Split personality

Romancing: the life and work of Henry Green

Jeremy Treglown <em>Faber & Faber, 340pp, £25</em>

I

Henry Green's fondness for ambiguity permeated his life as well as his work. He was born Henry Yorke, and before settling on his eventual nom de plume he experimented with several other monickers. Throughout his life, he remained both Yorke and Green, and the boundary between his two identities was far from clear. Indeed, his identity and reputation are mired in paradox. An Old Etonian of patrician stock, he managed the family engineering company, yet started out as a labourer on the factory floor. He and his wife were equally happy in Monte Carlo or on the works outing to Blackpool. In the Second World War, he served in the London Fire Service, earning a modest 67 shillings a week, yet pursued a religiously sybaritic lifestyle, expending his nocturnal energies in heavy drinking and reckless affairs. And away from his role as a self-indulgent yet serious, conventional businessman, Green was the author of a succession of distinctively unorthodox novels.

These works, though very different from each other, are characterised by an impressionistic style, and Green's love of film is reflected in their cinematic textures. For the most part, the books cover the ground one expects to find in Anthony Powell or Evelyn Waugh, but they do so in an idiom closer to that of Beckett, tending to be radically demotic and bafflingly oblique. Green's prose is fidgety and claustrophobic. His style is notable for its aversion to definite articles; one novel, Party Going, begins with the words: "Fog was so dense, bird that had been disturbed went flat into a balustrade." Verbs disappear mysteriously, and so does punctuation. Many of the constructions are emphatically awkward: "He was sure now was nothing but to leave her get home"; "Were tins of pineapple in shop window".

Green's stylistic mannerisms exist to revitalise the act of perception and renovate the act of reading. That, however, does not make them any easier to live with. One can grasp the purpose of his syntactical perversity without necessarily enjoying its intended fruits. It is, moreover, hard to decide whether Green is a mordant chronicler of his society's vacuities, a subtle historian of moods and manners, or a complicit participant in the terpsichorean weirdness of his age's self-display.

Treglown illuminates the different facets of the man's character, but is hard pressed to make him sympathetic. At times, Green seems to be a testy, money-grubbing drunk, addicted to the possibility of fame, yet resolute in his refusal to lay himself bare even to the gentlest public scrutiny. But then there are moments when he takes on the character of revolutionary and innovator, democrat and sage. His writing appears both brilliant and inept; his books seem overloaded with unappealing characters, refractory dialogue and structural inconsistencies, yet they can also be witty, moving and intense, brilliantly alive to the sordid niceties of social class.

In his lifetime, Green achieved a good deal of critical acclaim, but his work did not attract many readers. To this day, even his better-known novels - Living, Loving, Party Going - remain the objects of professional admiration rather than popular regard. (John Updike, Tim Parks and Sebastian Faulks are among his most prominent cheerleaders.) Clearly, it is one of the objects of Treglown's biography to suggest why Green's writings deserve to be both more widely and more closely known.

In this, he is not entirely successful. Romancing is the product of diligent research, and determines the relationship between Green's life and work in a way that is persuasive without ever seeming factitious. But it remains uneven. The last 15 years of Green's life are packed into ten pages. Critical exposition tends to outweigh factual detail. And despite Treglown's best efforts to persuade us to the contrary, Green's work, even as it promises to be compellingly simple, succeeds more often in being elliptical and difficult. Difficulty can be a virtue, and sometimes, in Green's case it is exactly this, but it is not a very modern virtue - being, after all, entirely inimical to today's cult of instant access. Although Treglown's is a helpful and judicious biography, it seems to stand little chance of winning Green many new readers.