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.


Heather said...

I was so impressed when I saw you were reading Henry Green, because he'd always been on my list, yet I'd never quite managed to stoke the motivation high enough to actually pick him up. The books do sound like a lot of tea and minor-key disappointments and biscuits with intermittent weather. Maybe the high praise comes from it being something of an achievement to actually make something novelish out of those elements -- has to be a high-wire act in itself. At any rate, I'll skip Henry Green. Thanks for saving me a few extra hours of free time. I'll employ them toward Roberto Bolano's "The Savage Detectives," where I have been enjoying personality, transmutation, larger than life characters, and, even, a duel with swords on a beach.

Greg said...

I have to agree with everything you write. It's been a while since I read Loving, but what little impression remains (not a good sign that it left so little) is how flat, mundane and trivial it felt. Certain kinds of visual art have the luxury of "merely observing" (or pretending to do so) and still having an impact, because there is visceral interest. Writing, which is already figurative by its very nature, can't afford the same.

Grant Faulkner said...

Greg, you put this perfectly. You said in 50 words what it took me several hundred to express. Thanks for your comment.

SocrMom78 said...

I have to honestly say when I read the back of the book that I was excited to crack open "Loving". "The Remains of the Day" is one of my all-time favorite books, and I think I was hoping for "Loving" to go along those lines more than it did. I remember closing the book when I finished it (and I had to start the book over three times because I couldn't get into it) wondering why everyone thinks this book is so great. It was pretty mediocre for me. And yes, I am a soccer mom running my kid to practices, but I like to think I gave it a fair shake. :) Thanks for your review.

astrodreamer said...

I'm not one to like a book because critics say I should. In fact, I dislike Hemingway, and Remains of the Day. But I loved "Loving" -- just read it and had to see what other people are thinking. It took a little while (a few attempts, actually) to get into the rhythm of the dialogue (and the dialect) but found it full of delicious subtleties of style and observation. More downstairs than upstairs, it is much more true and touching than Upstairs Downstairs, or Downton Abbey. But the message clear as a bell is that the downstairs people are more real, more interesting and beautiful. Maybe we wait for some interest in the upstairs & are surprised to find they are simply brushed off as contemptibly spoiled & worthless. Updike mentions that Green is actually hard to read . . often paragraphs must be reread or read aloud to follow his really beautiful syntax. I laughed aloud several times in the last few chapters. But I'm fond of the period in general. I'm not saying he's the greatest, but would recommend this one and just started "Back" his next book.