Posted by: Lisa Hill | June 8, 2022

Caught, by Henry Green

Recommended to me by Proustitute, Henry Green’s fourth novel Caught is one of six of his novels included in 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die (2006 edition).  I’ve bolded them in the list below.

  • Blindness (1926), on the TBR
  • Living (1929)
  • Party-Going (1939)
  • Caught (1943)
  • Loving (1945), see my review
  • Back (1946)
  • Concluding (1948)
  • Nothing (1950), see my review
  • Doting (1952), on the TBR

During the war, perhaps mindful of the possibility of not surviving the Blitz, Green also wrote a memoir called Pack My Bag: A Self-Portrait (1940).  He was in the Auxiliary Fire Service, a poorly equipped and hastily mobilised volunteer force in which 800 men died because it was such dangerous work.  This AFS experience also forms the backdrop for Caught. 

Caught is cited in 1001 Books as an ambivalent novel.

The story examines how people are kept apart by social and sexual differences and studies their attempts to affect and really feel sympathy for each other.  It is a realist novel, exposing social and class contradictions. p.422

But by describing in vivid dialogue the solidarity that develops between men and women of different classes brought together by the war, Green also shows how they fail to communicate with each other.  There is a chasm between the contrasting central characters, the affluent (married) Roe and Pye, a retired fireman.  Though they share the same flippant attitude to wartime sex, and the long hours waiting for the call during the Phoney  War were conducive to sharing intimacies, their dialogue is mutually incomprehensible.  The awkwardness between them is not just because Pye’s mentally disturbed sister once abducted Roe’s son Christopher.  It’s that both of them think in terms of their own superiority. There is a hint that things may change when by the novel’s end, Roe is confronted by the absence of separate nursery teas so that #ShockHorror he has to be with his own children for meals — and #sarcasm even worse, courtesy of that awful local school Christopher calls him ‘dad’ instead of ‘daddy’.  But in the Introduction by James Wood, it is said that Green was only interested in observing class differences, not wanting to change them, and indeed he spent most of his life in uncomplaining upper-class comfort, supported by servants. So these seem more like observations of wartime ‘privation’ than a commentary on inequality.  For Green, English society remained as hierarchical as ever it was.

The one-word title is clever.  There are many ways that the characters are ‘caught’.  Both Roe and Pye are caught up in Pye’s sister’s crime. But they are also caught in a war, caught in the web of class-consciousness, caught by the expectations of their community and caught by the gossip that swirls around them.  Men and women are caught up into brief meaningless liaisons and all of them are caught in misdemeanours that would be trivial in peace time but have different consequences in war.

Stylewise, Caught is tricky to read (and not just because I have Covid-brain).  The prose flips from modernist wordiness that needs re-reading to make meaning, to a strangely poetic mimicry of working-class dialogue:

They were draped in a half circle about the trestle table that served as a bar, beneath the orange ceiling with harsh indirect lighting, behind them one of the fluted pillars and a barrel of beer on a rack, like a secret in the naked light, and which dripped into its enamelled pail.  Their shoes were coated in white dust from the artificial marble floor.  They had white faces.  On and off they had been months indoors.  The skeletons were there, painted over blacked out windows.

‘It’s conga all right for the Regulars,’ he went on. ‘Why they’re like petty officers run amock [sic].’ He then spoke a line of what he said was Maltese, and which sounded like abra kalay kalamooch.  “Every night up in that bloody flat, with a lovely bit of ‘omework, the old matelot.  Does ‘e run up ‘is pennant, I wonder, like an admiral, on the bit of stick there is on the top of ‘er building when ‘e’s up there.’

‘How do you know where she lives, Shiner?’

‘It was Savoury showed me, mate.’

‘And you didn’t go up?’

‘That’d be tellin,’ Shiner said, mysterious as you please.  ‘But what a lovely bit of ong dong.’ (p.120)

(‘Savoury’ is the men’s nickname for Roe, a derivation from Savile Row, an expensive tailoring service.)

The imagery is both striking and yet sometimes nostalgic for a pre-war childhood.  Pye, deeply troubled by the role he might have played in his sister’s distress, goes out into the night when he’s supposed to be on duty:

He had hopes, as a boy of nine might go feeling he could slay two ravens in flight with a cat’s eye on a string.

As he idled a long, playing truant, the milk moon stripped deep gentian cracker paper shadows off his uniform.  Then the next building, in a line as acute as its angle to the moon, laid these back on as he went.

It was as if the warm air was powdered. (p.158)

I’ll probably read Blindness next.

Update 23/6/22: I am, as suggested by PenWithLit in the comments below, reading The Love-charms of Bombs, Restless Lives in the Second World War by Lara Feigel, and I have come to dislike Henry Green (real name Henry Yorke)  intensely…

One of his WW2 liaisons was with a young married woman not of his class, Mary Keene.  When she told him that she was pregnant, his response was to write a letter described by Lara Feigel as ‘loving but careful, in which he avoided any personal acknowledgment of paternity.’  He says the news is sad, because it will take her away from him, but not, he hoped, for long.

Nothing of course made so much day-today difference as a child or, for a woman, took up so much time, but hopefully she would not regret it.  ‘Being yours I shall love it and I only hope it will not make any fundamental difference to you.’

It is clear in this letter that Henry’s involvement with Mary’s child was going to be limited.  It would be ‘yours’ and not ‘ours’; it would take up her time and not his.  While hoping that she would not change and would not be taken away, he was already acknowledging that her priorities would alter and their relationship would wane.  At this stage Mary hoped that Henry might leave Dig [his wife] and marry her.  This was misguided, and if she had been more experienced with the upper classes she would probably have expected less.  Henry thought it was great fun to be with a former cockney who stole nightdresses, but she was hardly the material for a Mrs Yorke. Anyway, he had no intention of leaving Dig.  The child made no difference, if anything hastening the end of the affair. (p.227-8)

Loving???? No wonder Rosamund Lehmann described this cad as ‘a disinterested attention giver’!

My review of The Love-charms of Bombs, Restless Lives in the Second World War is forthcoming.

Author: Henry Green (1905-1073)
Title: Caught
Introduction by James Wood
Cover design by Katy Homans, cover art by Betty Woodman
Publisher: New York Review of Books, 2016, first published 1943
ISBN: 9781681370125, pbk, 191 pages
Source: Personal library


Responses

  1. This sounds intriguing, Lisa … I know COVID brain would have made it hard, but I like the sound of this “The prose flips from modernist wordiness that needs re-reading to make meaning, to a strangely poetic mimicry of working-class dialogue”.

    Is Henry Green a writer that Stu has often mentioned? I must read him.

    Like

    • Yes he is, it was Stu that put me onto him with a Henry Green reading Week, a good while ago now.
      He’s very good at showing people in conversation not listening to the other, drifting off onto other thoughts, reacting with hostile responses that they don’t express out loud, and just not understanding the other. The last chapter where Roe is explaining to his wife about what happened once the Blitz got started is classic, showing the complete failure of words to convey the true horror of it to someone who wasn’t there.

      Like

      • Thanks Lisa. I remember that week. Just another one I’ve missed! But I did remember the name.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. I was so pleased to see a discussion of Henry Green. I love his work.

    Like

    • He pops up here every now and again,. Carmel.

      Like

  3. Reblogged this on penwithlit and commented:
    Wow! You read so amazingly fast! I recently read a book about Green, Greene and Elizabet Bowen in The Love-charm of Bombs: Restless Lives in the Second World War- brilliant read!

    Like

    • Oh my, I like the sound of that. I’ve only read one novel by Elizabeth Bowen but that was set during the war. I’ll check my library to see if they have it, thanks for the recommendation.
      PS They do! I’ve just reserved it!

      Like

  4. Interesting, Lisa – I’ve come close to reading Green but not gelled quite when I’ve tried the first few pages of his books. It may be I just wasn’t giving it the concentration it needed!

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    • Yes, I can quite see that how that would be. Some of the narration is really quite complex to unravel. In the paragraph that I quoted “like a secret in the naked light” brought me up short, and in the other one I’m still not really clear what he means by “the milk moon stripped deep gentian cracker paper shadows”. Maybe re-reading would clarify things…

      Like


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