I was very happy when I saw Stu of Winston's Dad was hosting a Henry Green Week from Jan 23 to Jan 31, 2012 to encourage people to read and post on the work of Henry Green. I have read three novels of Henry Green, Loving, Living, and Party Going. Penguin Books has in a very generous gesture packaged all three of these books (average length about 175 pages) in one volume (also available as a Kindle edition).
I admit I had never even heard of him until Victoria Glendinning in her biography of Elizabeth Bowen mentioned that Green and Elizabeth Bowen were friends. Bowen is quoted as saying Green was one the very few English novelists who could reproduce the actual sensations of living people talking.
Henry Green (the pen name for Henry Yorke-1905 to 1973, UK) was born into real wealth. His father was a wealthy industrialist, land owner and was an intensely cultured man. John Updike in his brilliant introduction to Green works tells us that Green's father was an amateur connoisseur of country dialect. I could see this spilling over in the novels in Green's wonderful handling of the speech of Birmingham factory workers. I have said before that I do not like the use of country dialects in novels. Green is so good at this I loved it when he did it. Green was descended from barons on both parental sides. He grew up in and would always live in a great manors house. He was educated at Eaton and Oxford. Upon leaving Oxford (he never completed a degree) he of his own volition went to work on the floor of one of his father's factories. He would later become a manager but always worked for the family company. During WWII he was a volunteer fireman. He married a second cousin and had an odd but enduring marriage.
Back (you have to love the title's Green gave to his novels) centers on Charley Summers who spent four years in a German prisoner of war camp. He lost his leg to a German sniper. He was repatriated to England before the war was over in exchange for a German captive of the British who was also in need of medical care. When he returns he finds the woman he loved with all his heart, Rose, has died.
Back in terms of plot action is about Charley's issues in getting over the death of Rose, he does not, and in fitting into the austerity of WWII England. It is really hard for me to describe the brilliance and wonder of Back. It is about people trying to survive a war among other things. In one very hard breaking scene Charley goes to call on the parents of the woman he loved who had married someone else while he was gone. The parents of Rose had lost a son in the war and this seems to have nearly unhinged the mother. It was very real and very sad to see the father dealing with his wife when she thought Charley was perhaps their son returning from the war.
We feel for Charley as he somehow confuses Rose's half sister for Rose and I felt bad for him as he tried to cope with working as clerk in a government job. We hear very little of the years he spent in the German prison camp but it must some how overshadow all his other issues and make it hard for him to relate to those who have not had these experiences. He may be back physically but he will never really be back in spirit.
The prose of Henry Green is a great joy to read. I find I cannot describe or explain why I like it so much but I do. He is a real master at conversations. Charley cannot really express his emotions and maybe he is expressive of the muted character of the British Green's prose is probably not for everyone, it is odd. It needs to be read slowly and savored.
The ending which I will leave unspoiled is simply devastating. I admit I was shocked by it and find it hard to fully understand.
Green stopped writing novels and lived on for another twenty years. During this time he became very absorbed in study the Ottoman Empire and did some very serious drinking.
I suggest those new to Green start with Loving, which most consider his best work, or my personal favorite, Party Going. If you do not have access to a library which will have one of Green's books, the practical thing to do is to buy the three book collection which actually costs about the same as just Back does. I also have his novel based on his experiences as a volunteer fireman during WWII in London, Concluding and hope to read in in 2012 or maybe I will wait for Harry Green Week in 2013!
Please share your experience with Green with is and go to Winston's Dad for a lot more information and links to other posts on Green.