again into the crowd. Suddenly she emerges against the human current, directs her gaze and ours first downwards at the pigeon and then upwards, before rejoining the flow of people into the station. Now she is carrying the dead bird.
The sequence is written like a tracking shot. The “Departures” sign under which she passes could be from an Expressionist film. A year before, The Spectator’s film critic had deployed a similar trick with the ghost train in Brighton Rock (1938). As the other characters arrive at the station, Green’s narrative eye sweeps up to the metal rafters where the station controller sits, like the shot in Citizen Kane (1941) which tracks upwards from Susan Alexander’s opera debut to two stage hands, one of whom holds his nose.
In 1963, Terence Rattigan reprised the conceit of Party Going for the script of The V.I.P.s, a film in which an all-star cast, including Orson Welles, is fogged in at Heathrow. In Rattigan’s script, as in a Graham Greene entertainment, the plot develops and dilemmas are resolved. This does not happen in Party Going. Green produces witty dialogue and crisp images, but the plot, like the characters, has missed its connection.
“The English have striven and done a great deal in the world,” George Moore had written in Hail and Farewell (1911–14). “The English are a tired race and their weariness betrays itself in the language, and the most decadent of all are the upper classes.” Green’s plots get weaker with each novel. This structural weakness repels readers vulgar enough to want a good story, even as the technical experiments attract writers and critics.
Does the dialogue compensate? The reddest of herrings about Green is that his use of the vernacular was new. Henry James had made heavy work of narrating by dialogue. Ronald Firbank had made light work of it. Yeats and Synge had collected fragments of rural chat. Apart from its modernist period, the English novel always was vernacular. “We’ll go over ’em one after another,” Steerforth tells Copperfield. “We’ll make some regular Arabian Nights of it.” The dialogue of grumbling firemen in Caught (1943) is not so far from H. G. Wells’s Kipps, published in the year of Green’s birth.
“Then there’s the ring,” said Kipps. “What ’ave I to do about that?”
“What ring do you mean?”
“’Ngagement Ring. There isn’t anything at all about that in ‘Manners and Rules of Good Society’—not a word.”
“Of course you must get something— tasteful. Yes.”
“What sort of ring?”
“Something nice. They’ll show you in the shop.”
“Of course. I s’pose I got to take it to ’er, eh? Put it on ’er finger.”
“Oh no. Send it. Much better.”
“I know what I’d call ’im, but then I can’t. I’m a gentleman,” Chopper greeted Pye the next morning, on his return from leave.
“Who are you referrin’ to?”
“Why Savoury, of course.”
“You called ’im that yourself. Roe.”
“Oh ’im . . . ”
“The nineteenth-century novel,” Iris Murdoch wrote in “Against Dryness” (1961),
was not concerned with the “human condition,” it was concerned with various individuals struggling in society. The twentieth-century novel is usually either crystalline or journalistic; that is, it is either a small, quasi-allegorical object portraying the human condition and not containing “characters” in the nineteenth-century sense, or else it is a large shapeless quasi-documentary object, the degenerate descendant of the nineteenth-century novel, telling, with pale conventional characters, some straightforward story enlivened with empirical facts.
When he wanted to, Green could write what Connolly called the “new Mandarin,” the modernist reform of the grand style. As late as Loving (1945), he could still turn on the Norman Douglas:
Edith laid her lovely head on Raunce’s nearest shoulder and above them, above the great shadows laid by trees those white birds wheeled in a sky of eggshell blue and pink with a remote sound of applause as, circling, they clapped their stretched, starched wings in flight.
Green could also write in the “journalistic” style of Somerset Maugham. In Caught, Pye goes looking for a woman in the blackout:
He crossed quickly into that bounded sea of shadow. He grew furtive. He imagined women where none were. He spoke suggestively to gentian hooded doorways.
But most of the time, Green wanted to be crystalline and insinuating, not “journalistic” like his school-friend Anthony Powell, let alone like Wells or Maugham. As a late modernist, if not the last English modernist, he was concerned with matters of procedure and ritual, and he stretched and starched his style to the point of etiolation.
It was Green’s right to do this, just as it was Yorke’s right to subordinate himself to his controlling father at Pontifex, and then, when his father was dead, to allow the business to run down while drinking neat gin at board meetings. It is hard, though, to read Green without being struck by the self-inflicted paradox of his writing, a paradox that might have contributed to the perpetual critical uncertainty about the value of his fiction.
Where most writers struggle to achieve a range of effects, Green chose to limit himself. In striving to renew the narrative powers of fiction, he weakened them by alliance with the cinema. Green’s novels have the liability of all avant-garde art. Deliberate innovation is the fruit of a particular moment, seeded in aesthetic controversy and cultivated in the hothouse of ideology. When taste changes, preservation by pickling in critical regard is a poor substitute for lost freshness. Like Cubist painting, Green’s fiction is now more interesting than inspiring.
Like Cubist painting, Green’s fiction is now more interesting than inspiring.
The “new Mandarin” style, however, still reads well, because it was essentially a recuperative development, reconciling modernism with tradition. Anthony Powell’s great sequence A Dance to the Music of Time might conform to Iris Murdoch’s analysis in its “quasi-documentary” method and “‘characters in the nineteenth-century sense.” Tellingly, Powell’s protagonist, Nick Jenkins, fails as a film scriptwriter. Powell’s narrative builds not by cinematic flashes and the surrender to contemporaneity, but towards fixed tableaux, revelations of timelessness and folly.
The “Mandarin sensibility,” Connolly wrote, accumulates detail from a distance and caresses the language as it passes. Green had that sensibility, and he loved the styles of the epic Victorians Carlyle, Landor, and Doughty, but he stifled that passion with the journalistic and cinematic techniques of modernism—quick cutting, demotic speech, and shifting perspectives. He wanted to create “a gathering web of insinuations,” which is to say, an ornate stasis. The final novels, Nothing (1950) and Doting (1952), are written entirely in dialogue, but not much happens.
Green eventually mastered the motif of the dead pigeon, the forestalling of all communication and movement. Somehow, he had produced the negative image of the “rich and complex expression” of the Mandarin style: a rich and complex surface embroidery, whose “cardinal assumption,” like that of the old Mandarins, “is that neither the writer nor the reader is in a hurry.” The old Mandarins had a tendency to build “euphonious nothings” from their endless periods. The plural voices of Green’s dialogue harmonize into the euphonies of Nothing.
“As a rule,” Holmes observes in “The Red-Headed League,” “the more bizarre a thing is, the less mysterious it proves to be. It is your commonplace, featureless crimes which are really puzzling . . .” The innovation of Green’s fiction—the absorption of cinematic narrative into a complex linguistic surface—accompanied the cannibalization of fiction by the movie business, and the projection of simplified narratives and dialogue onto a flat screen. Fitzgerald, Faulkner, and Huxley were in Hollywood when Party Going came out. Huxley’s After Many a Summer (1939), about a William Randolph Hearst–like millionaire living in a Hearst-like castle, may well have inspired Welles to write Citizen Kane.
In 1962, less than five years after the publication of Flash and Filigree and his Paris Review interview of Henry Green, Terry Southern started work on the screenplay for Dr. Strangelove. One of the lucrative scripts that followed was to co-write with Christopher Isherwood an adaptation of The Loved One (1948), by way of Jessica Mitford’s The American Way of Death (1963). Waugh might have approved of the strapline on the poster—“The Motion Picture With Something To Offend Everyone!”—but the greater offense was to literature.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 36 Number 7, on page 15
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