The original and idiosyncratic talent of Henry Green

Romancing: the life and work of Henry Green by Jeremy Treglown (Faber & Faber, £25)
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The Independent Culture

Henry Yorke, writing under the name of Henry Green, was one of the half-dozen most highly praised English novelists of the 1940s and 1950s. His reputation faded for a time, but some of his novels ( Living, Party Going, Loving, Caught, Nothing, Back, Concluding and Doting) have now been reissued ahead of this book by Jeremy Treglown, Warwick University professor and former editor of the Times Literary Supplement.

Henry Yorke, writing under the name of Henry Green, was one of the half-dozen most highly praised English novelists of the 1940s and 1950s. His reputation faded for a time, but some of his novels ( Living, Party Going, Loving, Caught, Nothing, Back, Concluding and Doting) have now been reissued ahead of this book by Jeremy Treglown, Warwick University professor and former editor of the Times Literary Supplement.

Yorke was one of the Oxford generation of Evelyn Waugh (at whose wedding he was best man), Robert Byron, Harold Acton and Anthony Powell. His closest friends among young dons were Maurice Bowra and Nevill Coghill (his tutor, C S Lewis, he detested). All these, later followed by John Updike and Terry Southern, admired the original and idiosyncratic style he developed. Although his novels contain echoes of Woolf and Kafka, his main influences may be said to have been Gertrude Stein, the compactness of Anglo-Saxon poetry, and demotic Midlands English.

At Oxford, he found "everyone either rich and vapid or poor and vapid". He went down after two years having completed his first novel, Blindness, after working on it since his schooldays. With considerable independence and toughness, he escaped in 1926 from a conventional upper-class background to the family engineering works in Birmingham.

For the next two years, he threw himself into factory life at the lowest level: "My overalls were torn, and burnt with acid and once when shopping I heard the woman behind the counter say 'I'll bet he's a public school boy. I wonder what has brought him to this.' " This typifies the comic misunderstandings and anomalies which were his unending delight.

Earlier, a perceptive school report had described him as having "a joie de vivre which only demands a succession of sensations, thrills, and shocks to keep him quite happy... not a germ of public spirit". This description fitted him pretty well until, in his last decade, the alcoholic shadows closed in. He once said to V S Pritchett, who was setting off for a wedding, "Swear to tell me everything that goes wrong." Sadly, his spontaneity, humour and mischief were not enough to keep neurasthenia at bay.

After his marriage, to an angelically patient wife who remained supportive in spite of drunkenness and infidelity, he settled in London. He combined directing the family firm with a dazzling social life, which included jaunts to Budapest and Bucharest with Aly Khan, and with other gilded youths to the South of France and Ireland.

All this hardly stimulated his imagination, and frustration arose. But he remained obsessed with the quality of his writing, and with his own control over it. When war loomed, he did not expect to survive. Still only 35, he wrote an autobiography, Pack my Bag, and in sharp contrast to his recent milieu joined the Auxiliary Fire Service.

During the Blitz he found himself, to his relief, working alongside people not unlike his old mates in Birmingham. This led to the novel Caught, which apart from its rare documentary value is a memorable tragi-comedy of suspicion and misunderstanding between social classes.

But the strain had permanent effects. When his first postwar novel, Back, appeared, one reviewer warned readers against this "small, grey, personal book... very sad, very narrow, greyly and coldly misted in small, mad, sorrow" - words that, intentionally or not, echo Green's own startling style.

Through all this, Yorke remained a very private man. When his publishers asked for a photo, he only allowed himself to be taken, sitting in a chair, from the back. Treglown makes many good points in Romancing but, despite industrious research, he hasn't been entirely successful in bringing Yorke to life in all his wild humour, irresponsibility and selfishness. The shortage of first-hand material is hardly his fault, since those who could have helped him most have not always done so. But the book, at the very least, provides a context in which new readers will derive more enjoyment from these compelling and original novels.

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