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A daily record of what I'm thinking about what I'm reading

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Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Why the reverence for Henry Green?

I don't really get why John Updike and so many others worshiped at the altar of Henry Green - yes, his 1941 novel Loving, some consider it his best, is funny at times, spare, clean at least sentence by sentence if almost perversely opaque when it comes to trying to figure out the characters, and at the end there just isn't much to it: the chief butler and the sexy maid get together, he seems to be in really ill health, they decide to leave the servitude at the Castle altogether, forsaking a month's wages by not giving notice, and heading for England where they expect to find plenty of work, and even though we expect something dire may happen - between his ill health and the looming world war - Green blandly asserts that they got married and lived happily ever after. Good for them, but it's a triumph not exactly earned by the events of the novel. I give Green a lot of credit on two counts, however: he's one of the few novelists of his time who worked full-time running or working in some sort of business and wrote in his own time to save his soul - I know how hard that is to do, and I tip my imaginary hat. Second, he's one of the few to actually get down pretty accurately, I think, the language and manners of the working class - in this novel, specifically, the servant-class (though he wrote about the working class in Living, which I haven't read) - and without condescension or undue comparisons w/ their "masters" - the masters are peripheral figures, as are the children - and this novel examines the workings of the servants who actually run the household and who of course have a whole complex set of social interactions completely unnoticed, generally, by their employers. I think that's the best we could hope for among British writers of his time, 100 percent of whom, I'm pretty sure, were public school Oxbridgians. It took another generation, at least, before the working classes could speak for themselves in British fiction (Dickens aside). I think the reverence for Green speaks in part to the attenuated state of British fiction circa 1940 - as far as I can see a really paltry selection of British writers then - before the emergence of so many women writers and the arrival of great writers such as Naipual and Rushdie from the "colonies."

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