Like Charles Lamb trying all his life to like Scotsmen, for forty years I wanted to enjoy the nine novels of Henry Green. They have such beguiling one-word titles – Loving, Living, Doting, Concluding. They look so tasty on other people’s shelves. They start so well: ‘A country bus drew up below the church and a young man got out. This he had to do care fully, because he had a peg leg. The roadway was asphalted blue.’
Published between 1926 and 1952, they have had such passionate admirers – W. H. Auden, Terry Southern, Eudora Welty, Elizabeth Bowen – and since the author died in 1973 there have been omnibus editions, a uniform edition, a dozen critical studies, at least six Ph.D theses, a biography and a lively website.
But I read them with gathering impatience, gave up, tried another, gave up again. The novels easily seem precious, overblown, erratic and illogical. They take off at wilful tangents. The plots are sometimes nebulous; the stylistic trick in Living, of leaving out the definite article to tighten and pare the prose, soon becomes irritating. My own ungratified urge towards them, and their muffled but persistent fame, were a mystery.
In 2000 Vintage republished Henry Green’s memoir Pack My Bag, begun in 1938 and published in 1940, when he was 35. He had already produced Blindness, begun at Eton and published in his second year at Oxford, and two other novels. Green believed he would not survive the war everyone knew was coming. He felt compelled to look into the past and name what was there before war swept him and everything else away. Not much of Green’s fiction is in print at present, but suddenly, demurely, this wonderful little work appeared, and the mystery was solved.
Henry Green was the pseudonym of Henry Yorke, son of a rich industrialist. He grew up on a large Gloucestershire estate, where his mother, a daughter of Petworth, required the gardener to bowl
mangel-wurzels for he
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