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You have to read Henry Green

Henry Green is renowned for being a “writer’s-writer’s writer” and a “neglected” author. The two, it would seem, go hand in hand, but neither are quite true. This list of reasons to read Henry Green sets out to loosen the inscrutability of the man and his work.

Born Henry Yorke, in 1905, Henry’s maternal grandfather – Baron Leconfield – was among the richest of the British aristocracy; however, although educated at Eton and Magdalen College, Oxford, Henry chooses to leave Oxford early, before graduating, in order to work in a Birmingham factory – later the subject matter of Living. The man and his writing resonate with similarly alluring, subtle paradoxes. He allows, for example, Cecil Beaton to take photographs of him, but only with his back turned. Whilst Rosamond Lehmann, in a list of aptly shape-shifting descriptors, saw him as “an eccentric, fire-fighting, efficient, pub-and-nightclub-haunting monk, voluble, frivolous, ironic, worldly, austerely vowed to the invisible cell he inhabited”. To get better acquainted yourself there’s only one thing to do: you have to read Henry Green. And, as you will find below, now is as good a time as any.

Be a Bright Young Thing.
Henry Yorke (pseudonym Henry Green) and his wife, Dig, were the exemplar IT couple of the 1920s and 30s. Nancy Mitford and Evelyn Waugh referred to them as the “Bright Young Yorkes” in their letters. They were indeed well connected – Dig’s friend, the Duchess of York (later Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother), became godmother to their son, Sebastian, in 1934. But to read Green’s novels of class, Living (1929) – “the best proletarian novel ever written” (Isherwood) – Party Going (1939) and Loving (1945), alongside Waugh’s evocations of class privilege in Vile Bodies (1930), A Handful of Dust (1934), and Brideshead Revisited (1945), is to enter a much more nuanced, unsentimental interwar landscape.

 Henry Green is, paradoxically, one of the most highly praised writers of the 20th century, whilst remaining one of the least read.

You’ll be in good company.
Henry Green is, paradoxically, one of the most highly praised writers of the 20th century, whilst remaining one of the least read. The list of writers praising his work is exhilaratingly extensive: T.S. Eliot singled out “the novels of Henry Green” as evidence that “creative advance in our age is in prose fiction”; John Updike speaks of aspiring to “Green’s tone, his touch of truth, his air of peddling nothing and knowing everything … for sheer transparence of eye and ear, he seems to me unmatched among living writers;” and Sebastian Faulks has a quotation from Green pinned above his writing desk as inspiration.

Other writers and contemporaries who have raved about Green’s prose include: John Ashbery, W.H. Auden, Elizabeth Bowen, A.S. Byatt, Christopher Isherwood, Frank Kermode, Rosamond Lehmann, David Lodge, Katherine Mansfield, Nancy Mitford, Lady Ottoline Morrell, Tim Parks, Anthony Powell, V.S. Pritchett, Evelyn Waugh, Eudora Welty, Angus Wilson, James Wood, and Virginia Woolf.

The prose is mesmerizing. Have a taste for yourself.

Non-Fiction:

“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 go. Prose should be a direct intimacy between strangers with no appeal to what both may have known. It should slowly appeal to fears unexpressed, it should in the end draw tears out of the stone.” Pack My Bag (1940)

Fiction:

“Jim Dale had bitterness inside him like girders and when Arthur began singing his music was like acid to that man and it was like that girder was being melted and bitterness and anger decrystallized, up rising in him till he was full and would have broken out.” Living (1929)

There’s no excuse. It’s all in print.
In the next few weeks, all the novels of Henry Green, from Blindness (1926) to Doting (1952), will be reprinted in the US by NYRB Classics. These editions are stunningly rendered, with fresh, exhilarating introductions to each work: Adam Thirlwell introduces Living (1929), James Wood Caught (1943), Roxana Robinson Loving (1945), and Deborah Eisenberg Back (1946).

In the UK, Caught (1943), Back (1946), and Concluding (1948) were published together by Penguin for the first time.

Read more on Green
This week’s New Yorker features an article entitled: “Doings and Undoings: How great was the novelist Henry Green.

Featured image credit: “Literature” by MabelAmber. CC0 Public Domain via Pixabay. 

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