Evelyn Waugh, Henry Green and Living

Novelist Adam Thirlwell has written an article in The Nation on Henry Green’s early novel Living (1929), citing, inter alia, the importance of Evelyn Waugh to the novel’s success:

[Green] had written one of the most radical novels of his era. It was Evelyn Waugh who most quickly identified what Green had done. Writing in Vogue [4 Sept 1929], Waugh observed that it was the book which, “if properly read, is likely to have the most influence on the author’s contemporaries.” A year later, this time in The Graphic, Waugh wrote a second, even more insistent piece:

“Technically, Living is without exception the most interesting book I have read…. The effects which Mr Green wishes to make and the information he wishes to give are so accurately and subtly conceived that it becomes necessary to take language one step further than its grammatical limits allow.”

It was a novel, in Waugh’s argument, that had inherited the lessons of early modernism. According to these lessons, in giving form to the disregarded everyday, a novel must dislocate language into meaning, with the same kind of attention to sentence effects more usually found in poetry:

“Modern novelists taught by Mr James Joyce are at last realising the importance of re-echoing and remodifying the same themes…. I see in Living very much the same technical apparatus at work as in many of Mr T.S. Eliot’s poems—particularly in the narrative passages of The Waste Land and the two Fragments of an Agon.”

Mr. Joyce and Mr. Eliot! It should have been Green’s era—this modernist prodigy. But he did not publish another novel for a decade—Party Going, which came out in 1939. Instead, it became the era of Evelyn Waugh—whose early novels, like Vile Bodies and A Handful of Dust, avidly ingested Green’s inventions in the art of surface.

After having opened his essay with the sentence: “There is really no appropriate way to write about a novel by Henry Green,” Thirlwell goes on to do just that over several pages. Among the addtional points he makes is another implicating Waugh:

Waugh had been … accurate in his mention of Joyce. Green’s subject wasn’t only working-class life but the universal, unavoidable minuteness of living. (“I did not read Ulysses until Living was finished,” Green claimed, but I find this simply unbelievable.)

Another, longer essay by Sarah Nicole Prickett considers Green’s entire career. This is entitled “Ever Green” and appears in the current issue of Bookforum. At one juncture, she makes one of the same points as Thirlwell quoted above:

Trends and even movements disagreed with [Green], as did adherence to forms. By the end of the Jazz Age, when Waugh, Christopher Isherwood, and Anthony Powell were being feted for their own romans à clef, their friend Henry was peddling a novel about an iron foundry, that is to say Living, after which he took a decade to reappear with Party Going, a waiting-room comedy filled with the rich and indisposed, at just the time that blue-collar picaresques were the rage. 

These are the latest articles in support of a Henry Green revival. See earlier posts. Green’s books are being brought back into print by New York Review Books. Party Going is now available and Living will be released next month. Waugh’s quoted review of Living in The Graphic is available in both A Little Order and Essays, Articles and Reviews. Adam Thirlwell’s latest novel is entitled Lurid & Cute.

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