Blindness by Henry Green (1926) NYRB Classics (2017) 201 pp
The English author Henry Green wrote nine novels, starting with Blindness, which he finished while in school at Eton College. I’d heard of Green before, but for the most part I feel I’ve only heard his name in whispers. This is a bit worrisome to me, because my studies in graduate school focused on English modernism, and I’m wondering now just what kind of student I was if I didn’t read a single work by this important author of English modernist literature.
Fortunately, this year is the year to rectify this particular hole in my reading (one of many holes, I realize, many (most?!) of which I’m afraid I will never even know exist). All nine of Green’s novels¹ are either just out or are soon coming from NYRB Classics and New Directions. Yes, it’s a good year to get into Henry Green, to build some hype, to see a master’s work get the wider recognition it deserves. And why not start with his debut?
As I mentioned above, Green was a student when he wrote this novel, and let’s get this over with: yes, in several ways it feels like the debut novel of a particularly smart student working through the thickets of influence, hoping to come to a clearing all his own (which he does in later works). That’s not to say that Blindness is trite or immature. It is certainly neither of those things; Green’s writing is lovely and, as I hope to show in the quotes below, nuanced. It’s simply clear that Green is working in fields recently reaped by the likes of James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, and Marcel Proust. I said something similar when I reviewed William Maxwell’s 1936 debut novel Bright Center of Heaven. In Green’s case — as in Maxwell’s — it’s still great to see where two masters began and what seeds of genius were already germinating in their earliest, most derivative, works.
That out of the way, let’s look at the book itself. It’s divided into three sections (I’ll tell you their names in a moment). The first is a collection of diary entries written by John Haye, enjoying his days at Noet (or, is that Eton??) when he’s in his later adolescence. He writes about his friends with admiration and jealousy; he excuses his shortcomings; he revels in his own brilliance, unapologetically stating that no one interests him as much as himself; and by the end of the section he’s falling in love with literature (“What a force books are! This is like dynamite.”). This is strong work. Here Green delicately renders John’s development in John’s own words, though John has no intention of revealing his weaknesses to us.
Or is it that John is just so familiar to me that I see my weaknesses while I watch him come to know the larger world? Perhaps. But Green is writing about himself here as well, as he admitted later that Blindness is quite autobiographical, taking out the central event that follows that first section.
That first section ends with a letter from one of John’s friends to another: John has been blinded and scarred by a freak accident. He won’t be coming back to school. With the second section, we enter John’s home in the country where a complicated woman cares for him, saying unhelpful things like:
“I should be mad if I were like that, not to be able to see where one is going. John dear, you are very patient, I shouldn’t be nearly as good as you.”
This woman is John’s step mother. She doesn’t understand John at all, and John knows this. At times he resents her, this woman with whom he’s stuck for at least a few more years, and now maybe until one of them dies. She certainly doesn’t have the knowledge or skills to feed the life he hoped he’d have, the life of the mind.
He must live on himself, on his own reserves of mental fat, which would be increased a trifle perhaps when Mamma or Nan read to him, as steam rollers go over roads, leveling all sense, razing all imagery to the ground with their stupidity. And when he learned Braille it would be too slow. And it terrifies, the darkness, it chokes. Where is he? Where? What’s that? Nothing. No, he is lost.
He’s bemoaning his new life. No more school, which is a relief in some ways since school is a dangerous place. But, of course, that danger, when absent, can feel so necessary:
No more snubs, no more bitterness, for the rest of his life he would be surrounded by dear, good, dull people who would be kind and long-suffering and good, and who would not really be alive at all.
“Mamma” is more complicated than we — and John — might first suspect. With sophistication and clarity, Green shifts perspectives throughout the novel, at times giving us close access to John’s thoughts before quickly transitioning to the thoughts of his step mother. She’s stuck with him too, you see. She married John’s widowed father when John was a baby, and she’s cared for John since and stuck with him even when his father died while John was very young. She’s his step mother, yes, but she’s acted as his mother his entire life. She cares for him and has sacrificed for him (and will sacrifice a great deal more as the book goes on). She’s not necessarily living the life she wanted to either.
To her credit, but to John’s dismay, she’s devoted to him, to giving him what she thinks is best for him. She laments his injury because it means he will probably never marry. Then again . . .
But then they might still find a girl who had had a story, or who was unhappy at home, who would be glad, who would not be quite — but who would do. He must marry.
We soon meet a girl, Joan, a member of the community, but a member Mamma dislikes a great deal because her father is a bit of a louse. We leave John and Mamma for a while to enter into Joan’s home, to meet this girl who seems simple on the outside.
John and Joan do develop a relationship because Joan doesn’t seem to judge him like others do, though at first it was never entirely clear to me what else John might get from his relationship with Joan. He even calls her June because it represents something sunny and warm. It’s not her name, she says, but later in the book when we’re following Joan closely even she starts thinking of herself as June. So the warmth of companionship? While reading this section I was never entirely convinced this was what the John we’ve come to know would want. He’s maturing, of course, but he’s not that idealistic.
Or maybe he is trying to be. And, if we think we know where this book is going, Green surprises us, letting us know that trying to be is not going to cut it.
So, despite some of its languors (the section where we meet Joan did slow things down significantly, and I’m not sure it paid off in the end) and the things we might expect from a brilliant first-time novelist, the book is still surprising and shows clear signs that we’re contending with a thoughtful mind with the gift to articulate.
On to Living.
¹ NYRB Classics has or will be publishing Blindness (1926; published April 2017); Living (1929; published April 2017); Party Going (1939; published April 2017); Caught (1943; published 2016); Loving (1945; published 2016); Back (1946; published 2016); Nothing (1950; published fall 2017); and Doting (1952; published fall 2017). New Directions will be publishing Concluding (1948; published fall 2017).