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Pack My Bag: A Self-Portrait (1940)

by Henry Green

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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1432152,022 (2.5)7
In 1938 Henry Green, then thirty-three, dreaded the coming war and decided to "put down what comes to mind before one is killed."Pack My Bag was published in England in 1940. When he wrote it, Green had already published three of his nine novels and his style"a gathering web of insinuations"was fully developed. Pack My Bag is a marvelously quirky, clear-eyed memoir: a mother who shot at mangle wurzels (turnips) bowled across the lawn for her by the servants; the stately home packed with wounded World War I soldiers; the miseries of Eton, oddities of Oxford, and work in the family factory--the making of a brilliantly original novelist. "We have inherited the greatest orchestra, the English language, to conduct," Green once wrote. "The means are there; things are going on in life all the time around us." Hisuse of language and his account of things that went on in his life inform this delightful and idiosyncratic autobiography, which begins: "I was born a mouthbreather with a silver spoon."… (more)
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I stumbled across Henry Green’s writing a couple of years ago. I’d seen mention of him somewhere as a forgotten great writer in British twentieth-century literature, although at the time I saw this he had been re-discovered, not that I knew; but anyway I stumbled across an omnibus of three of his novels – Loving · Living · Party Going – and I read the first of these (actually the last published of the three) and, er, loved it. So I read more. And yes, he is indeed one of the best writers this country produced in the first half of last century. Pack My Bag is his autobiography, written in 1940 at the age of 35, after Green had volunteered for the Auxiliary Fire Service and was convinced he would not survive the war. (He actually survived, and died an alcoholic in 1973, having published only nine novels.) Pack My Bag is something Green banged out to assuage fears he might be forgotten and, quite frankly, I’m in awe of his talent. He led a privileged life, a minor member of the aristocracy, educated at Eton and Oxford – I can’t decide whether to despise him for his background, admire him for his writing, or grudgingly admit he was uncommon for his class – unpopular at school, and far too thoughtful; he left Oxford without graduating, to go work in his family’s bottling factory in Birmingham. Yet his wife was a member of his class, and a distant cousin too; and though he was clearly very intelligent, as a member of the upper classes he was the beneficiary of what is considered to be a top-notch education… and yet he admits the masters at Eton were hired for their sporting prowess and not their knowledge of their subjects, which in many cases was hugely deficient, and it would not surprise me if that has held true in the century since; and at university, he brags that his studies take up no more than six hours a week. Green is perfectly aware of what he is saying as he writes this – he is not a man afraid of burning bridges, or biting the hand that feeds him, or other such aphorisms. ( )
  iansales | May 19, 2018 |
"Anyone who writes what he remembers of his own time is in a difficulty with names, he has to decide whether he will mention the living, if he is to call them by their real names when he does mention them and, if he chooses to alter the names they are known by whether he will disguise the place it all happened to him, and so perhaps find himself writing fiction."

Henry Green's memoir "Pack My Bag" (from 1939) certainly contains more than a few arid pages - entire arid chapters, actually! - but it was interesting to reflect upon Green's strategy in writing about his experiences. Really, it's the blogger's dilemma today as well: what to put in, what to leave out. Green had a priviledged life in the upper classes of early 20th century Britain, attended Eton and Oxford, and was acquainted with many interesting contemporaries such as Evelyn Waugh and Cecil Beaton, but his memoir doesn't mention any names or places and is vague to the point of distraction. And the world really doesn't need more whining about how awful English Public Schools used to be!

Green turned into a successful (though artistic) novelist, not read much today, but nonetheless often included on "best of 20th century fiction" lists. (John Updike loved him.) However, Green turned his back upon "le beau monde" and worked in his family's Midlands factory for most of his adult life. The autobiography does give some interesting reflections upon the working classes: similar to George Orwell's, though not as detailed. But I wouldn't use this book in a class - to much questionable prose, written with Green's highly idiosyncratic (peculiar) grammar. I do like some of his sentences though, they express "Englishness" very well in spite of the odd style:

"Surely shyness is the saving grace in all relationships, the not speaking out, not sharing confidences, the avoidance of intimacy in important things which makes living, if you can find friends to play that way, of so much greater interest even if it does involve a lot of lying." ( )
  yooperprof | Aug 29, 2009 |
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Henry Greenprimary authorall editionscalculated
Frezzolini, SylviaCover designersecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Ross, AlanIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Yorke, SebastianIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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I was born a mouthbreather with a silver spoon in 1905, three years after one war and nine before another, too late for both.
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In 1938 Henry Green, then thirty-three, dreaded the coming war and decided to "put down what comes to mind before one is killed."Pack My Bag was published in England in 1940. When he wrote it, Green had already published three of his nine novels and his style"a gathering web of insinuations"was fully developed. Pack My Bag is a marvelously quirky, clear-eyed memoir: a mother who shot at mangle wurzels (turnips) bowled across the lawn for her by the servants; the stately home packed with wounded World War I soldiers; the miseries of Eton, oddities of Oxford, and work in the family factory--the making of a brilliantly original novelist. "We have inherited the greatest orchestra, the English language, to conduct," Green once wrote. "The means are there; things are going on in life all the time around us." Hisuse of language and his account of things that went on in his life inform this delightful and idiosyncratic autobiography, which begins: "I was born a mouthbreather with a silver spoon."

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