by Henry Green (1929)
NYRB Classics (2017)
When I reviewed Henry Green’s debut novel, Blindness (here), I tried to lament appropriately that, as a former student who focused on British modernism, I didn’t encounter Henry Green’s work (let alone read it) until well after I’d left school. Having now read Green’s second novel, Living, published in 1929 when Green was only 23, I now see that failing to grapple with Green while studying British modernism was not simply a lamentable oversight: it was a sin!
I’m glad to see that there are many who are not guilty of the same sin (indeed, while reading Living I thought several times of T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, and a slight Google search shows me that my insights there are far from new), but I’m afraid that for the most part we’ve ignored one of the greats, letting his work pop in and out of print. I hope that trend changes and improves in Henry Green’s favor — we’ll all benefit from that.
Living has turned out to be a difficult book to write about. While I could recount the plot points or the stylistic choices Green makes, I’ll never succeed in conveying what Living actually is. One simply has to experience it. In many ways, in fact, when reading Living one feels more like one is having an actual experience in a Birmingham, England, factory town than that one is reading. It’s remarkable. Nevertheless, though guaranteed to fail miserably, I’ll try to explain why I’m over the moon about this book.
Right from the get-go, I felt completely disoriented, as if I’d just been set down in a group of noisy workers, not knowing who they were or what on earth they were talking about. Sometimes, in fact, I didn’t even know what their words meant. Not only that, but my only guiding hand, a strange third-person narrator who seemed only slightly interested in my presence, chose to explain bits of the scene with extreme efficiency, cutting out practically all definite and indefinite articles.
For example, here’s how the book begins:
Two o’clock. Thousands came back from dinner along streets.
“What we want is go, push,” said works manager to son of Mr. Dupret. “What I say to them is — let’s get on with it, let’s get the stuff out.”
Thousands came back to factories they worked in from their dinners.
“I’m always at them but they know me. They know I’m a father and mother to them. If they’re in trouble they’ve but to come to me. And they turn out beautiful work, beautiful work. I’d do anything for ’em and they know it.”
Noises of lathes working began again in this factory. Hundreds went along road outside, men and girls. Some turned in to Dupret factory.
As the initial section continues, I got some bearing, but mostly it was a flow of experience, and, most surprisingly, this direct, brief to the extreme style helped me feel a part of the experience, not that I was but a reader getting this well after the fact. This style, by the way, can also result in some lovely passages:
Evening. Was spring. Heavy blue clouds stayed over above. In small back garden of villa small tree was with yellow buds. On table in back room daffodils, faded, were between ferns in a vase. Later she spoke of these saying she must buy new ones and how nice were first spring flowers.
It’s like I’m catching these beautiful things in the corner of my eye while I’m too tired or too focused on other matters. They become a texture, a blur. There’s little time to luxuriate in prose.
As you see above, interspersed in this third-person narration are conversations between characters that we may or may not know at the time. They come into the book, sit down by me for a moment, and then leave again. These particular passages reminded me a great deal of the narrative sections in T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, where we often feel we have sat down at the wrong table only to listen to strangers talk about whatever daily struggle they’re undertaking. This connection to Eliot’s poem, which is also brought up in the excellent introduction by Adam Thirlwell, led me to imagine this Birmingham factory as a fractured, dying (or mostly dead) world: numbing work and financial constraints have shut off many receptors of pleasure and hope. To make a living, simply staying alive, means they lose out on many aspects we might think of as necessary to truly living.
There is a solid through line in Living, and it isn’t as difficult to follow as my thoughts above might suggest. For the most part, this is a book about a lot of people in this community, but we do hone in on a few characters: Lily Gates, who wants to wed Bert Jones, a factory worker. Lily wants to work, as well, but is thwarted by her guardian, so she and Bert dream of an escape from England. Another through-line is that of someone from the upper-class: the young, unsure Dick Dupret, who recently inherited the factory from his father and who is also looking for a spouse. Lily and Dupret find their efforts to live in a way suitable to them thwarted by various external forces.
I brought up the plot lines, such as they are, later in this review than I normally do because for me the strength of the novel is still in its presentation. It deepens the lives of Lily and Dupret and the many individuals in their lives or on the periphery. Living is powerful, necessary, and one of the most important books I’d never read — until now. I’m feeling penitent. I’m ready for Green’s next novel, not published until ten years after Living, 1939’s Party Going.
Trevor, I’m so happy to see this review. LIVING was, and remains, one of the most influential reading experiences of my life. And what you mention about plot and experience here is so spot on. This book has always felt to me like a clustering of perceptions, a kind of constellation of ideas that move much as we experience the world. Green’s idea of the modified grammar, of stripping out the articles, that conscious choice, only deepens the potency. Green felt that these articles crowded the purely experiential parts of the sentence, the color of nouns and verbs. Articles, in his mind, detracted from the cinematic quality of what he wanted to do with this. And then, there’s that famous quote from the Paris Review interview with him, where he says:
“Prose is not to be read aloud but to oneself alone at night, and it is not quick as poetry but rather a gathering web of insinuations which go further than names however shared can ever go. Prose should be a long intimacy between strangers with no direct appeal to what both may have known. It should slowly appeal to feelings unexpressed, it should in the end draw tears out of the stone …”
This book is all of that to me. It’s just perfect, and reading it now feels as strange and fluid and beautiful as ever. Thanks for reading and talking about Green. He’s been such an important force in my reading and writing life.
Ah, that’s all so great to hear, David, and thanks for sharing the Paris Review quotation. I love that interview! I’ve read only three of Green’s novels, and reviewed only two of them here so far, but it’s certain I’ll get through the remainder and will be posting my thoughts!
Is Living your favorite?
Trevor, yes, I think Living is my favorite, or it’s at least tied with Loving. Living is just so stylized and odd, the prose so muscular and deeply moving. But Loving is phenomenal, a close-second, odd and stylized in its own gorgeous way. It’s prose is as moving, I think, just with the articles put back in. Green’s sentences are so mischievous, so much closer to a state of mind than to a discourse. I’ll be teaching Living this fall, as a matter of fact—I’ve never taught Green.
Speaking of mischief. You’re reading Party Going now (or will soon, or have recently)? If so, Frank Kermode uncovered something really interesting, about a hidden story running tangential to the narrative text (or, I suppose, governing it). The hidden idea is, basically, that everyone in the novel is *dead*—Green is writing, with a kind of Modernist intertextual mischief I suppose, about the afterlife. I think the introduction to an earlier edition of Loving/Living/Party Going by John Updike points to Kermode’s discovery; but Kermode’s book The Genesis of Secrecy develops that discovery beautifully. Kermode’s TGoS’s thesis is that every narrative has a carnal and spiritual text and that in Party Going, the carnal text is quite clear enough—a bunch of upper class kids get stranded at a train station on their way to a party. I remember reading this novel and being less impressed (I’d just finished Loving and Living). But with Kermode’s discovery it takes on a whole different texture. Green himself never discussed this, it was sort of an inside joke he didn’t bother to share. But there are repetitions of various mythological ideas throughout, transposed to this train “terminal”.
That’s all fantastic, David! I haven’t started Party Going yet, but I did pull it down from the shelf last evening. Hopefully soon, then, and I’m excited to read it with this in mind. It sounds so interesting.