Sunday, June 22, 2008

Henry Green: Loving

It’s always fascinating to read a book and be completely at odds with other major critics. The questions span from “Am I simply the wrong reader for this book?” to “Do I have too many kids and soccer games going on to thoughtfully assess this book?” to “Did this critic have too many damn kids and activities to decently evaluate the book?”

The problem with the last question is that the answer is frequently, if not always, “no,” because critics tend to be selfish sods who expect others to take care of their kids so that they have the presence of mind for high-falutin’ thoughts.

At least I take care of my kids. Or fail trying. Or at least that’s what I think.

But…to cut to the chase, here’s the critical rub on Henry Green, who I’ve been reading praise about since I first put on Winnie the Pooh flannel jammies, or soon afterward (to be truthful, perhaps soon after I bought my first—and only—Styx t-shirt).

Elizabeth Bowen* said that Henry Green’s novels “reproduce, as few English novels do, the actual sensations of living.”

W.H. Auden once called him the finest living English novelist.

Francine Prose put Loving on her list of “Books to Be Read Immediately.”

John Updike praises Green for “this surrender of self, this submersion of opinions and personality in the intensity of witnessing ‘life itself.’”

It’s this consistent emphasis on “reproduction” and “objectivity” that troubles me. Green is too frequently a stenographer when I want him to be an author (please, what’s wrong with just a little personality?).

Sure the dialogue is, well, realistic, true to life, etc., but it doesn’t hold nearly the same subtext as, say, Hemingway, who also privileged the author as an objective witness. In fact, the reason Hemingway reads better than Green, and is more illuminating, is because he never truly dared to actually surrender himself (thank God!), but only claimed to.

Henry Green said that he aimed to “create ‘life’ which does not eat, procreate, or drink, but which can live in people who are alive.”

I could have used a bit more procreating (there was a fair amount of eating)….

Updike’s praises Green as a “saint of the mundane,” which is entirely accurate: Green bathes in the mundane, breathes the mundane, eats the mundane—and, hell, procreates in the mundane. In fact, my reading experience was so mundane that I kept getting distracted by the dishes, the laundry, and the bills, but not by any of the big life questions and thoughts I like to read for.

Updike writes that Green’s “observations of the world appear as devoid of prejudice and preconception as a child’s.” I only wish he could have presented a scene from a child’s point of view, with the jarring perspective that children so often provide simply because they are not “saints of mundane,” but steeped in the kind of authorial personality that continually demands interpretation and reinterpretation.

I do agree with one of Updike’s comments. He calls Green’s novels “photographs of a vanished England,” which is my overwhelming response to Loving. I felt as if I were walking through an odd sort of literary museum, observing some of the interesting details of class differences in England, eavesdropping, but never quite experiencing the high points of dramatic intrigue, a story that is shaped with a point of view—the fundamental characteristics of a meaningful narrative.

I’m sure that Green’s novels served a more forceful and urgent purpose in the era he wrote them (from approximately 1920 to 1950), and he’s a capable author in certain ways. He does create a polyphony of voices in the novel, so that life sounds like a hammering dialogue of competing needs. He’s just not the stylist I desire—or more accurately, he doesn’t convey the necessary transmutation that defines art. I don’t want novelists to just be witnesses, after all—the idea of aspiring to pure and faithful mimesis in a literal sense was essentially exhausted by Zola. Novelists need personality because they need a point of view.

But then again, perhaps I am simply the wrong reader for Henry Green. Or I was too distracted by things like school auctions to give him his proper due.

*The great thing I discovered about Elizabeth Bowen is that she’s on MySpace, despite being dead, and that she’s “in my extended network,” which means that I’m not too far removed from her good friends Proust and Vita Sackville-West. Jeepers, I feel special—and so early 20th century, my favorite era.