My boss asked me to recommend a title by Henry Green, a novelist I’ve praised zealously and often, stopping just short of proselytizing, I hope. Enlightened common readers know his work, of course, and Dalkey Archive Press has returned four of his books to print, but I’ve often fancied that Green resides in a private literary preserve, open only to members, and the key is in my pocket. That’s a measure of my jealous fondness for his work. To Ann I suggested starting with Loving, his 1945 masterpiece set in an Irish country house during World War II. It’s a fairy tale, a contrapuntal suite of voices, a comedy of class. I loaned her the Hogarth Press second edition, its wartime pages brown and soft as wool.
Recommending favorite books, like handing out any sort of advice, is risky. You’re putting pressure on your reader. If they like the book, of course, everyone is happy, unless you feel they don’t like it enough. If they don’t like it, or if the book defeats them, they may conclude you are an idiot. Or, they may feel guilty and not wish to admit their disappointment, so they make up a cover story, and then grow cool and distant. Friendships, even marriages, have foundered on less. All you can do is remain true to your honest judgment , which is not the same as your socially tactful judgment, and wish your reader happy reading. In a note to his collection of essays and reviews, The Outermost Dream, William Maxwell gives his criteria for judging a book worthy of your attentiveness:
“Reading is rapture (or if it isn’t, I put the book down meaning to go on with it later, and escape out the side door). A felicitously turned sentence can induce it. Or a description. Or unexpected behavior. Or ordinary behavior raised to the nth degree. Or intolerable suspense, as with the second half of Conrad’s Victory. Or the forward movement of prose that is bent only on saying what the writer has to say. Or dialogue that carries with it the unconscious flowering of character. Or, sometimes, a fact.”
All of these reasons are on display in Green’s Loving, except possibly “intolerable suspense,” an overrated quality. Green is especially good with dialogue. “Rapture” as a critical criterion reminds me of “aesthetic bliss,” proposed by Nabokov, whose stories were edited by Maxwell at The New Yorker. In the same note, Maxwell the novelist explains why he never reviewed fiction:
“Too much of a busman’s holiday. Also, after you have said whether it does or does not have the breath of life, what standards are you going to invoke when confronted with a thing that, like a caterpillar, consumes whatever is at hand? A long narrative requires impersonation, hallucinating when you don’t know the answer, turning water into wine, making a silk purse out of a string of colored scarves and extracting a white rabbit from a sow’s ear, knowing how to and when to hold the carrot in front of the donkey’s nose, and sublime confidence. ` The house was full of that poetic atmosphere of dullness and silence which always accompanies the presence of an engaged couple.’ That sort of thing will keep any reader from escaping out the side door.”
Maxwell’s mention of “the breath of life” will rile the sophisticates, but seasoned readers know what he’s talking about. It’s an unmistakable quality in fiction, like tenderness in a steak, and probably can be recognized in books from any genre or era, whether the author is William Gass or Emile Zola. In his celebration of Green, James Wood writes:
“As far as is possible in fiction, he tried to live off the fat of his characters. Though his prose is intensely distinctive, it strives to so mold itself around the characters of his novels that it might be the plausible emanation of those characters themselves.”
Eudora Welty, in a review from 1961, makes a finer, bolder point:
“His work indeed does not represent life, it presents life. What you discover about it is not the `key’ to it, not the `secret’ of his work, which is his only, anyway, but the experience of giving your regard to beauty, to wonder. There you have come slap up against the reality of fiction.”
Welty’s sly final phrase captures Green’s novels nicely. Fiction makes up less of my reading today than ever before. I’m impatient with much of it, less tolerant and open to new experience than I am with poetry and nonfiction. If a novel’s stance (tone, deportment, flavor) is too cute, too ironic, too thin or dense, too smug, too preachy, too humorless or jokey, I give up after a couple of pages – a liberating twist on the reading experience. Green -- author of nine novels, a peerless memoir and a collection of uncollected odds and ends – remains among that diminishing remnant of fiction writers who retain their charm and reliably render Maxwell’s “rapture.” I hope my boss agrees.