In a lifetime of reading, I ve seldom encountered a stranger book than Herbert Read s The Green Child . It overturns every expectation and keeps the reader constantly off-kilter, with one surprising twist after another, starting with its brilliant opening paragraph:
The assassination of President Olivero, which took place in the autumn of 1861, was for the world at large one of those innumerable incidents of a violent nature which characterize the politics of the South American continent. For twenty-four hours it loomed large in the headlines of the newspapers; but beyond an intimation, the next day, that General Iturbide had formed a provisional government with the full approval of the military party, the event had no further reverberation in the outer world. President Olivero, who had arranged his own assassination, made his way in a leisurely fashion to Europe. On the way he allowed his beard to grow.

Olivero isn t, in fact, a South American at all. His real name is Oliver and he was, 30 years previous to his assassination, a schoolmaster in a small English village. Now in his early fifties, the ex-president-for-life of Roncador has suddenly felt a tug of nostalgia, a desire to revisit his native land and birthplace. So just as he once cast aside his old English life to seek a new one in the interior of South America, he now shucks off all that he has accomplished in Roncador and disappears in a cloud of glory.

To return to--what? Perhaps Olivero himself doesn t quite know, though he later says that he had always wondered about the fate of the Green Children.

They had appeared in his little north country village on the very day he left it. There were originally two of them, a boy and a girl:

apparently about four years old, who could not speak any known language, or explain their origin, or relate themselves in any way to the district--indeed, even the world--in which they were found. Moreover, these children, who were lightly clothed in a green web-like material of obscure manufacture, were further distinguished by the extraordinary quality of their flesh, which was of a green, semi-translucent texture, perhaps more like the flesh of a cactus plant than anything else, but of course much more delicate and sensitive.

The two uncannily silent, oddly ageless, children were soon adopted by a local widow; but the boy, we later learn, died en route to the church where he was about to be forcibly baptized. Are we to infer from this a pagan aversion to Christian ritual? English folklore abounds with disturbing images of the so-called Green Man, usually depicted as being made of leaves and foliage. Similarly, the girl is said to have walked like a fairy.

Dictators and fairies? What kind of book is this?

If Herbert Read (1893-1968) is remembered at all these days, it is as a critic, mainly of modern art, though this man of letters also wrote poetry, a useful guide to clear writing called English Prose Style (1928), and a vibrant memoir of his early life in a North Yorkshire village, The Innocent Eye (1933). My old Century Library edition of The Green Child carries a preface by Graham Greene, who regarded Read as something of a mentor. He certainly refers to the man in essays and letters with obvious fondness and has called The Innocent Eye one of the finest evocations of childhood in our language.

In his preface, Greene maintains that Read was--in his poetry and prose alike--obsessed with a somewhat idiosyncratic notion of glory. In Read s own words, glory is the radiance in which virtues flourish. The love of glory is the sanction of great deeds; all greatness and magnanimity proceed not from calculation but from an instinctive desire for the quality of glory. . . . Glory is gained directly, if one has the genius to deserve it: glory is sudden.

In this light, The Green Child describes the unexpected onset of glory, first in the political realm-- there is no joy comparable to the joy of government --and then in the spiritual. In the novel, Read repeatedly juxtaposes the man of action and the man of imagination, insisting that courage and glory aren t restricted to the former. Despite his revolutionary past, Olivero views himself as primarily a man of the imagination.

When this melancholy ex-dictator eventually alights at the train station near his old home, it is evening. As he walks along the river toward the village, meditating on the past, he is suddenly struck by an anomaly: The river s current appears to be flowing in the wrong direction. In every memory he can dredge up Olivero visualizes the water running the other way. Mystified and troubled, he resolves to follow the river toward two old mills, hoping to find there an answer to this apparent alteration in the system of nature.

Instead, he happens upon a scene of horror. At one of the mills he glimpses a figure carrying a lamb into a ground floor room. He peers through a window

On a bare table to the right lay the lamb; its throat had been cut and was bleeding into a large bowl, over the edge of which its head hung pathetically. In the middle of the room the man stood, drawing back the head of a woman by the hair and compelling her to drink from a cup which he held in his hand. So much was clear at a glance; then Olivero noticed that the woman, who was extraordinarily frail and pallid, was bound by a rope to the chair in which she was seated, and that her expression was one of concentrated terror as she struggled to refuse the proffered cup. The blood which she was being forced to drink dribbled down each side of her mouth and fell in bright stains down the front of her white dress.

As the reader guesses, and Olivero eventually confirms, the woman s skin was not white, but a faint green shade. What s more, her fingernails are pale blue and her flesh emits a sweet heavy odor like the scent of violets. In the village, this frail creature is prosaically called Sally, but her real name, we later discover, is Siloen.

The Green Child is divided into three sections, and by this point we are only halfway through part one. Following this recognition scene, we are told about Siloen s earlier life in the village and of Olivero s own long-ago relationship with her captor, a former pupil with a cruelly perverse nature. In the middle and longest section of the novel, we find out about Olivero s post-village life, first in London doing accounts for a Jewish tailor, then in Spain as a political prisoner, and finally in South America as a revolutionary.

But neither of these two sections prepares the reader for the visionary last, in which Siloen returns to the realm from which she strayed into our world. The ever-restless, dissatisfied Olivero follows her on what appears a suicidal journey with the same glad precipitateness with which he left his village, left London, left Spain, left Roncador. He leaps into the unknown and there experiences a final glorious metamorphosis. Courage, Olivero concludes, is the ability to act as if death were a fantasy.

Herbert Read writes with a classic, no-frills purity, but he invests each of his novel s three parts with its own specific feel. The opening is dominated by images of night and nightmare--of romantic mystery and phantasmagoria, leading up to a feverish combat and a sudden epiphany.

The second is a small-scale Bildungsroman, tracing Olivero s life and political evolution, culminating in his 25-year rule in Roncador. These pages could be a rather muted Joseph Conrad story. Last, the final section might be a fantastic vision la E.T.A. Hoffmann, a glimpse of the utterly alien, a prose poem about the nature of transcendence.

All three sections describe three versions of Utopia--a quiet English village at the onset of the Industrial Revolution, a freshly minted republic in the backlands of South America, and a strange Shangri-La of crystal and silence. Only this last brings Olivero the self-fulfillment he seeks--but only after he has exhausted the joys of sensuality, the gratifications of service to others, and the pleasures of philosophy. In Siloen s austere realm of grottos and rocky ledges, time seems not to pass, the beating of the heart is mere anxious agitation, and death itself arrives quietly, gloriously, as the final diamond-like perfecting of a man or woman s life.

Every so often writers pour everything they know or feel into a single book, and it becomes a sui generis masterpiece. One thinks of H.H. Bashford s scathing (and hilarious) study of religious hypocrisy, Augustus Carp, Esq., or Hope Mirrlee s astonishing fantasy about forbidden fruit, Lud-in-the-Mist, or G.B. Edward s beautiful reminiscence of lost love and things past, The Book of Ebenezer Le Page.

To this select company I would add The Green Child, Herbert Read s account of one man s circuitous search for self-transcendence, for harmony with the universe, for glory.

Michael Dirda is a Pulitzer Prize-winning critic and essayist. He is the author of An Open Book, a memoir, and of four collections of essays: Readings, Bound to Please, Book by Book, and Classics for Pleasure.

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