Book of a lifetime: Party Going, By Henry Green

 

Henry Green was a one-off, a writer of undoubted genius. He was difficult to know – Henry Green was his pseudonym and, unlikely though it may seem, he was also an industrialist who owned factories in the North and could explain the details of plumbing with unexpected clarity and vigour. No one who has ever loved and tried to understand the secrets of writing as an art has ever surpassed Green.

I first met him when I became engaged to his son. Through him, I began to understand the subtleties of a narrative without any apparent content; his books, named almost teasingly Party Going, Back and, among others, Loving and Living, had no real reason to exist in a world full of businessmen and rich and spoilt young people. His prose, almost hallucinatory in its blank acceptance of the pointlessness of life, was like a child's writing, but without the whimsicality and forced invention that so often accompany efforts to portray the young.

Green knew what he was doing and his contempt for flattery or mealy-mouthed sentiments lasted throughout his life. This man, who had taken a false name in order to judge his peers and show their follies, was convinced to the last that his were the words of truth – Beckett-like, you might say. At the same time childish behaviour (he loved practical jokes) did little to endear him to his family circle and fashionable friends. There was nobody like Green and, admittedly from an eccentric background, he stumped literary critics and general readers alike with the knowledge that in him they met "the real thing".

Green, odd as he was, became a most revered writer of British fiction. He is studied to this day by those who want to know "how it is done", the joke being that this is an unanswerable question. I can remember standing in Harrods, with my mother-in-law Dig, a perfect replica of the Edwardian beauty: piles of auburn hair in a careful arrangement, a hat that could go anywhere (Royal Ascot comes to mind). She is smiling as she waves a gloved hand and announces she wants to change her book at the Harrods library, and would I care to come with her? "Are you coming to dinner tonight duck?" – this aimed at me as Henry Green comes into view behind a pile of Harrods library books. "We could go to the Normandie – do tell me what you'd like to do." In this most conservative setting, Dig stood for the best of England – but Henry Green's laughter and enjoyment of the scene showed that the smallest detail was always at hand for his fictions.

Emma Tennant's 'The Beautiful Child' is published by Peter Owen

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