This year has been characterised by some great readalongs – Virginia Woolf in January, Jean Giono’s Hill in May and Jean Rhys in September. When Mookse and Gripes suggested Henry Green’s Back for November it seemed another chance to experience a writer whom I hadn’t read before in good company. All I knew about Green was that he was published by Harvill in the 1980s (certainly a recommendation) and that all his novels seem to have one word titles (at the very least to be admired for consistency – and one would imagine a certain bloody-mindedness in the face of publishers). Even better, although the readalong was ostensibly to tie in with the reprinting of his work by the New York Review of Books Classics imprint, I was aware that his novels had also been reprinted this year in the UK by Vintage Classics in budget three volume versions which made buying yet another book seem like a money-saving venture.
Back was Green’s seventh novel, originally published in 1946, and, as its title suggests, its central character, Charley, has just returned from the war, having lost a leg and spent time in a prisoner-of-war camp. The novel opens with a visit to a graveyard – while he has been away the woman he loved, Rose, has died:
“For Rose had died while he was in France, he said over and over under his breath. She was dead and he did not hear until he was a prisoner. She had died, and this sort of sad garden was where they had put her without him…”
This neat reversal (not only of soldier grieving civilian, but the reversing of the experience, so common in war, of not seeing the body) is further complicated by the fact that Rose was married to another man, James, whom Charley meets as he leaves the graveyard. He also visits Rose’s parents, his “rather not speak of it” when asked about the prison camp typical of the reticence which runs through the novel – we learn almost nothing of his wartime experience. Rose’s father gives him an address where, he says, “you’ll find someone who knew Rose…
“She’s just the age Rose was, maybe a month or two younger. She wants to meet you. She’s a widow.”
The expectation that Charley is looking for a woman, whether for sex or marriage, is a common thread in almost every conversation. His landlady, Mrs Frazier, tells him:
“I can’t make up my kind why you don’t go out more often…At the age you are as well, and after what you’ve been in. Find a young lady I mean.”
When he doesn’t visit the address immediately, a fellow returnee, Middlewitch, comments, “then you must be getting your oats, right enough.” At work it is quickly assumed that he must be sleeping with his female assistant, Dorothy, and he goes as far as taking her on a visit to James with no particular feelings for her but under the weight of that expectation, only for James to visit her room at night in his stead.
When he does eventually visit the address which Rose’s father gave him he is met with an unexpected sight:
“She opened, almost at once. He looked. He sagged. Then something went inside. It was as though the frightful starts his heart was giving had burst a vein. He pitched forward in a dead faint, because there she stood alive, so close that he could touch, and breathing, the dead spit, the living image, herself, Rose in person.”
Here we see Green’s skill as a writer. Superficially rather ordinary – there are few flowery phrases – but capturing the essence of his character’s experience, from the short, shocked sentences which open to the final, repetitive incredulity; the clever pairing of ‘dead’ and ‘living’ to mean the same thing, and placing of ‘herself’ before ‘Rose’, but without, as a lesser writer might have done, leaving it the final word. Charley becomes convinced that the woman is Rose, living under a different name. Her denials only inflame his certainty, and at one point he even takes James to see her. (There are echoes of this in his conviction that there is something of himself in Rose and James’ son, as if the world is not what is presented to him anymore).
Back presents a perfect snapshot of England towards the end of the war. Green has fun with the fact that “everything’s initials these days” and acronyms scattered across every page. There are countless conversations about food which is, of course, in short supply. The war itself is rarely referred to in more than an elliptical and euphemistic way. Here, for example, are James and Charley on the subject of Charley’s lost limb:
“’Yes, well there you are,’ James said.
‘There it is,’ Charley agreed.
Charley’s grief for Rose is surely also for the loss of the life he had before, however; his need to heal related as much to his war-time experience as her death. As a character study it is, just like the times it presents, restrained, but beautifully observed. Luckily there is much more Green to come.