The Magazine

Forever Green

A dreamer's voyage, a voyage of dreams, between two continents.

Nov 2, 2009, Vol. 15, No. 07 • By MICHAEL DIRDA
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

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.