“Back”, The Raucous Inexplicable World of Henry Green

“Back” by Henry Green (1946) – 245 pages

It is easy to recognize a novel title by Henry Green, because they are usually titled with present participles such as “Living”, “Loving”, and “Party Going”. The novel title “Back” is also a present participle, because in this case the hero of our novel, Charley Summers, minus one leg, is ‘Back’ to England after fighting in World War II. Actually Charley has spent the last two years in a German prison camp. His girlfriend Rose died while Charley was away. Before dying, Rose had gotten married to someone else, and Charley figures he may or may not be the father of Rose’s son.

The author Terry Southern, one of Henry Green’s numerous disciples, called Green not merely a writer’s writer, but a writer’s writer’s writer. Brooke Allen wrote that Henry Green “raised the pedestrian to the sublime”. John Updike and Eudora Welty were two more disciples of Henry Green.

I first started reading Henry Green about twenty years ago due to John Updike’s introduction to the re-publication of the three novels ‘Living’, ‘Loving’, and ‘Party Going’ in one book. Updike’s introduction was published separately in one of the literary journals of the time, and I immediately went out and bought the book. Henry Green’s novels were like nothing I had encountered before. There is an immediacy, an intensity at the sentence level that makes Green’s writing fun to read even when he writes about supposedly mundane things like office life or just walking in a park. Reading Green, one gets a sense of the wondrous strangeness of ordinary life for all of us.

 Henry Green is a modernist. If you are looking for realism, forget it. Probably the writer that is closest in my mind to Henry Green is Vladimir Nabokov. In fact, in the novel “Back”, Charley Summers meets a woman who is the ‘double’ of his dead girlfriend Rose. The plot is similar to Nabokov’s plot involving doubles in his novel “Despair”, but whatever plot there is, is not important in Green’s novels. It is the inexplicable joy that bubbles up in his sentences.

 Here is my honest reaction to “Back”. I thought, the basic facts of the story are nothing special, but why am I smiling so much while I’m reading this novel? There is a deliciousness to Henry Green’s sentences that also reminds me of Nabokov and perhaps even of John Updike. Green is particularly strong in writing dialogues which are a joy to behold.

Henry Green wrote his last novel in 1952 even though he lived to the age of 68 when he died in 1973. Alcoholism is the usual explanation for why he did not write any novels during his last 20 years. 

Henry Green is a writer for those who passionately care about fiction, for those who want to read something totally unique and not something which is a lot like someone else’s work. If you have not yet read Henry Green, I would recommend you start with his acknowledged short masterpiece “Loving”. After you have read “Loving”, if you enjoyed it as much as I did, then you are probably ready to read “Back”. “Back” is an excellent novel, but not quite as accessible as “Loving”.

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4 responses to this post.

  1. I read this novel a few months ago and found it to be wickedly funny. Your review gives a good sense of his style and approach to fiction, as well as his general ireverent attitude.

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    • I read your review and can easily appreciate the ambiguity one feels in appreciating Henry Green’s novels. What makes me a fan of Green is the continuing comic rush I get from reading him.

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  2. Posted by Amritorupa Kanjilal on April 26, 2012 at 12:09 PM

    You got me at the Nabokov comparison. I am so reading this now.

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