PUSHING THE DAGGER OF PERCEPTION THROUGH THE DRAPES OF NARRATIVE:
TIM PARKS ON HENRY GREEN
"I STILL HEAR HIS UNMISTAKABLE VOICE, A WORD, OR PHRASE, OR CADENCE OF HIS STILL CROSSES MY MIND EVERY DAY . . . THE IMPORTANT THING WAS TO HAVE FOUND A WRITER, A BRILLIANT WRITER, WHO ESCAPED ALL THE SCHEMES THEY HAD SO WORTHILY DISMANTLED FOR US AT UNIVERSITY . . . I PACKED MY BAG. PACK MY BAG WAS IN IT."
TIM PARKS, THE GREATEST LIVING ENGLISH NOVELIST, DISCOVERED HENRY GREEN AT UNIVERSITY. GREEN'S "SHORT CIRCUITRY OF THOUGHT AND SYNTAX" HAS REMAINED WITH HIM EVER SINCE. DISCOVER THE "WRY SECRET OF THE BOOK."
Copyright © 2001, 3 A.M. MAGAZINE. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
It must have been in 1979 that a kindly Harvard professor, observing that I had no appetite for the finer points of post-structuralism (or perhaps it was still structuralism then), that I was not eager to catalogue Thoreau's juvenilia, nor to embark on an indexed bibliography of all native American literature, suggested that I might just read a few novels and write about them for him. 'Start with Henry Green, ' he said. 'You will like him.' Seventeen years later, I still have all Green's work on the shelf by my desk, I still hear his unmistakable voice, a word, or phrase, or cadence of his still crosses my mind every day.
The kindly professor's approach was not enough to halt my disillusion with academia, so that when, six months or so after that conversation, I finally tracked down a copy of Pack My Bag, then out of print, it was exactly as I was packing my own, to leave America, to leave the university, to look for a job, to try to write. It ' s an association that, like the book, has stayed with me ever since.
Pack My Bag is a younger man's autobiography. It was 1939. Green, born, as he so wryly puts it, 'a mouth-breather with a silver spoon in 1905' was convinced he would die in the imminent war. There was no time left to write a novel, he would just put down, 'what first comes to mind, and that must be how one changed from boy to man, how one lived, things and people and one's attitude.' Upon which he proceeds to tell the story of his rich boy's country-manor infancy, his time at prep-school, Eton and Oxford, first steps in high society, a short spell in his father's factory, London Clubs.
It's a life, or at least a youth, which at no point intersects with my own, so that summarizing it so baldly like this I can think of no formula less likely to attract me to a book. Yet the truth is that Green's real subject was always the play between life's bright surface and its mystery, and he had a way of conjuring that up whatever the matter in hand that constantly reduces the reader to amused bewilderment. Here he is introducing one of first people he remembers: 'Most things boil down to people, or at least most houses to those who live in them, so Forthampton boils down to Poole, who did not live in but was gardener about the place for years. '
Such tricks of shifting focus can be found in all Green's writing, but the advantage of Pack my Bag over the novels is its reflective, Proustian gesture, or, more simply, its wisdom. In his novels Green occasionally becomes plot-bound, mannered. Here his prose breathes more easily, and his mind is so sharp to see and remember, so quick, haunted by his own apprehension of imminent death, to push the dagger of perception through the drapes of narrative. Here are the boys at school during the First War:
'Now we did no more gym but were drilled instead, no more boxing but dummy bayonet fighting. We formed fours twice a week, we shot with rook rifles on a miniature range. And it was then or some time later that, as our school was on the south coast, some formation of the hills round brought no louder than as seashells echo the blood pounding in one's ears noise of gunfire through our windows all the way from France so that we looked out and thought of death in the sound and this was sweeter to us than rollers tumbling on the beach.'
Later on, with that short circuitry of thought and syntax which is the hallmark of his prose, Green tosses off the wry
secret of the book, and of so much good writing thus: 'there must be a threat to one's skin to wake what is left of things
remembered into things to die with. '
In other words, he was turning memories to miser's gold he might pack in his bag and gloat over in the shelters while the bombs fell. Yet his genius is such that even in this gesture, he is never sentimental. No writer could ever have been at once more dismissive and more elegiac of privileged youth than Green. The alchemy is in the prose.
For myself, packing my own bag in a cheap apartment in Boston, Massachusetts, the important thing was to have found a writer, a brilliant writer, who escaped all the schemes they had so worthily dismantled for us at university, who did not
look for mythological underpinning, did not imagine one could construct a stream of consciousness with words, or that literature must be fragments of older literature, a writer who simply side-stepped the false dichotomy, realism/experimentalism,
or rather whose experiments never had to do with ingenuous games of having time go this way and that, or having people
not die when put in front of a firing squad, but arose from the intensity with which he looked at life and tried to reflect what he saw there in an English prose that was all his own. I packed my bag. Pack my Bag was in it.
So charming and so coercive was the vision it offered that it would take me two or three years and two unpublished novels to stop writing pastiches. And even today, flicking through the opening pages of my last effort I find four or five sentences that owe a turn of phrase, a shift in focus, to that bag Green packed so generously, so idiosyncratically, fifty-seven years ago.
Tim Parks was born in Manchester in 1954. He grew up in London and studied at Cambridge and Harvard. Since 1981 he has lived in Italy. Tim Parks has published ten novels including Tongues of Flame (Heinemann, 1985) which won the Somerset Maugham and Betty Trask prizes, Loving Roger (Heinemann, 1986), winner of the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize, Europa (Secker & Warburg, 1997), shortlisted for the Booker Prize, and Destiny (Secker & Warburg, 1999). Joseph Brodsky has described him as "the best British author working today." Tim Parks has also translated Calvino, Moravia and Tabucchi. He is the author of three works of bestselling non-fiction.
Tim Parks's novels and Henry Green's Pack My Bag: A Self-Portrait are available from: AMAZON.CO.UK.
For more information, go to Tim Parks' website: http://www.timparks.co.uk/index.html.
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