Two days ago a mysterious unbidden package from Amazon arrived at my apartment, containing Penguin’s extremely handsome edition of three short Henry Green novels, Loving, Living, and Party Going. The giver had sent it to me on the strength of the cover alone and oh, goodness, he was right: what a fabulous image!
So then, having finished How to Live, of course I had to begin this trio in the middle by reading Living. And titles aside, the two works have very little in common. In fact one salient point about the characters in Living is that they get very little time to ask philosophical questions at all. But first, Henry Green: this Sebastian Faulks piece on him pretty much covers what you’d want to know. Living is set in Birmingham in the late 1920s and the characters are all involved in the Dupret iron works. Most of them work there, and Living pulses with English industry: the sirens, the floods of workmen on the street, the blackened landscape. The proprietor’s family are involved in the story, sardonically. Green does not idealize the workers either, though. In fact he focuses closely on the shifting layers of alliance and animosity all up and down the chain of command. Green makes quite a point of the various linguistic quirks which range from broad country to upper-class twit.
Of more concern to me, though, was what Green did to his own narrative voice: “Standing in foundry shop son of Mr. Dupret thought in mind and it seemed to him that these iron castings were beautiful and he reached out fingers to them, he touched them: he thought and only in machinery it seemd to him was savagery left now …” Often the definite article is left out, I suppose to emulate the flavor of north country speech. And I have to say, I was not thrilled by this quirk. It served its purpose, I suppose, but I was always reading in spite of Green’s diction rather than admiring it.
Yet the central household is very sympathetic. Grandfather Mr. Craigan (who apparently has no first name), father Joe Gates, lodger Jim Dale, and daughter Lily Gates make a completely believable little emotional ecosystem. Green demonstrates the pressures they are under in the Dupret works, for Craigan though skilled is old, Gates is uppity, Dale one of those men who cannot do themselves justice. What is the best that Lily can hope for — more of the same? A husband who will bring home his paycheck rather than drinking it? How to live is hardly the point for these characters. They can’t step away from the process long enough to give it any thought. They just have to get on with it — living.