I’ve probably looked past a copy of the Signet paperback edition of Peter Green’s Habeas Corpus fifty times or more while browsing through used bookstores over the decades and looked right past it. But on the look-out for short story collections now and having the good fortune to spend an hour in one of Seattle’s last great used bookstores, Magus Books, a while ago, I finally saw it for the first time.
Habeas Corpus provided an excellent counterpoint to Hugh Walpole’s The Thirteen Travellers, which I’d read just before. Most of Peter Green’s stories are set 30-40 years after Walpole’s, but Green’s England is a very different world. It’s been through a second world war and a long grey time of rationing. The upper class is in retreat, the working class is getting into university, and everyone is drinking and smoking–hard. The veneer of English gentility is wearing through to the wood in spots.
Jack Newhouse, the … well, one can hardly say protagonist, once you’ve read what he does … of Green’s title story, for example, is quite the contrast to Walpole’s dandy, Absalom Jay:
… somehow an ineffectual figure despite the carefully calculated raffishness–bottlegreen corduroys, the old tweed jacket patched like a prep school master’s at elbows and cuffs, blond hair not so thick as it had been, too fine anyway to be worn quite so long by a man in his over-late thirties, blown now every which way by the tangling wind…. A fair if fashionable judge of College wine; slightly suspect politically, and apt to appear on television programmes rather more often than the unspoken norm allowed….
Newhouse proves to be just the sort of heel you might suspect from this description, but his sort of misdeed is less one of great evil than of the petty, cowardly kind–not doing wrong, just simply failing to do right. Many of Green’s characters are compromisers and prevaricators. Ideals are just bubbles waiting to be popped, as in “The Tea Party,” in which a naive but ambitious young student comes to realize the truth about an idolized professor: “And Grandison, his old world in shreds, saw from the heart of his confusion that the Professor was as naked as himself. Do not reject me, cried the stony mask beneath its stone.”
You might think from this that Habeas Corpus is a drab, depressing book, but in all but perhaps one of Green’s eight stories, there is a strong narrative, a sense of a revelation yet to come, that makes for irresistible reading. His characterizations are often enhanced through just the simplest details, and in each story, there is a vivid sense of place. Thumbing back through the book as I write this, I find myself recalling the settings as if I’d actually seen them. I tend to skip around stories in a collection, particularly if there is, as in this case, no evident pattern or sequence intended, but I read straight through Habeas Corpus and was only tempted to look elsewhere during “Proof of Identity,” which was a throw-away compared to the other stories in the book. It’s a shame that this is Green’s one and only collection of stories.
Although Green attended Charterhouse, one of the poshest public schools, his time at Cambridge was interrupted by the war, during which he spent five years in the R.A.F. in the heat and dirt of India and Burma, where everyone’s finer points eventually got blunted. After finishing with a degree in classics at Trinity, he scrabbled along for some years as a journalist until moving to Greece, where he wrote several works of fiction. By the time that Habeas Corpus was published in the U.S., however, he had moved into teaching and writing classical history, which has remained his focus ever since (he is still on the faculty of the University of Iowa as an adjunct professor at 92). Habeas Corpus was his last work of fiction.