Thursday, October 13, 2016

Henry Green: It’s Much Easier To Say Than To Know


“Prose is not to be read aloud but to oneself alone at night, and it is not quick as poetry but rather a gathering web of insinuations ... Prose should be a long intimacy between strangers with no direct appeal to what both may have known. It should slowly appeal to feelings unexpressed, it should in the end draw tears out of the stone ...”
Henry Green, Pack My Bag (1940)

Henry Green: The cover of the 1993 reissued book by Penguin Classics containing the novels “Loving” (1945), “Living (1929)” and “Party Going” (1939).
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I always find it exciting to find a novelist that I have never read before who says something new, novel, if you will. This is Henry Green, the nom de plume of Henry Vincent Yorke [1905–1973; born Gloucestershire, England]; Green is considered a modernist novelist, but part of his charm is that he defies classification. I have not read any of novels, but I plan to order a few as a gift for my birthday, which is due next month.

It was an article (“The Greatness of Human Unknowabilty;” October 17, 2016), by Leo Robson, in The New Yorker that caught my eye. I am thankful that I have read it and in doing so have made the discovery of something that I found myself thinking about, particularly this passage:
In 1950, Green wrote a BBC radio talk, “A Novelist to His Readers,” which was subsequently published in The Listener. He said nothing about the things that his readers might have considered obvious topics—the use of symbolism in scene-setting, for instance, or the relationship between metaphor and muddle. Instead, he launched an assault on the very idea of the narrator, whom he branded a “know-all.” We cannot tell what people in life are thinking and feeling, he said. Writers should, therefore, restrict themselves to what their characters say out loud. Green accepted that he could not do without narration altogether—the reader “must at least be told who is speaking” and how a character behaves after speaking. But he had turned his back on what he called “very carefully arranged passages of description.” Now he offered the example “He seemed to hesitate” as suitably tentative, comparing it to “He hesitated,” which was “too direct a communication from the author.”
I find this to be brilliant and right on the mark. We often talk about motivations, desires and psychological profiles, etc., when discussing or analyzing characters, but these are often as good as guesses. I, myself, as a writer tend to want to say more than I really know as a writer, when it is better to say less and suggest more, allowing the reader to fill in the blanks with his interpretation, his understanding of events, motives and desires.

It might be better to allow the characters to explain themselves, if this is what is necessary for the plot, even if the characters tend to deceive and mischaracterize, which can often happen.

It is counter-intuitive, it would seem, for writers to do this, but if done correctly, it leads to great novels that illuminate the human condition. It might be that the greatest writers are those that experience much and say as much as is necessary to convey this experience to readers. Green was not popular with readers, but he was respected by writers, including Evelyn Waugh, John Updike and Terry Southern. 

For more, go to [NewYorker]

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