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Surviving: The Uncollected Writings.

Henry Green remains an enigmatic writer. He cannot be "caught" - to use the title of one of his nine novels - because he refuses to rest. He forces us to question our usual assumptions about reality and/or fiction. Even his name is a mystery. "Henry Green" is the pseudonym of H. V. Yorke. Why does someone adopt a different name? Why does he choose this particular name - say "Green" rather than "Black"? Although Green often explains his choice of a pseudonym - he states that he doesn't want his business associates to know that he writes - his explanation is perversely simple. The titles of his novels are also mysterious. They are so abstract that they can be applied to most novels: Living, Doting, Party Going; and we have as well the fixity of Caught, Back, Blindness. And to compound the oddities already mentioned, we have the fact that a writer who publishes a brilliant first novel at twenty-one (Blindness) decides to stop writing at forty-seven and remain silent (except for a few reviews) until he dies at sixty-eight.

Green is obviously aware of language (and identity) play. Almost any of the uncollected writings in this wonderful collection emphasize sound and/or silence. Thus "Bees" - written at seventeen - contains this sinister sentence: "There was a vast buzz and they stung him to death." "Mood" offers: "So two people who love each other can go out and as they walk there is no need for them to put anything into words, having expressed everything long ago." In a 1950 interview for the New York Herald Tribune included here, Green writes: "And so I hope to go on until I die, rather sooner now than later. There is no more to say."

In his introduction Updike writes about Green's prose: "his novels never give the impression of being merely social news. A certain abstract shimmer, a veil as it were of transcendent intention, adds lustre to all his pictures, and piquancy to his prose. Each paragraph has something of a poem's interest and strangeness." Surely this paragraph from "Saturday," written in 1927 - Green was twenty-two at the time - is a stunning example of linguistic play and/or struggle with syntax: "Life was in her. Life was in her and beat there. Her bed was next theirs. Their beds took up the room. Her father and mother slept now in that bed. No blind was over window. Sun came by it. And she turned head over from sun towards them sleeping and did not see them. She smiled. Head on bolster was in sunshine." Note the absence of articles, the repetitions, the swiftness (the beating of life?), the tangled beauty. The entire paragraph moves in a way that reminds us of Gertrude Stein; we are compelled to move with the words, to compose them in our rhythmic manner. Green, therefore, insists that there is terrifying (and thrilling) power in language. Only the great writers can compel us to participate in such linguistic and epistemological activity. "Surviving" - a breathtaking word for the ritualistic music of Green's achievement!
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Author:Malin, Irving
Publication:The Review of Contemporary Fiction
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 22, 1993
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