by Henry Green (1929)
NYRB Classics (2017)
215 pp

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:

Bridesley, Birmingham.

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.

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