There is really no appropriate way to write about a novel by Henry Green. His novels require no interpretation; they mean what they say. Reading them, you want to borrow unlikely critical terms—Roland Barthes’s “neutral,” maybe, or Clement Greenberg’s “flatness”—or describe him the way John Cage described Stravinsky, the composer he loved for having no ideas to express: “It is seeing life close and loving it so. There are no whirring magical mystifications. It is all clear and precisely a dance.” In the same way, Green himself once wrote that “literature is not a subject to write essays about,” and of course he is right, in the way that nature is not a subject to write essays about, either. It needs no decoration. Everything is there, on the surface.
But this neutral clarity and flatness is also an elaborate illusion. Flatness is an effect. And so it is not without its complications. For Green’s novels are not just unusual for their attention to the literal; they are also unusual for their difficulty. The reader of Living, for instance, may well feel disconcerted by its opening pages, as if they have stumbled into a conversation between friends: There are at once too many names and not enough. A literal surface, it turns out, is almost incomprehensible. In one of his notebooks, Green once copied out this observation from Henry James’s preface to What Maisie Knew: “the muddled state too is one of the very sharpest of the realities.” That oxymoronic state, the sharp muddle, is Green’s territory. And while, sure, it resists interpretation, it is also so beguilingly strange that it does invite some kind of wary analysis: not meaning, maybe, but at least a genealogy.
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One way of thinking about Green is to consider what an anomaly he represents in literary history. To be an aristocrat novelist is strange enough. That this aristocrat novelist was the last British modernist—well, this is super-crazy. And also, he was a prodigy.
Green grew up in the atmosphere of absolute nobility. His mother, Maud Wyndham, was the daughter of the second Baron Leconfield—who owned Petworth House, one of the grandest houses in Britain. His first novel, Blindness, was published in 1926, when he was only 21. In the same year he left Oxford, where he was studying English literature, and began a drifting novel called Mood, which he never finished. Meanwhile, he served an apprenticeship on the shop floor of his family’s Birmingham factory, working eight and a half hours a day and living in workmen’s lodgings. He finished Living, his second novel, in 1928. He was just 23. The novel appeared a year later, in the early summer of 1929—and in July he married Adelaide Mary Biddulph, the eldest daughter of the second Baron Biddulph.
He was an aristocrat who had married another aristocrat—and had also written one of the most radical novels of his era. It was Evelyn Waugh who most quickly identified what Green had done. Writing in Vogue, Waugh observed that it was the book which, “if properly read, is likely to have the most influence on the author’s contemporaries.” A year later, this time in The Graphic, Waugh wrote a second, even more insistent piece: