POSTHUMOUS FAME has come to Henry Green. He would be unimpressed to know it. An English industrial magnate -- his true name was Henry Vincent Yorke -- he was a sparetime novelist who once compared the writing of books to the growing of fingernails, declaring himself as little proud of one excrescence as of the other. He was born in 1905, wrote nine novels and an autobiography, and died in 1973. During his lifetime, his work enjoyed only scattered critical acclaim and narrow popular acceptance.
But now we have changed, if not all of that, at least the first part of it. A. Green revival is underway. In 1978, Blindness was republished by Viking; three more novels -- Loving, Living, and Party Going -- shared a Penguin paperback. The latter volume carries an introduction, by John Updike, that sounds an oboe-pure note of praise, a pitch that has been widely taken up by reviewers.
Nevertheless, no matter how many critical paeans these novels elicit, and despite Green's undoubted brilliance, he may be too Olympian ever to attract many readers. For him a novel is not a story -- it is a situation. And it is not even a personal situation, but rather a social and societal one. Like God, he creates a world in which every fallen sparrow -- and every raised eyebrow -- counts, and must be scrupulously counted. He hovers above his assembled characters, sharing himself democratically among them, taking them up and putting them down, all in proper turn. Like God's world, Green's is all tireless function, as automatic as the pumping of blood, as aimless as the scaling away of skin.
Blindness, Green's first novel -- begun when he was a schoolboy at Eton -- deals, not unexpectedly, with parent-child relations and a youthful love affair. Only to a lesser extent, and less persuasively, does it try to show us what it is like for one of the characters -- a teenage boy -- to be blinded. This is clearly a work of inexperience, strained in ways that the other novels are not: for instance, the blinded boy is John, the girl he doesn't like is Jane, the girl he does like is Joan, and he prefers to call her June. Such dinning consonance, such innocent manipulation, oversteps bounds that the later novels know to observe.
More advanced in their craft, and at the same time more idiosyncratic, the later novels share with Blindness its concern with love and social class. Loving is a virtual day-book of flirtation, both above and below stairs, at a great English country house uneasily enisled in Ireland. Living, the best of these novels -- a Petri dish of humanity, potent with social comment -- is also the one most vividly set: a great manufacturing plant forms the backdrop. Here Green, omitting articles ("Joe Gates stood by tap in factory") and piling up epic similes, is at his most determinedly experimental. Party Going reports the chatting and courting of wealthy holiday-makers, stranded in a London hotel while their train is delayed by fog.
All four novels treat sections of English society, both internally and in their relations to other sections. To help him take such broad views -- rather than the deep view, into and through a single character, that fiction commonly prefers -- Green employs unusual narrative technique. He grants himself omniscience, dipping into minds as he pleases -- even into the mind of a rooster, once -- and sometimes, as in nearly the whole of Loving, elects to enter no minds at all. When he must tell us the thoughts of a character in Loving, he resorts to the device -- implausible even on stage, and in fiction astonishing -- of having the character speak aloud but -- as Green puts it -- "under his breath," so that the reader can hear him but the other characters cannot.
The titles of these novels are as stark and functional as labels, which suggests very well what the books are meant to be: meticulous studies of still life. In a sense that grows upon the reader, these are books in which nothing moves. This isn't to say that nothing happens; things do. But nothing happens -- or apparently can, as Green conceives fiction -- that is, in any final way, important.
These are oddly boneless novels, flat in profile, vagrant in order. Green's art is not that of the architect but that of the miniaturist. After a masterful stroke of characterization comes a superb exchange of dialouge. On the next page, in a single paragraph, a textbook on the psychology of love. No one could possibly do more than Green can do in a hundred words.
The problem is that these novels have no more satisfying design than a row of gems laid out for a mile along a highway. No figure is completed, no meaning is made to emerge. Green's method is cumulative rather than combinative. And because the novels refuse to be the product of their parts, they become less than the sum. Tedium sets in. The sense that nothing effective is happening, or can be permitted to happen, grows oppressive.
In his introduction to the Penguin volume, Updike calls Green "a saint of the mundane," likening his artistic faith to the "great dogmatics" of religion. This expresses happily Green's conviction and consistency. But like dogmatists and saints generally, he suffers for his devotion: he keeps himself pure, but at the cost of estranging himself from us.
"Surely simply everything has supreme importance, if it happens." The quote, which appears in the introduction, is from Green's last novel, Doting . A character expresses the idea, but to read a Green novel is to learn that this is the novelist's credo. It is this that explains his scrupulous attention to trivia, his reluctance to be bound by plot or point of view. It explains, too, his reluctance to find importance anywhere -- which would imply unimportance elsewhere. For Green, anything that happens is roughly as important, and as unimportant, as everything else that happens -- as worthy of detailed rendering, as worthy of our time and love.
Of these four novels, only Living triumphs, through sheer vigor, over the way of its telling. In the other three, Green writes no less well. But he writes as a man betrothed to the world, sworn loyal to life -- as priest of history or science -- not as a predatory novelist. Not for him the rending of circumstance, the severing of tangents, better to show what the world means. He will despise nothing, he will prefer nothing: a form of promiscuity as honest to life as it is, finally, false to art.