With an heroic burst of self-discipline, I set V.I. Warshawski sternly aside and have finished rereading Caught in time for Henry Green Week. Despite my flirtation with Sara Paretsky, I fell for Henry all over again; in fact more so, for while I adore Party Going, when I first read Caught I admired it without exactly warming to it.
His fourth novel, Caught was written during 1940–42 with no end in sight for the war, and in it Green made vivid use of his own experiences as a volunteer for the Auxiliary Fire Service. Just before the outbreak of war, Richard Roe’s young son Christopher is abducted; after Roe has volunteered for the Auxiliary Fire Service, it transpires that the professional fire officer training him and the other volunteers, Pye, is the brother of the disturbed woman who took Christopher. Pye returned Christopher and his sister was admitted to a psychiatric hospital. Pye feels responsible for what happened, but does not want it known that he has a sister who is ill; Roe equally wants the incident kept quiet, partly to curry favour with Pye and partly because he cannot bear anyone to discover that his wife has died. Unluckily, another of the volunteers, a decrepit and rather pitiful old man named Piper, weaselled Christopher’s name from the policeman who dealt with the abduction and is therefore party to the secret. Unable to keep any information to himself and with a talent for garbling it in the transmission so that it becomes especially poisonous to whomever it concerns, Piper inevitably will blab. Meanwhile Mary Howells, the inadequate cook, finds herself landed with her married daughter, who may be suffering from some form of post-natal depression, and her infant grandchild. Over the long months of the phoney war and before the Blitz commences, the men of the AFS and the London Fire Service hang round their station bickering, racing cockroaches and chasing skirt. The boredom of inaction combines with sexual frustration to increase the tension among them all, which leads to tragedy.
According to the editor of my edition (Jeremy Treglown), Caught’s bleak honesty and refusal to engage in romanticising the war effort nearly dissuaded Leonard Woolf from publishing it. In fact, Caught is a sort of anti-propaganda, relentlessly exposing weakness, inefficiency, self-interest and fear, while insisting that memory is tricksy and untrustworthy. In this I think Green was prescient, as now that the Second World War is passing into history we do have a tendency to mythologise it, the Blitz included. That’s not to say that there was no heroism, no bravery, because of course there was – and even in this novel, Green makes it clear that when the bombing actually begins many do act heroically. It’s just that there was muddle and dishonesty too.
The novel’s complicated structure re-enacts the processes of memory. It begins with accounts of two of Roe’s leave visits to Christopher, who is living down in Devon at Richard’s parents’ home, and Roe’s journey back to London from the first of these, during which he reminisces about his youth, Christopher’s abduction and his early weeks in the AFS. It ends in the same overgrown garden, which seems to be constantly wet and exudes an atmosphere of dripping shrubbery, a ruined Eden and a stark contrast to the hard London streets which form the heart of the novel. Roe idealises it for much of the book, remembering his solitary childhood there fondly, and his wife among the roses. The flat way in which the first visit is related reflects Roe’s awkwardness around his son, his guilt and his grief, and the disappointment of father and son with each other. It is in sharp counterpoint to the lyricism, even lushness, of his memories, particularly those of his wife:
The afternoon, it had been before tea, was hot, swallows darting at the level of her thighs, a blackbird, against three blooms bent to the height of its yellow beak, seemed enchanted by terror into immobility as the two of them halted, brought to a full stop at the corner round which this impermanence caught them fast. He turned to her and she seemed his in her white clothes, with a cry the blackbird had flown and in her eyes as, speechless, she turned, still a stranger, to look at him, he thought he saw the hot luxuriance of a rose, the heavy, weightless, luxuriance of a rose, the curling disclosure of the heart of a rose that, as for a hornet, was his for its honey, for the asking, open for him to pierce inside, this heavy, creamy, girl turned woman.
Pye too has his erotic memories, but one is more sinister:
[...]oh my God he said to himself as he remembered how she panted through her nose and the feel of her true, roughened hands as they came to repel him and then, at the warmth of his skin, had stayed irresolute at the surface while, all lost, she murmured ‘Will it hurt?’ Oh God she had been so white and this bloody black-out brought you in mind of it with the moon, this blue colour, and with the creeping home. He had been out hunting that first night right enough as he came home, her tears still on the back of his hand, with the cries of an owl at his temples, like it might be the shrieks of that cat on the wall over there, bloody well yelling for her greens.
The narrative questions and undercuts such memories. Roe’s marriage, it insists, was not always so idyllic. And Pye’s memories may protect him and conceal something truly shocking, as is revealed much later. And then there are passages in parenthesis, which purport to be a ‘truthful’ account of things, as at the end of the book when Roe describes the first raid his station attended, while walking through the garden in Devon with his sister-in-law:
‘[...]Yet I suppose it was not like that at all really. One changes everything after by going over it.’ [said Roe]
‘But the real thing,’ she said, getting her teeth into this, for she liked arguments [...], ‘the real thing is the picture you carry in your eye afterwards, surely? It can’t be what you can’t remember, can it?’
‘I don’t know,’ he said, ‘only the point about a blitz is this, there’s always something you can’t describe, and it’s not the blitz alone that’s true of. Ever since it happened I feel I’ve been trying to express all sorts of things.’
‘I expect that’s the result of your being blown up.’
‘No,’ he said, exasperated suddenly, ‘there’s an old fault of yours, you’re always trying to explain difficult things prosaically.’
‘What’s prosaically?’ she asked. She did not understand.
‘Oh, ordinarily,’ he said, his exasperation cooling. ‘But you must let me plough on, Dy. It was so fantastic afterwards, when we were ordered out of the Dock, it was almost like an explanation of the whole of our life in the war, waiting in the substation for just this. I do so want you to get the whole thing.’
‘Well, when we got round those building s I told you about, they were great open sheds really, for keeping the weather off the more expensive timber, we were right on top of the blaze. It was acres of timber storage alight about two hundred yards in front, out in the open, like a huge wood fire on a flat hearth, only a thousand times bigger.’
(It had not been like that at all. What he had seen was a broken, torn-up dark mosaic aglow with rose where square after square of timber had been burned down to embers, while beyond the distant yellow flames toyed joyfully with the next black stacks which softly merged into the pink of that night.)
Can the narrative be trusted? A couple of times, including in the novel’s opening sentence, ‘we’ are referred to (‘When war broke out in September we were told to expect air raids’), but it’s not clear who is the ‘I’ in the ‘we’. The narrative is omniscient, yet dips into the idioms of whichever character’s point of view we are sharing. Why should we believe it rather than the characters themselves?
Another facet of this novel which interested me was its use of colour: rose and pink are used repeatedly to refer to fire but also to passion, lust, women’s bodies and nightclub lighting. It’s contrasted with the deep blue of the black-out nights, an indigo darkness which makes things seem sub-aquatic, women’s hands like sea creatures. The shop from which Christopher was taken is lit blue by stained-glass windows and pink by neon lights; the window of the psychiatrist’s office where Pye discusses his sister has violet glass let into it. The colours, like the fire and water, the sane and insane, the quality of memory, seem both oppositional and similar. Perhaps the war, which has opened up society, as Hilly points out, is blurring other distinctions.
You might not believe it from what I’ve just written, but much of this novel is funny. The more poetic passages, such as the first one I quoted, are interspersed with lively dialogue and the characters are drawn benevolently despite their flaws. I don’t really care for novels which despise their characters; Green clearly had great affection for his, even stinky old Piper. Treglown calls it ‘the most vivid and powerful novel set during the Blitz’; I haven’t read enough to agree or disagree with this, but vivid and powerful it most certainly is. I understand that Caught is out of print and second-hand copies are not cheap: this is an absolute scandal and I hope someone republishes it very soon.
Many thanks to Winston’sDad for dreaming up Henry Green Week; I have no idea when I should otherwise have got round to rereading Caught. I am now devouring Loving, which is also an exceptionally good novel. If I have time, I’ll write about that too here.
(Undated photograph of Henry Green from here; I don’t know anything about it but it was the only picture I could readily find)