Saturday, 28 January 2012

Blindness by Henry Green

Normal weekend posts are suspended, since I failed to write my review of Blindness (1926) during weekdays of Henry Green Reading Week (run by Stu) - indeed, I didn't finish reading the book until last night.  But let's hope the weekend counts, and get on with the show!  And it's going to be quite a long show, as I ended up having a lot to say about Mr. Green...

I decided to start with Blindness because it was Green's first novel, and I've never read an author chronologically before.  Blindness was great, and so I'll be reading the rest of Green's novels chronologically... over the course of many years, I suspect.  I wasn't sure I'd like him, based on excerpts I had seen around the blogosphere - perhaps he has to be read in context, rather than piecemeal?  Perhaps the first novel is different from the others?  I don't know, but I do know that this novel has left me keen to try more.

Blindness starts with the diary of John Haye, a privileged boy at a posh school.  He is something of a dandy and an aesthete, pontificating on art and culture and how to best the boys who try to best him.  He's not unpleasant, but nor is there much depth to his diary.  Even though orphaned (with an attentive stepmother who has been 'Mamma' for nearly all his life) it seems that nothing of great emotional moment has ever affected his life.  Here's a sample diary entry:
Bell's, across the way, have bought as many as seven hunting-horns.  Each possessor blows it unceasingly, just when one wants to read.  They don't do it all together, but take it in turns to keep up one forced note.  Really, it might be Eton.  They can only produce the one note during the whole day.

In addition to this trifling detail, it is "the thing to do" now to throw stones at me as I sit at my window.  However, I have just called E.N. a "milch cow," and shall on the first opportunity call D.J.B. a "bovine goat," which generally relieves matter.  These epithets have the real authentic Noat Art Society touch, haven't they?
Contrast that which the first paragraph of the second section.  In between there is a brief letter, from B.G. to Seymour, which tells the reader what they have suspected from the title onwards: John has been blinded.  I shan't tell you how (it's good to have some specifics left for the reading experience) but immediately we drop out of the self-conscious intimacy of John's diary, and into this paragraph:
Outside it was raining, and through the leaded window panes a grey light came and was lost in the room.  The afternoon was passing wearily, and the soft sound of the rain, never faster, never slower, tired.  A big bed in one corner of the room, opposite a chest of drawers, and on it a few books and a pot of false flowers.  In the grate a weary fire, hissing spitefully when a drop of rain found its way down the chimney.  Below the bed a yellow wardrobe over which large grain marks circled aimlessly, on which there was a full-length glass.  Beyond, the door, green, as were the think embrasures of the two windows green, and the carpet, and the curtains.
The buoyancy has gone; the repeated word 'weary', and 'tired', drag the writing down with heaviness which doesn't need to be overstated.  Green is excellent at conveying emotion through simple thoughts, allowing the reader to interpret the characters and their states of mind without giving too much overt direction.

John is at home, now, and the main characters change.  They are too well written to be accurately described in brief, but I'll give a vague sketch.  John's stepmother, Mamma, is of huntin'-shootin' stock, doesn't understand her arty stepson, but would (and does) do everything for his sake.  Nanny has cared for him from infancy.  And then there is Joan - the daughter of a local defrocked clergyman.  She isn't particularly intelligent, although she has greater depth than her conversation suggests... and her relationship with John is as awkward as it is enlivening.  This is John's thoughts after first meeting her:
Voices as become his great interest, voices that surrounded him, that came and went, that slipped from tone to tone, that hid to give away in hiding.  There had been wonder in hers when he had groped into the room upon them both; she had said, "Look."  But before she had opened her mouth he had known that there was someone new in the room.

Voices had been thickly round him for the past month, all kinds of them.  Mamma extracted them from the neighbourhood, and all had sent out the first note of horror, and some had continued horrified and frightened, while others had grown sympathetic, and these were for the most part the fat voices of mothers, and some had been disgusted.  She had been the first to be almost immediately at her ease, when she spoke it was with an eager note, and there were so few eager people.
It is an interesting coincidence that I am reading this so soon after reading Helen Keller's The World I Live In.  Of course there are differences (not least fact and fiction) but, although I can't really know, I think Green writes a plausible narrative of dealing with sudden blindness.  And it certainly gives Green restrictions which he approaches impressively: to use, from John's perspective, no visual descriptions.  I jotted down a line which I thought summed up much of the novel, and later (because I always read introductions at the end) discovered that Jeremy Treblown had begun his with the same quotation:
It was so easy to see and so hard to feel what was going on, but it was the feeling that mattered.
That's a pretty good summary of any author's task.  It's essentially 'show: don't tell', isn't it?

Many of the novelists I love from the interwar years have spent the subsequent decades hovering between 'canon' and 'non-canon'.  The Leavises et al may not have welcomed them, but they have been reclaimed by later critics - or left out in the dust.  Ivy Compton-Burnett, Elizabeth Taylor, Elizabeth von Arnim, E.M. Delafield... to my mind, von Arnim is every bit as good as Taylor, but the latter has risen in critical appreciation where the former has not.  These seemingly arbitrary decisions can be found everywhere.

As for Green, he is a curious case.  You'd be hard-pressed to find a literary critic who didn't think him significant - but equally hard-pressed to find one who'd bothered writing about him.  His style is often compared to Woolf's or Joyce's (although I don't think those two authors should be grouped together) - what struck me is that Henry Green writes like James Joyce would if Joyce were a lot less arrogant, and more concerned with making his prose enjoyable as well as experimental.  There are several pages from Nan's perspective, meandering hither and thither, reminiscing and wondering, that Joyce would have given his back teeth to be able to write.

Does Henry use stream-of-consciousness?  Yes, I suppose he does.  But whereas Woolf (whom I love) incorporates beautiful imagery and stylistic wanderings like waves on a shore, Green does the opposite.  He never uses a word or a metaphor that the character wouldn't speak aloud.  It is beautiful, but it is resolutely simple.  And thus probably incredibly difficult to write - especially for a 21 year old.  Yes, Green was 21 when he finished this novel - and at school when he started it.  Sickening, isn't it?

Blindness isn't just from John's perspective, though.  In fact, the perspective is a bit like a butterfly - flying about, settling for a few paragraphs on one person, then moving onto another - dipping in and out of people's minds, and giving their thoughts, feelings, and worries in an honest, perceptive manner.  Green builds character so well, from the inside out.  Nobody is considered too insignificant for this treatment - the reader hears from the nurse, the cook, even a cockerel, alongside the principal cast.  If that feels dizzying, don't worry, it is not - simplicity always remains Green's mantra.  Sometimes this flitting between different consciousnesses does, though, create intriguing uncertainties.  Take this excerpt, during a conversation between John and Joan - Joan is speaking:
"Yes, an' there's the chicks that get lost in the grass, I love them, an' there's a starling that nests every year in the chimney, and my own mouse which plays about in my room at night, an'..."

G-d, the boredom of this.

"... but sometimes I hate it all."
With my apparent knack for pre-empting Jeremy Treglown's introduction, he also quotes this section - although unambiguously attributing the mental interjection to John.  That's certainly the most likely reading, but I like the ambiguity that Green does incorporate.  It could easily be Joan's thought (it would certainly match the other thoughts we've heard from her in this scene) or even a shared moment of bored despair - connecting mentally where they do not connect verbally.

I daresay I have delighted you long enough, so I will conclude.  Blindness is such an interesting novel, written so well.  As a first novel by a very young man, it demonstrates astonishingly maturity; I'm very excited about reading his later works.  This wouldn't be a great choice for those who prize plot above character and style, but for anyone who likes the idea of modernism, but struggles to enjoy it in practice, Henry Green's style (on the basis of Blindness, at least) is perfect for you.

Do head on over to Stu's blog to see what he and others have read during Henry Green Reading Week.  And thanks, Stu, for giving me the incentive finally to read up my Greens!



17 comments:

  1. What a great review Simon! I've just finished 'Caught' and am reading 'Loving' and they are both fabulous, but very different from each other and, it seems, from 'Blindness'. Henry Green Week really was a brilliant idea, especially since I think poor Henry is even more neglected than the other writers you mention, who at least have their champions on the internets.

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    1. Thank you Helen! I loved your review too - this week has really made me want to read more Green.

      Oddly enough, I think Green would be better known now if he were a woman. Underrated female writers from the '20s and '30s have been reclaimed and rescued - nobody has done that for underrated male writers yet.

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  2. Fascinating. It sounds very different from the ones have read but then they are all different from each other. My own review may not be up till tomorrow...

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    1. Judging on the reviews I'm reading, it does seem that Green's novels are very different from one another. I look forward to your review appearing!

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  3. That sounds so enticing - thankfully I don't have a copy to hand to distract me! The quotation about it being easy to see but hard to feel what was going on could apply equally to Loving, I think.

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    1. Haha, best not to be distracted, then! Living is the next one I'm going to read, since it's the second published (I believe) but Loving will come to me at some point!

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  4. I chose Party Going & via a circuitous route came to the conclusion that Green wrote beautifully about people you wouldn't necessarily want to know.

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    1. Nice conclusion! There are one or two people I'd get on with in Blindness, but I doubt I'd much like John himself. But I certainly enjoyed reading *about* him! And Green helped you understand him, which is most important.

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  5. Okay--someone gave me Back a number of years ago and its been languishing on my shelf ever since. You have convinced me to give Henry Green a try. I'm bumping it to the top of my pile. Thanks for the review!

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    1. (I am going to seek out Blindness now, too!)

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    2. Hurrah!
      I have Back on my bookshelf too, so I'd be intrigued to know what you think. I'm pleased to have finally tried Green myself, and even more pleased at the ripple effect Stu has started :)

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  6. Your review has really spurred on a desire to read Mr. Green (as your reviews always do). He sounds to me of my taste, and you especially got me with the bit that he's like Woolf and a bit like Joyce yet less arrogant. I've always felt it my duty to like Joyce, but those sentiments have always held me back. Can't wait to read this, so glad we have such similar taste!

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    1. Glad I can try these things out for you ;) - yes, it is lovely to meet kindred souls online, isn't it? The various Green reviews popping up suggest he is very different in different novels, so perhaps I shouldn't have made sweeping statements based on one book - but I think you'd definitely like Blindness (even if the beginning is very different from how it goes on - persevere!)

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  7. I ve yet to read blindness ,I think it sounds slightly different to his other books I think he is often group with
    Woolf and Joyce unfairly his books are much more dialogue driven than the other two are ,James wood is a huge fan of him ,I agree with joyce comment he is like a less show off version joyce like to show of his ability to much in his books where as green just wrote well and didn't need to show it off ,all the best stu

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    1. I did love his dialogue - reminded me a little bit of Ivy Compton-Burnett, although hers is much more stylised. I wonder if Joyce ever read Green?
      Thanks again for organising this!

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