Henry Green was born in 1905, to an aristocratic family in Gloucestershire, and published his first novel, Blindness, in 1926, while he was at Eton College. Green's second novel, Living (1929), was based on his working-class experiences in his family's factory in Birmingham, making brewery equipment and plumbing fixtures.
Henry Reed devoted a short section of his summation of wartime fiction, The Novel Since 1939 (1946), to Green, and says, "Each of Green's books sets him a new problem in literary manners; each of them is novel and fresh, and one is always set guessing at the announcement of a new one." Loving (1945) was Green's fifth and most popular novel, and as recently as 2005 was chosen for Time magazine's list of All-Time 100 Novels.
This review is from The New Statesman & Nation for May 5, 1945, and the text makes up the bulk of Green's portion from The Novel Since 1939.
Loving. By Henry Green. Hogarth Press. 8s. 6d.
The Light in the Dust. By Willy Goldman. Grey Walls Press. 7s. 6d.
The Royal Game. By Stefan Zweig. Cassell. 7s. 6d.
Mr. Green's new novel begins "Once upon a day," and ends "happily ever after." Those are the phrases he uses. It is not, however, a fairy-story that he puts between them, even though there is a runaway marriage in the last sentence but one. It is not even a romantic world that he draws. His book is about loving: not love, not a simple noun, but a continuous, rather nagging present participle, or more probably a gerund. In Mr. Green's book this activity is carried on largely below stairs, and for one brief explosive scene above them, in a great castle in Ireland, where a rich widow, Mrs. Tennant, lives with her daughter-in-law, "Mrs. Jack," and her grandchildren; they are cared for by servants to the number of eleven. If is a world which existed four years ago, but which one now, rightly or wrongly, thinks of as nearing its vanishing-point. If one gets this impression from Mr. Green's book, it is not because Mr. Green forces it upon one; but the idea of an evanescent world seems implicitly stressed by the elopement of Raunce the butler and Edith the housemaid, who go away in the end, partly for the "lovely money" to be earned in England, but mainly because the castle will no longer contain their emotions.
A third of the way through the story, and superbly placed, occurs the incident which provides its core. Edith, herself in a state of unexpressed and unfulfilled loving, and with three people in a state of loving her, goes into Mrs. Jack's bedroom one morning and draws the curtains. The daylight illumines the bed, in which Mrs. Jack is discovered, nude, and with a lover. Edith almost faints, but manages to withdraw into the passage and to shut the door; outside it she meets Miss Burch, the head housemaid, and with difficulty explains what has happened
"In there," Edith added. She seemed at her last gasp.
"In where?" Miss Burch asked grim.
For two moments Edith struggled to get breath.
"A man," she said at last.
"God save us, a man," Miss Burch muttered, knocked and went straight through, shutting the door after. Edith leant against the table, the one that had naked cupids inlaid with precious woods on its top. She bent her head. She seemed afraid she might be sick. But when Miss Burch came out again as she did at once, Edith drew herself straight to hear the verdict.
"'E's puttin' 'is shirt on," was all Miss Burch said, shocked into dropping her aitches. Then she added as though truly broken-hearted,
"Come on away, my girl. Let 'im get off h'out."
It is round this bedroom scene that the book, at once comic and pathetic, revolves. In despondency and amazement, the scene is spoken of, retold, doubted, asserted, imagined, and talked, talked, talked about. It is the point on which are centred all the emotions of Edith and of the others who are loving her. But it is a point they never reach. This central incident has its parallel in Mr. Green's last novel, Caught, where the brief abduction of the child by a mad woman had the same importance. Caught was a more serious book than Loving is; but the new novel is more tightly and more successfully knit, and its characters are more brilliantly interwoven with one another. An emotional Black Hole of Calcutta is the theme of both books. The Black Hole of Calcutta is, we have sometimes been told, an imaginative exaggeration of some lesser evil that happened; and perhaps it never did happen. And perhaps no atmospheres in life are quite so concentrated as those of Mr. Green's Auxiliary Fire Service during its waiting period, and of his Irish castle during another waiting period; but a book demands such a concentration, and Loving achieves its necessary unity of atmosphere more certainly than the earlier novel did. The studied casualness with which Pye's suicide was told in Caught struck one as a mannerism, and one observed it as such at once. There is greater subtlety in Loving. It is not, for example, till after one realises precisely how some of the novel's furnishings have contributed to its total effect: the lifeless castle, the unromantic doves and peacocks, the vanishing ringall of them the purposeful inverse of fairy-story magic.
The story is largely a series of dialogues, and this sets Mr. Green a particular problem: what is to be done with the surrounding narrative? The dialogue is mainly between servants, and the servants' world is always present, even in the few scenes above stairs. Mr. Green appears to have chosen to let the idiom of his human figures slip beyond the figures' outlines and mildly to invade the landscape and the furniture: as in painting, this is not a flaw, but a charm and an assurance. Everything in the book seems done reflectively and deliberately; and what in the first pagesas, doubtless, in the passage quoted abovecannot seem other than affectation, soon seems a necessity. There is no deviation into preciosity: Mr. Green avails himself of whatever vocabulary he needs. The style of the book has the effort of keeping one wholly alert. It is a most satisfying novel.
Perhaps to disguise a self-pity which would otherwise seem too gross to read about, Mr. Willy Goldman in his new book has adopted an old-fashioned framework. He presents his story in the form of a diary of a dead friend. It is principally about the horrible situation of a slum-born writer, about the shifts to which he has to put himself in order to write, and about the perversion of character which these produce. All this Mr. Goldman describes very well, and at its best The Light in the Dust recalls his powerful earlier book East End My Cradle. But Mr. Goldman seems at no point to realise how despicable his young author finally becomes. The book concerns first the young man in his working-class surroundings and later his contacts with a publisher and with two middle-class women. The publisher, drawn satirically, is brilliantly done, as is most of the first half of the book; but the women enlist our sympathy where they are apparently not intended to. Julia in particular does not seem to be the "psychologically uncompromising capitalist" in personal relationships that she is meant to be. And the hero himself would take some beating in his talent for exploitation; though the author appears unaware of this.
Mr. Goldman frequently writes with extraordinary ability, and clearly has all the gifts necessary for writing a first-class book; but he will not write it until the "strong personal quality," rightly remarked on by the blurb, has modified itself. He has had forced upon him by circumstances many horrors which most writers are fortunate enough to escape; they provide him with unquestionably important material; but it is doubtful if any novelist can survive so complete a lack of generosity towards other people as Mr. Goldman evinces.
The Royal Game is a long short-story about a chess-game; it is published together with two other novellen, one called Letter from an Unknown Woman, which employs the old-fangled device of the traveler's tale. All three stories are efficiently executed, and all three are super-charged with a deliberately calculated, artificial, nauseating emotionalism. Zweig was an inventive writer, but rarely can inventions have had so little significance; one wonders if even their author was taken in by them.Henry Reed