I received a review copy of this title from The New York Review of Books. This title was originally published in 1946 and is the first book in a series of nine by author Henry Green that NYRB is reissuing.
The premise of this Green novel is deceptively simple: Charley Summer, recently released from a POW camp in Germany during World War II, is repatriated back into England. Although Charley suffers from a severed leg for which he must wear a prosthesis, his greatest source of pain is the love that he lost while he was in that German prison camp. Rose, a woman with whom he was having a passionate love affair, dies from an illness before Charley is sent home. We first meet Charley when he is trying to find Rose’s grave in an English churchyard and we immediately discover that the plot is much more complicated than we were first led to believe.
Charley is shell-shocked, grief-stricken and disoriented as he tries to settle into a job in London and reconnect with old acquaintances. He visits Rose’s parents, Mr. and Mrs. Grant who are also having a hard time dealing with the death of their daughter amidst sirens and bombings. Mrs. Grant is confused and displays signs of dementia; she doesn’t recognize Charley and thinks that he is her long-lost brother John who died in World War I. Her confusion and trauma reflects Charley’s own disoriented state of mind. As Charley is departing from this painful reunion, Mr. Grant gives him the address of a woman named Nance whom Mr. Grant requests that the young man look up while he is in London.
Charley works in the office of a manufacturing firm in London and when they send him a new secretary his emotions become further muddled. Miss Pitter, a rather plain looking woman, attracts Charley’s attention as he likes to start at her arms. Green relates to us bits and pieces of what a character is thinking only through dialogue, which is oftentimes very sparse. Charley in particular is a man of few words so it is difficult to understand what is really going on inside his head. But he seems, at times, attracted to Miss Pitter and unsure of how to proceed with her. Charley’s diffidence and lingering feelings for Rose appear to keep him from acting on a possible relationship with Miss Pitter. His short sentences, which are oftentimes canned answers like “There you have it,” and his inability to stand up for himself whenever someone is taking advantage of him make Charley a character wholly worthy of sympathy. Green is a master at writing tragic characters who are awash in their sad fates.
To complicate matters even further, Charley pays a visit to Nance who was recommended to him by Mr. Grant. When Nance opens the door to greet Charley he faints dead away because Nance looks just like his Rose. The ensuing confusion over the identity of Nance and Rose reads like a bit of a slapstick, “Who’s on First” type of a comedy. Charley is addressing Nance as if she were Rose, but Nance is completely confused and doesn’t understand what he is talking about. Charley comes to the conclusion that Rose never really died but instead changed her hair color and moved to London to become a tart. He spends quite a bit of time thinking of a way to get her to confess that she really is Rose. These scenes are humorous but also have an underlying hint of sadness because it further highlights Charley’s emotional confusion and turmoil.
One more interesting aspect of Green’s writing that must be mentioned is the story he includes in the middle of the narrative. It is Rose’s widower, James who sends Charley a magazine story about the 18th century French court in which a woman mistakes a royal guard for her lost lover. This is what the Roman poet Catullus would call a libellus, a little book, embedded within the story of Charley. I felt that the story was only tangentially related to Charley’s predicament; there is the case of mistaken identity in both narratives but Charley doesn’t appear to learn any type of a lesson after he reads this libellus. He is too involved in his own issues to gain any type of perspective and it is only very slowly and gradually through love, understanding and patience that Charley begins to untangle his confused mind.
This is a brief but very engrossing novel. It took me the better part of a week to read and absorb all that was going on in order to write these few words about it. Green uses the stress of World War II in order to highlight the madness and confusion into which a traumatized mind can so easily descend. This isn’t a pretty love story but it is certainly one that is more true to real, human life.
About the Author:
Henry Green (1905–1973) was the pen name of Henry Vincent Yorke. Born near Tewkesbury in Gloucestershire, England, he was educated at Eton and Oxford and went on to become the managing director of his family’s engineering business, writing novels in his spare time. His first novel, Blindness (1926), was written while he was at Oxford. He married in 1929 and had one son, and during the Second World War served in the Auxiliary Fire Service. Between 1926 and 1952 he wrote nine novels, Blindness, Living, Party Going, Caught, Loving, Back, Concluding, Nothing, and Doting, and a memoir, Pack My Bag.