Alan Hollinghurst on Henry Green (and Evelyn Waugh)

Novelist Alan Hollinghurst has reviewed several of Henry Green’s novels (the first six, I believe) in New York Review of Books. This is in connection with the republication of Green’s books by the NYRB’s book subsidiary. In addition to the first six, two more will be released later this year (Nothing and Doting) leaving only Concluding and his autobiography Pack My Bag (which are being republished separately by New Directions) to complete the set.

Hollinghurst notes that Waugh and Green were friends at Oxford and that Waugh was an early booster of Green’s work with his review of Living (1929) in The Graphic. See earlier post. He compares Green’s work with his those of his Oxford friends Waugh and Anthony Powell, who would

make their names as novelists of raffishly upper-class life, their social experience broadened in their thirties by their experience in the army. Green was quite different, in part because of what he did next.

That was to work in his father’s factory after Oxford, eventually becoming managing director, and to serve in the Auxiliary Fire Service in London during the war.

Most of Hollinghurst’s review is devoted to Green’s three novels written during and about WWII: Caught, Loving and Back. These are not technically a trilogy because they have different characters and the plots are unconnected except by their settings (wartime England and Ireland). Most of his discussion of Caught relates to the new version in which it is printed for the first time. Green was required by his publisher to make several substantive changes in the original. Loving (1945) is contrasted with Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited; they were written about the same time and both stories are set in country houses. But Green’s novel is “downstairs-upstairs…the wealth of his interest lies with the servants.” Their world is threatened just as was that of the Flytes in Waugh’s novel but for different reasons. Waugh thought the book “obscene”, even though he earlier told Green that “I never tire of hearing you talk about women.” Hollinghurst refers to this and concludes the discussion of that book: “…a delicate mix of fondness and farce … quite unlike the heady nostalgia of Brideshead.” Back (1946) is about the return of an injured soldier. Waugh wrote Green a letter (14 November 1946) that is effectively a review of the book, also quoted by Hollinghurst. There were bits he liked and others he thought did not work. That is his last published letter to Green. Hollinghurst does not mention that, in his subsequent correspondence with others, Waugh described Green’s later books (e.g., Nothing) as evidence of Green’s decline into madness.

Hollinghurst concludes with a discussion of the writers whose work influenced Green, most prominently Ronald Firbank whose importance as an innovator is credited by Hollinghurst with having been discovered by Waugh in a 1929 essay–the same year Waugh wrote his review in praise of Living. Both Green and Firbank are now largely forgotten as modernist innovators and have also suffered from unavailability of their works. In Green’s case, Hollinghurst believes this neglect will be overcome by the NYRB’s republication of his books.

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