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Reviewed by:
  • Henry Green and the Writing of His Generation, and: A Companion to "Under the Volcano"
  • Mary Beth Pringle
Michael North. Henry Green and the Writing of His Generation. Charlottesville: Uof Virginia P, 1984. 222 pp. $16.95.
Chris Ackerley and Lawrence J. Clipper. A Companion to "Under the Volcano."Vancouver: U of British Columbia P, 1984. 492 pp. $36.50.

Michael North points out in Henry Green and the Writing of His Generation that though Green "was a lifelong friend of Christopher Isherwood, best man to Evelyn Waugh, roommate to Anthony Powell, schoolmate of George Orwell and Cyril Connolly, literary associate of John Lehmann and Stephen Spender, and host to Auden for a tour of the factory where Green worked in the late twenties," few readers think of him as part of that generation of writers. For one thing, Green did not share the commitment to political radicalism common among writers of his day. North argues, however, that Green viewed public and private life in much the same way as his contemporaries, a perspective "more fundamental than politics." Alienation, a principal concept of modern literature, grows out of "one of the most basic modern attitudes about public life [that] holds it to be inimical to the personal integrity of individuals." This estrangement is usually not from society but through it; loss of self cornes not from withholding oneself from social processes but from participating in the economic and social aspects of our mass-produced culture. Thus, according to North, the most politically devout writers of the time are placed in great jeopardy "because for them an individual can only become himself through participation in mass society." The result is inevitable loss of faith in self, "suspicion,mistrust, or fear felt by the writer for himself." North notes Robert Wohl's partial explanation for the Thirties generation's ideas about self that Wohl locates, in its either having fought or just missed serving in World War One. The ultimate expression of this sense of self comes in the literature. North notes that the novelists of Green's generation felt "the utter irrelevance of the individual and his complete helplessness in the world of fact." Green, he observes, fits this category in that "Green's novels are based on the belief that the self is not a truth to be expressed but an expression itself, a fiction." For Green, he adds, "public acts" are also fictions "and respond more to the desires of individuals than to objective forces in economics or politics." Like his contemporaries, North argues; Green holds that "self-extinction is the beginning of literature, not because the self-does not matter, nor because it should be sacrificed to impersonal standards of art, but because individuals can achieve by failure what they are too weak to seize by success."

In four chapters and a Conclusion, North illustrates his thesis, focusing on Green's novels two at a time. Chapter One discusses Blindness (1926) and Pack My Bag (1940), showing how they work as a kind of antiautobiography "in which autobiographical speculation acts as an abrasive against the self, milling it down to the last disappearing kernel of authenticity," and connecting writing [End Page 370] with lies. Chapter Two examines Living (1929) and Parly Going (1939). In Living Green becomes, says North, the first of his generation to write from "proletarian inspiration" when he records his experiences in a job at his family's foundry. Other Thirties-generation writers—for example, Edward Upward and C. Day Lewis—created similar works. North points out, however, that Green's achievement in Living is only highlighted by "the differences between it and the popular subgenre to which it seems to belong," with Green's novel distinguished by "a more complete honesty" than found in the novels of his contemporaries. Party Going, Green's only work published in the Thirties, takes a common metaphor of the time (the train as symbol for progress) and transforms it. Green uses the image to show what "results when infinity [the train] abruptly ceases to exist as a concept [refuses to run]." Chapter Three explores two novels about World War Two, Caught (1943) and Back (1946). In...


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