Monday, June 03, 2013

Notebook (Henry Green, John Ashbery, &c.)

Henry Green, 1905-1973

A forty degree F. morning, the sky cloudless, blue, unerringly lit. Read some half or so of Henry Green’s autobiographical (“I was born a mouthbreather with a silver spoon in 1905, three years after one war and nine before another, too late for both . . .”) Pack My Bag (1940), eventually determining that I’d read it before, and need not again, a thing made evident early by the renewal of my perplexity concerning the “mangel wurzels” Green’s mother asks the gardener Poole to “bowl” across the lawn for shooting. A kind of beet—with a “large, swollen, yellow-fleshed” root—produced for cattle fodder. The “Root of Scarcity” (out of some bastard etymology—Mangel meaning “lack” or “shortage” in German). To relish in Green: the seemingly naïve careerings of memory unarranged, unalloyed:
My mother used to say “how much do you love me—more than toffee?” or “more than this much” putting her thumb and forefinger so close together you could hardly see between. Years later a girl said and did the same and I could not tell her what she had made me remember, it spoilt the moment because I laughed. One is always laughing in wrong places or worse, as one gets older one is inclined to belch, it comes from pipe smoking. There is no escape from the ridiculous or from what has been so nice. What has been enjoyed so much so many years ago will lie in wait to crop up again at any time. If you once wet your bed, as I used to, then all your life you will get up in the night. But I cannot think of anything else, I was not left-handed and made to use my right so that I stutter now. I was perhaps unnaturally shy of girls for some time, having no sisters, but that is so with every Englishman judged by European standards. I was perhaps shyer than most Englishmen but that only made it the more fun later when that shyness had worn off . . .
Is there some kind of affinity here to what John Ashbery calls “a hymn to possibility”? (Ashbery, who, circa 1950, at Columbia, wrote an M.A. dissertation called “Three Novels of Henry Green,” is writing of Gertrude Stein’s Stanzas in Meditation, of its shunning of mere “events” in lieu of “their ‘way of happening’”—that staticky imprecise receipt and ordering of particulars—“as though a change in the wind had suddenly enabled us to hear a conversation that was taking place some distance away.”) Here’s an oddity: in Ashbery’s dissertation he apparently writes of Green that he “stands almost alone, the Cordelia of modern novelists”—a phrase used, too, of the prolific British writer E. M. Delafield—Edmée Elizabeth Monica Dashwood, née de la Pasture (1890-1943), author of Diary of a Provincial Lady (1930) and its successors The Provincial Lady Goes Further (1932), The Provincial Lady in America (1934), &c.—(“Miss E. M. Delafield is the Cordelia of modern novelists. Which other of them gives so much with such few pretensions. There are no decorative flourishes to her titles, her style, or her plots.” Lines exemplary of something or other, cited with a source of “Times Lit. 5/10, 22”* in a grammar called A Handbook of Present-Day English [1925, reprinted 1932], by E. Kruisinga.)

And, too—to relish—Green’s ear for speech, particularly of the working classes (akin, surely, to “the real language of men in a state of vivid sensation”), who “like Americans . . . express themselves with an unheard of clarity.” Green’s examples of “speech, unadulterated by literature” and “unaffected . . . by the B.B.C”:
      “His eyes started out of his head like little dog’s testicles.”
      A labourer on his brown dog:
      “What he likes is I take him out into the fields week-ends and he rolls ’im white in the grass.”
      “In the trenches, in the War, before they were going over the top they had an issue of rum, see, but one of the chaps felt a bit queer and put his down on the parapet because he reckoned he’d bring it up if he swallowed it. And a big rat come along and drank it down, then sits up and says, ‘now for the cat’.”
      And this is a story of great hilarity, the best of all, told with a hyphen in the middle of the word beautiful so as to pronounce it be-eautiful.
      “A cow in a field saw a beautiful buttercup but when she sat down to eat this beautiful buttercup she found a bee had settled on it and the cow said to the bee you get off, this is my beautiful buttercup but the bee said I will not I got here first. So the cow said you go on get off it and the bee said I will not and the cow said I saw it first but the bee said I was here in front of you, so then the cow said if you don’t I shall eat you as well as my buttercup but the bee said if you do I will sting you after. Then the cow ate the beautiful buttercup and the bee and when the bee was down in the cow’s belly he thought it all was so dark so nice and warm he might as well have a nap before he stings the cow. So he drops off for a bit but when he woke up the cow was gone.”
* The lines open an unsigned review of Delafield’s novel The Optimist (“This new book stands beside ‘Humbug’ in Miss Delafield’s comédie humaine”) in the Times Literary Supplement dated Thursday, October 5, 1922. Reviewed on the page, too: My Love and Some Letters, by Mrs. Patrick Campbell and The Hundred and One Harlequins, by Sacheverell Sitwell.