Who the Fuck Was That Guy?


Arts & Culture


From the first-edition jacket of Henry Green’s Party Going.

I’m delighted to hear from Bob that you have undertaken an interview with Henry Green. I meant to write you last spring that I had tea with him in London—with his wife, some others, and Christopher Logue, that frenetic poet whom you may remember from Paris and who worships Green and begged to be taken along. Well, he was, and there was Green in a double-breasted black business suit going under the name York (sic), talking like a businessman from Manchester, with an anecdote or two, terribly long—one, as I remember, about a seal two old ladies found on a beach near Brighton and nursed back to health in their bathtub, the point of the story being that in England alone could such a thing happen. Logue kept darting looks at the door, for Green, I guess, and making side remarks of incredible rudeness to York. When we left, Logue asked: “Jesus, who the fuck was that guy on the sofa.” “Henry Green,” I said.
—George Plimpton, from a letter to Terry Southern, 1957

Ever since I read that letter (plug: it’s from our Fall issue) I’ve had Henry Green’s seal anecdote on my mind, mostly in light of the many questions it raises: How did those old ladies transport the seal? What was entailed, exactly, in nursing it back to health, and how did they know it was well again? Did they keep it as a pet afterward?

I fear the answers are lost to the ages.

As Plimpton tells it, Green wasn’t very stimulating company, but—given what I know of his persona, and the intense affinity I feel for his seal story—I can think of few writers I’d rather spend an afternoon with. I envision us puttering around his family’s pipe factory in Birmingham, perhaps checking various gauges, with Green in his business suit, his hands clasped behind his back, carrying on a kind of tour-de-force monologue all the while, losing his place and opening several series of parentheses with no intention of closing them. Listening to Green hold forth, I imagine, was probably a lot like reading him: an enlightening, exhilarating, and not infrequently exhausting experience.

In October 1963, just before his fifty-eighth birthday, Green contributed a brief piece to The Spectator: “For Jenny with Affection from Henry Green.” (I’d never encountered it before today. Don’t ask me who Jenny is; she’s never mentioned again.) By this time he hadn’t put out a book in more than a decade, and he seems to riff on this silence; he writes mainly about the hows and whys of being a hermit:

Green lives with his wife in Belgravia. He has now become a hermit. Only the other day a woman of sixty looking after the tobacconist’s shop was dragged by her hair across the counter and stabbed twice in the neck. That is one reason why I don’t go out any more …

Love your wife, love your cat and stay perfectly quiet, if possible not to leave the house. Because on the street if you are sixty danger threatens.

It has always been said as a sign of age that if you don’t see policemen with medal ribbons it means that you are getting very old. In other words, the policemen are very much younger. One of the reasons I won’t go out is for fear of meeting a policeman. Yesterday I saw four at the corner and was very frightened indeed.

… So the whole thing is really not to go out if one can afford it, the best thing is to stay in one place, which might be bed. Not sex, for sleep.

It’s all this way, maddeningly, wonderfully elliptical, at once less and more profound than it’s supposed to be—a prime example of what Updike saw as Green’s “air of peddling nothing and knowing everything.” There’s that one perfectly tortured construction (“It has always been said as a sign of age … that you are getting very old”) that strikes me as the essence of what you might call Green Logic, a limber, sleepy-eyed cousin of the logic you learn in school. And what are we to make of that swap in the first few sentences from the third person to the first, offered without notice or reason? It’s just like that seal story: more questions than answers. The whole piece is here; it won’t be the most essential thing you read today, but it will have … an effect. A definite effect.

“Most of us walk crabwise to meals and everything else,” Green had said in his Art of Fiction interview a few years earlier. “The oblique approach in middle age is the safest thing. The unusual at this period is to get anywhere at all—God damn!”