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Living by Henry Green
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Living (1929)

by Henry Green

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Living at first seemed a novel of contrasts and opposites. In reality, it is a carefully worked story of parallels between two disparate groups: factory workers, and the factory ownership and management. Most of the book is in dialogue form rather than narrative. The reader hears the story directly from the characters involved.

Like most conversations at home and at work, the characters speak mainly of the everyday often completely mundane details of their lives. In Birmingham, site of the iron foundry, a worker sat down to dinner:
Mrs Eames put cold new potato into her mouth.
"Ain't they good?" said she.
"They are" he said.
"Better'n what you could get up the road or if you took a tram up into town."
"There's none like your own."
So for a time they ate supper.


Meanwhile, in London, the owner's wife was having dinner with her son:
They went in to dinner. Mrs Dupret and her son. Butler and footman brought soup to them.
"James" said Mrs Dupret after searching "I left my handkerchief upstairs" and footman went to get this.

It is not all back and forth however, [Living] was written in 1929, a time of crisis for many, workers and owners alike. The two worlds necessarily overlap. Here are the workers caught up in attempts by management to modernize production methods and shop floor procedures. Here are the workers concerned about jobs, injury and old age. Dupret, the owner, is ill and elderly, and the workers, while grumbling about the familiar present, fear for the future when Dupret's son takes over. Craigan, the best moulder, actually has a small house where he lets out rooms to other workers. Lily Gates, the daughter of one of them, runs the household in the absence of any other female. It was a time of upheaval for women too. Lily would have like to go out to work in a factory or shop, but the men were adamant that she should stay at home. They felt they were perfectly capable of providing for her.

Green skilfully blends the two worlds. Making a living can be living itself, but living itself is a job.

As I read this, I thought it seemed an unusual novel for the times. Admittedly, it's not a period I've read much, but it occurred to me that most of what I had read was by female writers favoured by publishers like Virago and Persephone. These writers offer a completely different, though equally valid take on the time, albeit more skewed to the middle and upper classes. Workers are few and far between in their novels. Perhaps it was time to read more men from this time and place. Who were they?

Evelyn Waugh, Christopher Isherwood and Graham Greene were contemporaries. Henry Green was not the man of the people his writing suggested. He was actually Henry Vincent Yorke, onetime Chair of the British Chemical Plant Manufacturers' Association, and managing director of the family owned H Pontifex and Sons Ltd. He had attended Oxford where his tutor was[C S Lewis, but dropped out to work in his father's factory after two years, living with workingmen.

Green had published Blindness, his first novel in 1926. It, and the 1929 Living, were well received by the critics, among them Evelyn Waugh. However, he didn't publish another novel until 1939, by which time Waugh himself had eclipsed Green in the public eye. He was a "writer's writer", not a bestselling author, possibly because his writing was difficult to pigeonhole, and he himself was aloof. Today, however, his works are enjoying a resurgence, with eight of them currently published or forthcoming from NYRB, and another two from New Directions.
1 vote SassyLassy | Jul 8, 2018 |
I'm sorry to say that I did not enjoy this book at all. The writing style was very difficult to read and I struggled to finish the book. If it wasn't for the fact that 2 other people were relying on me to finish and write a review for The Wish List Challenge, I would not have finished the book. There wasn't any plot or discussion that could pull me into enjoying this book. I found it very boring. I'm sure there may be some others who would love to read this book and may enjoy it but this book was not for me to enjoy. ( )
  EadieB | Jan 19, 2016 |
At first it is hard to settle into this book which is unique for its structure (lack of conjunctives and articles). I thought, oh no, this is going to take forever to read but after a bit I was used to the rhythm and the story began to take shape. It is a story set in the between war years in Birmingham industrial area of England and features the social structure of labor, middle management and owners of the steel factories. There is also the two characters; Lily and Mr Dupret both unsuccessful in their search for marriage. In addition there is the struggle of the old and young in the factories and a third theme of women's emancipation. This is the second of Green's novels that I read for the buddy read and while both books were very good they were also very different from each other. ( )
  Kristelh | Mar 25, 2015 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0403010012, Hardcover)

With an Introduction by Paul Bailey

As an early novel, Living marks the beginning of Henry Green's career as a writer who made his name by exploring class distinctions through the medium of love. Set in an iron foundry in Birmingham, the novel grittily and entertainingly contrasts the lives of the workers and the owners.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:16:58 -0400)

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