Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Caught-London Writings by Henry Green (1943)

"Henry Green is a writer who always seems to need "introducing", like a stranger at a party: dark, louche, awkward. It is odd, this need, because in his life he had friends enough, while his novels were viewed by people of dependable judgment as being among the best - perhaps the very best - of their time. Is it just that to later generations he is a little too "difficult"? Is it merely that Green requires a fraction more concentration than Greene? Perhaps so; but it is puzzling, this chronic shyness, when what his admirers are chiefly claiming for him is that he brings pleasure - a pleasure more intense, more original, more rewarding than that offered by any of his contemporaries."  Sebastian Falks (from The Guardian).

Henry Green (the pen name for Henry Yorke-1905 to 1973, UK) was born into real wealth.   His father was a wealthy industrialist, land owner and was an intensely cultured man.   Green was descended from barons on both parental sides.     He grew up in and would always live in a great manor house.      He was educated at Eaton and Oxford.   Upon leaving Oxford (he never completed a degree) he of his own volition went to work on the floor of one of his father's factories.    He would later become a manager but always worked for the family company.     During WWII he was a volunteer fireman.   He married a second cousin and had an odd but enduring marriage.   Caught -London Writings is based on his time as a volunteer fireman in London during the Blitz.  

With Caught-London Writings I have read and posted on seven of Green's eight novels.  Gravity's Rainbow is set partially during the blitz in London.  Green was actually there and wrote about it in the middle of the war. Caught-London Writings deals  with the heightened state of sexual interest the bombings produced.   It was not only simply a let us live for now as tomorrow we may die feeling but the actual explosions and fires were felt by many as an impulse to sexual activity frowned on my conventional morality.  Elizabeth Bowen experienced and wrote on these themes (she was an air raid warden in London during the war years).  In the just published Love Charms of Bombs:  Restless Lives in World War Two, a very well done study of English novels written by writers in London during the war years, says Caught-London Writings by Henry Green is the best literary account of the blitz, especially the impact it had on British libidos.  

Caught-London Writings is very concerned with, as is all of Green's work I have yet read, with class distinctions, small markers to identify people.  He is considered a master of dialect and is one of the few writers who make use of this that do not annoy me.  The main character in this story of a volunteer fireman comes from an upper class affluent background.  In the firehouse he mixes socially for the first time with ordinary people.  The firemen live in the firehouse during their duty sessions, from 48 to 96 hours and then are off for 48 hours or so.  Green is very much a dialogue driven writer and much of the plot narrative comes through the conversations.  

We see the way the fireman use their free time to hunt for women in the London nights.  Written when the outcome of the war was far from certain, some of the sex scenes had to have seemed shocking.  We can feel the heat of the Blitz in the marvelous prose of Green.  In one very vivid scene he described how the London subways entrances gave off great heat when filled with shelter seekers.  You can also see the lead character learning to interact with his fellow firemen.  As soon as England declared war on Germany, Londoners braised themselves for a massive fire bomb raid.  Nothing happened for months and the firemen began to get restless. When the raids at last come, Green makes us feel we are there and we experience the real fear and death they brought.  In one terrible paragraph he talks of pigeons on fire.    We learn about the fire men's  lives and loves.  Green likes word play as you can see in his naming firemen Pye and Row.   Class and money distinctions never go away in the blitz, the rich can stay in deluxe private bomb shelters, but they go away.  Poorer firemen cannot even afford drinks.  Green, he ought to know, shows how many sought refuge in alcohol.  

In getting started in Green, Vintage Press has bundled in print and kindle editions his consensus three best novels, Loving, Living, and Party Going in one edition, so you should probably start there.  None if his novels are over 250 pages.   

Green is an addictive writer.  I have one of his novels still to read, Caught, will read it soon, I hope.

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