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Will the Real Mr. Green Please Stand Up?

ROMANCING The Life and Work of Henry Green by Jeremy Treglown; Random House: 332 pp., $26.95

CONCLUDING By Henry Green; Dalkey Archive: 214 pp., $11.95 paper

NOTHING By Henry Green; Dalkey Archive: 204 pp., $11.95 paper

SURVIVING The Uncollected Writings of Henry Green; Edited by Matthew Yorke; Viking: 302 pp., out of print

PACK MY BAG A Self-Portrait By Henry Green Introduction by Sebastian Yorke; New Directions: 242 pp., $18.95

April 29, 2001|MERLE RUBIN | Merle Rubin is a contributing writer to Book Review

Anyone who has ever distrusted the judgment of book reviewers will be intrigued by the story of one Richard Church, a British poet and novelist who wrote two reviews of the same book, giving opposite verdicts. In one journal, he "strongly recommended" the book and the author's previous works for their courage, originality and honesty. Two weeks later, reviewing the book for another journal, he berated the author for "infantilism." Asked to explain himself, Church claimed that both responses had been genuine: "I liked it and I didn't like it, and I had to say so."

The book in question was "Pack My Bag," a kind of premature autobiography by then-35-year-old Henry Green, who at the time (1940) had published only three novels--'Blindness" (1926), "Living" (1929) and "Party Going" (1939)--but who was strongly (and, as it turned out, wrongly) convinced that he would not survive World War II. Green did service as a firefighter during the Blitz and lived another 33 years, producing six more novels: "Caught" (1943), "Loving" (1945), "Back" (1946), "Concluding" (1948), "Nothing" (1950) and "Doting" (1952). His terse titles suggest a writer at once modestly self-effacing yet stylishly distinctive. Green's work generally received very favorable reviews from the critics, though there were always dissenting voices as well. Most important, perhaps, the readers who seemed most to appreciate his work were other writers.

'[A] novelist of such rarity, such marvellous originality, intuition, sensuality and finish, that every fragment of his work is precious..." John Updike declared in his introduction to "Surviving," edited by Green's grandson, Matthew Yorke. "[T]he most interesting and vital imagination in English fiction in our time," thought Eudora Welty. "[T]he best writer of his time," concurred Rebecca West. Other fans included Anthony Burgess, Nathalie Sarraute, Terry Southern and W.H. Auden, certainly a diverse and distinguished crew. Yet of his immediate contemporaries Evelyn Waugh, Anthony Powell, Graham Greene and George Orwell, Green is still the least well known.

A shy, elusive English aristocrat who shunned publicity, Henry Green wrote under a pseudonym; his real name was Henry Yorke. In some respects, he led a double life. He published his first novel, "Blindness," while a student at Oxford. An imaginative story about a young man who loses his eyesight, it was an impressive debut. After leaving Oxford without a degree, he went to work, first in the factory, eventually as managing director, of his father's firm, Pontifex, which manufactured equipment for breweries and bathrooms. At the same time, he continued writing, publishing under the pseudonym in deference to his parents' dislike of publicity. Amusingly, his Oxford contemporary, the aesthete Harold Acton, pointed out one possible reason for his continuing low profile: "There are Greens of so many shades writing novels nowadays that one wishes he had selected another colour." But self-effacement was not only part of Green's makeup, it was central to his artistic strategy. If a single thread runs through all nine of his otherwise dissimilar novels, it is the author's desire to remove or conceal himself, so as not to come between the reader and the novel.

In his early writings, Green often left out articles like "the" and "a," as in this passage from "Living': "Two o'clock. Thousands came back from dinner along streets .... Thousands came back to factories they worked in from their dinners .... Hundreds went along road outside, men and girls. Some turned in to Dupret factory." In his final two novels, "Nothing" and "Doting," the stories are told almost entirely through dialogue, with almost no interposing narrative voice. "I think nothing of 'Nothing,"' sniffed Waugh, who had been an admirer of much of Green's earlier work. One can't help suspecting in this case, however, that the author of "Vile Bodies" might have been envious of how deftly, subtly and brilliantly "Nothing" skewers the vanity of aging "Bright Young Things" unwilling to cede the spotlight to their now-grownup children.

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