‘And to continue the alimentary metaphor, I will summarise these few remarks by saying that if up until now we have looked at the text as a species of fruit with a kernel (an apricot, for example), the flesh being the form and the pit being the context, it would be better to see it as an onion, a construction of layers (or levels, or systems) whose body contains, finally, no heart, no kernel, no secret, no irreducible principle, nothing except the infinity of its own envelopes – which envelop nothing other than the unity of its own surfaces.’
—From Literary Style: A Symposium, “Style and Its Image”, Barthes
Like Barthes, Henry Green is a writer deeply reticent about the ‘kernel’ of meaning. However this is not because he believes (as Barthes does), that ‘subject is an illusory notion’ (Literary Style: A Symposium, “Style and Its Image”, Barthes, p.10), but because Green shies away from legislating for specific meaning and interpretation in his work. Rather than make the contents of his novels explicit, he wishes the reader to infer them; to prise them from the novel in an act of deductive linguistic unwrapping. In the process of becoming the detective – of making the inferences about motivation and psychology that explain the outward behaviour and speech of characters, the reader is forced into the sort of intimate inquiry with Green novels which makes the creative space they occupy, in many ways the reader’s own.
Green’s novels attempt to be non-representational and autonomous; they certainly do not provide a ‘commentary’ on the action. They are an appeal to the minds and feelings of the reader. As Green said: ‘if you want to create life the one way not to set about it is by explanation.’ (The English Novel of History and Society, Swindon, p.57). This might go some distance in explaining Green’s own feelings about the art of prose writing in a rare moment of ‘explanation’:
‘Prose is not to be read aloud but to oneself alone at night, and it is not quick as poetry but rather a gathering web of insinuations … Prose should be a long intimacy between strangers with no direct appeal to what both may have known. It should slowly appeal to feelings unexpressed, it should in the end draw tears out of the stone …’ (Introduction to Loving, Living, Party Going, Sebastian Faulks, p.14).
All these observations suggest a general desire to suppress the presence of the author in Green’s novels. This clandestine act is belied by the huge imbalance of dialogue to narration or descriptive passages in the novels. Given this attempt to efface the artist, the disinclination from traditional narrative and the attempt to project an ‘objective’ reality, it is ironic that Green has such a distinctive and ubiquitous prose style.
It is not only the arrangement of the prose itself which is distinctive, but its schematization – the patterns that Green enforces in his novels. Critics continually praise this abstruse and distinctive ‘style’ of Greens. As Swindon observes, ‘The novels are highly patterned artefacts, aspiring to an aesthetic abstraction which might have been appreciated by Flaubert in the nineteenth century, and might make some appeal to experimental novelists of the nouveau romanpersuasion today.’ (The English Novel of History and Society, Swindon, p. 58). The purpose of this essay will be to establish the connection between these two ostensibly polarized aspects of Green’s art – the hard and disjunct rind of his prose and his grander, humanist vision.
One of the most obvious characteristics of Green’s prose style is omission. We see this clearly in his debut novel Living:
‘Bridesley, Birmingham. / Two o’clock. Thousands came back from dinner along streets … Noise of lathes working began again in this factory. Hundreds went along road outside, men and girls. Some turned in to Dupret factory.’
In this case we can see that the articles of speech that Green tends to leave out are definite and indefinite articles. Sometimes he substitutes them for demonstrative adjectives (‘Noise of the lathes working began again in this factory.’) Often a verb is omitted from short ‘sentences’ establishing place and date, (‘Bridesley, Birmingham’). Pronouns are also omitted and (in the case of Loving), full stops, “What two?’ Edith said her back to the darkness And answered herself.’
Other quirks or idiosyncrasies include the substitution of verbs in the past tense for the present participle, and a general flippancy with conjunctions. While Green may have sacrificed something of the ‘music’ of his prose* depriving it of the expected inflections and cadences of human speech, he has arguably gained a victory for the unmouthed visual consciousness of the reader. Indeed, the cognitive and psychological implications of Green’s prose style might be of interest to scientists, in terms of what it tells us about how we read. But from a literary critical point of view, we can see that these omissions serve an ideological purpose. Indeed, almost all that can be said about Green is contained within the grammar of his average sentence – his distortions and omissions are bathetic and anti-climatic. They prevent the reader from tying all the heterogeneous objects before them together into one uniform narrative, but they also sharpen and focus the mind of the reader, illuminating the sentence with an enforced attention and alertness.
Green’s prose style is arguably cleaner for his shearing-off of unnecessary words. He leaves us with the minimum needed to create atmosphere and imagery. Each word is crisp and well-defined. If Coleridge was right when he defined prose as ‘words in their best order’ and poetry as ‘the best words in the best order’ (What is Literary Language? Jeremy Tambling, p.9, Quoting from Table-talk 1827) then Green’s prose style is successful on both fronts. It is as faceted as a diamond.
I do not use this simile by chance. Lapidary metaphors dominate discussion of his prose aesthetic. Hence Burgess, in a review of Green’s novels, declares that they ‘remain solid and glittering as gems’ (Living, Loving, Party Going, Green, Vintage ed.) Indeed, even within the novels jewels and crystals are important symbols. This is epitomised by the grandeur of the chandelier. This household object held a particular fascination for Green. In Loving Edith and Katy waltz together in the desolate castle:
‘Above from a rather low ceiling five great chandelier swept one after the other almost to the waved parquet floor reflecting in their hundred thousand drops the single sparkle of distant day, again and again, red velvet panelled walls, and two girls, minute in purple, dancing multiplies to eternity in these trembling pears of glass.’
Similarly in Living, the chandelier provides the trigger for an epiphanical episode in the story, as the younger Mr Dupret descends down the stairs. Occurring at particularly poignant moments in the novels, and always sonorously described, perhaps the chandelier could be a Greenian symbol for prose not unlike the symbols for prose that Pauling identifies Hazlitt using in his journalism. The conjunction of light, music and resplendence inherent in the chandelier all strike me as features of Green’s prose style, as does the possibility for refraction and multiple mirrored perspectives.
One of the consequences of Green’s irreverent treatment of grammar is the sort of readerly dislocation which prompts us to be more careful and ponderous in our analysis of his work, but it is also, as Swindon notes ‘as if the world has shifted a tiny degree on its axis and the novelist, having remained in his accustomed places, sees both less and more o it than novelists usually see.’ (The English Novel of History and Society, Swindon, p.61). Perhaps in some way Green’s heightened prose style reflects and accesses a deeper reality and perception of the world – one which excludes the artist. The illusion Green produces is that the phenomena has imprinted itself on the page without the normal readjustment or refining process of authorship, as if the words have jumped onto the page without the fastidious aid of the interloper-author.
However, another important implication of Green’s patchwork prose style is the sense of immediacy that it endows the novels with. We feel, like the actors in the drama, presented with a cacophony of untidy sense data. By disrupting the normal pattern of sentences Green disrupts the syntagmatic plane, the horizontal axis on which words relate to each and accrue meaning from the sequential position they occupy in the sentence. By disturbing this chronological and temporal structure we feel as though everything that occurs, occurs in the present. We can observe the effectiveness of syntactical manipulation, for example, in the passage from Loving in which Albert plays blind man’s bluff:
‘He drew and drew again cautious as if he might be after a deep draught of her, of her skin, of herself. He was puffed already when his arms went out to go round and round and round her. But she was not there and for answer he had a storm of giggles which he could not tell one from the other …’
In these sentences which flow one after another, where words follow on the heels of their neighbours, we sense the fear, the anticipation and the excitement of Albert while he searches for Edith. We sense his erotic yearning and his complete alertness to her presence. Like Albert we are plunged into and enthralled with, the moment.
Green’s hyper-sensitivity to the realistic portrayal of the ‘moment’ as it passes is reflected in his syntax. He protracts of contracts a sentence to act as a visual guide to the emotions. Thus we follow the glance of the love-stricken Charley Raunce when he looks at Edith, ‘Her eyes left his face and with what seemed a quadrupling in depth came following his to rest on those rectangles of warmth alive like blood. From its peat light her great eyes became invested with rose incandescence that was soft and soft and soft.’ It is during hypnotic moments such as these, that the reader is able to follow Joyce’s ‘curve of emotion’. Sense and sentence cease to matter, it is the blush that we follow as Raunce does, the way that is spreads to her eyes, seamlessly like the words which follow each other, alive and in the order and moment that they are conceived. Thus despite initial difficulties with the prose style, the reader discovers that there is something in the bunched adjectives, nouns and verbs which is incredibly lucid. In order to present ‘reality’ as transparently and radiantly as he wishes, Green must pursue those tiny epiphanies which illuminate the banal in a way which is faithful to their true form, barely glimpsed but felt words and impressions that are not arranged linearly but as a throbbing, liquid, whole.
Another key characteristic of Green’s writing is the polarity between two different registers: the practical and the poetic. The characters’ voices and dialogue is the method by which Green reveals their personalities to us, but their dialogue isn’t always ‘revealing’ – it is often trivial and banal. Episodes such as the ‘Embassy Richard’ story – maddeningly insignificant – resurface time and again in Party Time. The engineer’s chagrin about working conditions and unemployment is another refrain. A contrast, then, is established between the reported speech that we associate with the servants and engineers or even with the distinguished ‘party’ at Victoria station, (mundane in the extreme), and the more elevated diction of the lyrical passages which punctuate this unremarkable dialogue.
It is in the uncommon but memorable passages in which the narrator attempts to “explain” the phenomena before him, or fix it with poetic resonances, that Green’s prose is emboldened with an unforeseen sensuality and light. Such passages have a sort of mesmeric, cinematic intensity, as when, for example, in Loving, Green describes ‘Kate and Edith in long purple uniforms bow swaying towards them in soft sunlight through the white budding branches, fingers over lips’, or in Living when Lily Gates is pictured doing the washing-up:
‘She swilled water over the plates and electric light caught in shining waves of water which rushed off plates as she held them, and then light caught on wet plates in moons … so beautiful she seemed.’
We are made to feel the voyeur more overtly in Party Time, while watching Amabel towelling herself down in a literal misé en abîme: ‘And Amabel was drying her toes on a towel. The walls were made of looking-glass, and were clouded over with steam; from them her body was reflected in a faint pink mass…’ These moments of deep eroticism and sensuality, that we can perhaps liken to moments in Keats’s poetry (for example The Eve of St. Agnes), are like great golden lamps which give life and fullness to the prose. They interject the more dreary and mundane events of narratives in the same way that the ‘face of beauty’ or the experience of love can seem to momentarily make the world new to us.
It is in this voice, the voice of the poet that Green must mark these epiphanies, but they are by no means restricted to sexual encounters. Everywhere in Green’s novels the mythic, the spiritual and the extraordinary beat down on us and the fête of everyday life. This passage for example, taken from Loving, describes a saddle room with the lampman Paddy asleep inside it:
‘Over a corn bin on which he had packed last autumn’s ferns lay Paddy snoring between the windows, a web string from one lock of hair back onto the sill above and which rose and fell as he breathed. Caught in the reflection of spring sunlight this cobweb looked to be made of gold as did those others which by working long minutes spiders had drawn from spar to spar of the firm bedding on which his head rested.'
Most readers would appreciate the still and ethereal atmosphere, the contrast it makes with the bustle of the castle and the more profound ideas it might provoke in the minds of the observers – Kate and Edith. But only really experienced readers in Green would be able to also see in this episode the first promising buds of love, given Kate’s tender and closely-observed description of Paddy. Indeed throughout the novels, the trivial events of daily life are made to contend with deeper and more oblique forces in the novels, strains of what Kermode identified as ‘myth’. It is for these potent idiomatic undercurrents that Green saves the svelte language of poetry.
As in Woolf’s work, death is a recurring motif in Green’s novels. The end of Loving strongly implies death and a phantom hovers over Raunce throughout his dialogue with Edith. Loving opens with the death of the original butler and within the course of the novel one character dies and another falls fatally ill. In Living, the elder Mr Dupret passes away and Craigan weakens. Finally of course, it is the great struggle (that Green pictures in epic terms), which Mrs Fellowes undergoes with death that proves such an effective foil to the petty goings-on in the drawing room:
‘As for Miss Fellowes, she was fighting. Lying inanimate where they had laid her she waged war with storms of darkness which rolled up over her in a series like tides summoned by a moon. What made her fight was the one thought that she must not be ill in front of these young people. She did not know how ill she was.”
As with death and other abstract and subtle themes which occasionally force an entrance into our lives, but for which the language of tangible objects is inappropriate, Green uses his upper register. In order to best convey the experience of these emotions and fears Green must fall back on rich use of imagery and idiom. Thus, in Party Going death is synonymous with tides and coastal landscapes, and in Living Hannah Glossop’s disappointment and loss in love is depicted through the image of an exotic island. Sometimes these metaphors do not have any obvious ‘vehicle’ or object, the range of their meaning is uncircumscribed. Bird imagery in particular springs to mind. In Loving the castle owns both a dovecot and innumerable peacocks. In Living sparrows circle inside the factory, though finally, it is the homing pigeon that dominates the novel. Lastly, is the dead pigeon which Miss Fellowes cares for and washes which so worries her niece.
There are objects in Living, in particular the missing ‘water glass’ and the sapphire cluster ring which assume diverse and unlimited connotations. This phenomena reaches a climax in Party Going with Julia’s pathological though irrational fear about the whereabouts of her lucky charms. As Holmesland elucidates:
‘Green’s metaphors evade symbolic signification, thereby denying the world logical intelligibility. However, they do create a third dimension of mystery and wonder which is absent in Robbe-Grillet’s work. Green’s impulse towards integrating man and universe through spiritual unification is what makes him an essentially Romantic writer.’
It is as if the texture of Green’s prose becomes an indicator for the two very different levels of human existence: the hum-drum and the ordinary, and then the life of the mind – of consciousness – which registers abstractly panic and fear and pleasure at the tragi-comic conditions of our everyday existences. It is on this plateau that death and love contend, and alternately chill and warm winds are blown into the life of the novels, reminding the characters of the frightening and obscure depths of life.
The Cinematic Style
Another recurrent formal technique which dominates Green’s prose style and particularly the arrangement of his prose is cinematography. As a frequent and enthusiastic cinema-goer, Green consciously or inadvertently lets this medium echo in his novels. Indeed perhaps the very vividness of some of his constructions, and the opticality of his writing style is indebted to this curious cross-pollination between writing and film. Green’s tendency to let the characters speak for themselves may also have been inherited from film; Robert Richardson comments that poetry:
‘has tended rather strongly towards the abstract and the philosophical. But the film, though it shares some of the ideas o and some of the techniques of modern poetry, is not, as a medium, well adapted to expressing ideas of carrying on philosophical dialogue. Thus it has been virtually forced to embody its ideas in specific human figures.’ (A Critical Introduction to Henry Green’s Novels; Oddvar Holmesland, p. 225).
Whether or not Green’s method of characterization is indebted to film, it is clear than his mind aesthetically was highly influenced by a brand of photographic beauty. Indeed the memorable ‘stills’ that were discussed earlier, moments of poetic intensity, even rhapsody, seem all too easy to imagine on a screen. The image of Paddy O’Conner has the mesmeric power of a still, while the image of Edith and Kate swaying towards the camera through the white blossom has the sensitivity of an exquisite frame. The narrator, or the focus which tells us when and where to look does not see in the minds and hearts of it characters as a Dickens novel – the camera after all cannot do that, but it does provide us with unique angles and perspectives. It zooms and zaps around, moving agilely from the chink in the parlor wall through which Miss Burch watches her two undermaids, to the scene that she watches. Similarly it makes visual choices, like the camera, about how to group themes and motifs. Thus there are examples of the ‘match cut’ technique in which two ‘shots’ are joined by parallelisms. This occurs in Living when the narrator crosses between the actions of characters by making the innocuous connection of toes; he moves from Alex looking shamefully at his to Amabel gently caressing hers. There are frequent examples of ‘parallax’ where different perspectives are offered on the same object, such as the dramatic confrontation in Loving over the whereabouts of the sapphire ring. Match cuts and parallelisms, such as you might imagine in a film, used to elicit contrast are a trademark of Green’s style. Thus we often follow the fate of the simple Lilly Gates simultaneously with the wealthy and petulant Hannah Glossop, as the camera flicks between the two different women as they walk down a road. Hereby a link as well as a disjunction is suggested. These cutaway visions provide depth and contextual matter for the central frames or images. Green suggests that one person’s fate is never isolated from the fate of the communities, but that our lives are strongly affected by currents and people we can barely discern.
Lilly Gates is a regular visitor to the cinema and her outings there at night-time with Jim Dale or Jones are her only real break from the monotony of the housework. Though she often comments on the bands playing, she is not really focused on the screen. She is thinking about love. The success of Green’s novels is to put Lilly in the cinema, but for her not to be aware of it. One of the most cinematic of Green’s prose techniques is his tendency towards montage. The sense of his work as a sequence of shots edited to ensure the greatest possible impact seems apposite, and is an ideas that Holmesland echoes; ‘Green’s active, mimetic phrases have a kinetic impact’ (Ibid, p. 225). Just as with Green’s characters the most important agent in Green’s novels is the reader’s imagination. In the same way that the reader is asked to actively engage in the text, filling in omitted words, or drawing inferences about character, they are asked more broadly to unite and make uniform and cogent the ‘disconnected world of things’ that Green offers. Montage is crucial element of this pledge, it shores up fragments against each other suggesting parallelisms and divergences, as Holmesland elucidates ‘For both Robbe-Grillet and Green it is the imagination that invents meaning. Thus, there is no fundamental divergence in Robbe-Grillet’s and Green’s conceptions of the relation between montage and reality; fresh, unexpected, concrete juxtapositions violate conceptualization, creating reality anew through unprejudiced senses.’ (ibid). As with the disparity between the soaring birds and the mooted human characters or between the filthiness of the factories compared to the beauty of the natural world or between the serene Argus-like peacocks and their petty human keepers, montage is a suggestive but not dogmatic means of hinting towards other planes of reality. Richardson suggests that the montage trope accommodates the fusion of conflicting qualities: ‘One image plays against the next, the old can be pushed up against the new, the tender with the harsh, the lovely with the sordid … [to achieve] that overpowering sense of the disparity between what life has been or could be, and what it actually is.’ (Ibid, p. 226).
A Way of Seeing
‘What life has been or could be’ is the central concern of Living though it is a theme which re-emerges with every one of Green’s novels. Lilly Gates is a dreamer and is punished for her dream of elopement with ones when she returns home, defeated. It is Craigan, finally, who has the last word on dreams, “Nothin’ ever comes of dreams like them kind,” he said. “Nothing’ dain’t ever come of dreams, I could ‘ave told yer but that wouldn’t be of no use, you ‘ad to find out yourselves and so you ‘ave” he said.” Despite the pessimism and conservatism of this message, montage, and Green’s alertness to contrasting opposites is a way of suggesting hope and redemption. For his own use of montage is in itself instructive of a way of looking at the world which can transform the ordinary into the extraordinary. This is true of all Green’s stylistic endeavors, the high definition of his images, his verbal omissions and poetic register are all ways of suggesting the beauty, immanency and complexity of the present moment. They all suggest, even declare a certain “way of seeing”. It is in accessing the photographic nature of life and realizing the poetical potentialities of a situation, that we can learn to be happy with the roles that we play. Green’s writing is not only a vision but it recommends a vision, the difference (he suggests) between the ordinary and the sublime, is only a matter of perception.
*Music of his prose, as Swindon mourns, ‘What Green has produced is a language which has been deprived of the expected music of English speech rhythms and consequently drained of timbre, expressiveness and spoken density.’ (The English Novel of History and Society, Swindon, p.60)