I was flicking through the titles printed by Capuchin Classics the other day – and by ‘flicking through’ I mean ‘scrolling down their website’; and by ‘the other day’ I mean ‘a couple of months ago’ – and spotted The Green Child (1935) by Herbert Read. My only encounter with him had been a book called Prose Style, or something like that, which I’d flicked through – unaware that he’d written novels. Or, in fact, one novel – for this is it. This part of the blurb had me hooked: Widely debated when it came out more than a generation ago, The Green Child is truly a masterpiece, a rare blend of fantasy and reality.And so I emailed off to see if the had a review copy to spare – which they did…
I said that Read had only written one novel, and in a way that’s true – but he certainly made up for it with The Green Child. Although under 200 pages in length, the three parts of the book are essentially three different novels. The same story runs through them, and the same central character of Olivero, but the feel and style differs so dramatically that it’s unlikely you’ll react the same way to each section.
We learn on the first page that Olivero, the President of a South American country, has faked his own death by assassination. As you do. His yearning to return to his roots, a little English village, has overcome his political ambitions (wise man) and he makes his way back to the countryside of his youth. As he wanders around, seeing what has changed and what has remained, he is struck by a change which seems unlikely: It was then that he noticed, or thought he noticed, an extraordinary fact. The stream as he remembered it – and he could remember the pressure of its current against his bare legs as he waded among its smooth, flat pebbles – ran in the direction of the station from which he had just come. But now, indubitably, it was flowing in the opposite direction, towards the church. Curiouser and curiouser, as Alice might say. And he follows the stream until he arrives at a mill… wherein he sees a ‘frail and pallid’ woman being kept captive by a man he had once been schoolmaster to; Kneeshaw. Yes, the perspicacious amongst you will have guessed correctly: this is the Green Child of the title. No sooner has Kneeshaw been vanquished, and the silent Green Child headed off with Olivero, but: With a cry of happiness, as if a secret joy had suddenly been revealed to him, he raced forward, and hand in hand they sank below the surface of the pool.
And that’s the last we hear of them for a bit, because Part Two is all the back story of Olivero’s life. I’d wondered why they bothered making him an ex-President, and now I see why – we follow him through his political ascension and… well, to be honest, I skim-read quite a lot of this section. To be frank, I found it really dull. I don’t think novels should include huge chunks of ‘and this is what had happened beforehand’ (analepsis, is that?) because it’s difficult to be interested. And combine that with political stuff… well, if you’re interested in political novels, then this section might work for you – but I’d just got really interested in the first section, so was frustrated when we were diverted off track. It’s the diary section of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall all over again.
Fast forward ninety pages or so, and we’re onto Part Three: they’re in the underground world from whence the Green Child came, and they’re exploring. This section has most in common with utopia literature like Francis Bacon’s The New Atlantis and, indeed, Thomas More’s Utopia. It would make really interesting reading alongside, especially the former. We’ve moved from fantasy-in-the-real-world to fantasy-in-a-fantasy-world where, for instance, there is no concept of time. I wonder what J.W. Dunne would have to say about that?
So there you go. One short novel; three genres. The first of them was my favourite, and I did rather wish that The Green Child had continued entirely in that vein. While the third section was interesting, it felt more like the set-up to a different novel. And, as mentioned before, the second section was very much not my cup of tea. And perhaps that’s the problem with the novel – I can’t imagine anybody loving each ‘genre’ equally? Surely you’ll want more politics and less fantasy, or vice versa, and so forth?
But someone who did approve is Mr. Graham Greene, who wrote the 1946 introduction included in this edition. The Green Child is definitely intriguing, and a very unusual novel, but I can’t agree with Greene in his unqualified enthusiasm – whilst I am not wholly unenthusiastic, there are a lot of qualifications.