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Green Henry

Green Henry - Gottfried Keller, A.M. Holt

As slow as a glacier and occasionally just as powerful, Green Henry is like your most stereotypical idea of the big, slow, earnest, nineteenth-century doorstop novel. A defining example of the Bildungsroman, it follows the life of the titular Henry from his childhood in Zurich through early adulthood and on to his abortive attempts to launch an artistic career in Germany. Germanophone countries still treat this novel as a mainstay of ‘Germanistic’ or German Studies courses, where students slog through it both for its importance to genre and as an example of so-called ‘provincial’ literature.

English speakers who want to enter into the debate can do so thanks to the rather dated AM Holt translation of 1960, which is published by Calder. The publishers aren't selling it very hard: the cover suggests an incredibly dull, set-text kind of book, and the lack of introduction or notes makes it seem even more stressfully big – it's literally just TEXT from front cover to back cover. If this was published by the NYRB, with an arty picture of an Alp on the front and some wanky introduction from Dave Eggers, it would have hundreds of ratings on here and an army of hipsters lining up to tell you why it's a neglected masterpiece. As it is, I feel the need to defend it, but it's certainly not easy.

When I was reading it, I was trying to think of other European writers with affinities to Keller and I was drawing a blank. Of English writers, the closest is probably Hardy – there is the same affectionate interest in the details of rural life, only with Keller things are much more painstaking and methodical. Ironically, the most enjoyable and interesting parts of the book for me were the faithful descriptions of daily Swiss life: a depiction of a country festival, where several villages stage a day-long semi-improvised production of William Tell, is a tour-de-force, and there is often a real documentary fascination in what we learn about the way people lived. I say ‘ironically’ because Keller famously disliked the French naturalists – for him, fiction was worthless if it was merely reportage, and hence his own bursts of naturalism are juxtaposed with more symbolic passages like dream sequences, in a blend that has become known to critics as ‘poetic realism’.

Whatever the genre, economy of expression is not one of Keller's gifts. The writing is dense, with almost no direct speech. Instead, there is a relentless internal dialogue whereby the narrator second-guesses every decision he makes. This analysis over whether to give money to a beggar is typical:

It has happened to me, to repulse a poor man on the street because, even while I wanted to give him something, I was thinking at the same time of God's approval, and did not want to act in my own self-interest. Then, however, I felt sorry for the poor man, I ran back; but while I was running back, my very compassion seemed to me too much of an affectation, I turned about once more; until the rational thought came to me: Be that as it may, the poor creature must have his due, that is the most important thing! But often this thought comes too late and the gift is not made…

If you're rolling your eyes over this and thinking, ‘Man, this guy really needs to get laid,’ then I believe you may be on to something. One of the other reviewers here points out that Henry doesn't manage to sleep with even one woman in more than seven hundred pages, and there is definitely a sense in which all this hyperanalytical fussiness starts to seem like redirected sexual frustration. Not so much Green Henry as Blue Balls. If Keller had been more like those French writers he mistrusted, and picked up a girl in the Palais-Royal aged thirteen, this book would have been very different, indeed might never have happened at all.

Actually, the women in here are surprisingly well-rounded and interesting characters, despite the fact that they are all put on a pedestal. In fact all the secondary characterisation is excellent; it's just the primary character who ends up being a bit annoying, which is quite a serious problem when you're spending seven hundred pages inside his head. There is a worrying sense, as you reach the end, that he hasn't really learnt anything at all, which makes the whole journey seem a bit pointless.

While I was reading this, my wife was reading another enormous book, The Quincunx. ‘It's so exciting!’ she kept saying. ‘They've just fled across the country – they're being chased by people who want to kill them. What's happening in yours?’

‘He just spent thirty pages deciding that maybe portrait painting is a truer expression of man's world-philosophy than landscape painting.’

‘Let's never swap.’

There are definitely powerful moments in Green Henry, but for me at least the interest dropped off sharply when he left Switzerland for Germany in the second half of the book. Pick it up by all means if you're interested in the time and place, but don't feel bad about dropping it when you get bored. Part of me wishes I'd done the same.

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