Blindness by Henry Green
by Michael Patrick O'Leary
This article was published in Ceylon Today on July 30 2019
I have just finished reading a remarkable novel – Blindness by Henry Green. It was Green’s first novel, published in 1926 when he was an undergraduate at Oxford. Henry Green whose real name was Henry Yorke, was born near Tewkesbury, Gloucestershire, not far from my birthplace. His father was a wealthy aristocratic landowner and industrialist in Birmingham. At Eton College, Green became friends with fellow pupil Anthony Powell and at Oxford University he became friends with Evelyn Waugh. He did not achieve a degree and left Oxford in 1926 to work on the factory floor at the family business in Birmingham, working eight and a half hours a day and living in workmen’s lodgings. His family had historic noble connections as well as being wealthy. Green became managing director of the family business and married another aristocrat.
Blindness is somewhat more straightforward than the later experimental novels that gained Green a cult following among disparate writers and intellectuals. Sir Maurice Bowra, the Oxford classicist (who once had the privilege of shaking my hand when he presented me with a copy of Joyce’s Ulysses as my school prize at Sir Thomas Rich’s School) wrote that Green could be relied on for “piercing insight, stripping men and ideas of their disguises and going straight to some central point”. Terry Southern called him a “writer’s writer’s writer”. John Updike wrote of Green’s “liberatingly ingenuous voice, that voice so full of other voices, its own interpolations amid the matchless dialogue twisted and tremulous with a precision that kept the softness of groping, of sensation, of living.”
There is no space here to provide a full analysis of Green’s life and work or even this one novel. Green himself once wrote that “literature is not a subject to write essays about.” However, his neutral tone, his flatness is, in itself, a studied effect. I will focus on a particular aspect of this novel that struck me as having general application.
The beginning of the novel consists of diary entries by the 17-year-old John Haye about his time at a public school called Noat. The diaries show him reveling in the pose of the dandy aesthete, somewhat pretentious, as all adolescent males have a right to be, with hopes of an artistic career of some sort. He seems somewhat solitary and sensitive. His life changes dramatically when he is travelling home from Noat for the holidays. He is on a train somewhere between Stroud and Gloucester when a small boy throws a rock through the train window. John is badly scarred and blinded. Let me take a short cut by copying the plot summary from the NYRB Books edition: “Forced to live with his high-handed, horsey stepmother in the country, John begins a weird dalliance with a girl named Joan, leading to a new determination. Blindness is the curse of youth and inexperience and love and ambition, but blindness, John will discover, can also be the source of vision.”
Green does not fall prey to that cliché of blind people developing extra keen compensatory senses. He does, however, produce many fine passages about John remembering visual stimuli from the past, appreciating sights that may not have been in the forefront of his mind when he experienced them. There are also wonderful passages about his adjustment to the loss of that one sense. “He was in the summer house. Light rain crackled as it fell on the wooden roof, and winds swept up, one after the other, to rustle the trees. A pigeon hurried rather through his phrase that was no longer now a call. Cries of rooks came down to him from where they would be floating, whirling in the air like dead leaves, over the lawn. The winds kept coming back, growing out of each other and when a stronger one had gone by there would be left cool eddies slipping by his cheek, while a tree further on would thunder softly.”
Here is what I took from the novel which I think has a resonance for all of us. “Blundering about in the dark yet knowing about everything really… You see, no one cares enough, about the war and everything. No one really cared about my going blind.”
A major theme of Blindness for me is how difficult it is for people generally to cope with the misfortunes of others. Even a reviewer on GoodReads dismisses the book thus: “John is blinded by a shard of glass and proceeds to wallow. And, try as I might, I was just not that interested in hearing about it.” One of his schoolfriends writes, “Poor dear amusing John. I must write to him, though what there is to say I don’t know. Really, these letters of condolences are very difficult”. There is a good deal of positive advice of the “buck up, old chap, there are people who are much worse off than you” variety. To spare themselves in their helplessness people sustain the delusion that John might regain his sight – despite the fact that his nurse has his eyeballs on her mantlepiece at home.
“But he was blind, everyone would be sorry for him, everyone would try to help him, and everyone would be at his beck and call; it was very nice, it was comfortable. He would take full advantage, after all he deserved it in a conscience. He would enjoy life. Why not? But he was blind.”
A reader called Julie on GoodReads movingly describes the blindness suffered by several members of her family. “The loss of freedom was the worst of all: always to rely on someone else’s eyes, someone else’s timing. There was no ‘I’ anymore, without the ‘we’. We’ll go for a walk. We’ll go to the store soon. We’ll go to the bank. We’ll go to the doctor.”
How often in real life do we hear people distancing themselves from the suffering of the afflicted by blaming the victim? A neighbour died recently. His mobility had long been severely restricted by a spinal injury but the immediate cause of death was a heart attack. Someone said, “I’m not surprised. He was a very heavy smoker”. Those around John want to be sympathetic but eventually he will be a bore and a nuisance
Julie continues: “The state of not having a choice results, usually, in some very bad choices ultimately. Henry Green understood that very well too for John makes some rather silly choices, early on, grasping at the straws of existence-without-sight.”
Daniel Mendelson writes in his introduction to the NYRB Books edition: “The novel ends with John preparing himself for a new life, reconnecting with his schoolfriends (although one suspects that they will be distancing themselves from him. “I am going to write, yes, to write. Such books…such amazing tales, rich with intricate plot. Life will be clotted and I will dissect it, choosing little bits to analyse. I shall be a great writer. I am sure of it.”