Henry Green’s Dead White Goose

The New York Review of Books’ revival of the works of Henry Green is nearing its completion later this month. They will publish Nothing and Doting next week followed by the reissuance of Concluding by New Directions on 31 October. The introduction to the NYRB’s Doting is published in a recent issue of the The Paris Review. This is by Michael Gorra who teaches English at Smith College. He opens and closes his essay with consideration of the differences between Green’s works and those of his contemporaries Evelyn Waugh and Graham Greene:

Evelyn Waugh could push a joke to the outer edge of our ability to bear it, stopping just when laughter turns to tears, and he’s had his imitators for the better part of a century now. So has Graham Greene, who blanched despair into a weary disillusionment; the contemporary thriller is inconceivable without him. Each of them added to the novelist’s grab bag of tricks. Their contemporary Henry Green didn’t quite manage that.

What Green did manage according to Gorra was to write nine original and innovative novels, each different from the others, until he dried up (or rather was unable to dry out) in the 1950s. Gorra concludes his essay with this observation:

I began by invoking Evelyn Waugh and Graham Greene, contemporaries whose careers were in every objective sense more successful, and whose books remain far more readable. But are they as rereadable? When I go back to them now they rarely have anything new to say, nothing more than I saw at first; I turn their pages with pleasure and yet the pleasure is that of repetition, the resumption of the familiar. The menu never changes. Henry Green seems in contrast always different, and never what he was. The emphasis alters, and some parts of his work remain forever odd, anomalous and even disturbing. On Doting’s first page, he writes that Peter would “several weeks later … carry a white goose under one arm, its dead beak almost trailing the platform, to catch the last train back to yet another term.” That goose isn’t mentioned again. I don’t really want to know what the boy plans to do with it, or even how he got it, but I would like to know why Green put it there. I never will, and among the many reasons for reading this difficult genius is the way he keeps his secrets still.

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