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The Subtlety of Henry Green

August 22, 2012

Recently — and not for the first time — I found myself in conversation about Henry Green but was to drunk to coherently recount Green’s response to the charge of subtlety in his Paris Review interview. No great loss — the charm of the exchange is lost in paraphrase anyway. The complete Paris Review interviews are available online here and make for great browsing. I used to read them down on the bowels of Alderman library where the bound editions are kept, sometimes sitting right on the ground between the shelves, gleaning what I could from the artfully-constructed-to-be-casual remarks of the masters.

I have only read two of Green’s novels, the ones most commonly said to be his best: Loving and Party Going. They are both fantastic and unlike anything by any other writer, they aerate the mind uniquely. I think I would suggest  the first time reader start with Loving, but that may be just because I read it second, making easier to get into.

Here is the relevant portion of the interview, from 1958:

 

INTERVIEWER

I’ve heard it remarked that your work is “too sophisticated” for American readers, in that it offers no scenes of violence—and “too subtle,” in that its message is somewhat veiled. What do you say?

GREEN

Unlike the wilds of Texas, there is very little violence over here. A bit of child killing, of course, but no straight shootin’. After fifty, one ceases to digest; as someone once said: “I just ferment my food now.” Most of us walk crabwise to meals and everything else. The oblique approach in middle age is the safest thing. The unusual at this period is to get anywhere at all—God damn!

INTERVIEWER

And how about “subtle”?

GREEN

I don’t follow. Suttee, as I understand it, is the suicide—now forbidden—of a Hindu wife on her husband’s flaming pyre. I don’t want my wife to do that when my time comes—and with great respect, as I know her, she won’t . . .

INTERVIEWER

I’m sorry, you misheard me; I said, “subtle”—that the message was too subtle.

GREEN

Oh, subtle. How dull!

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